Showing posts with label TV Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TV Review. Show all posts

March 12, 2018

Stargate Origins: Episodes 8-10 and #StargateRising

Ra makes an appearance in the final episode of Stargate Origins.

We’ve reached the end of Stargate Origins, but it’s hardly a dour time for Stargate fans. There’s a sense of excitement in the fanbase that I haven’t seen in a long time. The TV landscape has changed dramatically since the final days of SGU in 2011; there are a lot more distribution options. Before I get too distracted, let’s dive back into Origins’ last three episodes.

I like the fact that MGM split up the 10 episodes into four weeks instead of dumping them all at once. That choice extended the interest from viewers across a full month, even if they disliked it. On the other hand, Origins probably works better as a feature than in 10-minute episodes. I’ll be curious to see if the events flow more seamlessly as a single narrative. If nothing else, it would remove the silly effect of spinning the camera at the end of each part. Let’s take a look at the last three episodes and how they finished the story.

Aset dons a new look to appear at the Abydonian outpost on Stargate Origins.

Episode 8: Testing Her Allies

The Abydonian outpost is the site for a family reunion of sorts, though Dr. Langford and Catherine don’t speak directly. She hides in the tent nearby with Beal while Aset tests her followers. Once again, a large group of characters stand in strangely close quarters while the camera zooms in with too many close-ups. We need to feel the scale of this place! I recognize the budget limitations, but it shouldn’t be so obvious. What should be a tense moment loses steam because it’s such a compact sequence.

On the positive side, I have to take a moment to rave about the costumes for Aset (especially) and Serqet. I think they spent half the show’s budget on these few outfits! They look amazing and over the top, which helps to make the Goa’uld look even more godlike to the tribe. The scenes involving Aset are frequently the best in the show because the stakes seem real. She also makes Origins feel like more than a low-rent adventure serial.

Less inspiring is the disintegration of Brücke, who saves his fellow Nazi Stefan and then shoots him. His descent into madness connects to humans from SG-1 that couldn’t handle a taste of Goa’uld power. Everything just seems too obvious, however. When Eva tells him that “you have no good side”, the point lands with a thud because it’s so on the nose. Connor Trinneer still brings emotion and grace to Dr. Langford, but it’s like he’s acting in a difference series.

Catherine Langford explores the desert with Kasuf in Stargate Origins.

Episode 9: Fresh Air

I can’t overstate the importance of stepping outside into the desert in this episode. Too many scenes happen in the same few rooms. It’s a relief when Catherine and her pals venture out and prepare to rescue her father. I also enjoyed the callback to the original Stargate film with the symbols inside the tunnel. There’s even an explanation for why Daniel Jackson couldn’t find the point of origin in that movie. It’s one of the cooler touches in this prequel series.

Another interesting moment has Aset questioning whether to kill Catherine or send her to the mines. Dr. Langford doesn’t translate that part of her statement to Brücke, which reminds us of the limitations of the Nazi’s influence. The final moment with Dr. Langford confronting Brücke feels well-earned mostly because Trinneer makes us care for the guy. We don’t want to see him meekly serve Aset and Brücke without taking a shot at freedom.

This episode also includes Origins’ best scene when Catherine tells Kasuf about the Goa’uld’s true nature. Her efforts don’t convince him, and Ellie Gall’s face makes the scene resonate. There’s real emotion in this scene, and it nearly makes up for her awkward communications with Kasuf at the start. This show needs greater stakes, and moments like this one sell the idea that we’re watching more than just a low-budget adventure story.

Aset prepares to act in the finale of Stargate Origins.

Episode 10: Tying Up the Loose Ends

The challenges of Origins’ short running time stand out during the final episode. Ra appears as the great continuity fixer to set the stage for the events in Stargate. Amnesia is the laziest way to fix inconsistencies, but that’s the road we take here. Making Catherine and Dr. Langford forget everything solves the issues but also feels like a cheat. The resolutions for Beal, Wasif, and Motawk arrive so quickly that it’s hard to even comprehend everything.

I did enjoy the idea that Aset planted the seed that led to Ra’s destruction in the future. It took many decades for it to happen, but Catherine eventually contacted Daniel to find Abydos once again. Turning Kasuf into a leader also feels random, but it helped to connect his character with Erick Avari’s older version from the movie and series. Ra moves the gate and kills nearly everyone without a second thought, but his doom will come down the road.

Beal was a frustrating character throughout much of this show; his complaining was set up for laughs yet never really hit home. He was just starting to get interesting in the past few episodes, which makes his death feel tragic. It’s quite a downer of a finale across the board; even the Harsesis child possibly died. We don’t see Aset or the baby perish, so it’s possible they survived for another season. That is also true for Beal, though his death seems more likely.

Another interesting part is Wasif finding love with Motawk, which had received hints in past episodes. I’m sure that some Stargate fans won’t love this story arc given their reactions to SGU. Even so, I appreciate any efforts to show a wider range of relationships on television. Seeing Wasif and Motawk conscripted by Ra as guards is a gut punch, though. They could return in a future season, but it’s hard to watch such a bleak resolution.

The Mission File on Stargate Command also includes a reference to Captain Mitchell, which connects this story to the events of Stargate: Continuum. I like the way that it bridges the two stories, but I would have enjoyed a slightly clearer reference on the show. There’s a risk in veering too far into fan service, but you don’t want to make Easter eggs so hard to find.

The Langfords stand in front of the Stargate at the end of Stargate Origins.

Origins: Some Final Words

It’s no coincidence that Joseph Mallozzi chose to begin the push for more Stargate right after Origins premiered. The fans are already engaged in the new show and have greater interest to push for a full series. The huge contrast in budget and scope between Origins and past Stargate series also reminds us of how great they were. If nothing else, this smaller show has brought fans back into the fold and convinced us that we want something better.

I don’t mean to keep criticizing Origins; making a prequel is not easy. When you also consider the miniscule budget, its chances of success were smaller. What bothers me is the time spent on worn-out tropes like Nazis, amnesia, and obvious colonialist topics. Why not cover similar territory but with interesting villains and a more nuanced resolution? Connor Trinneer did great work as Dr. Langford, and his steady presence stood out against the hammy Nazis.

You don’t need a giant budget to make an interesting Stargate series. Two of my favorite episodes from SG-1 are “Abyss” and “Threads”, and both mine great drama from long conversations. Origins can be fun yet still grab us without resorting to obvious story beats.

There’s so much potential in a show set in the ‘30s involving the Stargate. Parts of Origins nearly hit the mark but then got too safe. Did we really need the Nazis at all? Removing them would give Aset and Serqet more time to grow as characters and set up a more exciting main conflict. This is one example of many thoughts that I had as I watched Origins.

The city rises in the premiere of Stargate Atlantis.

The Success of #StargateRising

On Friday and Saturday, Stargate fans and a lot of familiar faces made their presence felt during a tweetstorm that spanned the globe. I participated on Friday and likely earned a few mutes on Twitter with many posts and retweets for #StargateRising. Some of our favorite actors like Amanda Tapping, Jewel Staite, David Hewlett, Brian J. Smith, Michael Shanks, and so many others joined the fun. It was heart-warming to have so many people that love the franchise coming together to push for more.

Beyond the energy of seeing the unified front, I’m hopeful that we have a chance for a real show. I love the idea of pushing for Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright to return and continue the story. There’s endless potential even if some actors can’t appear due to other commitments. I have a feeling that we’re in store for a lot more great things from Stargate in the next few years. Is it possible that our journey is just beginning?

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February 23, 2018

Stargate Origins: Episodes 4 & 5 and #StargateNow

Catherine, Beal, and Wasif arrive via the Stargate in Abydos.

We’re now halfway through the 10 episodes of Stargate Origins, so the structure is a lot clearer. All of the main characters (beyond one dim-witted Nazi) are on Abydos in various states of danger. We’ve met the two Goa’uld characters, Aset and Serqet, who are generally more interesting than the flimsy heroes. The Nazis and Dr. Langford remain captured by Aset and can only wait for the next steps. They’ll need Catherine and her pals to step up and save the day. The stage is set for the big conflict between the various parties, but our time is short.

Only about 50 minutes remain in the entire show, and you can only accomplish so much in 10-minute episodes. Despite some fun moments, the limitations on money and time make it hard for Origins to really thrive. A lot has changed since I wrote about the first three episodes, however. Longtime Stargate writer and producer Joseph Mallozzi has initiated the quest for a new full series to extend the franchise. His presence has rejuvenated the fan base and made Origins’ success seem less essential for its future. Before diving into those efforts, let’s take a quick look at the two new episodes, which premiered yesterday at Stargate Command.

The Goa'uld warrior Serqet attacks Catherine Langford and her friends.

Episode 4: A Formidable Enemy

I love a good sci-fi adventure, and the classic premise of discovering an unknown world via the Stargate can work brilliantly. It’s a relief when Catherine, Beal, and Wasif leave the main structure and venture into the desert. That moment happens in Episode 5, however. They first battle with the Goa’uld warrior Serqet and have little chance against her. She’s played by Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez, whose career includes a lot of stunt work in TV and movies. Gonzalez is an imposing enemy, though the fight isn’t very thrilling.

I did enjoy seeing Serqet’s different type of staff weapon that worked for hand-to-hand combat. The large hook at the end makes for an effective tool in close fights. It’s cool to see a little action on Origins, but this scene feels a bit awkward. The staging appears off, and the room’s tight quarters make for a limited fight. The appearance of the transportation rings is an exciting callback, especially to the movie and early SG-1 seasons.

Before encountering Serqet, the confused trio exits the Stargate and arrives on Abydos. I like the small touch of the ice on Catherine’s face, which is a callback to the early days. Less exciting is the over-the-top reaction from Beal, who’s just a painful character. He veers between obnoxious and cheesy behavior, and I don’t see any chemistry between him and Catherine. Beal is mostly around to set up Catherine as the stronger character. Exchanges like this are a good example:

Beal: “Stay put.
Catherine: “You wish!

While her reply made me chuckle, it’s hard to care much about Beal. Yelling “Boo!” at the Abydonian tribe member they discover is such a jerk move. Ellie also slaps him when he suggests that Dr. Langford is dead, and it’s well-deserved for a lot of reasons. Wasif mostly seems like an afterthought to the pair, despite his cool discovery of the world outside. The attractive shot of the three moons and the dunes mostly sells the off-world location. I can’t wait to get a chance to explore a little bit of this outside world.

The Goa'uld Aset has devious plans in Stargate Origins.

Episode 5: Aset’s Plans

While Episode 4 mostly involves the fight with Serqet, its follow-up involves all the characters in some fashion. We check in with the Nazis, Goa’uld, and Catherine’s group within a packed 10-minute story. It seems fitting to have so much as we reach Origins’ midpoint. The most interesting part of Episode 5 is the conversation between Aset and Serqet. There’s a revelation that the baby is a harsesis, which is the show’s first big surprise. We learned on SG-1 (particularly in season four's “Absolute Power”) that this child of two Goa’uld is extremely powerful. While it’s unclear who the father is right now, Ra is a possible candidate.

We also learn that Aset plans to use the humans to ferment a revolution against Ra. I’m not sure how this can go well, but it presents her more as an opportunist than a generic enemy. The idea of Aset using the Nazis for her own devious plans intrigues me. We also learn of her mysterious resurrection, which might help to explain fans’ continuity questions. There’s a lot of plot to uncover in limited time, so I’m unsure how much we’ll learn down the road.

Less inspiring is the scene with the Nazis, who remain weird caricatures. My reaction is similar to Dr. Langford, who’s just over the entire situation. His only solace is that Catherine is back on Earth, and a split-screen shot reminds us of how wrong he is. She’s busy having a painful conversation with Kasuf (Daniel Rashid), the Abydonian tribe member. Catherine’s attempts to teach Kasuf her name feel straight out of an old colonial narrative. Her frustrating approach treats him as dumb simply because Kasuf doesn’t understand English. It’s bad news.

Kasuf is a familiar name to Stargate fans; an older version of him encounters O’Neill and Jackson on Abydos in their first trip. Erick Avari played Kasuf in both the movie and SG-1, but that character seemed unfamiliar with Earth in that film. It will be interesting to see how that is presented in upcoming episodes, if it’s addressed at all. His character is mostly around to draw comedy out of their cultural differences, and those jokes fall flat.

On a positive note, Wasif’s stabbing by a frightened tribe member is a shock. Seeing all that blood (and a possibly mortal wound) brings weight to a show that has felt very light so far. I did not expect Wasif to die, and the quick resolution with the Wand of Horus ends any speculation. Even so, it’s refreshing to bring actual stakes to this story. The battle with Serqet included limited tension despite her skills. The stabbing is the first moment that convincingly sells the danger of going through the Stargate, and I hope to see more in the future.

The creepy face of the warrior Goa'uld Serqet in Stargate Origins.


The most exciting news of the week was Mallozzi’s surprise announcement of a strategy to strongly encourage MGM to revive Stargate completely. In a blog post titled “Stargate – the next step!”, Mallozzi outlines his feelings about the future of the franchise. He clarifies that a reboot or remake won’t serve the best needs of fans or the series. We’ve seen the challenges in Origins with shoehorning a story into Stargate’s past. Mallozzi pitches the idea of going back to the guys that helmed the ship for many years – Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper.

What I love about the idea is how much it makes sense and isn’t just a pipe dream. It also unites the fans with a single objective – support the creation of a new series that continues the ongoing story. The possibilities for this show are endless; it could involve beloved characters from all three series plus new roles that expand the storytelling universe. I’d love to see more of Stargate Universe (SGU), but why stop there? You could explain what happened to The Destiny and involve Atlantis, Earth, and more all within a single package. Why not build on past success instead of recreating it?

If you’re a fan of any part of the Stargate world and want to help this cause, your first task is easy. Follow @StargateNow on Twitter and tweet out support with hashtags like #StargateNow and #DrivetoRevive. I’d also suggest following Mallozzi @barondestructo; he posts regular updates about the project. If you aren’t on Twitter, there’s also a Facebook page open for Stargate Now. This is just the beginning of the initiative, but the response has already been so positive. Fans may disagree on SGU or Origins, but few can argue with the push for a full Stargate rebirth. Let’s make this happen!

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February 15, 2018

Reopening the Gate on Stargate Origins

A cool shot from behind the Stargate from the new series Stargate Origins.

Ever since the abrupt cancellation of Stargate Universe (SGU) in 2011, fans of the long-running franchise have wondered if Stargate is gone for good. The three series were basically an institution on the cable airwaves for nearly 15 years and provided 17 seasons of sci-fi adventures. The TV landscape has changed dramatically, however; the syndicated model and popularity of DVDs that helped Stargate SG-1 thrive are gone. When the SyFy network moved away from space-driven shows (for a time), Stargate was the prime casualty. Financial struggles for MGM killed a chance for straight-to-DVD movies, and that loss placed the franchise into limbo.

Hope arose in the form of a planned reboot on the big screen from Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. They created the film Stargate back in 1994 and had always wanted to revisit the franchise. This wasn’t the ideal scenario for devoted fans of the TV series, but a popular movie might re-ignite the chance to continue the stories of SGU and Stargate Atlantis (SGA). With plans of a movie on hold or dead, MGM decided on a small-scale approach. The result is a new prequel series Stargate Origins, which premiered this week. There’s a big catch, however.

The old-school adventure is only available through MGM’s new streaming service —  Stargate Command. Available for a one-time fee of $20, the site gives viewers a chance to watch both Origins and the original three shows, plus the movies. While most of us already have DVD copies, it’s cool to have everything available in a single place online. Stargate Command also includes bonus interviews and other content to make it a better value. The first three episodes of Origins dropped on Valentine’s Day, and more will arrive next Thursday.

The pivotal question is whether the new show will be enough of a draw to expand the audience beyond completists like me. I even watched the terrible animated series Stargate Infinity, so my bar is very low. The downside for MGM is that only hardcore fans likely know about Origins, and some of them won’t pay. Casual viewers that might check out a network show won’t buy a service with just Stargate. It’s an uphill battle to sell the value, even without a monthly fee.

The familiar sight of the DHD in Stargate Origins.

What Really Matters

MGM’s distribution model is important, but it’s secondary to the larger question: Is Origins any good? If the show is thrilling, viewers will find it. It’s easier than ever to spread the word through social media and positive word of mouth. There’s a flipside to this landscape, though. If a show doesn’t grab audiences immediately, it will die quickly. There is too much competition on many different platforms, and sci-fi fans have plenty of worthy options to see each month. Can a show with a shoestring budget and no stars stand out from the fray?

The most recognizable actor is Connor Trinneer, who played Michael on SGA and Trip on Star Trek: Enterprise. He’s a familiar face to sci-fi fans and portrayed one of the more notable villains from SGA’s run. Despite being stuck behind a silly mustache as Professor Paul Langford, he’s the most convincing character in Origins. The lead is Ellie Gall, who plays the iconic Stargate character of Catherine Langford as a young adult. The 20-year-old Australian actress has a decent collection of TV roles but is not well-known in this genre. She’s actually the sixth person to play this character, though Elizabeth Hoffman from SG-1 was the most frequent.

The good news for Gall is that we’ve only seen a few moments with Catherine near her age in 1939. She can basically do anything with the character and not seem out of place. Catherine must be a smart and effective force based on what we know from previous shows. The first three episodes make sure to highlight her capabilities, and they overdo it a bit. The guys are comically inept and stand little chance against her, especially the Nazis. I expect that trend to continue as the story continues. I’ll cover the other actors as we go, but few leave a major impression thus far compared to the two leads.

Aylam Orian as Dr. Wilhelm Brücke on Stargate Origins.

A Diminished Scope

One aspect that has always stood out in Stargate is its epic storytelling. The 1994 movie has issues, but it still includes stunning physical sets and action scenes. Despite having a TV budget, the series found ways to maintain that giant scale. They conveyed epic battles for the survival of Earth and the galaxy. The creators were experts at re-using spaces to fit any location. Beautiful exteriors in British Columbia also allowed for location shooting that expanded the scope.

Origins must convey a feeling of grand adventure despite having a razor-thin budget. I have no information on the cost, but you can tell it’s fairly small. An early conversation between Dr. Langford and Catherine obviously happens in front of a green screen, and it lasts for quite a while. The planet (which I assume is Abydos) that Dr. Langford and the Nazis visit in episode 3 is a small room that feels like a movie set. There are a limited number of characters and few extras to create a believable world. Origins resembles a stage play more than a typical series.

There’s nothing wrong in theory with a smaller version of Stargate. Plenty of indie films have succeeded with small budgets and limited casts. SGU had its epic moments, but it also delivered gripping drama within a confined space. The challenge is when a show falls below expectations for its genre. Origins is a prequel to Stargate the movie, and it’s going back to 1939. Viewers expect some period details plus solid visual effects. It’s hard to do either on a small budget.

Ellie Gall and Connor Trineer star in Stargate Origins.

A Tricky Start

Unlike the other three series, Origins doesn’t have the luxury of a two-hour pilot to build a foundation. The running time of this entire show is similar to SG-1’s premiere “Children of the Gods”. The 10 webisodes last about 10 minutes each, and the first three entries move quickly. After a short time at Giza in 1928 for the original reveal of the Stargate, we jump ahead 10 years and meet Dr. Langford and Catherine inside a facility. Her boyfriend James (Phillip Alexander) appears for a cute scene and dinner with her dad, and the Nazis arrive quickly.

I appreciate the lack of an extended introduction; we don’t spend the first half hour just meeting each character. On the other hand, the stakes are lower without a better connection. If viewers don’t know the Langfords’ importance to the franchise, they may not care as much about their survival. It’s hard to get too attached to anyone in five minutes, even with likable actors. The Nazis are less winning and fall way into obvious B-movie stereotypes. Their salutes reminded me more of the Disney propaganda short Der Fuehrer’s Face than anything sinister.

We’re definitely in old-school serials territory with these Nazis. Even the odd way that Gall yells “Let go of me!” at her captor feels more out of a classic adventure than a modern series. I like the goofy vibe of this show, which has more in common with the Richard Chamberlain comedy King Solomon’s Mines than Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s an easy viewing, particularly in such small doses. The spinning camera effect at the end of each episode goes a step too far, however. It did make me laugh, but it takes you right out of the drama that’s happening on screen.

A Goa'uld enemy in Stargate Origins, a new MGM series available at Stargate Command.

That’s One Powerful Jeep!

By the second episode, we’ve already seen the Stargate activated by those pesky Germans. Who knew it was so easy? Power from a revved up jeep engine (and maybe some lights) is enough to create a stable wormhole. What makes this episode less painful is the hammy performance from Aylam Orian as Dr. Wilhelm Brücke. He keeps trying to give speeches about his great discovery, and few really care. His fellow Nazi Eva Reinhardt (Sarah Navratil) tries to document everything on film with a camera, but she’s not very successful. These are hardly evil villains with brilliant plans; they seem to have stumbled upon the Stargate discovery by accident.

What’s missing from this episode is a sense of wonder for the Stargate. It feels secondary towards Dr. Langford being forced to walk through it. We know that he’ll be fine, and there’s no tension about his survival. When Catherine vows that Brücke is a dead man, we figure that she’s probably right. Origins is so light that even when I enjoyed it, I was never on the edge of my seat. It’s an easy show to watch late at night before you go to bed, which goes back to the franchise’s syndicated origins. I just hope there’s more to it than what we see at the start.

Episode 3 is the most fun because we finally escape that drab facility. The room where they arrive has a few cool effects, including some floating gems that aren’t explained. It’s refreshing to see a DHD, which will certainly come into play down the road. I also enjoyed Dr. Langford’s amazed response to reaching this new world. Yes, the Stargate is not like the Rosetta Stone. Less inspiring are the scenes back on Earth, where a dim-witted Nazi is easily outsmarted by Catherine. Sadly, the post-credit scene implies that he’ll also venture through the gate.

The big reveal of the Goa’uld arrives so suddenly for Dr. Langford and the Nazis. They walk into one room and stumble upon the powerful enemy holding a baby. I loved seeing the old-school hand device, which recalls the classic days on SG-1. Moments like that give me hope that perhaps Origins could deliver a fun adventure. Catherine’s trip through the Stargate has a similar vibe and is easily the highlight so far. The extended visual effects sequence sells the grandeur of venturing into the great unknown. The shot of her face partially covered by the event horizon is gorgeous. We need more of this and fewer lame Nazis; I suspect we’ll see both in the future.

Ellie Gall as Catherine Langford in Stargate Origins.

Stargate Canon Questions

The obvious challenge with a prequel is how it will connect to stories created in past material. We don’t know everything about Catherine’s past, but there are some basic points from the movie and SG-1. She didn’t know how to complete the dialing sequence until Daniel Jackson discovered how the seventh chevron worked. Catherine also never used the Stargate until she joined SG-1 to visit Heliopolis in “The Torment of Tantalus”. Her fiancé Ernest Littlefield disappeared in 1945 after walking through the Stargate, and he worked with Dr. Langford.

Based on what we’ve seen thus far, all three of those items don’t mesh with Origins. Catherine figured out how to dial the gate with few issues in episode 3. She also used the Stargate to follow her father at the end of the episode. It’s possible that Catherine still met Ernest and that he was her fiancé. However, would Dr. Langford be testing the gate the way he did if he already knew how it worked? My last point veers towards speculation, but the first two are pretty concrete.

There are two ways to escape the corner the writers have entered. The first is to convince us that Catherine held back knowledge of the gate from Daniel and acted like her trip with SG-1 was the first. That would be retconning and change her character significantly, but it wouldn’t be impossible. The other move would be to induce amnesia and make Catherine forget about this experience. That’s a cheap tactic, and I would rather see Origins veer away from canon that go that obvious route.

How much should Origins stick to the Stargate canon? Plenty of origins stories have gone back and changed things. Just look at the Star Wars prequels, which aren’t a great model obviously. The difficulty here is that MGM is almost solely targeting Stargate fans. If this was airing on SyFy, you could argue that it was a separate entity for general sci-fi viewers. That’s a harder sell here because MGM knows that avid fans will poke holes in this story. I suspect that a future episode will address this dilemma somehow. Whether it will work is the big question.

Connor Trineer stars as Professor Paul Langford in Stargate Origins.

An Uncertain Future

I’ve only seen 30% of Origins, so I’m not ready to give it a full assessment. I’ll save that for a future article once all the episodes have been released. What concerns me is that the show won’t find an audience beyond fans that need to see everything. MGM could use this fact as a reason to shut down future plans for the property. I may be over thinking it, but this feels like a test of whether Stargate has legs. A low-budget prequel already faces major obstacles, and I may be placing too large a burden on Origins. Even so, I’m glad to have a Stargate series back on my screen and hope this isn’t the last hurrah for one of my favorite franchises.

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May 11, 2017

Bosch: Season Three Review

Titus Welliver and Jamie Hector star in Bosch.

The Refreshing Mundanity of Bosch

In this era of peak TV, there’s no way to keep up with every must-see series. Who has the time to follow everything? Netflix and Amazon release new original shows every few weeks, and there’s no end in sight to that trend. Looking beyond obvious studs like The Leftovers and Better Call Saul, there are other solid stalwarts that deserve more recognition. These quiet successes carve out a comfortable niche yet are often lost behind the leaders. A perfect example is Amazon’s cop series Bosch, which keeps churning out effective seasons every year. The show’s willingness to meander helps it avoid the traps of most network police series.

Titus Welliver stars as the title character Detective Harry Bosch, a veteran cop that draws the ire of both criminals and fellow officers. Many of them spend the episodes spitting out a frustrated “BOSCH!” while dealing with the difficult guy. One reason is that he’s a skilled detective who’s rarely wrong. Police leaders and district attorneys don’t like being told they’re idiots by the detectives. Bosch is not a Vic Mackey type that skirts the rules, however. He often gets in trouble because he’s so concerned about doing the right thing. When he bends the rules, it’s usually in the name of catching the bad guys. Bosch may look the other way if it punishes evil.

Bosch is adapted from the long-running series of novels by Michael Connelly starring the title character. Beginning with The Black Echo in 1992, Connelly has written 21 books that feature the hard-nosed homicide detective. I have not read the source novels, so the TV series is all new. Given that each season pulls from multiple books, it’s easier to approach the stories from a fresh perspective. Connelly is directly involved in the show and co-wrote several episodes. I suspect that the tone matches the book, especially given the series’ slow-burn approach.

A Promising Start

The first season does a great job introducing the main character and his world. The L.A. environment feels lived in, even Bosch’s cool apartment overlooking the city. There are cases to solve but also time to enjoy local eateries and spin jazz greats at home. Bosch enjoys a low-key camaraderie with his partner Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector, Marlo from The Wire), Lieutenant Grace Billets (Amy Aquino), and fellow officers in the Hollywood Division. The sets also seem genuine without drawing too much attention and include subtle details that add to the charm.

The downside of season one is the focus on a serial killer that feels drawn from a lesser show. Jason Gedrick (Iron Eagle) tries his best to make Raynard Waits interesting, but there’s no mystery there. The potential remains because the cast is so good, especially Welliver in the lead role. The silent intensity in Bosch’s face says plenty about the determined officer. He’s still haunted by his past, especially the murder of his mother when he was 11. Bosch controls his emotions to focus on his police work, and it takes a toll on personal relationships. Everything clicks except for the main story, and the much-improved second season fixes those issues.

What makes season two succeed are the greater stakes for everyone involved. It also is less ponderous than the grim first outing. The arrival of Bosch’s daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz) and ex-wife Eleanor (Sarah Clarke, 24) brings levity to everything. Villainous supporting turns from Jeri Ryan and Brent Sexton also give Bosch and Edgar more to play against. Lance Reddick sometimes feels like he’s on another show as Deputy Chief Irving, and he also gets more directly involved here. There’s even a Matthew Lillard sighting as an undercover FBI agent! This season builds on the solid foundation and delivers across the board.

Titus Welliver stars as Harry Bosch on the third season of Amazon's Bosch.

A Confident Third Season

We’ve finally reached the main topic of this article — Bosch’s newly released third offering. Amazon dropped all 10 episodes onto their streaming video service on April 21st. They have already renewed the show for a fourth season, so this won’t be the last time we see Bosch. We ended the previous season with Bosch spitting on the grave of his mother’s killer, and that cynicism remains from our lead detective. He’s berating the DA in public, squabbling with his partner, and performing some questionable detective work. Even so, the moral center remains as part of this quest for justice. Bosch is still trying to be a good father and catch the bad guys.

While this season’s villains lack the flair of the previous one, there’s still plenty to enjoy with the intersecting cases. Armin Vosloo (aka The Mummy) is so obviously evil from the start, and he knows how to play the arrogant henchman. Less effective is film director and murder suspect Andrew Holland, played like a complete fool by John Ales. The real excitement comes from watching the great Paul Calderon pursue Bosch as the relentless Detective Robertson. He seems more dangerous than the ex-military operatives led by Dobbs (Jeffrey Pierce). Robertson correctly senses than Bosch isn’t telling the whole truth, but he’s wrong about the specifics.

By this point in the show, I just enjoy spending time with these characters. Billets’ application for captain doesn’t connect directly to the main plot, but it’s still interesting because we root for her. Irving spends the season finalizing his divorce and deciding whether to take the full-time role as chief. It’s obvious from the start that he’ll accept it, but this thread remains interesting for two reasons. First of all, the quiet sadness on Reddick’s face reminds us of the loss of his son. Irving is gruff and rarely shows emotion, yet he still works as a character. The other reason is the set-up for events in future seasons involving the death of Bosch’s mother. The writers know how to play the long game, especially when it comes to emotional scars from the past.

Madison Lintz stars as Maddie in the third season of Bosch.

Spotlighting Everyday Scenes

Bosch was developed for television by Eric Overmyer, who was a producer and writer on Homicide: Life on the Street during its final two seasons. They’re quite different shows, especially due to the Los Angeles and Baltimore settings respectively. What made Homicide so unique was its mundane look at the life of a police detective. No car chases or shootouts occurred, at least in the early years. Bosch has a brighter setting yet also shows the less glamorous side of police life. Characters spend time on stakeouts, doing paper work, and waiting for the right opportunity. Shootouts and chases happen, but they’re still rare.

Beyond the main plots, it’s the low-key moments that stick with me. The writers find time to show Bosch teaching his daughter to drive and watching her play volleyball. There’s also a new romance with the Deputy District Attorney Anita Benitez (Paola Turbay) that mostly works. In a strange way, it’s the lack of a dramatic break-up that makes their scenes click. They just drift away in the midst of an ugly case, and then it’s over. Bosch is a nice guy but not what you’d call a warm person. His reputation in the department also might not be best for her career. The workplace politics grounds this show in reality and keeps it from losing focus.

An important benefit of understanding the characters is the increase in stakes when things go wrong. When a major character is seriously wounded by a sniper, it’s not a cheap trick to enhance the drama. The show has laid the groundwork to make that moment connect. We’ve also seen the skills of the villains, so there’s a true sense of danger when they strike. Despite some dissension between Bosch and other cops this season, that slips away when a threat emerges. Robertson suspects Bosch of not being on the level, but he also has a begrudging respect for his skills. That uneasy alliance comes together in an interesting way.

Paul Calderon and Amy Aquino star in Bosch.

The Thrills of the Slow Burn

Welliver’s slow gait makes Bosch seem less imposing to suspects that don’t know any better. When the action heats up, his precise moves remind us of his Special Forces training and sharp instincts. The way that he dodges an approaching car and then shifts into attack mode is a perfect example. There’s no wasted effort or over-the-top histrionics. The show essentially functions in the same way. Regular directors Ernest Dickerson and Alex Zakrewski both shot multiple episodes of The Wire, and they understand how to shoot action scenes. Shootouts are brief, brutal affairs that get to the point quickly.

Bosch’s third season concludes with an epic one-on-one pursuit on a gorgeous island that gives Bosch a chance to show his skills. It also extends the case of his mother’s murder into surprising territory. Those revelations should lead to significant conflict in the fourth season. The ominous final shot of Bosch’s face tells us all we need to know about his next target. Each season finale leaves enough threads open to keep us engaged, but they never feel like a cheat. This effective storytelling is consistent throughout the season and makes Bosch worth a serious look.

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December 2, 2016

November 2016 Viewing Diary

Rory and Lorelai re-connect at the kitchen table in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

It’s common for pop culture fans to chronicle every part of our daily habits. It’s a way to prove to ourselves that we’re consuming great content. Letterboxd benefits greatly from cinephiles’ need to keep track of our movie watching. When you’re the type of person that sees multiple films a day, it’s hard to remember everything. I’m going to start tracking both my movie and TV watching in posts like this one. While I’m starting with a monthly schedule, I may increase the frequency to avoid such a long post. Seeing everything in one place solidifies just how much content I watch. It’s a little frightening.

I’ll admit that this idea is hardly a new one. Many bloggers do a similar activity and write posts listing what they’ve been seeing. I’ve stolen this format directly from Sheila O’Malley, one of my favorite online writers. She also compiles both movies and TV every month in one big article on her blog The Sheila Variations. Her work is definitely worth your time.

This first post is very Gilmore Girls-heavy, which isn’t a normal trend. My wife and I watched the entire series this fall to prepare for A Year in the Life. It was a good way to keep track of all the various story lines and characters. Plus, I had never seen the final three seasons until this binge viewing. Next month should look very different without all the Gilmore Girls episodes.

Gilmore Girls Episode 7.4, “’S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous” (2006, Victor Nelli Jr.)
This is probably the peak of the Christopher/Lorelai relationship in terms of charming moments. It’s hard to argue with a guy that sets up an outdoor movie theater to watch Funny Face. The way he throws money around gets old fast, though. Emily getting arrested is the highlight, and it feels like the new showrunners are starting to find their way. It won’t last long, though.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.5, “The Great Stink” (2006, Gina Fattore)
It’s hard to watch this episode and not think of Clare Clark’s book of the same title. That story takes place among the sewers of London, so it’s quite different. The main story brings an unseen Sherry (sorry, Madchen Amick!) wanting to bring GG to Paris. Christopher’s daughter is mostly just a plot device, and that’s definitely the case here. Lorelai and Christopher just don’t seem to work as a couple, but we all know where this is heading. It’s not good.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, Richard Linklater) - Review
I hesitated to see Richard Linklater’s most recent film, and I have no idea why. On the surface, the story of a bunch of college guys trying to pick up women is shallow. I shouldn’t have doubted Linklater, however. It’s such a light and clever movie that finds heart in even the smallest little competitions among the young athletes. It’s such a breezy hang-out movie!

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.6, “Go, Bulldogs!” (2006, Wil Shriner)
Poor Luke. After breaking up with Lorelai, he’s stuck dating April’s swim coach. Their date is cringe-inducing and falls into the typical “crazy woman” trope. Not cool, Gilmore Girls. Once again, Richard and Emily save the day with their visit to Parents Day’ at Yale. Unfortunately, Christopher again has no idea what to do with his money and acts ridiculous.

Drunk History, Episode 4.6, “Siblings” (2016)
One of my favorite parts of Drunk History is the way that it spotlights lesser-known historical figures. I knew nothing about Katharine Wright’s (Jenna Fischer) contributions to the Wright brothers’ success. This episode also includes fun appearances by Elizabeth Olson and Rachel Bilson as the Kopp sisters. When you add that to Lauren Lapkus narrating the Wright story, it’s a great showcase for female performers.

Survivor, Episode 33.7, “I Will Destroy You” (2016)
It's shocking to see Michaela go home after she received so much attention from the editors. They’ve done a good job of hiding the winner and not showing their hand. I suspect that we’ll see Michaela again soon; she’s such a big character and a strong athlete. Survivor needs to cast more alpha female players, and Michaela is perfect because she’s also fun.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.7, “French Twist” (2006, David Babcock)
This is the low point of season seven and possibly the entire series. I know that Lorelai is still rebounding from Luke, but marrying Christopher on a whim seems way out of character. The shots of Paris are also really unconvincing. I don’t mean to be too tough on the TV budget, but something is just really off about this entire story.

Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987, Pennebaker) - Review
I subscribed to the new streaming service Filmstruck this month and love it. There are so many blind spots that I’m planning to uncover in the near future. My first screening was D.A. Pennebaker’s short film of Otis Redding’s entire set at Monterey Pop. Redding was only 26 yet brought so much power to the stage. It’s tragic to note that he died less than six months later.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.8 “Introducing Lorelai Planetarium” (2006, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
It’s a relief to see the beginnings of a new start for the Luke/Lorelai friendship. Even though I wasn’t spoiled, I knew they wouldn’t spend the entire season apart. It’s good to see that at least Rory isn’t excited about Lorelai’s marriage. David Sutcliffe does his best as Christopher, but the show uses him too often as a plot device to separate Luke and Lorelai. It’s a tough position for any actor, especially with so many fans on Team Luke.

Jimi Hendrix plays Monterey Pop in the documentary Jimi Plays Monterey.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986, Pennebaker) Review
Here's another full performance from Monterey Pop that drew a lot of attention. Hendrix was largely unknown in the U.S. at the time, which is hard to believe. His charisma on stage is matched by few others, and the music holds up well. It's a treat to see the entire set from such an important show.

The West Wing, Episode 2.7, “The Portland Trip” (2000, Paris Barclay)
I’ve been following along with The West Wing Weekly podcast since the start. I watched the show originally but didn’t see every episode in the pre-DVR days. I also dropped out at some point in the middle. It’s been great to revisit the show on a relaxed schedule. “The Portland Trip” has some interesting parallels to modern discussions on gay marriage, especially in the Trump era. It also includes some of the show’s unfortunate writing for its female characters. Donna takes the brunt this week as she worries about her love life following a failed date.

Survivor, Episode 33.8, “I’m the Kingpin” (2016)
Merge time! I have to admit that casting did a great job this season. Even the goofball characters like Taylor are entertaining. There are very few players that don’t bring something to the table. One downside is the high proportion of women being voted out of the game. There are only three left, and only Paul has left from the guys. I suspect that will change soon.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to the Artist (1979, Saul J. Turrell) - Review
I also caught this 30-minute documentary on Filmstruck, and I’m looking forward to diving into Robeson’s performances. He also was an outspoken activist, and the film barely has time to dive into that side. It’s a good primer on Robeson, a star whose past has mostly been erased.

Stargate Universe, Episode 2.7, “The Greater Good” (2010, William Waring)
This episode is one of the highlights of season two and moves the story forward considerably. We finally learn about the Destiny’s mission from Rush, who faces a beating from Young after Eli discovers the bridge. “The Greater Good” feels like a mid-season finale, especially when you consider the cliffhanger ending. A lot happens, but it sets up an even greater conflict to come.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.10, “Merry Fisticuffs” (2006, Jackson Douglas)
Also known as the episode with the amazing moment when Luke and Christopher brawl, this one moves us closer to the end of the unfortunate Lorelai/Christopher marriage. It can’t come soon enough, though I know the writers have to drag it out further into the season. There’s also the Marty issue with Rory, though the less I say about those scenes, the better.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.11, “Santa’s Secret Stuff” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Lorelai struggles to write Luke a letter of recommendation in his custody battle for April. She ends up writing a love letter that ends her marriage, but we’ll talk about that later. Right now, it’s all about the holidays and trying to be a new family. It’s not going very well.

Drunk History, “Election Special” (2016)
When the election results started going poorly, I had to step away or risk getting too depressed. A helpful remedy was the “Election Special” on Drunk History, which compiled earlier segments that focused on the Presidents. I’d seen them all before, but it was a cool break from a bad night.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.12, “To Whom It May Concern” (2007, Jamie Babbit)
This episode is such a relief. This season is inconsistent, but they handle Christopher’s exit well. His discovery of the letter just confirms his suspicions about being the rebound guy. Their fight is the beginning of the end of their relationship. There’s also the odd moment where Sookie learns that she’s pregnant again. It’s odd but makes sense given Melissa McCarthy’s pregnancy.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.13, “I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Luke has been lost for much of the season, so it’s cool to see the way that he reacts to Richard’s collapse. He’s there for Lorelai and will do anything regardless of past issues. Christopher is not so thoughtful. I also noticed that Gilmore Girls spends a lot of time in hospitals. This isn’t Richard’s first visit, which feels sadder given Edward Hermann’s passing.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.14, “Farewell, My Pet” (2007, Jamie Babbit)
I’m glad the show didn’t spend the full season on the end of the Christopher relationship. We still have eight episodes to go, and it’s great to focus on something else. Thankfully, it won’t be the new TA at Yale that makes Rory lose her mind in the bookstore. That scene recalls the way she acted with Dean in season one, and it’s a weird look for Rory here.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.15, “I’m a Kayak, Hear Me Roar” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
I don’t mind Logan on the whole, but his business issues are boring. This does bring the welcome return of Gregg Henry as Mitchum Huntzberger. I can’t believe one word the character says; he reminds me a little bit of a younger Trump. In the ongoing saga of Luke having no fun, he’s stuck with Liz, T.J., and the baby in his small apartment. Poor guy.

Michael Shannon helps his son in Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special.

Midnight Special (2016, Jeff Nichols)
Michael Shannon is the perfect collaborator for Jeff Nichols because he excels in understated roles. All we need to do is look at Roy’s face to grasp the turmoil inside that guy. He loves his son but doesn’t understand forces beyond him within the boy. Nichols drops us right into this story and creates a sci-fi story that grows with more time after seeing it.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.16, “Will You Be My Lorelai Gilmore?” (2007, David Paymer)
It’s time for Lane’s baby shower, and I remember now why I dislike Logan. It’s hard to sympathize with a rich kid who bolts at the first sign of trouble. He’s like a mini-Christopher! It is good to have more attention on Lane, who gets little to do in season seven besides having a baby. I do like Zack’s attempts to bond with Luke, who likes the kid but has no idea how to act.

Survivor, Episode 33.9, “Still Throwin’ Punches” (2016)
We finally lose a guy on Survivor! As an added benefit, the victim is the dim-witted Taylor. He was never dull, but there’s only so much goofiness you can take. I still don’t understand his skills with mason jars beyond just putting food in them. Following this episode, I wrote a RHAP blog about how going big and not always good strategy.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.17, “Gilmore Girls Only” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Amazingly, Mia has actually aged backwards since her first appearance. This time she’s played by Kathy Baker as a bohemian type. Despite covering familiar territory, the road trip for Emily, Lorelai, and Rory has some fun moments. I again like the continued way that Lane and Zack are connecting with Luke. It gives him more to do before he’s ready to reconcile with Lorelai.

Drunken Angel (1948, Akira Kurosawa) - Review
I’ve only seen 10 of Kurosawa’s films, so I still have a long way to go. I’ll be taking advantage of Filmstruck to catch up with many of them. My first choice was Drunken Angel, the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshirô Mifune. It’s a pretty straightforward noir story, but it clicks due to way Kurosawa captures a mood of post-war melancholy.

Drunk History, Episode 4.7, “Landmarks” (2016)
There are quite a few inspired choices for the guest actors in this episode, including Taylor Schilling and Liev Schreiber. The pleasant surprise is John Cho playing William Shakespeare. It’s a subtle way to remind us that perhaps our preconceived notions deserve a push away from the obvious. We’ll see that move again in the Alexander Hamilton episode in a few weeks.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.18, “Hay Bale Maze” (2007, Stephen Clancy)
This season feels so much lighter without Lorelai’s marriage hanging over it. We get the chance to enjoy Taylor’s gigantic hay bale maze, which surprises everyone by actually being fun. Luke and Lorelai also finally talk openly about their issues; we’re in store for great things soon!

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.19, “It’s Just Like Riding a Bike” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Paris is one of the show’s best characters, even when she’s acting ridiculous. Her freak-out about which school to choose is fun, though it does go on for quite a while. We also get to see Lorelai riding through town in a bike, which is a good image. The rest just blurs into the background. I think that I’m wearing down and ready to finish this project.

Morris from America (2016, Chad Hartigan)
While the story felt a little too conventional, the performances from Markees Christmas and especially Craig Robinson make it worthwhile. The scenes with the two actors have great heart and never strike a false note. The scenes away from the pair don’t always click, especially with some of his German classmates. Even so, the laid-back style doesn’t oversell the stakes.

The Walking Dead, Episode 7.3, “The Cell” (2016, Alrick Riley)
It was hard to dive back into The Walking Dead after the vicious season premiere. The show reveled in watching Negan beat several characters to death; it was all too much. Following the election, I also wasn’t thrilled to dive back into such a dreary show. We finally caught the third episode, and it felt mostly like a retread despite convincing work from Norman Reedus.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.20, “Lorelai? Lorelai?” (2007, Bethany Rooney)
I’d heard a lot about the big Luke/Lorelai karaoke scene, and it did not disappoint. The looks from both of them say it all. They belong together and need to set aside all the obstacles. Season seven gets a lot of flak (much is deserved), but it finishes strong. Despite all the odd detours their characters have taken, Lauren Graham and Scott Patterson totally sell this moment.

The West Wing, Episode 2.8, “Shibboleth” (2000, Laura Innes)
It’s time for the Thanksgiving episode, which brings C.J. a few surprise guests in her office. Allison Janney’s interactions with the turkeys are a comic highlight. The main plot involves Chinese Christians looking for asylum in the U.S. after fleeing their country. While the story is a bit on the nose for the holiday, it works better than expected. There’s also a nice moment between Bartlet and Charlie around carving knives at the end.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.21, “Unto the Breach” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
It’s time for Rory’s graduation from Yale, and it brings a surprise marriage proposal from Logan. The show handles this familiar situation well; Rory is not ready to become Mrs. Huntzberger. Beyond the graduation, this episode is really a set-up for the finale. Luke and Lorelai are figuring out their future (and being weird to each other), and the town is ready for a big party. Plus, Kirk in a box! That moment sells the episode on its own.

Gilmore Girls, Episode 7.22, “Bon Voyage” (2007, Lee Shallat-Chemel)
Whew. I enjoyed seeing the entire series in a short time, but I’m ready for some other shows. Of course, there’s still A Day in the Life coming shortly (see below!). It’s funny to note that Rory leaves to go cover Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign in Iowa. Those were the days! The show ends well, particularly with the whole town saying goodbye to Rory (and us). I loved the last scene of Richard and Emily with Lorelai. As a dad, his final words really hit home for me.

Mahershala Ali teaches a young boy to swim in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight.

Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins) - Review
Believe the hype. This is easily one of my favorite movies from this year. The main reason is the performances, particularly from the three actors playing Chiron. Mahershala Ali also gives a supporting performance that’s going to win a lot of awards. Moonlight is the type of film that only grows stronger as I think about it more. We feel so much for the characters, especially Chiron. Jenkins builds such an emotional connection with the audience; there’s no distance.

Drunk History, Episode 4.8, “Food” (2016)
I wasn’t as engaged by this episode, though Tess Lynch has great fun talking about the artichoke wars. Michaela Watkins also stands out as Julia Child in a story that was brand new for me. Drunk History spotlights so many talented women that deserve a lot more attention.

Westworld, Episode 1.2, Chestnut (2016, Richard J. Lewis)
I reviewed the Westworld premiere “The Original” back in early October but just never found my way back to the show until now. The show has good production values and talented actors, but it’s also really proud of itself. The puzzle box mystery has promise, yet I’m finding it hard to connect with any characters. This episode’s highlight is Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) haunting memories of another time or place. She also wakes up during an inopportune surgery behind the scenes. Newton and Evan Rachel Wood are the main reasons to tune in at this point.

Survivor, Episode 33.10 and 33.11, “Million Dollar Gamble” (2016)
This two-hour episode is easily the highlight of the season. The first hour includes lots of interesting strategy and the departure of a key player. And that’s just the appetizer for the chaos of the second Tribal Council. The rock draw is so tense! The stakes are high for everyone involved, not just the players trusting luck to survive. We’re in store for a great finish.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981, Jim Henson)
When I was a kid, we had a small number of VHS dubbed movies and watched them repeatedly. One of them was The Great Muppet Caper, which I remembered as being a big step down from The Muppet Movie. I was surprised by all the clever gags that went over my head as a kid. It’s still not as great as its predecessor, but the gap is smaller than I thought.

Drunk History, Episode 4.9, “Hamilton” (2016)
Lin-Manuel Miranda gets a full episode all to himself, but it doesn’t feel padded. I love the choice to have Alia Shawkat and Aubrey Plaza play Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It’s another cool way to subvert our expectations and spotlight diverse comedians. Miranda is clearly a fan and has a blast with Derek Waters. The moment when Questlove calls them is so funny because the Roots’ drummer is giddy about the show. The enthusiasm is everywhere.

The West Wing, Episode 2.9, "Galileo" (2000, Alex Graves)
It's easy for me to enjoy an episode where a character gives a rousing speech about exploration and the space program. Sam gets that honor and is helped by the soaring music behind him. "Galileo" is a breezy episode that gives Janney plenty to do, which is never a bad idea. Even when there's a crisis involving a Russian missile silo, the episode still flows smoothly. It's one of my favorites of the season to this point.

Survivor, Episode 33.12, “About to Have a Rumble” (2016)
There was no way that Survivor could match last week’s insanity, but this episode came close. Jeff talked a lot about “love” during the family visit, and everyone cried. It was really after the immunity challenge when the fun began. Will openly talked about shoring up his resume, and Ken topped him with an even dumber idea. Adam won everything this week; he got rid of the advantage, won immunity, and played the idol for Hannah. It doesn’t matter that the votes were 5-4 against Zeke. The move will help Adam a lot if he makes the end.

Westworld, Episode 1.3, “The Stray” (2016, Neil Marshall)
It’s confusing to keep track of the different story lines (time periods?) in the show at this point. The pursuit of the cultists is well-done, yet it raises a lot more questions. Are they humans that have taken up residence at the park? The bullets were ineffective, which means that’s the likely situation. And what was up with the stray guy hidden in the rocks? So many questions. I don’t mind not having the answers, though the writers are playing a dangerous game.

Alia Shawkat stars as Dory in Search Party.

Search Party

For these last two entries, I’m combining all the episodes into one section. We’re already more than 3,000 words into this article. If you made it this far, nice job! Also, a show like Search Party is only loosely separated into episodes. TBS released all 10 at once online and aired them within a five-day period. This was a smart choice for this show, which wouldn’t click so well as a weekly show. It’s great to see a starring role for Shawkat, who deserves a lot more attention.

Search Party is tricky to explain because it doesn’t hit the expected beats. It’s a mystery but regularly gets distracted by random subplots. On the other hand, these detours lead to good comedy. It seems like Shawkat’s Dory is the one character that isn’t self-centered. What’s apparent by the end (which really surprised me) is that she’s on the same plane as her friends. They’re not despicable people, particularly compared to some other characters. The show flies by and includes quite a few lively supporting performances. There’s rarely a dull moment, and the season’s length feels just right for the half-hour series. Check out this surprising little gem.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

It seems fitting that I would close this diary with the show that occupied a majority of my viewing time this month. Expectations were sky high for this revival, and it mostly delivered. I loved getting the chance to spend time with these characters again, particularly the citizens of Stars Hollow (except Andrew). Kirk should be on my TV as much as possible. I’ve read quite a few critical pieces about A Year in the Life, and they usually make good points. There are some issues, particularly with Rory’s story line. On the other hand, her arc wasn’t so dominant to drown out what worked so well.

The heart of the four 90-minute episodes is actually Emily’s story. She becomes the third lead Gilmore and makes us root for her happiness. Seeing her just enjoying her life on Nantucket after Richard’s passing is such a relief. Kelly Bishop excels at playing Emily’s nasty side, and that’s still present frequently. What I loved was seeing her let all that anger slide away. She had fun belittling her fellow DAR members (“bullshit!”) and scaring the kids at the whaling museum. It was also good to watch her dismissing Ray Wise’s nice but dull suitor.

I should take a moment to talk about Rory’s misadventures as a freelance journalist. It’s hard to feel too bad for a woman that flies to London and has multiple large houses open to write her book. The show just doesn’t know what to do with Rory; she needs a conflict to overcome. This time it’s really an internal conflict. The lack of realism with the journalism scenes doesn’t bother me too much; this is a show that once included a ridiculously giant pizza. It’s just too bad that we didn’t care as much about Rory in these episodes. Even the last four words drew more of a “what?” reply than compassion for her.

I was more invested in Luke and Lorelai’s relationship. If they were not together at the end of “Fall”, I would have been angry. Those two deserve each other, and it’s sad to see them still a little distant here. I did love their big scene, which mirrors the break-up at the end of season six. Luke refuses to let that happen again, and Lorelai’s right there with him. It’s just a sweet way to bring together characters that have been through so much. I wish A Year in the Life could have ended before Rory’s reveal. However, it does open the door for more episodes.

I suspect we’ll see another run given the huge interest in this revival, but I have mixed feelings. There will be fewer cameos (sorry Dean and Jason!), and we’ll need more than Rory’s pregnancy to make it work. Lorelai is preparing to buy another inn, so her story isn’t finished. If they do continue, I’d like to see new characters. The forgettable Paul does not count. People like this world; let’s expand it and tell a few new stories.

October 28, 2016

Luke Cage Review, Part 3 (Episodes 9-13)

Simone Missick holds back the crowds as Misty Knight in Luke Cage.

We’ve reached the end of another Marvel season, so it’s time for me to dive into the final five episodes of Luke Cage. Cheo Hodari Coker creates an interesting structure, though the drastic shift in the middle is tricky. When Diamondback arrives and becomes the new big bad, the show also changes into a one-on-one battle. It’s no surprise that the climax involves Cage and Diamondback fighting hand-to-hand in the streets of Harlem. They’re two nearly unstoppable forces that can’t help but come into conflict. Cage is ready to stand up for his neighborhood, even if he’s destroyed in the process.

The back half’s main conflict isn’t as engaging, but its themes effectively connect to our modern world. The militarization of police in particular is key to the villain’s plans. Alfred Woodard’s Mariah Dillard represents lawmakers that enhance the danger on the streets to gain more power. Her rhetoric is similar to the incendiary statements regularly spouted by Donald Trump. Playing on the public’s fears is a simple (and immoral) route to draw attention. It’s easier to rally the mob against an individual or cultural group than to discuss complex issues.

Another ongoing theme is the way the police force rises to act without considering what they’re doing. One cop beats a teenage boy due to rage at not getting the exact answer he wants. Even Misty Knight loses her temper and goes after Dillard in the box. The tense environment and threat of powerful enemies make the police behave rashly. It’s hardly a one-sided portrayal meant to demonize them either. We see cops of all races acting in a variety of ways. There are a few one-note idiots, particularly Sergeant Jake Smith (Lee Sellars), who refuse to see the obvious truths. They’re necessary for the plot but lack the complexities of better characters like Priscilla Ridley (Karen Pittman).

Burnt Back to Health

This final run begins with “DWYCK”, a one-hour episode that sets up the end. Cage spends the episode trying to recover from the Judas bullet wounds. It’s tough to build tension when we all know he won’t die. The episode’s conclusion marks the third time in the first nine episodes where Cage looks finished. It begins to feel repetitive by this point. This extra minutes do allow for more time with Dillard and Knight. Both are struggling but come out in different places. While Cage heals his body, they decide where their loyalties are and prepare for the next steps.

These episodes also continue the potential romance between Cage and Claire Temple. The show invests a lot of time in bringing them together with little mention of Jessica Jones. It will be interesting to see how these characters interact in The Defenders. Temple repeatedly helps Cage survive and urges him forward. Her no-BS attitude also keeps him focused. Unlike Jones, Temple doesn’t bring her own baggage. Cage and Temple share cute moments, though her character works better as a badass ally than as a love interest.

Mike Colter stars as Luke Cage in the Now You're Mine episode.

Trapped in the Club

The action centerpiece occurs in episode 11 (“Now You’re Mine”) with the typical hostage stand-off. It’s a little surprising to bring Cage, Diamondback, Knight, and Temple into one place with several episodes remaining. This timing guarantees the bad guy will escape to fight another day. The crisis showcases Temple’s ability to take advantage of how others underestimate her. She is the difference in saving her friends. Despite the tension, it's fairly generic. Even the trigger-happy SWAT team comes from a lesser show. This episode is key to the main arc's forward movement but falls short.

The most interesting part of “Now You’re Mine” is the way it reveals Diamondback’s lack of a real strategy. He’s just winging it and counting on bold moves to stay on top. Diamondback is essentially a quick-draw specialist from the Old West. He kills before his opponents can even move against him. Diamondback is actually similar to Cottonmouth in that regard. Both underestimate Cage and are rarely stopped. They also struggle with hatred from their own pasts. The look of exasperation on Shades’ face in the club is similar to how he looked with Cottonmouth. Neither plays the long game. It’s all about attacking what’s right in front of them.

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Harlem’s Importance

A prevailing theme across the season is the focus on Harlem's soul. A character like Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) is on the periphery, but his efforts to rebuild Pop’s barbershop feel important. On the other side, Dillard is dangerous because she can influence Harlem’s institutions. That’s much worse than the normal bloodshed. This setting feels lived in and more than just places where the action happens. The club's concert performances remind us that life and art keep going despite the turmoil.

Having so many talented African-American actors in this cast is so important. In particular, the presence of multiple female characters that are unique individuals is refreshing. Even when the story gets more generic, the performers sell it. The cameos from musicians and other cultural figures add depth. A wonderful scene in episode 12 (“Soliloquy of Chaos”) with Cage saving Method Man from a robbery is great fun. The follow-up scene at the radio station with Heather B., Sway, and Method Man is even better. We take a moment to breathe and have a few laughs, and that’s rarely a bad idea.

Diamondback and Luke Cage have their final fight in You Know My Steez.

Your Family is Jacked Up!

Misty Knight is my favorite Luke Cage character. She’s able to summarize a complex situation with one great line. It’s a relief to see how much her role expands in the final act. No bionic arm yet for her, though! Knight's comments about Cage’s past show what’s really driving the villain. It all goes back to family. Diamondback hasn’t been loved by many viewers, especially after the love for Cottonmouth. However, I enjoy Erik LaRay Harvey’s performance; he’s gleefully over the top and keeps taking it further. It's challenging for the writers to make that character fit inside the same environment. The Lucas family story never clicks, so there isn’t the emotional context we need.

When you boil it all down, Diamondback’s plan is to punch his brother to death. That seems like a dumb idea, even with his powerful tools. The Judas bullets were a good strategy and nearly worked. This plan has some holes. Their final battle has quite a few connections to the ending of Rocky V. Two former allies (from years ago in this case) have a street fight to settle their scores. Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Morrison could be in the above picture, right? Cage even follows the Ali rope-a-dope strategy to win the day. Stallone also used this same approach for Rocky to beat Clubber Lang in Rocky III. Given the epic build-up to this fight, the end result is a strange one.

The finale (“You Know My Steez”) actually sends Diamondback to the hospital with 30 minutes left in the season. It’s similar to how The Wire resolved its main conflicts. The final half hour closes other plot threads and opens new ones. Cage’s rousing speech at the precinct reinforces how this show wears its heart on its sleeve. Daredevil often veered into nihilism, and Jessica Jones focused on her inner demons. Luke Cage depicts a guy who becomes a hero to stand up for his community. He doesn’t always win; Dillard and Shades are still out there. But Cage isn't hiding in the dark anymore.

Looking Ahead

Luke Cage’s ending also lines up the pieces for a showdown in The Defenders. The quick shot of Dr. Bernstein (Michael Kostroff) tending to Diamondback in the hospital sets up a more formidable enemy in the future. Diamondback will likely team up with Wilson Fisk and others to create an even greater menace. We’ll also probably see the other surviving villains (particularly Shades) again. Cage saved the day, but there are more enemies to come.

Fish discovering the folder should help Matt Murdoch or Foggy Nelson get Cage out of prison. That ending feels strangely positive because of the hero’s approach to his past. Cage is no longer running away from Carl Lucas. We’ve rarely seen that look of serenity on his face this season. He’s normally stoic but angry and unsure of his path. The rage and fear have left his soul.

Despite an inconsistent second half, Luke Cage still works on the whole. As an introduction to Harlem, it really clicks. The references to classic ‘70s films are reverential but not just an imitation. This is a new story that calls on the soul of past greats. The opening episodes set the scene so well, and the rest couldn’t match the high expectations. Still, I suspect that a future season will build on this one’s successes. The pieces are in place for an even better tale to come.

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