True Detective Season Two a Horrific Tragedy

True Detective Season Two

I finally managed to choke down the last episode of True Detective Season Two and I’m glad. I’m glad it’s finally over. Have you ever repeatedly hit yourself in the face with a hammer? What a slog. Season One is some of the finest television I’ve ever seen. Season Four has moments but was ultimately a letdown, perhaps as I watched it directly after True Detective Season One that is to be expected.

Season Two. What to say? I’ll give it a firm do not recommend. It has a fine cast including Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, and Vince Vaugn but they just can’t overcome the morose writing and directing.

What is True Detective Season Two About?

Darned good question. I’ve seen it and I’m pretty much in the dark. A financier guy who has a bunch of mob money meant to be invested in the high-speed rail project in California gets killed. From there, you’ll need a flow chart.

There are some blue diamonds from a robbery years ago with corrupt cops, vengeful orphans, Russian mobsters, Mexican Mobsters, Arabic Mobsters, corrupt politicians, a new age touchy feely dad, a homosexual war hero with a girlfriend, a corrupt cop, other corrupt cops, corrupt land evaluators, a singer in a nightclub who is a Venezuelan human trafficker, a psychiatrist is also a human trafficker but the bad kind, not the nice kind, sex workers, a black guy who is in charge but I don’t have any idea who he is, a white guy who is friends with the homosexual guy but isn’t. Hell, I have no idea. I lost track of it somewhere around episode three and never got it back.

Relief. Any Relief. Please.

About two thousand years ago some playwrights came up with the idea of comic relief. Shakespeare knew about it. It’s generally considered useful. The people who wrote this mess figured, nah, over-rated. What they figure we want to see are scenes where two people talk to each other in gravelly voices, enunciating each word slowly with the pretentious vocabulary of a dandy Harvard English Professor.

To spice things up between these interminable conversations they throw in an implausible shootout. I use the word implausible generously.

The show is absolutely relentless in its humorless, overly dramatic tone. It never stops. It’s like the Terminator. It will not stop until you are bored and looking at funny cat videos on TikTok, and even then, it will keep going.

Please, you’ll beg, just one joke. A funny line. A prat. I mishap. Anything. Please. For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I just want to smile once, I don’t even need to laugh, something, anything. A dad joke. A knock-knock joke. Denied! Or, in the language of the show; A predilection for humorous anecdotes is not my natural inclination.

Acting

I can’t blame the actors, it’s clearly the directing. I’ve read the producer of True Detective Season One was given total control of Season Two. Absolute power doesn’t end well. Poor Vince Vaugn has to deliver those awful lines in one slowly spoken conversation after the next. He’s been labeled as miscast but I don’t think it’s his fault. He does the best he can with what he’s got.

Colin Farrell’s son is clearly cast for a single purpose and they think it’s subverting expectations when it turns out to be false in the end. I saw that one coming from episode one and anyone who didn’t just wasn’t watching closely.

Stylish

The show is stylish to a fault. Every camera shot is perfectly diagrammed. Every background meticulously crafted. We get wide-angle shots, close-ups, deserts, cityscapes, redwoods. It’s all beautiful and gritty but it doesn’t seem real. It seems like a student film made by someone who worshipped Alfred Hitchcock but skipped all the other classes.

The Music

Overbearing. Even if a scene doesn’t seem tense, the music tells us it will be soon. The music doesn’t enhance here, it leads the mood. You know exactly what is going to happen when the music starts playing in almost every scene.

Conclusion

I could go on. I won’t. Avoid this. A confusing, overbearing, mess.

Tom Liberman

Mr. Bates vs the Post Office Review

Mr. Bates

This is a difficult one for me to review objectively because the subject matter triggers me greatly. It tells the story of Alan Bates and hundreds of British subpostmasters fighting a power with limitless resources, the government. The entire story in Mr. Bates is everything Libertarians worry about in a government agency.

Basically, the Post Office installed faulty software in all their branches. The faults resulted in many subpostmasters showing accounting shortfalls. The government, along with the software developer, hid the faults, blamed the subpostmasters and sent them to jail, took their money, and largely ruined their lives.

Eventually one subpostmaster, the titular Mr. Bates, managed to raise enough ruckus to bring the attention to the public. It only took twenty-five years. Yep, this whole mess started in 1999 and isn’t fully resolved to this day.

Sadly, my job today isn’t to lambaste the British Post Office and government, it’s to review a television series, and that is what I will do.

Lots of Characters

Mr. Bates starts at the beginning of the disaster when Alan Bates loses his post office because of accounting shortfalls for which he refuses to accept responsibility. He asks for audits, software checks, and what not but is denied.

We then start to meet some of the other subpostmasters encountering the same difficulties. This leads to the biggest problem with the series, there are a lot of characters. It’s not really anyone’s fault and I think they did an admirable job of consolidating people and keeping the total down to a reasonable number. That being said, there are a lot of stories going on at the same time and the complexity of weaving them together is no easy task.

Acting

I found the acting in Mr. Bates to be largely top-notch with Toby Jones in the lead role particularly strong. He shows his determination to see the truth prevail but also his fatigue over the course of the decades long fight. His wife, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh is also quite strong in her role.

Ian Hart as Bob Rutherford is a particular standout although, as I mentioned, the acting is excellent throughout.

Cinematography, Music, and the Rest

All of the supporting features of the show were well done and believable. I was particularly impressed with the music which didn’t try to overwhelm us with emotions but simply enhanced the sometimes-traumatic story. All good work in my opinion.

The Story is the Thing

Mr. Bates is not a big budget, high-production, action movie. The horribly miscarriage of justice that all those subpostmasters suffered is the main star. It’s such a vile story, such a little guy against the government story, that you don’t really need anything else. I commend them for keeping it fairly simple because it could have gotten overly complex and tried too hard to manipulate the viewers emotional. It just told the story and told it properly.

Aftermath

Since the broadcast of Mr. Bates vs the Post Office, public awareness of the situation rose dramatically and reignited the legal proceedings, which as mentioned, continue on today. In that regard I find it impossible not to consider the show to be a spectacular success regardless of anything else.

Conclusion

I found myself immersed and oft-times riveted to the drama of the story. I was never bored although I suspect an audience looking for high-octane drama might find it slow-moving and somewhat dull.

A fantastic series I think well worth watching and not only because I’m a Libertarian.

Tom Liberman

Randall Emmett Taxpayer Funded Movie Industry

Randall Emmett and the Taxpayer Funded Movie Industry

I just read a fascinating story from the Los Angeles Times about how states are conned in the Taxpayer funded movie industry. Taxpayer funded movie industry, you rightly ask? I’m afraid so. How is that possible, you ask? Because we live in a free money, crony-capitalism country.

Basically, fly-by-night movie companies come to your state and film low-budget movies with aging name stars and get almost the entire thing paid for with tax dollars. From what I can tell, it’s largely a Ponzi scheme with the next state in line paying the overdue bills from the previous production. Let’s get into it.

Randall Emmett is Running the Show

Who is Randall Emmett? A movie producer who was accused of various sexual transgressions on his movie sets and in his personal life. This did not stop him from producing movies. He just started up a new production company making low-budget movies.

How is this a Taxpayer Funded Movie Industry?

The scheme is relatively simple. Many states are eager to have a movie made in their confines. They use Taxpayer money to “reimburse” film-makers who shoot in their states. The film-maker usually makes various promises about how long the shoot will take, where, and how many jobs it will create. The usual business mantra for fleecing states of Taxpayer money.

In any case, they film the movie on a shoe-string budget paying a high-profile, but usually late in his career actor, seven figure salaries for a day or two of shooting. They then lollygag on payments to the rest of people involved, including the law enforcement teams assigned to the set.

Then it’s off to a new state, with new promises, a few million dollars to pay off the old debts and a new actor. Rinse repeat. The movies themselves are largely trash although they probably generate enough money to make the entire enterprise profitable as long as there is another gullible governor lined up to dish out your money.

Scummy?

You bet. This is the world we live in. It’s easier to make a profit with Taxpayer funds and a bad movie than it is to produce a quality product.

The obvious problem here is that states are willing to dispense money to businesses on the promise of new movies, new factories, new jobs, etc. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The state and the corporations need to be separate for the health of both.

There should be no tax-breaks, no reimbursements, and no incentives of any kind to conduct business in a particular state or municipality. A business should only survive and thrive on the merits of its product or service.

Businesses and politicians are far too chummy, and it is not working for We the People. It’s not.

Tom Liberman

True Detective Season One versus Night Country

True Detective

I just finished watching True Detective: Night Country and I earlier watched True Detective Season One. I think they often have a similar structure and yet where one succeeds almost universally the other largely fails.

The reason I want to go into a deep examination is the superficial reasons for the reception of the two shows, basically the gender of the two leads. This has nothing to do with why one is largely great while the other is more pedestrian.

Or, to speak more plainly, True Detective isn’t better than Night Country simply because two men are the leads in the first and two women in the later. Let’s get to it.

Haunted Leads in True Detective

One of the most striking similarities in the structure of the two seasons is the haunted nature of the leads. Cohle and Danvers, played by Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster, both lost children earlier in their lives and are traumatized by this loss.

True Detective shows us this when Cohle arrives for dinner at Marty’s house staggering drunk. Over the course of the dinner Marty’s wife begins to ask Cohle some personal questions in which he reveals the death of his daughter. Marty’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, responds with kindness and understanding. Cohle begins to shed some of his trauma at this dinner.

Meanwhile, we are sort of vaguely told Danvers lost a son through some flashbacks of her playing with the boy and a stuffed polar bear missing an eye.

I felt for Cohle, genuinely. The scene where he arrived drunk was inexplicable until we understood, we felt his existential dread at meeting a happy family. I connected with Cohle on a level I never did with Danvers. Danvers was just angry but I never really understood her pain, it wasn’t demonstrated to me.

The Flawed Hero Trying to do Good

Marty, played by Woody Harrelson, is an extremely flawed man as is Navarro, played by Kali Reis. Marty has a weakness for crazy women while Navarro has anger management problems. The difference is Marty is completely self-aware of his flaws. He knows he messes up and wants to be better, he just can’t get there. Navarro seems to have none of this self-awareness. She is angry and proud of it.

A vitally important scene occurs when Marty and Kohle visit a house of ill-repute and Marty spots an underage girl working there. He tries to save her. Later he protects his daughter in his own, inimitable way. We see that fundamentally; Marty wants to be a good person. He is trying.

We never get that from Navarro. She seems perfectly content in her self-destructive life. Her love for her sister is substituted for Marty’s attempts to be a good person. It just didn’t resonate with me.

Despite his serious and obvious flaws, I like Marty. I’m rooting for him. I can’t say the same for Navarro. I don’t like her much and I don’t really care what happens to her.

The Criminal Investigation

Marty and Cohle investigate the gruesome murder of a young, female prostitute. Danvers and Navarro investigate the mysterious death of a group of scientists.

In True Detective we see the investigation. We see Marty and Cohle working the scenes, interviewing witnesses, detecting. Big chunks of the show are dedicated to watching the two professional work their magic. We also see their partnership in which their strengths are combined to make them greater than the sum of their parts. They are good detectives and respect each other immensely, that’s shown through a series of scenes in which they are being interviewed by other detectives about another crime years later.

Danvers and Nararro don’t do a lot of investigating. Most of the useful information about the case comes from Prior, Danver’s young officer, and others associated with the two. They don’t like or respect each other. They are filled with rage and bitterness. There is nothing to like about their relationship.

I believed Marty and Cohle as detectives but I didn’t have that feeling about Danvers and Navarro. I imagined a long history of law enforcement work with Marty and Cohle and believed it absolutely. For the life of me I can’t figure out how Danvers and Navarro advanced in their professions. They just are not believable.

The Supernatural Angle

Both shows have a supernatural feeling to them. There is Carcosa and the Night Country. In True Detective the supernatural theme is lurking in the background but the nature of the crime is clearly human. The opposite is true in Night Country. The supernatural angle is played up from the very first scene when a herd of Caribou stampede off a cliff for no apparent reason.

The supernatural element came along organically and sparsely in True Detective and neither of the leads really paid it much attention to it other than Cohle’s philosophical rambling. It played a front and center role in Night Country. A huge number of scenes showed people having supernatural experiences with the dead.

I felt Night Country just wasted a good chunk of time showing us scenes of the supernatural rather than storytelling, detecting. Every time something supernatural happened, I’d roll my eyes and lose interest. A lot of it seemed to be played for the shock value rather than furthering the story.

A Moment for What the Two Shows didn’t Have in Common

Humor. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed out loud at the antics of Cohle and Marty. Their interactions, their dialog, was often hilarious. Night Country? I don’t recall laughing once. It was grim and unrelenting.

Likeable characters. I liked Marty. I liked Cohle, I liked many of the bit players. I can’t think of a single character in Night Country I truly liked. Young Prior probably comes closest.

Conclusion

True Detective Season One worked on almost every level and I consider it some of the finest entertainment available. True Detective: Night Country largely failed. It’s not a terrible show. The acting, cinematography, sets, and music are terrific. It just failed to make me care, to tell a cohesive narrative, to immerse me.

Tom Liberman

Monsieur Spade and the Lost Opportunity

Monsieur Spade

I recently finished watching Monsieur Spade on AMC and I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy it all that much. It’s a real lost opportunity because I absolutely love the premise of the show.

As a young man I read Dashiell Hammit and the Maltese Falcon is a happy memory indeed. I’ve enjoyed watching many a movie with a noir theme and who doesn’t love the hardboiled detective Sam Spade and his many imitators?

What went wrong with Monsieur Spade? Let’s discuss.

Premise

The premise is c’est magnifique. Sam Spade is retired and now living in the small town of Bozouls in the south of France. We imagine his peaceful existence won’t stay that way for very long and we are right. He came to the region years ago to deliver the daughter of a client to her reported father. While trying to do so he met and married a wealthy French woman, Gabrielle, who has since died and left Monsieur Spade her vineyards.

The father of the girl, who is now a teenager, is a miscreant of the worst sort and involves Sam and others in the town in an all but impossible to follow plot involving a boy-genius and so many other parties it boggles the old gray matter of your narrator.

Noir Dialog and nothing but Noir Dialog

We certainly expect Monsieur Spade to deliver laconic lines and always with a cool demeanor. But do we expect every single line of dialog to be a battle of noir? I don’t. It’s not only Sam who talks like this but the rest of the cast as well. It’s a figurative battle of pithy utterances, one after the other, batted back and forth like a ball at a Wimbledon tennis match. Boom, bang, smash, crush.

Sam is never perturbed; he always knows exactly what to say and he’s not alone. The entire cast delivers nothing but noir and more noir.

“It’s raining, Sam.”

“Here I thought it was a poodle with a full bladder on the balcony.”

“Poodles are German, not French.”

“How can they tell?”

It never stops. Just one pithy comment after the next and it gets annoying all too quickly. It was great for about half an episode but it loses its charm quickly. We need fully developed characters who behave like real people.

Nonsensical Plot

Paraphrasing a laconic Spartan after a long speech entreating their aid in battle; “We no longer remember the first half of your plot, and thus can make nothing of the remainder.” There is a lot to process. I’m not going to get into it all but give a few examples.

The supposed monk who seemed like he was going to be an important character. He shows up, kills half-a-dozen nuns, one of whom was the most interesting character in the series, and then vanishes until the finale, supposedly taken off by French gendarmes to Paris. When did he get back? Who is he? Where did he come from? None of it is answered.

There are dozens of moments and characters like this. Characters make no sense and act irrationally at best. The entire side plot with the singer and her drunken husband didn’t further the plot in any way and his death seemed so unnecessary. Likewise, the death of the young English spy came out of nowhere and just baffled me.

The young girl suddenly knows details about her life she previously did not but no explanation as to how she learned them. I could go on but I shall cease in the name of brevity.

Sam Spade Torturing a Guy

I honestly don’t like a protagonist who tortures someone, particularly when the character already knows all the information he needs. It’s not a good look. Why the guy was there to kill Monsieur Spade in the first place made no sense.

The Ending

I can’t even really describe the baffling ending to the show. A character shows up from nowhere, never seen before, who knows everything, and solves the problem, I guess, sort of, I’m not really sure? Wow, that was satisfying. I won’t go into detail. It was terrible.

Conclusion

Give us a season two! Let the actors act like people instead of noir caricatures. Give me a simpler plot and let Monsieur Spade solve it, not some random third-party interloper. What a terrible disappointment this show turned out to be.

Tom Liberman

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