Funny Woman is Good but not Funny

Funny Woman

I’ve watched the first three episodes of Funny Woman and am really enjoying it. I went out to IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes to read what other people think and I found an interesting range of opinions. A number of people really like the show while others do not find it funny at all. That’s the interesting part, the show is titled Funny Woman but it’s not a comedy. Let’s get into it.

Funny Woman is not a Comedy

I think the fact Funny Woman is actually more of a drama than a comedy is one of two things causing people to dislike the show. I must be clear, if you don’t like it, I’m not saying you’re wrong. You can like or dislike a show all you want. That’s subjective. What’s objective is the show isn’t a comedy. It’s a show about a woman comedian trying to make it in the entertainment world.

Now, the show does have comedic moments, or at least attempts them. The scene in the department store based apparently on an episode of The Monkeys is not particularly humorous although that is clearly the intent.

Gemma Arterton isn’t Trying to Make you Laugh

The second thing is Gemma Arterton, who plays the titular Funny Woman, Barbara Parker/Sophie Straw character, is not trying to make you laugh. She playing a character trying to make a 1960s audience laugh. Her character’s idea of comedy is based on Lucille Ball, not modern standards. Arterton is acting, not telling jokes.

I’m going to mention the part of Parker/Straw being portrayed by Arterton is extremely difficult. Arterton isn’t a comedic actress and it’s not a comedic role. Still, her job is to make us believe the people around her find her hilarious. That’s no easy trick but I think she’s pulling it off remarkably well, not perfectly perhaps but more than good enough. Better than most could manage.

Full Review

I’m going to wait until I’ve watched all six episodes to give a full review but I absolutely like what I’ve seen so far. Stay tuned.

Conclusion

The show is complicated and I think that’s responsible for the majority of the negative opinions. In our minds we think it’s a comedy, that Arterton is supposed to be funny to our eyes. In reality it’s not that. She’s playing a part.

This confusion, at least in my opinion, creates a disconnect between reality and our expectations of reality.

What do you think?

Tom Liberman

Is Rebel Moon Good or Buzzy and which is Better

Rebel Moon

I just read an article about the Netflix movie Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire and it brings to mind an interesting conundrum when producing entertainment. Is it better for people to like the movie, book, television show, play or other production or is it better for there to be a lot of buzz about it?

It’s a question I, as a writer myself, definitely think about. I imagine a lot of people making things in this modern age of social media think about also.

What’s the Difference Between Good and Buzzy?

Good is difficult to define and there is always the subjective versus objective debate. But, for the purpose of this article, let’s assume good means people in general and professional critics enjoy your work.

I’ll define buzzy as something people are talking about. Not necessarily in a good way. If something is truly terrible but intriguing, people will talk about it.

Rebel Moon is Buzzy

Judging by both audience and professional reviews, Rebel Moon isn’t very good. I’ve seen and read several reviews and also read comments by fans of the genre and they all seem rather disenchanted with it. A few positive reviews focus on the visuals and what not. With that being said, I think it’s safe to say Rebel Moon isn’t a particularly good movie but it is a certainly very buzzy movie.

People are talking about Rebel Moon all over the internet and mostly, although not exclusively in a negative way.

Good and Buzzy

Obviously, I’d love for my novels and short stories to be very good and to have people talking about them. That’s obvious but it’s not my question today. I think my novels and stories are quite good but there is certainly no buzz about them.

Financials

We can fairly safely say Reble Moon isn’t a good movie and it has a lot of buzz around it. It’s difficult to say if the movie is a financial success or not. Netflix is a subscription service and just because Rebel Moon shows hundreds of thousands of views doesn’t mean it is profitable. What makes it profitable for Netflix is if people are convinced to stay with the service or add the service because of Rebel Moon or its seemingly inevitable cavalcade of sequels and director’s cuts.

It does seem buzzy is better than good, from a purely financial point of view. This is not a universal rule though. There is some fatigue at play. If you produce the same sub-standard product again and again, even a huge amount of buzz doesn’t translate to profits, particular if you spend a great deal in production.

Fool me once, the saying goes.

Answer the Question Already

Would I prefer my novels and stories to get a huge amount of buzz on social media or would I prefer them to be good? It’s a fair question because sales for me are quite minimal. A few people have read my work and enjoyed it, or at least that’s what they tell me. If there was huge buzz about my novels and stories, I’d be making a significantly larger amount of money.

I’m never going to write anything I don’t like because there is no guarantee it will get buzz anyway. The question isn’t whether I’d write something bad in the hopes it gets buzz but which one I prefer. Buzz or quality.

To lay it out plainly. I write two novels, doing my level best to write them well. One is really good and one isn’t. The one that is good gets no buzz and the one that is bad gets a tremendous amount of buzz. Which novel makes me happier? The one that got buzz and money but makes people think I’m a crappy writer or the good one that doesn’t make any money but people really enjoy and feel they’ve gotten value from reading?

Conclusion

For me, I’d rather my novel be good than buzzy. That decision is certainly influenced by the fact I’m in a good financial situation even without huge profits from my novels.

The bottom line is my audience. People who read my novels spend a nominal amount of their money so that’s not as big a consideration as their time. It takes time to read a novel, many hours. Me, I want people to close the book, or device, and lean back with a satisfied smile. That was worth my time. I enjoyed that. I got value for my time and money. I’m glad I read that.

Tom Liberman

The Seventh Episode of Luck Illustrates Good not Great

Luck

I’ve been watching a 2011 television series called Luck. It stars Dustin Hoffman as recently released mobster Chester “Ace” Bernstein and his subtle plots for vengeance against those who conspired against him.

The first six episodes are astonishingly good. Great. Other than some audio problems requiring closed-captioning to understand the principal characters it is, in my opinion, one of the best series I’ve ever seen. Then came the seventh episode. Something happened. Something went wrong. Why? How? Let’s get into it.

The Seventh Episode of Luck

Luck starts the seventh episode with a bizarre recap of the story leading up to current events. It’s narrated in great detail and continues on for an abnormally long time. I sat there shaking my head, they haven’t done recaps before, who is the narrator, what is going on here? What prompted this?

Then the episode started. It wasn’t exactly like watching a different show but then again, it kind of was exactly like watching a different show. The characters, the actors, the sets, all pretty much the same but not.

Early on a kid appears out of nowhere and the veterinarian helps him but there’s no explanation, what’s going on? Then there is a big poker tournament out of nowhere. A rather gratuitous sex scene. Yes, there were sex scene before, but they furthered the story. The music is really obtrusive now, it was subtle before, enhancing, not telling me how to feel.

The actors aren’t speaking with nuance anymore, they’re saying directly only what was implied before. The kid scene spirals into inexplicable behavior by all parties. The old jockey is in an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting but it’s short. All the scenes are short, abrupt, whereas before they took a leisurely pace, slowly unfolded.

We’ve got a plethora of up-close head shots, every scene has them. We didn’t have that before, did we?

It’s not terrible but it’s not what it once was. What happened?

The Investigation of Luck

So, as the episode is rolling, I’m getting pretty distressed. I look it up. What could possibly have happened? During the filming of the Luck, during the seventh episode in particular, horses were injured and had to be put down. Horses were stopped from running while an investigation took place. Eventually HBO cancelled the series although not before the season was complete and a couple of episodes from a planned season two filmed.

The Difference

It’s impossible to determine exactly what happened during the investigation to alter the flow of the show but it’s pretty clear to me, people knew it was the end. Probably more than a few people felt terrible about the deaths of the horses and no longer had their heart in the show. It is quite apparent. The editing, the writing, the music, nothing from the seventh episode of Luck is up to the standard of the first six.

Conclusion

I haven’t watched the final two episodes, maybe it hits it stride again after the shocking death of the horses. We’ll see. I’d like to know from anyone else who watched the show, did you immediately detect the change in tone of the seventh episode?

The entire thing demonstrates to me the effort required to make a show great. There are so many moving parts. Acting, directing, editing, music, costumes, sets, and more. Making a great show requires everything be exceptional. Making a good show is a lot easier. Luck shows the difference.

Tom Liberman

Justified City Primeval is just a Punchy One-Liner

Punchy one-liner

I can review Justified City Primeval with a single word, ghastly. Just ghastly. I have a number of friends who rave about Justified although I haven’t seen it. I can only assume it has nothing in common with the action mess I just witnessed.

Normally I’d move along without bothering to write a review but the episode I just saw gives me an opportunity to discuss the trend of a punchy one-liner following an action sequence.

What is a Punchy One-Liner

I can’t say for absolute certain when the trend of punchy one-liners following an action sequence began. My personally memory is Roger Moore in James Bond. Sure, Sean Connery threw them out now and again but it was James Bond with Moore as the actor who really cemented the practice.

After an action sequence the protagonist must utter a witty or cutting one-line summation of what just happened. Fans liked it. Heck, I liked it. What happens when people like something? We get more of it. A lot more of it. More of it than this fellow can stomach.

Scenes Designed for the Punchy One-Liner

It’s one thing to have a punchy one-liner at the end of an action sequence but it’s entirely another to have scenes written for the sole-purpose of delivering that punchy one-liner.

One of the most egregious examples I can think is the Battle of Helms Deep in the Two Towers. The entire battle sequence seems to be merely a setup for a line about tossing a dwarf.

It’s gotten to the point where half the action scenes in a movie don’t forward the story in any way, they exist solely for the punchy one-liner the protagonist utters at the end. The audience laughs.

Scene Bloat

I’ve written about scene over story in the past so I won’t get too in depth here. The result of the desire to get in these quips is scene bloat. We get a variety of scenes that don’t serve the plot, don’t tell us about the characters, don’t do anything at all.

It’s not always the action sequences any more. Pretty much at the end of any scene it’s mandatory for a character to say something cutting, witty, or pithy about what just happened. The result is we get more and more scenes that don’t serve the story.

It’s important to understand there are runtime restraints. Every time a scene that doesn’t serve the story is inserted, that’s one less scene which might inform the audience, engage us, make us care. Instead, we are served a fleeting laugh at best.

An Entire Episode of Scenes with Almost no Story

Justified City Primeval is largely a series of scenes manufactured to deliver such lines. The kidnappers on the highway. The gas station robbery. The courtroom scenes. The attempt at comedy from the buffoons who want to kill the judge. The judge’s murder sequence, a shocking display of utter stupidity from beginning to end.

Conclusion

I’m not against a punchy one-liner if it makes sense and comes at the end of sequence that serves the story. What I see nowadays is not that. I have a funny one-liner. Let’s write a scene, who cares if it fits the story? Maybe it’s the writers. Maybe it’s the producers demanding it. I’m not sure but I know I’m not going to watch the second episode of Justified City Primeval.

Tom Liberman

Building Tension from The Knick to The Borgias

Building Tension

I recently started watching The Knick and The Borgias and I find the different way the two shows handle building tension to be quite interesting.

Both The Knick and The Borgias have stellar casts, high production values, and came out at roughly the same time. The Borgias ran for three seasons between 2011 and 2013 while The Knick had a two-season run between 2014 and 2015. The Knick received somewhat better reviews and audience approval and I think one of the reasons is building tension.

Now, to be fair, I’ve only seen two episodes of each show at this point so my opinion is definitely open to change. Let’s get started.

What is Building Tension?

At its simplest, building tension is the concept of unresolved conflict. Opposing forces work against each other without a resolution. The longer the conflict continues without a resolution, the greater the tension created. Such tension generally raises audience interest. We wonder who or what will prevail. What will be the resolution?

Naturally, it’s entirely possible to let tension build too long without a resolution, leading the audience to give up on a show where nothing is ever resolved.

Building Tension in The Borgias

I’ll not build any tension. The Borgias really doesn’t do much in the way of building tension. At least in the first two episodes. A problem arises and it’s almost immediately resolved. There is no tension building as we race from one crisis to the next. It’s handled better than in The Ark but not by a lot.

A good example is the first episode as Cardinal Borgia tries to bribe his way to the Papacy. The previous office holder dies, Borgia states his plan. He entreats his sons to make various bribes, and in the third ballot he is elected.

Here there is at least an attempt at creating a little tension by having events unfold over several scenes. Still, the entire thing took maybe twenty minutes of screen time from beginning to end. I personally see this plot taking up an entire season, if not the first two or three episodes.

A better example is the poisoning attempt on Pope Borgia. The assassination plot is not hinted at in any way. There is no tension at all. We find out about it and it’s resolved within five minutes. You’re going to poison my father; I’ll pay you more to poison the cardinal. Ok. Cardinal poisoned.

Another example is Borgia’s affair with Guilia. She confesses in a bawdy fashion, Borgia shows her the secret tunnel, she shows him her secret tunnel. Boom, bang, wham, or words to that effect. There was no building tension at all.

Basically, a problem is revealed and then solved almost immediately. I don’t have time to reflect, to wonder, to determine sides. It’s over almost before I realized it started.

Building Tension on The Knick

Less has happened in two episodes of The Knick than in twenty minutes of the Borgias. The main tension in the first two episodes of The Knick is whether or not Dr. Edwards will be accepted at the hospital. He is a black man and that is unacceptable to chief surgeon Dr. Thackery. He gives Edwards menial and useless tasks.

In the first episode there is a medical crisis and if this show was paced like the Borgias, Edwards would step forward and save the day. In this case, it is Thackery who shows off his prodigious skill impressing Edwards who wishes to learn from the master.

In the second episode there is another opportunity for Edwards to save the day as he recommends a procedure he practiced in Paris. Thackery shoots him down and the patient dies. There is a second patient with the same problem so Thackery dispatches assistants to find the journal in which the procedure is described. That’s where things are left after the second episode. Tension, consider yourself built.

By not resolving the problem immediately I’m left wondering what will happen. Will Thackery continue his stubborn ways or will he allow Edwards to assist, perhaps even perform, the surgery? Will the patient live or die? I don’t know but I’m engaged and in doubt as to the resolution.

By taking things slow The Knick builds tension.

This is also reflected in several other moments of conflict; the electrifying of the building, financial mismanagement, the need for more cadavers, the nun’s little side business. Problems are not revealed in their totality immediately. They build.

Conclusion

This difference in building tension is consciously decided. In The Borgias someone decided that fast-paced resolutions were better. The audience wants one crisis after the next and to have it neatly wrapped up in a speedy fashion.

Meanwhile, in The Knick, the opposite approach is taken. Let’s bring the crisis on slowly, foreshadow, hint, build.

Taking things slow isn’t always the best idea and things do have to move along, but the racing speed of The Borgias is not entertaining to me while I’m totally engrossed in The Knick.

Tom Liberman

White House Plumbers a Tour de Force

White House Plumbers

Blown away. White House Plumbers is a stunning take on the events surrounding the Watergate Scandal of the Nixon administration.

Hilarious. That’s the word that comes to mind and it’s obviously a strange description of a show depicting the events here. I haven’t laughed out loud this much at a television show in I can’t remember how long.

Let’s get into why I loved this mini-series.

White House Plumber Mediocre Reviews

The show isn’t receiving rave reviews and that doesn’t particularly surprise me. It takes on a topic of political importance that has a great deal of meaning to a lot of people, even those not around at the time of its unfolding.

The satirical, darkly humorous take presented here is bound to offend people on all sides of the political aisle. Democrats will loathe the humorous take because they consider this a serious topic. Republicans will not like the portrayal of most of the parties as moronically stupid.

Acting in White House Plumbers

If there is anyone left in the world who doesn’t believe Woody Harrelson is a tremendous actor, I hope his stunning performance here disavows them of that misconception. Meanwhile, Justin Theroux stands toe-to-toe with Harrelson’s E. Howard Hunt in a jaw-dropping portrayal of G. Gordon Liddy.

I mean to say, Holy Fucking Shit! What performances. I believed. I double-believed. The two work with one another and their co-actors like perfectly ticking metronomes.

Hunt’s children were outstanding. The wild daughter, the dissolute son, the good daughter, and even the young boy. Lena Headey as his wife was my only, slightly, sour note. I thought she over-played it a tad but that’s understandable when trying to avoid being totally overshadowed by the over-the-top Liddy and Hunt.

Judy Greer as Liddy’s wife absolutely nailed it. She’s better known as a comedic actor but she is amazing here.

All the bit players, Toby Huss as James W. McCord, Sr. Domhnall Gleeson as the weaselly John Dean. The list goes on and on. Everyone playing the Cubans. I don’t want to leave anyone off but I must. All good. All believable in situations that are impossible to believe.

The Tone in White House Plumbers

A hilarious satirical look at the Watergate Scandal? It’s almost impossible to conceive of this take. If you pitched it to me, I’d have told you to go back to the drawing board. How does it work? I’m not totally sure, but it works.

Out of the box, subverting expectations, madness. I love it.

The Utter Stupidity of it All

The show doesn’t pull any punches on the idiocy of the entire plan. Hunt is a damaged man, traumatized by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and driven by delusions surrounding it. Liddy is simply an insane idealogue, his righteousness so predetermined he need not examine anything with a critical eye. He is right, was right, will be right. That drives everything else.

Together they bring down the president of the United States with their moronic behavior.

The final scene between Liddy and Hunt is a stunning display. A standoff worthy of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.

I was particularly impressed with Liddy’s rationalizing the utter stupidity of it all when he justifies his actions by spinning it to be his plan all along. To sow distrust in the American public of political institutions. This is a mad man whose behavior is particularly enlightening at this time in American history.

Conclusion

A lot of people won’t like this show, let alone love it. They’ll be offended. They’ll be upset. Count me not among them. I loved almost every second of it. The acting, the writing, the sets, the music, everything.

Well done to everyone. Well done, indeed.

Tom Liberman

Lucky Hank and Scene over Story

Lucky Hank

I just wrapped up the first season of Lucky Hank and I’m quite sad to say I didn’t much care for the show. It features Bob Odenkirk who recently wrapped up the critically acclaimed and audience beloved Better Call Saul.

In Lucky Hank, Odenkirk plays William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the head of the English department at Railton College. He is deeply traumatized by a failed relationship with his absentee father and somewhat world-weary in general.

Odenkirk Benefit of the Doubt

Sentiment for Bob Odenkirk as an actor is on a high note because of his outstanding performance in Better Call Saul. I suspect many of the good reviews about Lucky Hank are related to this rather than a honest reflection of the show itself.

Critics and audience reviews are relatively mixed with some people loving the show completely while others agree with my assessment, it’s not very good.

Why is Lucky Hank Bad?

I think the underlying issue with Lucky Hank is a reliance on entertaining the audience with individual scenes and quips from the characters. I’ve spoken about this sort of thing before in regards to The Gilded Age and Succession.

Essentially, someone thinks up a good one liner for Hank or one of his cohorts, and then designs an entire scene to setup that line. It’s often something witty or cruel with the intention of getting a laugh from the audience.

The problem is that these scenes come and go without tying into a broader storyline. The audience may or may not laugh, I didn’t, but the scenes create plot points then completely abandoned. It creates issues with the timeline as well. I don’t know from one episode to the next how much time has passed because they are desperate to get in a scene, even though it doesn’t really fit.

One example is Hank’s mysterious pains which cause him terrible agony. This is used at the doctor’s office and a couple of other places in early episodes and then never mentioned again. This leaves me wondering, hey what happened with his pains?

Another example is Lily’s restaurant scene where a couple next to them is caught in an affair and the man must move to her table. She uses this moment to tell the man everything she’s been feeling about Hank. It’s such a contrived way of doing it. It felt unreal, stupid. Another similar thing happens with the real-estate agent. Everything is forced and doesn’t feel organic to the character or the scene.

A bigger example is Hank’s traumatic meltdown at the faculty dinner party he and his wife host. This is a painful, awful, scene. By the next episode it seems to be completely forgotten. No one really mentions it again, it was as if a writer decided to give Odenkirk a big dramatic scene and then forgot about it.

Horrible People

There really isn’t anyone likeable in Lucky Hank and that’s a problem. I don’t mind a few unlikable characters but it’s difficult to find anyone here worthy of any investment of my feelings.

The bartender/adjunct professor Meg seems like a good egg until she completely betrays Hank’s daughter by sleeping with her husband. Not to mention she wanted to sleep with Hank and betray his wife as well.

Friendly professor Tony seems like a good guy at first glance but let’s take a look at his main episode, which followed Hank’s meltdown.

They are at a conference and the idea is to portray Hank as a self-absorbed jerk and Tony as a decent fellow. The reality is that Tony just witnessed Hank having an enormous crisis and doesn’t even mention it. All he’s concerned about is his own lecture. He’s not a caring friend. He’s horrible.

Bad Stereotyping

Stereotyping on this show isn’t quite as awful a problem as on The Ark but it’s particularly bad here in regards to Hank’s son-in-law Russel and the poetry professor Gracie.

It appears the show writers were concerned about being labeled as a Woke show and thus decided to make Gracie the butt of every joke. She’s the anti-woke version of a feminist. She’s awful in every regard. Meanwhile, perhaps wary of being labeled anti-woke, Russel is the hapless, moronic male character often depicted in Woke shows.

The reality is that both of these characters are everything that Woke isn’t supposed to be. We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. People are unique and have their strengths and flaws. They are real people with problems but also good qualities. Gracie and Russel are written flat, boring, and frankly offensive. Neither one comes across as remotely real or relatable. They are there for people to make fun of them.

Conclusion

I just didn’t believe any of the characters. None of them come across as fully-formed. The dialog, the scenes, the story, it’s all just jammed into place trying to get a laugh here or there but not tell a complete story.

I didn’t like it. Maybe you did.

Tom Liberman

Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones?

Indiana Jones

The latest entry in the Raider of the Lost Ark movie series; I mean the latest entry in the Indiana Jones movie series just released and I want to talk about it. Not the movie, the title of the movie. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny follows the pattern of every movie in the series since the original.

The question I’d like to examine today is if the movies suffer from focusing on Indiana Jones as opposed to the story in which he finds himself embroiled. Why is every movie except the first prefaced with the name Indiana Jones?

A Treasured Memory

Raiders of the Lost Ark is considered a classic by most reviewers. It is a valued memory for me and I suspect quite a few others of my age who were around in 1981 when it first released. I was seventeen and, in my little circle of friends, Raiders was everything. The boulder, we’d say to one another. The boulder.

Focus of the Story

While I do think there are plenty of people who enjoyed the subsequent movies, the general consensus is they never quite captured the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think the main reason for this is the sequels focused on Indiana Jones. We learned more about more about the protagonist and the story suffered.

I can say quite unequivocally that I found Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to be rather lazy. Trying too hard to repeat the action sequences and largely failing. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a nostalgic movie that focused largely on the relationship of Indiana Jones with his father and again, the main story suffered badly.

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull found a more receptive critical audience but I found it more of an attempt to brand Shia LaBeouf as a new hero to the franchise. Lots of actions but not much more. No interesting story to propel the characters, to make me care.

The new movie is receiving rather tepid reviews so far but I can’t speak to it as I have not seen it.

Why Raiders is Better than Indiana Jones

Raiders of the Lost Ark is by far the best of the series and I think the reason is rather simple. Indiana Jones is marketable. The character is interesting and sells tickets. Focus on Indiana Jones, not the story. The audience wants to learn more about him and doesn’t care as much about an interesting story.

One of the things I suggest to people who come to me for writing advice is coming up with a story is easy. There are a million plot ideas. The stories behind all the Indiana Jones movies are just fine. It’s the implementations, driven by the name recognition of the title character, that fail.

I think the people who made the sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark, like those who approach me about how to write a book, had a good idea. I’ve got a great idea for a novel; they say with eager eyes. Now what? That’s fantastic, that’s a great starting point. You can’t write the novel or the screenplay without the idea. Now, implement it. Five act play. Hero’s journey. Character arc. Voice. Theme. Inciting incident. Conflict. Have at it.

Conclusion

I somehow think if it was just The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade, The Crystal Skull, The Dial of Destiny they might have been better movies. I’m probably wrong. Marketing is marketing. Making movies that make money is more important than making good movies. It probably wouldn’t have made any difference.

Still, I feel cheated out of some better movies.

Tom Liberman

The Ark a Story of Beautiful people in Crisis

The Ark

The Ark on the SyFy channel. Wow, is it bad. Stunningly bad. Dialog? Bad. Acting? Bad. Science? Nonsensical. Sets? Boring. Music? Blah. Bad and worse. It’s terrible.

That being said, there’s no reason you shouldn’t like it. It’s very simple entertainment. Good looking people face and defeat one crisis after the next. It doesn’t demand much from the audience and a lot of people simply enjoy the scenery.

But, I’m here to do a review and that’s what I’m going to do.

Eastern Europe Production

A number of commenters point out The Ark was created principally in Serbia and many of the people associated with the show are thus from Eastern Europe rather than Hollywood or London. This is all true but it doesn’t excuse the bad acting and writing.

You cannot tell me there aren’t better actors in theater houses all over Belgrade? That you can’t find writers who understand basic science in Eastern Europe? That great writers don’t ply their trade in Serbia? It’s not an excuse.

Beautiful People

The actors are one good looking bunch but it’s clear to me they were chosen for the roles based on appearance, not acting ability. That’s a real shame because I’m certain fine actors from Serbia and the surrounding regions auditioned for the roles. I largely didn’t even learn character names.

Bad Science

I can’t even begin to go over how bad is the science on this show. I wrote a couple of blogs after each of the first two episodes, and you can look there for some of the glaring mistakes. If you spotted any one of the dozens of scientific inaccuracies, please feel free to note them down in a comment.

The point here is I find it impossible to enjoy a show when I see scientific errors a fifth-grade student wouldn’t make. It completely takes me out of immersion. I can’t like the show when one scientific blunder follows the next.

Crisis after Crisis

The biggest problem with this show is the formulaic crisis scenes. It starts with the opening scene and doesn’t stop until the finale. They all follow the same pattern. Everything is fine. A crisis emerges suddenly without warning. Crisis music plays. Commercial break. The crisis is solved with some crazy idea from one of the characters. It’s not the crisis du jour it’s crisis du commercial break.

Who solves the problem? Let’s go over it.

Maybe it’s overly tan girl whose main acting trait is opening her eyes wider to indicate crisis. It might be captain curly hair whose acting skill is saying her lines louder. Otherwise, its beefcake boy whose main acting method is to thicken his accent. Usually, it’s super-annoying girl who happened to study that exact thing back when she was in third grade because her mother had one of those thingy bobs. Maybe its stammering lad coming up with a brilliant plan.

The cause of the crisis is usually something stupid like doctor dope fiend didn’t properly read the instructions on the manual.

I will never do that!

The number of times a character absolutely refuses to do something but is convinced two seconds later to do exactly that is incalculable. It happens with almost every single conversation. I won’t! You should! Ok! That’s fifty percent of the dialog in this show.

Fighting Skills

Oh my flying spaghetti monster but this is annoying. Someone can’t fight until suddenly they can. Whine and complain boy is useless until he needs to beat up three heavily armed guards and escape. Mind you, he couldn’t beat up pouty-lipped, bi-polar girl who looks like she might weigh ninety pounds. When she hits someone, I’m afraid her boney little arms will break.

The Sets

My eyes roll every time I see some stupid antique chair on Ark 15. It’s obviously exactly the same set as Ark 1. I pity the crew that had to nail up tacky paintings and then take them back down. The Ark has far too much open space. The engine room from the outside is massive. Inside it’s tiny. No attention to detail. Bland and boring.

The Good

This show is so bad I could probably continue railing for another thousand words but I do want to take a moment to give credit where it’s due. Pavle Jerinic is the only character I believe in his role. He’s Felix, chief of security and he’s good.

The sound editing is great. Despite the fact English isn’t the first language of a lot of these characters I understand them clearly. The music doesn’t drown them out. They don’t mumble and speak with such heavy accents I can’t figure out what they’re saying. You’ll say this is damning with faint praise but I’ve seen shows with a much bigger budget and productions values do far worse. The Nevers, I’m talking to you.

The Evil Plan

The ultimate villain has a stupid plan. They’ve got 500 people between two ships which is the entirety of the human race. She doesn’t want to share an entire planet with half of them? It’s madness. Fly up, get the necessary ingredient, sing kumbaya. Done.

Conclusion

I’m really sad this show is so awful. I love science fiction and the premise here is good, as I discuss in my other reviews. With good actors and competent writers this might have been an entertaining show. As it stands, it’s just plain bad.

Tom Liberman

Cormoran Strike the Mumbling Detective

Cormoran Strike

I just finished watching Series Five of Strike which features the J. K. Rowling detective Cormoran Strike and now it’s time for a review. Mostly mediocre. I could probably stop there and be done with it but I will elaborate.

The show features Tom Burke as detective Cormoran Strike and Holliday Grainger as his entirely unlikable sidekick Robin Ellacott. Not that she’s written to be unlikable, she just is. The show is based on the novels by Rowling and a sixth was published in 2022 so one imagines we’ll have another series along shortly.

All the Mumbling

I’m not going to blame Burke for his mumbling portrayal of Cormoran Strike because I’m guessing that’s the way the director told him to play it. Apparently, someone besides me complained because in the fifth series he is actually understandable a good 75 percent of the time, a marked improvement.

It really takes away from my ability to enjoy the series when I can’t understand the lead character most of the time. I’m sure the English accent probably has something to do with it but it was mainly his unwillingness to open his mouth when speaking that caused the issues.

Convoluted Mysteries

I’ve spoken before that too often a writer makes the mystery entirely impossible to solve through a series of baffling events. This is done so that the audience doesn’t figure out the solution too easily. I think it’s a mistake to make things too convoluted. You lose the audience.

The second, third, and fourth series in particular became so confusing with so many different things going on that I largely lost the thread and my interest. The fifth series was much better and presented a far more straight-forward mystery.

Speaking of the fifth series, I thought it was largely the best of the entire show except for one glaring misstep. The serial killer Cormoran interviews during the case might as well have been named Hannibal Lector with a Fan Fiction label placed on the scenes. Not that I’ve got anything against fan fiction.

The blatant derivative nature of the character really turned me off to what was otherwise the best series of the show.

Too Much Personal Life and not Enough Mystery

Another thing I’ve complained about before in mysteries is the loss of focus on the crime and solution and too much attention to the detectives and their personal lives. Strike suffers from this throughout all five seasons.

There’s nothing wrong with getting to know the detective team outside their professional lives but the scenes so doing should further the story. In the case of Strike, the details about Cormoran and Robin didn’t do anything for the mystery. Robin’s failed marriage in particular just annoyed me, but more about annoying Robin next.

Robin is not a Likeable Character

You don’t have to be a good person to be a likeable character. See Tony Soprano. Robin is just unpleasant. She’s a snotty, holier-than-thou, know-it-all, insufferable master of disguise. Cormoran has moments of being unpleasant but overall, he’s likeable and it’s his portrayal that makes the show watchable. Robin, not so much.

I did not find her panic attacks endearing, just annoying. Annoying. I don’t mind hating a character. That’s usually the sign of an interesting character. But an annoying character is just unpleasant to watch and there is a lot of Robin.

The Other Stuff

The acting is largely good to excellent. The sets are very nice. The music is subtle and doesn’t dominate scenes as too often happens. I believed the characters and the locations.

Conclusion

Not good. Not bad. Mediocre detective work. My main issues are the confusing story, the annoying Robin, and the mumbling Cormoran.

Tom Liberman

The Deuce Lost its Story

The Deuce

I just wrapped up season three of The Deuce and I’m ready to write my review. The executive producer of The Deuce is David Simon from The Wire fame and the show aired on HBO between 2017 and 2019. It’s a raw show that tackles the emerging sex and pornography industry in New York during the 1970s and 1980s.

When it worked, it worked quite well although it’s not a show for the easily offended. When it failed, it fell terribly flat. This being the case, it’s not particularly easy to write a simple review. Is it good? Is it bad? It’s both.

The Story is the Thing

The first season of The Deuce is the best and I think this is because it committed to telling a story. Multiple stories. There is an ensemble cast including James Franco in dual roles as Vincent and Frankie Martino, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy/Eileen, and a host of others.

The story of that first season revolved around Vincent as a business owner and Candy as a prostitute. They are surrounded by a colorful cast of pimps, police officers, and prostitutes. It’s basically telling three stories through a variety of characters. That of police corruption, organized criminal presence in business ownership, and prostitution.

What makes the first season good is the intersection of these three stories with the lives of all the characters. It’s raw, very raw. I found the sexual content over the top but, considering the nature of the story, I understand why they went in that direction.

We get to know corrupt police officers and those officers fighting the good fight with integrity. We meet mobsters who care and those who do not. We learn about the lives of pimps and whores and prostitutes who choose to work without a pimp.

It all comes together nicely. The first season, if you can get past all the lurid content, is fantastic.

The Lost Story

Starting in the second season The Deuce loses track of the underlying story that brought it all together and starts to focus on the characters. There’s nothing wrong with deep character development and watching as them change over time. The drug culture, VCRs making pornography available privately in the home, organized crime, the city of New York’s attempt to clean up the region, and the deadly AIDS epidemic.

The problem is the plethora of characters means we mainly just get one vignette after the next. First, we’re with Vincent for a one-minute scene and then Eileen for another. We jump from scene to scene between the many characters rapidly and meanwhile the underlying story gets lost in the minutia. It’s just too much and the story grinds to a halt while we learn more and more about the lives of each of the characters.

There just isn’t enough time to tell all the stories. There are plenty of good moments and the acting is outstanding. The sets are amazing. The passion is evident. There’s just not a good story to hold it together anymore.

The Tragic Lives

The third season focuses even more intensely on individual characters but some of the most intriguing old characters are gone. Larry Brown and his burgeoning acting career. Darlene’s transition into the life of a nurse. Gone.

New characters arrive and their stories take up a large amount of screen time but don’t really advance anything. It’s all character studies and no story. Nothing affects anything else. When Lori kills herself there isn’t time to show how others deal with the tragedy. It’s never mentioned again by anyone. Well, that’s that, let’s move on to someone else.

Abby’s wealthy family ties? Not enough time. The newspaper stories? Nope, too much else going on. Eileen’s son?

I’m not opposed to all the unhappy endings. I don’t think everything needs to be tied up in a neat little bow to make the audience happy. There’s nothing wrong with leaving things ambiguous. I do think the story needs to end with something though, anything satisfactory, whether good or bad. Here it all just fades away.

Conclusion

The first season is absolutely outstanding. I really enjoyed it and perhaps that’s why I found myself so disappointed in the second and third season. The Deuce just lost track of telling a story and instead focused on the lives of the characters too much.

You may disagree.

Tom Liberman

Perry Mason Season Two Review

Perry Mason

I just finished watching the second season of Perry Mason and I’m ready to write my review. If you recall, I loved the first season and lavished it with high praise. Does the second season live up to the first? I’m afraid not. It’s still entertaining television, certainly.

I don’t like to harp too much on what went wrong this season because it’s still good and well-worth watching. That being said, it wasn’t of the same quality as the first season.

Wrong Focus on Personal Relationships

I found the focus on the personal lives of Mason, Della Street, Hamilton Burger, and Paul Drake took away from the investigative nature of the show. I thought they did a good job of balancing personal lives and the crime investigation in the first season but fell far short here.

Both the Street and Mason relationships didn’t add anything or further the mystery. Particularly with Della, the focus seemed to be on the salacious rather than anything to do with the crime. Much better, in my opinion, was the focus on the personal lives of side characters in season one. We learned a great deal about them and this furthered the story and explained the nature and circumstance of the crime.

My preference is for a deeper examination of the lives of the McCutcheon and Gallardo families. I particularly felt the absence of any sort of look into the widow Elizabeth McCutcheon and her children left the show incomplete. The murder of Brooks is the focus along with learning why Rafeal and Mateo committed the horrific crime. Yet, we learn only a little of their past and lives with so much screen time dedicated to Mason and Street. We should have found out more about Phipps and his wife earlier as well.

The stories of Emily Dodson and Sister Alice in the first season immersed me completely and the failure to do so in the second season is the biggest problem with this season, at least in my opinion. The impact of the crime just isn’t there because the focus is on the wrong people.

The Reason for the Murder is Unconvincing

I found the entire oil embargo, fruit swap, Japan connection to be unconvincing. It just didn’t seem like a good reason to have Brooks murdered. How did the murder get arranged? Who talked to the Gallardo brothers?

The entire thing just seemed contrived and unbelievable. I didn’t buy it and this really took me out of immersion of the show. The fact we spent so much time on the personal lives of Perry and Della, as mentioned earlier, means we really didn’t leave time to flesh this part of the story into anything believable.

The Best Parts of Perry Mason

The amazing sets. I can’t give enough praise to the set designers in this series. Fantastic work. The music also stood out as helping scenes rather than dominating them.

Conclusion

I’m not recommending giving the second season of Perry Mason a pass, it’s still quality entertainment. I hope the writers will get back to what made season one so great. Don’t focus on Mason and Street. Focus on the crime. Why the crime happened. The lives of the criminals and those around them. That’s the story.

Tom Liberman

Sanditon Season 3 Review Meh

Sanditon

Sanditon wrapped up its three years run the other night and Charlotte finally got her man. I’m fairly certain most people will be happy with the largely treacly finale but I can’t say I found it overly enamoring.

I doubt I’m the main audience for Sanditon and therefore the fact I didn’t really enjoy the sweet and happy ending will probably not come as a big surprise. That being said, my main problem with the third season of Sanditon was the lack of continuity. Let’s get into it.

What Happened

What happened? Too much happened to be honest. There were two many characters and too many stories; meaning no one really got enough screen time.

Let’s cover all the romances and pseudo-romances. Charlotte and Ralph. Charlotte and Alexander. Alexander and Lydia. Lydia and someone we never meet. Arthur and Harry. Harry and Miss Lambe. Miss Lambe and Otis. Edward and Augusta. Lady Denham and Mr. Pryce. Lady Susan and Samuel. Dr. Fuchs and Beatrice. Oh my god. Stop! Please! Cupid, leave the set! Enough!

Mary Parker almost died but then miraculously recovered. Miss Lambe’s mother appeared, disappeared, and reappeared. The town was saved from the evil money-grubbers and the children have roofs over their homes.

Continuity Issues

I spoke about this in my previous reviews of Sanditon and it reappears constantly throughout this season. People move from place to place as if they have access to the Enterprise and transporters. Charlotte is having a conversation in Sanditon one moment, at Mr. Colbourne’s estate the next, and back on the beach a moment later. It happens for all the characters, all the time.

The worst offense was Mr. Pryce and Tom Parker. At one point they cancelled all their plans. Then came five scenes where they discussed with other people the continuation of those plans. Finally, at the end, they came together by accident and settled their differences. The settling needed to come before five other scenes.

In my opinion, the problem is largely with editing the scenes. Someone stitched them together completely out of order. People jump from place to place so rapidly I feared whiplash.

Happy Endings

For those yearning a happy ending, you largely got it. Only Edward, played outstandingly by Jack Fox, was left alone. His story didn’t make a ton of sense of me anyway. If he loved Augusta, why not take up Alexander’s offer to court and marry her properly? Anyway, not a big deal.

Miss Lambe ended up with Otis, whose gambling problems certainly won’t recur. Charlotte ended up with Alexander, the white-hot heat of their passionate screen chemistry forcing me to put on a sweater as I watched. Lady Susan and Samuel ended up together which was fairly nice. And finally, the romance I actually cared about, the one that garnered my interest, intrigued me, made me believe: Dr. Fuchs and Beatrice got together! Hoopa. I’m not even kidding. That’s the one relationship in this show with which I found myself invested.

Conclusion

It’s not bad by any means. I just got bored. Not my cup of tea as they say across the pond.

Tom Liberman

The Ark Episode 2 Review

The Ark

I finally got around to watching the second episode of The Ark and I’m sorry to say many of the problems from the first episode remain.

There was one character I actually liked so at least that’s an improvement. If you want to read my review of the first episode, please do so because I’m not going to repeat my thoughts even though many of the issues are the same.

Bad Science in The Ark

The thing that annoyed me most about this episode revolved around absolutely wretched science. I think when you’re writing a science fiction television series it’s fairly important to have some passing knowledge of what you speak.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking for technical scientific explanations about every mechanism of the ship. I don’t need to know how cryogenics works. I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief when the situation warrants it.

In this case the most egregious science came during the water crisis. More about that later.

Basically, they are running out of water and the hydraulic engineer needs to fix the water reclaimers. Again, I don’t need to know too much about the process of doing so although a little technical discussion rather than just yelling, “fix it”, might be nice.

The engineer decides, without telling any other officer, to take all the coolant system water and reclaim it. The engines then stop working, no duh. Oh no, says the captain, we’ll just stop without those engines working, we’re dead in the water.

First off, engines don’t just stop working. Perhaps an alarm about rising heat and then an automated shutdown or, if not, the engines simply overheating and seizing.

The opening scene of the episode sees an explosion sending a crewmember drifting off into space. A second person launched himself and grabs the drifting person, then both of them change direction, for no apparent reason, and fall back to the surface of the ship. I use the word fall loosely.

The problem here is that in space, once you have momentum, there’s no friction to slow you down. Shutting off the engines is actually a problem but not because the ship stops but because in the fourth year of a five-year journey you’ve turned the ship around and are firing the engines to slow down. Thus, avoiding zooming past your target at an unsustainable speed.

This is not complex science. It’s not difficult to get right. Getting it right fixes these scenes and is done easily. Have the crewman who saves the other simply fire his pack jets a second time. Explain the momentum problem of the ship with a few lines of dialog.

Crisis from Nowhere

Again, crisis just appears. The first crisis is the opening scene during a space walk when debris from the broken part of The Ark threatens the crew examining the damage. Why not have some discussion about doing a space walk first? Let us get to know the crew member who is going to die before you kill him?

The second crisis is the water pipe burst. Again, it’s not hard to set all this up. When they are building the irrigation system maybe spend a few lines explaining why you don’t have shut-off valves on all the pipes. Take a few seconds showing the murderer throwing the weapon into the piping system. This is foreshadowing and lets the audience in on what is about to happen. It builds tension.

I won’t even talk about how the genius farmer boy doesn’t know about a shut-off valve. Well, I guess I just did.

Talking in front of the Crew

The annoyance I felt every time the officers aired all their grievance with one another in front of the entire crew is indescribable. They stand there discussing how to deal with the rioters in front of the tied-up rioters. It’s absurdly stupid.

Stereotypes

The Stereotype problem remains. The psychiatrist girl is painful to watch. Attractive women should mount a boycott.

Infighting

The entire crew is in a dangerous situation but rather than try and help out, they snipe at each other over ridiculous things. I can understand overworked and stressed out crew members snapping but there is no build up, it’s just someone arguing something really stupid for no reason. Then the good crew member manages to convince them to behave a second later. There’s no drama in it, just two people pretending to have a dramatic conversation.

I might add, everyone looks pretty darned refreshed for not having slept or showered in two days. Great hair!

Security

Hooray! Something I liked. The security guy investigating the murder. I actually liked his firm attitude and professionalism. In addition, his sidekick might be that dark-haired, crazy-in-her-eyes type that I find irresistible. Give her some lines.

Conclusion

Please get better, The Ark. Please, I want to like you. I love science fiction shows. The wounds here are all self-inflicted. The concept of the show is intriguing.

Tom Liberman

Perry Mason is an Excellent Show

Perry Mason

I just finished the first season of Perry Mason on HBO and largely loved it. I think it’s pretty easy to get into a rut writing negative reviews. Such articles definitely get more interest than the ones that wax poetic about a show.

Therefore, it is with great joy I write this review about the modern interpretation of the old classic, Perry Mason. The Perry Mason novels and television shows date way back to his debut in the 1933 pulp fiction novel by Erle Stanley Gardner.

After a famous radio series, a successful television series run, and lots of movies we now arrive at an HBO series. Let’s get into it!

What is Perry Mason?

The first season of the show covers a period of time before Perry Mason became a lawyer and his transition into that role. He is a private investigator working for E. B. Jonathon played by John Lithgow with his usual brilliance.

Jonathon takes up the case of a murdered baby and uses Perry Mason, played energetically by Matthew Rhys, as the lead detective to determine what actually happened.

Why is it Good?

Determining why a show is good or bad is generally pretty easy but explaining why it is so can be more challenging. I’ve written before about what makes a show good or bad and Perry Mason hits all the good marks.

The Acting

The acting is generally superb with Lithgow, Chris Chalk as Paul Drake, Shea Wigham as Pete Strickland, and Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice standing out. Not to say Rhys as Mason, Juliet Rylance as the iconic Della Street, and Andrew Howard as a disturbed and violent police officer are not exceptionally good as well. Everyone from the main players to the bit parts sells their role. I’m not going to mention all the excellent performances but if you look up the cast, you’ll not see a single actor who failed to convince me.

The Writing

The writing is equally good and allows the actors to really set their teeth into all of the roles. The district attorney, the judge, the accused criminal, all fantastic roles and all played superbly. There were a few moments where I thought Perry Mason himself was portrayed as a bit too hot-headed and irrational but I understand that was done to set up the ending when he transforms into the cool-headed and rational Perry Mason we all know from previous media.

The Sets

Incredible. From matchbooks to motor vehicles to radio microphones. I’m astonished at the craftsmanship of the set designers. The attention to detail. The clothes. Everything looks real to me. Maybe someone with a better eye than mine can find a few anachronistic things but I noticed nothing.

The Music

As is always the case, less is more with music. We don’t need the music to tell us a scene is dramatic, sad, happy, or anything else. We should know that from the scene itself. The music is there not to explain but to enhance. If I ever find the music overbearing then I know there’s a problem. Didn’t happen in Perry Mason.

The Love Stories

There are several love stories in Perry Mason but they don’t interfere with the main plot, they enhance it, they are not the focus. Often times the love interest can take over. In this case Perry’s affair with the airfield owner is gritty and real. It gives us insight into Perry himself. The affair of between Emily Dodson and George while integral to the story takes place off screen. Della and her girlfriend are there but not in your face and over-the-top Woke.

The Story

The story unfolds with each episode at a leisurely but satisfying pace. We learn more and more. Each individual episode tells its own story, introduces ideas, characters, themes. There is no rush to tell us things, nor are important facts hidden from us in order to create a twist ending. We learn, with Perry Mason, the horrible truth although in the end he cannot prove it.

The Ending

The ending isn’t completely satisfying. It doesn’t try to wrap up all the loose ends. One feels for poor, abused Sister Alice and for her replacement Emily; but it’s not all joy and happiness. The ending isn’t the end but it’s enough to leave me quite satisfied and yearning for more.

A nod to the first novel at the end was a nice touch.

Conclusion

Good crime drama done right. I eagerly await season 2.

Tom Liberman

A Poor Start for The Ark

The Ark

I’m a big fan of science fiction and fantasy and The Ark looked like it might be right up my alley. I’m sad to say the first episode was lackluster in a number of ways. What went wrong? Is it salvageable? These are good questions and I’ll take a look.

I will say that a first episode can be difficult. The actors and writers don’t always have a full understanding of the characters. The structure of the story can change as things move deeper into a show. Watch the first episode of a show you love and then compare it to what it became. Starting off slowly isn’t uncommon and I’m happy to give The Ark some time.

That being said, it wasn’t good. Let’s get on with the review.

What is The Ark?

The Ark details an interplanetary mission to colonize a new world. The best and brightest of Earth are on The Ark to find a new home for humanity. The crew is in hibernation while the ship makes its five-year journey to this new world.

The Opening Scene

The opening scene is designed specifically to set the tone for the show. There is some sort of disaster and the ship experiences catastrophic failures. The hibernation pods are turned on so the crew can deal with the problem. Unfortunately, the entire command crew of The Ark dies when their wing of the ship is destroyed.

This creates the underlying plot structure specifically mentioned by the show producer, Dean Devlin. The idea is to see how ordinary people work together once the people picked to be in charge are no longer around.

It’s an interesting idea and well-worth exploration.

The Stereotypes are Everywhere

The show stereotypes almost every single character and it’s more than a little annoying. The nerdy guy and girl are the geniuses who save the ship. The female lead is the headstrong, take-charge type. The hunky guy is full of himself. The pretty girl is a narcissist.

Some people are complaining the show is Woke, I guess because of the female lead, but in reality, it’s the opposite of Woke. The characters are all stereotypical and dull. They are excellent examples of anti-wokeness. Judge a book by its cover. Nerdy people stammer and are awkward. Pretty people are vain.

The Science is Bad

I’m certainly not a stickler for hard science in a show of this nature. What tends to bother me are scenes where doing the science right is simple and yet overlooked. What is with all the number keypads on the doors? Why is the drama wrapped up in the door not opening? Why does the combination work the third time when it didn’t the first two?

How are they going to grow crops in one inch of soil spread out on the floor? You need beds. Consult a gardener. How difficult is it to figure this out? Not to mention stomping all the soil it until it’s hard as rock.

How come the crew of this enormous spaceship is four-hundred people? There is a huge amount of space and almost no one living there. It makes no sense. What are all the open spaces? If the crew was supposed to sleep in hibernation until arrival, the ship is just an incredible waste.

Why do they need water recyclers? Again, the crew was supposed to sleep until a few weeks before arrival. They have food and water for that time-frame. No need for recyclers. There were a few other things I noticed but I’m rambling now.

Conflict with no Build Up

This was probably my biggest problem with the entire first episode. Each major obstacle occurred without any buildup whatsoever. The ship malfunction that awakened the crew is the opening scene.

Next is the water and food crisis. Why not have a few scenes where people are examining the situation, talking about the amount of food and water available. The number of crew members remaining. Discussing putting people back in stasis. There’s no setup, it’s just instantly a problem.

The nerdy guy, mentioned earlier, suddenly has a solution. Why not show him going to the cargo bay and making sure his special items are indeed stored? Have him discuss the possibility of growing food with someone. Build up to the crisis and then cover the possible solutions. The show just throws it all at us instantly.

The oxygen crisis came out of absolutely nowhere. Why not show parts of the damaged ship, show valves leaking oxygen? Show indicators as the problem slowly rises. Build some tension. Maybe one person notices it but is told not to worry.

Why not have the crew member charged with putting oxygen in helmets stop for the day at the important hallway? She’s exhausted and thinks about going on but then leaves it for tomorrow. This is foreshadowing. This is writing a plot, a structure. Building tension. When the conflict arrives out of nowhere with no warning, it’s just not as impactful as seeing it slowly coming.

Solutions with no Explanation

The oxygen problem is solved instantly because the nerdy girl, mentioned before, happened to do her dissertation on the guy who wrote the software. Why not spend some time with her beforehand where she discusses her life, her experiences. Perhaps even in a way that’s not incredibly annoying because the writers felt the need to stereotype her so badly. Then when she knows this stuff, we understand how.

Her solution isn’t really a solution at all. It’s just her pushing some buttons and everything being solved despite the leak still existing.

Conclusion

I’ve been rambling here for a while so I’ll wrap up. I did have other problems with the first episode of The Ark but I’ll leave them for now.

Stereotyped characters. No rising tension. No thought-out solutions. Rushed. That’s the word I’d use. Very rushed. Slow it all down. Let the stories unfold, build the drama. The first ten minutes of the show, the disaster, finding the command crew dead, survivors finding out what happened and adjusting to the new paradigm. That’s interesting. That’s a good first episode. Make that the first sixty minutes and you’ve got something. As it is, I’m not hopeful. Too much, too fast. Not interesting.

Tom Liberman

His Dark Materials a Descent into Maudlin

His Dark Materials

I recently completed watching the HBO series His Dark Materials and found myself with mixed emotions. The series is based on the trilogy of the same name by Philip Pullman. The three books, Northern Lights, Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass follow the heroine Lyra through a series of adventures.

Why am I mixed in my opinion of the show? The three season series went from superb to standard action fair to maudlin. When it was great, it was great. When it was not, it was not. Let’s get into the review.

A Season and a Half of Wonder

His Dark Materials starts out wonderfully with playful Lyra and her friend Roger running about with wild recklessness at Logan College where she is something of a ward, having been dropped off by her parents and abandoned.

The story unfolds leisurely but interestingly as we meet the major players. Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel and the evil Mrs. Coulter who are, of course, her parents. She becomes embroiled in the kidnapping of young children when Roger falls afoul of the villains.

What’s great about this first section of the series is it moves slowly but steadily. We are drawn into the plot and the characters. There are dramatic moments followed by frolic. Comedic relief. Action scenes. Things are mixed up nicely and the story tells itself, no one need explain what is happening and why. I found myself eager for each new episode and not disappointed when it came.

His Dark Materials becomes Action Adventure

The last couple of episodes of the second season suddenly abandoned this approach. It became standard action adventure. Everyone was running around fighting one another. One battle after the next. Lots and lots of running, shouting, and shooting.

All the pacing of the first part of the series vanished in this orgy of violence and drama. It’s almost as if someone told them to spice it up a little. It’s getting boring with all this pacing and interesting character development. Let’s shoot some things, crashes and explosions galore.

The Maudlin End

The death of Scoresby seems to signaled the end of any fun. The entire third season is nothing more than maudlin introspection, heartfelt conversations, and weeping. Lots of weeping.

At least the final season didn’t have as much running around and shooting as the end of the second. Instead, we had one teary-eyed important conversation after the next. We … will … speak … slowly … with … emphasis … on … every … word.

Particularly distressing was Mrs. Coulter’s transition from a frightening villain who brought fear into every room she entered to a weeping and wailing caricature of herself. Every conversation was of the Utmost … Importance and needed teary eyes.

Too Many Explanations

The books are complicated, I understand that. I think the screenwriters needed to remove a lot of complexity, dumb it down a bit. In the end we got tons of exposition but mostly without context. Where did Asriel’s army come from? What were his machines? The specters came from where? Who were the elephant things again? What exactly did Mary do? What was Asriel’s pit weapon thing? Why did worlds have to be closed? Why did the angel die when it killed the priest?

They tried to explain everything and give rationality to it all but it was too much. Too many rules being made up at the last second with little backstory to explain why things needed to happen. Confusing is the word I’d use. Very, very confusing.

The Real Ending

His Dark Materials is really about one thing. It’s the correct interpretation of the fall of man from the Garden of Eden. In Abrahamic religions this is considered a terrible moment. The end of eternal happiness and the beginning of the world’s miseries.

Pullman tells us Eve chose rightfully to escape a horrific cell. She was nothing more than a mindless pet, slavishly worshipping an egomaniacal warden. The escape was our salvation. All we enjoy today, all the good, the wonder, the happiness, and the freedom is a result of their willingness, the human need to escape such a pretty prison.

That’s what His Dark Materials is all about. In the final moments of the last episode, we finally get around to understanding this theme but it’s too late, too late to make it effective for the audience. We needed less time on the complications and more time on the underlying theme. Then it hits home with force.

Conclusion

The books are complex and the series spent the first two seasons in a largely compelling adaptation. Then they thought gunfights, chases, and tear-wrought scenes were what people wanted. It’s a shame they didn’t manage to finish the way they started.

Still, worth a watch.

Tom Liberman

Young Scooby-Doo Characters

Scooby-Doo

I’m following the reviews and general hate for the new Scooby-Doo animated show and it brought to my mind how interesting are the characters. I watched Scooby-Doo back in the day although I can’t say I was a huge fan. I found the show pretty formulaic and boring after a few episodes.

That being said, the characters are interesting and writer Tom, that’s me, started thinking about how I might portray the gang as youngsters, before they became Mystery Inc.

If you’re here to read yet another hate-review then best move along. I’m not going to talk about the current show as it exists, but how I might do it.

The Scooby-Doo Characters

I find the friendships between the characters quite interesting. Fred is a stereotypical dim but handsome jock. Daphne is the beautiful prom queen. Velma is the intelligent, nerdy girl. Shaggy is the stoner. Scooby is Shaggy’s loveable dog. How did such a diverse group become friends?

Early Relationships in Tom World

If this was a Tom Liberman production, I’d start off with them in their separate high school worlds. Fred and Daphne still in the same circles after a failed relationship. Both of them popular kids, consumed with sports, status, fashion.

We’d find Velma perhaps playing Dungeon and Dragons with the other nerds and in the advanced classes being a teacher’s pet to the annoyance of the other students. Shaggy perhaps once a promising young man introduced to marijuana and beginning to spiral into a haze.

How do we get them together? What propels their various arcs?

The Beginnings of Mystery Inc.

It’s obviously got to be a mystery of some sort. There are plenty to be found in the high school milieu. We don’t necessarily have to make them supernatural in appearance. It’s not necessary to keep the same structure as the earlier shows, this is a reimaging, so let’s use our imagination.

Perhaps a teacher’s gradebook was stolen and Velma and Fred are in danger of getting a bad grade. Something to get them together to solve the mystery. It’s a modern show so we are not tied to the episodic nature of the earlier show. We can have one main mystery cover the entire first season. Of course, there will be smaller crimes to solve along the way in each episode. Infidelity in the teacher’s lounge. Pay for grades scandals.

We can use Fred and Daphne’s failed relationship to make them antagonistic at the start, lots of references as to what broke them up, did he cheat? Did she cheat? Was it a misunderstanding? Plenty of material for conflict.

We might discover Shaggy was once an A student but his grades are falling off. Perhaps he has an absent parent, his mother is an alcoholic, something along those lines. The perils of genetic predisposition. Velma is under intense pressure from academically outstanding parents. Even a single B brings their scorn.

Anyway, the four discover they have some unexpected things in common. Breakfast Club style.

The Season Moves Along

Certainly, friends of the four protagonists are not going to like this change of dynamics. Not just the popular kids wondering why Fred and Daphne are now hanging out with the nerds but the other way around as well. Why is Velma, the pretty girl at the Dungeons and Dragons club, now hanging out with that jerk Fred?

There can be side-plots involving friends of the four trying to break-up them up. Sabotage. Lies. Teen angst. Lots of good material there.

How did Shaggy acquire Scooby-Doo? That could be an entire episode in itself. A lost dog wandering to school finds Shaggy stoned in the basement. Shaggy has to care for the beast, leaving his dope behind.

End of the Season

The mystery is solved. Is it back to social normal? How do the four feel about each other when they’re not solving mysteries? How do old friendships compare to the new? Daphne realizing her old friends were backstabbing her. Velma sees the jealousy toward her new popular friends and realizes Fred and Daphne aren’t the terrible people she imagined.

Throw in some sort of setup for the next year with a new mystery unveiled.

Conclusion

I’m not going to go on a rant about the failures of the new show, plenty of other are doing so. Nor am I going to tell everyone my ideas are wonderful and amazing. I find the characters interesting and worthy of exploration. It’s as shame the new show apparently is doing a poor job of it.

Tom Liberman

The Ten Thousand Dollar Blow Job

Ten Thousand Dollar Blow Job

In a show called The Deuce a former prostitute gives a ten thousand dollar blow job and it feels very dirty. I found my disgust at the situation interesting because a few episodes before she’d been performing the same service for twenty dollars.

How, you might ask, can a ten thousand dollar blow job be worse than one provided for far less money? Let me try to explain and you can tell me if you agree.

The Circumstances of the Ten Thousand Dollar Blow Job

Eileen, played superbly by Maggie Gyllenaal, has transitioned from her job as a Times Square hooker to making pornographic movies. She finds herself in Los Angeles for an awards ceremony and tries to sell her idea for a new movie based on the Little Red Riding Hood story.

The money-man is willing to help her with a check for ten thousand if she performs the aforementioned sex act on him while he writes the check. She clearly doesn’t want to do it but in a moment of self-reflections gives in. Later she stares at the check and smiles. It’s certainly the most she’s ever been paid for performing in such a way.

The Twenty Dollar Blow Job

When Eileen, or Candy as she called herself in those days, worked the streets she often gave blow jobs for twenty dollars. Men approached her or she flagged them down and that was that.

What’s the Difference?

What is the difference? That’s a good question. It was clear in my mind the ten thousand dollar blow job was worse. I knew it. Then I had to figure out why. Candy wants money. Eileen wants money. Men have the money and they want blow jobs.

Candy’s job is to give blow jobs. Eileen’s job is to make movies. Does Candy like her job? Does Eileen? We can argue perhaps she does not. It can be argued she likes one more than the other but the reality is we don’t know. Would she rather be doing something else for money?

The Difference

To me there is one important difference between Candy and Eileen. Candy’s job is to give blow jobs. Eileen’s job is to make movies. If the producer wanted a blow job, he could easily find a girl for far less than ten thousand. He used his position of having money and power to coerce Eileen. She didn’t come to him offering a blow job, she came to him with a good idea for a movie. He got his sick jollies by making her do something she didn’t want to do.

I think it’s not difficult to argue Candy doesn’t really want to give blow jobs either, that men use their money to make her do something she doesn’t want to do. The difference is she’s made the decision to give the blow job and men who see her on the streets know why she’s there.

The producer knew why Eileen was there. To make a movie. If he thought she was going to make a good movie then he should finance it.

Conclusion

It’s akin to your boss making you bark like a dog in order to get your paycheck. You’re there to do your job, not bark. Sure, you probably don’t want to do your job all that much but you signed up for it. That’s why you get paid.

The reality is the world is filled with people like the producer. They enjoy feeling superior to others. They use their money, or some other incentive, to coerce people into behaving a certain way. It’s wrong, it’s sick, but it’s reality.

Not everyone has the wherewithal to tell people like that no. Not me. Not this time, bub. It’d be nice if the world didn’t have people like the producer.

Stop coercing people.

Tom Liberman

The Problem with a Skill Challenge

Skill Challenge

I play role-playing games and one of the difficulties in running an adventure is something called a Skill Challenge. At its heart, the skill challenge creates a problem because the character being played and the player playing that character don’t have the same talents.

The person playing the heavily muscled but intellectually challenged warrior might actually be the most intelligent and articulate person in the group. Likewise, the crafty rogue might be a player who doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the ongoing game. Thus, the skill challenge conundrum.

Incompatible Players and the Skill Challenge

A skill challenge can be something as simple as breaking down a door or something as complex as convincing a truculent character to reveal vital information. In either case, the person attempting the challenge isn’t always suited to achieve the goal.

A player might not have the adroitness of language to fast talk the information out of a non-player character run by the game master.

Easy Fix, just Roll the Die

The easy path is to simply have characteristics or skills that allow to test for success rather than relying on player interaction. A powerful warrior makes a strength check to kick down the door. A crafty rogue makes a Fast Talk roll to convince the bartender to give him the key to the locked chest.

The problem with this method is that there is no role-playing, which is the nature of the game. The fun of the game is the player getting to pretend for a few hours she or he is someone else. With this method, it’s just a roll of the die.

What if they Miss?

Missing the roll is another enormous problem. If the warrior needs to open the door for the adventure to progress and fails, where does that leave the game? It can be much more complex than a simple roll to open a door, it can be about finding a series of clues. If the players don’t have the luck to get the information, then the game master must somehow get it to them in another way. This can come across as railroading the adventure.

If the game master is just going to give us what we need to succeed, why bother even trying?

Best Solution to the Skill Challenge Problem

I’ve been playing and running role-playing games for over forty years now and I’m sad to admit there is no perfect solution to this problem. If the character with the best chance to succeed isn’t great at role-playing or the dice just don’t cooperate, it’s a problem.

I think the best solution is to give the player the opportunity to do some role-playing if they want but never bother with the dice. Just give them the answer no matter what.

Player: I try to break the door down with a running shoulder bash.

GM: You smash into the door and hear a crack as a panel breaks but it remains closed.

I’ve seen far too many adventures derail simply because of a bad roll of the die or a poor decision by the players in a crucial moment. That’s no fun for anyone, well, the sadistic game master might enjoy it but that’s another matter altogether.

Conclusion

Let the players succeed, that’s the fun of the game.

Tom Liberman