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

Chris Pratt as Mario Incites Rage

Chris Pratt as Mario

In case you’ve been living under a rock or aren’t a complete nerd like me, I’ll let you know the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Movie is causing quite a controversy. Casting in movies creating drama is something I’ve spoken about in the past.

Daniel Craig as James Bond, Tom Cruise as Lestat, a plethora of culturally inappropriate casting decisions over the years, and now Chris Pratt as Mario. In this case the drama is more akin to the Cruise/Lestat controversy in that Pratt as Mario doesn’t seem to be a good fit. Let’s talk about it.

Charles Martinet

When we discuss whether a role is cast properly it’s often important to take into account how beloved is the character in question. When it comes to nerd love, Mario is near the top of the list. Many people, including myself, have fond memories of playing various Mario games over the years and the iconic voice actor Charles Martinet.

Martinet voiced Mario in the debut of the series way back in 1992 and his portrayal is, I say this not lightly, beloved. Martinet chose a light-hearted, fun-loving, and friendly interpretation for Mario. He deliberately didn’t take on a heavy Italian accent for the part. It wasn’t until the hugely successful 1996 Super Mario 64 hit the stores that he became famed for the role but he remained so for the rest of his life.

Pratt as Mario

I think it’s safe to say people were skeptical of Pratt’s ability to perform as Mario from the beginning; but it was the first trailer for the movie that really set people off. Pratt chose a more stereo-typical Italian accent and inflection and people were not happy.

It’s not only that Pratt went a different direction than Martinet but also he still largely sounds like Chris Pratt as Mario, not Mario. That’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with taking a character in a new direction, just that it’s clear Pratt does not sound like the Mario people are used to hearing.

There are also some dubs of the trailer in other languages where the voice actors sound not only more like the original portrayed by Martinet but also just a bit more natural and fun-loving. Pratt seems a little stilted compared to the other characters.

Video Game Fanatics

People love Mario. They love the voice of Mario. We are talking about people’s beloved childhood memories. Pratt as Mario finds himself in a difficult to succeed position. I don’t envy him and it took some courage to take the job.

That being said, video game fanatics are not going to lean back and pretend indifference here. For all the criticism on the two trailers, there are many who are willing to give Pratt a chance and wait for the release.

Bad Casting

Is Pratt as Mario simply bad casting? That’s a question not so easily answered. I do think Pratt is a stretch in the role but he is an A-list Hollywood actor and that brings in ticket sales. Was Tom Cruise a bad choice for Lestat? Many fans of the books will rail against him to their dying day but he brought in ticket sales and that’s an important consideration in casting. Will people who have no interest in Mario and the games come to the movie simply because Pratt is one of the voice actors? I think the answer to that is clearly yes.

Conclusion

Is Pratt as Mario a terrible decision? It kind of depends on the movie. If the movie is good, and the trailers do look deliciously fun and in the spirit of the games, then all will be well. If the movie is terrible, Pratt will not unreasonably be offered up as the scapegoat.

I think the criticisms are reasonable although perhaps overly impassioned. I will say this, I hope Pratt is great in the role. I hope he proves the doubters wrong. Not because I particularly like Pratt but because I like good entertainment. If Pratt is good, if the movie is good, then I get great entertainment.

Where do you stand?

Chris Pratt as Mario. Good or bad?

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Tom Liberman

Magpie Murders is Masterful Entertainment

Magpie Murders

I spend much time writing bad reviews and not enough writing positive blogs about the shows I watch. Today is a joy because I get to discuss the magnificent Magpie Murders. Don’t call it The Magpie Murders. It’s important, so get it right.

Magpie Murders is a television mystery series on PBS Masterpiece and based on a novel of the same name by Anthony Horowitz. The mysteries are finding out who murdered the man writing the Magpie Murders murder mystery and how the book itself ends. A mystery of a mystery. Let’s get on with the review.

A Complex Story

The story of Magpie Murders is relatively simple but incredibly complex from a writing perspective. There are really two mysteries going on at the same time with two completely different sets of characters. First is the death of murder mystery writer Alan Conway and second is the missing last chapter of his latest book, Magpie Murders.

The two mysteries run side by side with fictional Atticus Pund attempting to solve the fictional case while very real literary editor Susan Ryeland tries to solve the former. I can only begin to express my admiration for this dual storytelling and the aplomb with which it is achieved. Telling one story is difficult enough but switching back and forth between two mysteries, one a fictional account from the victim of the second, is a recipe for complete confusion and disaster.

It all comes together thanks to the wonderful acting, directing, writing, set-design, camera work, and everything else involved in a production of this nature.

Who Dunnit?

The essence of a mystery is trying to figure out who committed the crime, or crimes in this case. One of the most important things in a mystery, from my perspective, is making sure the author doesn’t cheat us. The clues must be available and, although we don’t usually solve it, when revealed we should nod our heads and say, yep, that makes sense.

In both cases the solution fits the crime and clues were available to us. There is a little montage during great reveals showing us various flashbacks, which is a nice touch considering the two different stories did tend to blend together in my mind. Normally I don’t need quite as much prompting from a show but I think this story merited the review.

There’s even some anagram wordplay, which I find to be badly overused these days, but it’s important to the story and works in this case.

The Acting

Excellent acting all the way around. From the main character to the bit players. I believed everyone in the story from beginning to end and special mention to Tim McMullin as Atticus Pund who traverses both realities, the fictional mystery and the real-world crime, with amazing compassion and serenity.

Many of the actors played dual roles, being one character in the scenes depicting events from the novel and a second in the world of Susan Ryeland and Alan Conway. Despite being the same actor they all manage to differentiate their characters easily and understandably to the audience. Outstanding work.

The Sets

The sets, as is often the case in English drama, are fantastic. I’m going to make one comparison here because the second season of Miss Scarlet runs right before Magpie Murders on PBS. If you read my review of Miss Scarlet, you’ll know my thoughts on that subject so I’m not going too in depth.

Signage. The signs on the establishments in the world of Magpie Murders look real, believable, you barely even notice them. From modern signs in the world of Susan Ryeland to mid twentieth century signs in the fictional realm. The signs in Miss Scarlet look slap-dash and out of place. It’s little things like this that make a difference. The people in charge of Magpie Murders care and it shows.

Cinematography

We see lavish, modern mansion, squalid groundskeeper’s shacks, wide vistas, modern London, and more. The camera moves from disparate scenes with ease and this is no easy task. Shooting indoors and outdoors, so many sets, it’s not easy to make all that work but it does and it does so beautifully.

Conclusion

If you like a good mystery, I can’t recommend Magpie Murders enough. There’s hardly a wrong note in the entire six episodes. Bravo.

Tom Liberman

Miss Scarlet almost Proper Wokeness

Wokeness

I’m not a big fan of Miss Scarlet and the Duke but the second episode of the new season almost got it right. It was tantalizingly close to Wokeness done properly but failed in the end. Such a shame.

The show is clearly a vehicle to display a strong woman as the lead character. Miss Eliza Scarlet, played by Kate Phillips, is the titular character and the self-proclaimed only female private detective in London.

Just because a show wants to display a bit of Wokeness doesn’t mean it’s going to be bad. I’ve written several times I consider myself a member of the Wokeness clan. Several of my novels involve female leads. There’s nothing wrong with wanting equality in society but I’m also a fan of good entertainment and Miss Scarlet doesn’t quite make it there.

The Wokeness Plot was Good

This episode of Miss Scarlet involved Eliza investigating the theft of a Charles Darwin sketch from a museum. The museum in question being owned and operated by a woman. Things get strange when it turns out someone placed an advertisement in the local paper offering an enormous reward for the sketch before it was even stolen and requesting applications be put to Miss Scarlet.

The Estranged Husband

Miss Scarlet investigates the estranged husband of the museum owner who is played as an over-the-top jerk. This is one of the big problems with portraying Wokeness improperly. The unwoke, for lack of a better term, are overly one-dimensional, caricatures. They are so dumb, so angry, so ridiculous that it becomes impossible to take them seriously.

Instead of making the man so simple; why not give him some nuance? He is jealous of both his mother and his wife’s successes. That’s an interesting idea. His mother was apparently an Egyptologist who didn’t get credit for her work. The problem is we don’t find out about all this until the very end of the episode.

Eliza following the moth into the hidden chamber was a ludicrous way for the audience to learn about this critical information. Why can’t mom simply mention her past in conversation during the investigation? Why not have the husband gently chide his mother, “Nobody wants to hear about that old news” or something like that. That’s an organic method of displaying the subtle way in which women and minorities are treated unfairly, to genuinely show why Wokeness is important.

Waste of Time Red Herrings

A huge amount of time was spent tracking down art thieves and forgers. Several scenes involved Miss Scarlet, standing out like a sore-thumb, under-cover and following a master forger only to be saved at the last moment by the Duke. Why? It just wasted time. The real Red Herring was the husband stealing the sketch because of feelings of inadequacy compared to his wife and mother. That’s the story! That’s the Wokeness we needed.

More Time Wasted

The young detective, son of the commissioner, took up a huge amount of time and energy. When you’ve got forty-five minutes to tell a story, you absolutely can’t waste time like this. Every scene is important. The story was the husband’s jealousy. That’s the Wokeness angle and it’s a good one. We just didn’t explore it properly. We didn’t get nuance, we didn’t get interesting characters, we didn’t learn anything useful about why he felt this way.

The Ending

I found the conclusion wholly disappointing. The mother’s plan didn’t really make a lot of sense but with a few tweaks it might have done so. The entire anagram business seemed contrived and how did the sketch get into the bust?

That being said, the basic concept of mom wanting publicity for her daughter-in-law’s museum and Miss Scarlet is a great idea. A woman who went out and challenged the world but didn’t get the credit she deserves. Now she’s trying to help other women. It’s fantastic, it’s real, it’s visceral Wokeness.

Conclusion

This episode had so much potential but in the end, it largely failed, for me at least. That’s a shame because it feeds the anti-wokeness mob. Why not focus on the husband’s jealousy? Have him come to some realization at the end about his mother, his wife. That’s an arc, that’s a story, that’s good entertainment.

So close, yet so far.

Tom Liberman

The Alienist Crafts a Stupid Investigation

The Alienist

I can’t say that I particular enjoyed the first season of The Alienist but decided to give the second season a look. The second episode of the second season really turned me off and I’d like to spend some time talking about one thing I think went wrong.

The Alienist sort of tells story Laszlo Kreizler, played with a gravelly monotone by Daniel Bruhl. The titular character studies the human psyche and uses that to solve crimes with the help of Sara Howard, played by the overly dire Dakota Fanning, and the equally dire John Schuyler Moore, portrayed by Luke Evans.

I have a lot to criticize in the show, not my first time, but I’m going to focus on the investigation and why it left me so dismayed that I’ll likely abandon the show.

The Crime

Babies are being killed. That’s certainly an emotional reason for me to want to catch the vile killers. A poor woman’s child was killed and the mother was blamed and executed in the first episode. A wealthy ambassador’s child was kidnapped in the second episode and that’s where Sara, John, and Laszlo spring into action.

I don’t list the characters randomly, I start with Sara because she is now, clearly, the lead character in The Alienist with Laszlo taking on a supporting, if that, role.

The Investigation

A doll is found at the home of the ambassador and Sara goes to a store that sells dolls where the body of the first child was found. She gets the address of a purchaser from the shopkeeper and begins the investigation.

She decides to go into a bad part of the town to look at the building late at night. It turns out to be a burned-out shell. While there with John, the two are spotted by a band of ruffians and driven into an alley but the thugs spot a drunken, passed out man nearby and decide to abandon the pursuit.

Sara and John follow the ruffians back to a tavern. Sara apparently knows the owner and he tells her the ruffians work for a fellow named Goo Goo who owns the building in question.

The next day a pair of torsos are discovered and it is stated the gruesome remains are unidentifiable with even tattoos cut off.

John, at the newspaper office, is told by a woman that two of Goo Goo’s men were found dead. John quickly travels to the crime scene still cordoned off by the police. John spots an old acquaintance sitting on a box and pays the man to be put in touch with Goo Goo.

Goo Goo then learns about John. He confronts the reporter, putting a knife to his throat. John is saved by Sara who appears from nowhere at the last minute and threatens to shoot off Goo Goo’s penis. Goo Goo wanders off with his friends.

Why It Doesn’t Make Sense

Where to start? What a mess. If the above narrative makes any sense to you, please use the comments to explain it to me.

Why investigate the building at night? How lucky is it the very villains involved in the kidnapping happen to walk by? What a lovely coincidence the tavern keeper is a friend of Sara and knows all the useful information.

The bodies were unidentifiable one moment and then suddenly known when it becomes useful. Another amazing coincidence is the dockworker who knows Goo Goo and is sitting right there. Goo Goo seeks out and attacks John.

It’s all contrived to lead us to various scenes and left me incredibly cold and disinterested.

How The Alienist Investigation Might Go

As some of you may know, I think of myself as somewhat of a writer. Twelve novels and all. I understand that shortcuts have to happen. It can’t all follow a logical narrative in order to get from Point A to Point Z. Therefore, I offer up for your perusal, how I might write the investigation I so heavily criticize.

Sara and John learn of the building. They immediately head over to city hall and find the records. They discover it burned down and is a fake address used to purchase the dolls. They find out the owner is a man named Goo Goo Knox. John talk to some fellow reporters and learns where Goo Goo makes his office, who are his associates, what are his suspected crimes.

Sara and John arrange a meeting with Goo Goo under false pretenses associated with some of his criminal activities. Perhaps they are fellow criminals or John is corrupt and learned something about a rival gang and wants a payout for the information.

Conclusion

The way it’s done in the show allows for some dramatic confrontations and I suspect that’s the point. We have the narrow escape in the alley, the gory bodies, the knife to the throat scene. If we do it the way I want, those scenes don’t happen. We don’t meet the tavern owner and his daughter who I think will show up again.

I understand the thinking, I just don’t agree with it. I do think a lot of people like the sensational, gruesome, violent scenes. Not to say I would write it boring and clinical; I’d find ways to create drama within a logical investigation. I am curious as to your opinion on the subject.

Do you prefer a logical investigation or one that has more sensational elements but doesn't make logical sense?

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Tom Liberman

Is The Undoing Crap or Gold?

The Undoing

I recently watched The Undoing on HBO and came away somewhat ambivalent. There are a number of things to like about The Undoing but, in the end, it left me slightly disappointed. I’ve written before about how an ending must be satisfying for any sort of entertainment to succeed completely. In this case it did not.

The Undoing tells the story of the Fraser family and the Alves family. Jonathan Fraser is the bridge between the two. He is a doctor treating the Alves son and Jonathan also has an affair with Mrs. Alves. It is her gruesome murder and the arrest of Fraser that drives the plot.

What I liked

Let’s start with the elements of The Undoing I enjoyed. The writers did an absolutely terrific job of keeping me guessing. Right up until the very end I wasn’t entirely positive who committed the crime. My early guess was that Grace Fraser, played ably by Nicole Kidman, bludgeoned Elena Alves to death. From there I fluctuated between Grace, Jonathan, their son Henry, and even the grandfather played by Donald Sutherland.

I found the setting entirely believable and the events around Reardon School, including the ostentatious auction, immersed me in the life of the Fraser’s completely.

Likewise, the acting proved largely excellent. Grant, Kidman, and Sutherland led the way but the supporting cast largely convinced me as well. Lily Rabe stands out for her portrayal of Grace’s friend as did young Noah Jupe as Henry.

What I didn’t Like

I found the courtroom scenes unconvincing. I regularly found myself thinking both lawyers didn’t know how to object properly, having watched real lawyers do it at the Depp and Heard civil trial. I kept emerging from immersion to think to myself, is that a question or a statement? Shouldn’t someone object here?

The final reveal also left me a bit dissatisfied. Shouldn’t the police and prosecution have discovered the information about Jonathan’s past during the investigation? They didn’t really need Grace to present it to them on a platter.

The Conclusion

As you may have guessed from my tease at the beginning of this review, the ending left me quite unhappy. I think the series should have ended with the final courtroom revelation. We know everything, boom, credits. Over and done. However, that’s not flashy. There is no running, shouting, or chasing. We don’t have helicopters and police cars. We don’t have a frantic Grace or an angry Jonathan and that’s what the audience apparently wants.

Not me. The last ten minutes of The Undoing really soured my entire opinion of an otherwise very good series. Of course, you may disagree! Tell me why.

Stick the landing!

Tom Liberman

Van der Valk too Clever by Far

Van der Valk

I watched the first episode of Series Two of Van der Valk last night and came away unimpressed. I didn’t really like the first season of Van der Valk all that much either but, I said to myself, why not give it a chance?

The show follows a team of detectives in Amsterdam led by Peter Van der Valk. They are an eclectic group to say the least. The show is actually a reboot from an earlier series which I have not seen so I can’t really make any comparisons. The new show is flashy, stylish, filled with dramatic music, tense scenes, and intense characters.

My Review of Van der Valk

My review of the episode can be summed up in a single line: too clever. That’s simplifying all my problems with the show but it does express my general frustration with crime dramas and mysteries that make the solution so convoluted I have no chance of figuring anything out. Of course, I actually figured out the actual killer from the beginning but the clues that led us there were beyond baffling.

Basically, our killer left notes on the corpses with cryptic clues as to the next victim. Then one member of the team eventually had some sort of epiphany of understanding that led to the next scene. The word ethics must mean Spinoza! The word fire must mean Prometheus. The word God must mean Inventor but then, also be an acronym. Each revelation made less sense than the previous.

It seemed to me someone came up with the clever idea of having the murderer use Spinoza as an inspiration but then just went about it in the laziest way possible. I get using a local philosopher as a plot point but the story had nothing to do with Spinoza and the three great disasters of Amsterdam except in the most convoluted way possible. I lost track of it and just kept shaking my head and sighing in bewilderment.

While the effort to be overly clever certainly made my experience watching the first episode of Van der Valk unpleasant, it was not my only issue. Spoilers coming.

The Fish Tank

The fish tank in which the young woman drowned was way too high for the scene to happen. The murderer could not push the victim into the tank. The elevated tank came up to the chest of the detectives. You can’t bend over that way, it needed to be at waist height.

The First Victim in the Windfarm

Our murderer is not a large man. How he managed to get his victim up on the cross in the middle of the wind farm is beyond my understand. I’m willing to give a little leeway here. Maybe he rented a truck with a crane or something.

The Publicist and the Car

It’s revealed the publicist, who drowned implausibly as described above, was murdered because she took a bribe in order to stop her campaign to help the local artists. The bribe being a fancy car. This seemed utterly improbably to me. Amsterdam is a city well-known for an excellent public transit system. I can see her taking a large sum of money, but a sports car that she needs to pay upkeep and taxes on? Made no sense to me.

The Husband

The first victim’s husband was impossibly bizarre. The story of his separation from his wife and his violent abuse didn’t tie into the story at all. It just seemed an excuse to have a dislikable character as a possible suspect. His transparent lies made it clear he couldn’t be the murderer.

The Date

I can’t even begin to tell you everything I found wrong in the date between the detective and the ink maker. First off, it’s a stretch just to imagine she agreed to go out with him. I found his bumbling stupidity beyond credibility and Van der Valk ridiculing the poor fellow incessantly as some sort attempt at comic relief came across as completely unrealistic.

The poor fellow, I can’t even remember his name, seems to be on the show simply so people can make fun of him.

The Final Scene

Wait, the other bombs were real? When did he plant them. How does he have explosive knowledge. His reasoning for the brutal murders makes almost no sense. His final dialog with our hero went on and on. And on. And on. And on.

While they were talking, you can clearly see the Ferris wheel revolving normally in the background although supposedly it is being evacuated.

The Acting

I think the actors do their best with the lines they’ve got. It’s a mess but at least they try.

Conclusion

Blah. Too clever. Trying too hard to be dramatic. The serial killer leaving cryptic clues is tired and boring writing at this point. A good crime drama doesn’t need to save the world. It can just be a good crime drama. Van der Valk isn’t that.

Tom Liberman

Who is the Most Annoying Vicar in Grantchester?

Grantchester

Eh gads, but I’m thoroughly fed up with this show they call Grantchester. If it wasn’t for Leonard and the fact there’s nothing else to watch on Sunday nights; Sidney and Will would have driven me off long ago.

So, I put it to you, my audience. Who do you hate more, Sidney or Will? There will be a poll at the end of this blog. I remind you, casting your vote for Sidney or Will is not saying you like the other one. How could anyone like either of them?

Sidney’s Many Failings

Who could possible imagine I might yearn for the days of an almost psychopathic vicar who promised his girlfriend he’d leave the priesthood and marry her and then, an hour later, left her, waiting without so much as a note, at the door for a ride that never came.

Oh, Sidney, you were a liar, that much is certainly true. Filled with self-pity so much that it shot out your anus and your ears like a barrage of cannons. Every moment you came on the screen with your whining and crying about God having abandoned you, of not having love, of being bored with the religious life made me want to punch you all the more.

I’m not a religious man but I like to think if I was so, I’d rather have an aloof cat tend to my spiritual needs. If running away from your problems was a virtue, Sidney might be a Saint.

Ah, Sidney, you are not missed in Grantchester, not by me at least.

When will Will sigh sadly Again?

Probably in the next scene. Will sighs a lot. Everything about the new, chronically sad Vicar of Grantchester is awful. Life is miserable unless he’s banging whichever skirt happens to cross his path while guzzling whiskey like lemonade and smoking a pack a day. What a fine example you are for Grantchester.

Oh, sigh. Something happened. Sigh. Isn’t it awful? Sigh. I’m going to go sit and feel sorry for myself for a while. Go on and solve the case yourself. Sigh. Poor Leonard, it’s not fair. Nothing is fair. I’ve lost the love of my life for the tenth time. Sigh.

Well, Will, I mean, if it’s the tenth time it’s happened, it’s probably not the love of your life.

Gee, Tom, you’re right. Woe is me.

Oh wait, another girl! I’m in love again! I’ll charm her pants off and then find a reason why it’s all really so miserable. Sigh.

Grantchester Poll

You tell me. Who is worse?

Who do you find more Annoying?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Conclusion

Sigh.

Tom Liberman

Dark Winds a Bad Ending to a Good Show

Dark Winds

I just finished watching the last episode of the first season of the Dark Winds series on AMC and came away more than a little disappointed. Endings. They’re important.

Dark Winds is six-part series set in the 1970s which follows tribal police officer Joe Leaphorn as he attempts to solve both a bank robbery and a murder on the Navajo reservation. I very much enjoyed the show’s first four episodes although came away moderately disappointed after the fifth episode. It was the final episode that really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Let’s get into it.

Dark Winds Plot

The plot of Dark Winds revolves around Joe Leaphorn in his attempts to solve both the murders and bank robbery. The bank robbers escaped by helicopter onto Navajo lands and that puts the onus on Leaphorn to solve the crime. Meanwhile, the murders, while occurring on Navajo land, count as federal crimes meaning the FBI has jurisdiction.

The relationship between Leaphorn, played ably by Zahn McClarnon, and belligerent FBI Agent Noah Emmerich, played with great aplomb by Noah Emmerich, is key to the investigative part of the story. Emmerlich inserts a spy into the tribal police force to help solve the investigation but Leaphorn quickly figures it out and enlists Jim Chee, played by Kiowa Gordon, as an ally.

The Plot Isn’t the Story

Dark Winds does an excellent job, at least until the final episode, of telling a story and using the plot to drive it. The real stories are the death of Leaphorn’s son in an explosion at a refinery on the land and the general mistreatment of the Navajo people by the United States government.

Sure, the murders and the bank robbery drive much of the action but the real story is far more interesting. A young, pregnant Navajo girl is saved from forced sterilization by Leaphorn’s wife, a nurse at the hospital. Forced sterilization on Native Americans is just one of many shameful parts of United States history.

In addition, the Navajo activist who committed the bank robbery was the victim of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of teachers, priests, and nuns at boarding schools children were forced to attend away from their parents. The tormented Hoski, played by Jeremiah Bitsui, carries out his criminal acts largely as vengeance for both his own mistreatment and that of his people.

The dovetailing of Hoski’s storyline of rage and Leaphorn’s own grief over the loss of his son is the real story here. It’s a tale of anger and an inability to let go of hate. A path both Leaphorn and Hoski share at the beginning of the series.

The real stories of Dark Winds are told at a leisurely pace and we see them slowly unfold as we get to know the interesting characters. It draws us in and holds us.

The Last Episode of Dark Winds

Then, in the later part of the penultimate episode and the entirety of the final episode, all the good work is abandoned with a ridiculous series of events, stunning coincidences, and one action scene after the next. It’s just a mess and the various characters act in inexplicable fashion. I’m not going to get into it all including the strange addition of the Mormon family hostages, it’s too much.

It’s all a setup for an intense scene between Leaphorn and Hoski. Hoski realizes all his rage has done nothing to help, on the contrary has caused more harm, more pain. Leaphorn ostensibly tries to convince Hoski to let go of the rage, go to prison, accept responsibility for his actions. In reality, Leaphorn is talking to himself, telling himself to let go of the anger over his son’s death.

Conclusion

The final confrontation between Leaphorn and Hoski is fine as is the denouement when Leaphorn finally releases his anger.

It’s everything in the last episode or so that leads up to that final which fails. These sorts of action scenes are what a lot of people want and I suspect many, if not most, people will enjoy the action-adventure end to the season. I did not.

I think everything might have led to the soul-searching climax with far fewer complications and a simpler story line. The finale left me deeply disappointed. All the good from the first four plus episodes was tainted.

That being said, the series is good and worth watching.

Tom Liberman

Endeavour Series Eight Trying too Hard

Endeavour

I just finished watching the final episode of the eighth series of Endeavour and came away mightily disappointed. Not that the mystery was terrible or anything but it failed to meet its normally high standards.

I’m aware this relatively negative review will not be popular with fans of Endeavour and of Morse shows in general. That being said, I call them like I see them and this season failed for a number of important reasons.

The Mystery

I’ve written in other places on the criteria I use when evaluating the objective quality of a show but a mystery show is slightly different. An important factor in a mystery is giving the audience a reasonable chance to solve the riddle before the conclusion. Too often in mysteries the writers make it so convoluted and confusing the audience never has a chance to figure it out.

In the three episodes of this series, only the first gives the audience even a semblance of chance to figure out the mystery. The second episode of Endeavour involved clock hands matching semaphore signals which spell the Welsh version of an important character’s name. Um, our chances of figuring that out? Zero percent seems high. The third was such a convoluted mess they spent twenty minutes explaining who did it and why and I’m still confused.

I found the mysteries too clever by far and this largely ruined the season for me. Particular the third episode, which tried to be Silence of the Lambs meets Halloween meets A Beautiful Mind, left me baffled, bored, and incredulous.

It’s my opinion the Endeavour audience doesn’t need all this nonsense. Give us a reasonable mystery and let the wonderful characters carry the story.

All the Rest

Everything else in Endeavour is up to par. The acting is excellent. The sets are great. The costumes are period and convincing. The cinematography is solid although I thought they got a little too fancy at times trying to be stylish.

Missing Son

The third episode included a lengthy side story involving Thursday’s missing son. I strongly suspect it is a lead-in to what will be the main storyline of series nine. It also allowed Thursday’s wife to have her meltdown which I guess was dramatic acting or something.

That being said, it was way, way too much. It took away from the episode and no investigation or even explanation occurred. It was just there. This really took time away from what was already a mind-boggler of an episode. Nothing forwarded the story.

I get what they are trying to do, or at least I think I get it. My problem is a much simpler way to handle the situation existed. Just a scene where the army calls looking for the son. Something simple, don’t get into details or even have it known that he’s missing. Just a quick setup.

Conclusion

The character of Morse, both older and younger, is well-established and interesting. He and his co-workers are good enough for an interesting episode. All I need is a reasonable mystery around them and I’m happy. This series of Endeavour just tried way too hard to be far more than it needed to be.

Hotel Portofino Two Episode Early Review

Hotel Portofino

I watched the second episode of Hotel Portofino on PBS and I’m ready to give my preliminary review of the six-episode series. When I write a review, I try to take into account a lot of the things that make it objectively better or worse. Absolute good or bad is difficult to assign because there are many parts to a show and Hotel Portofino definitely has a duality to it.

Hotel Portofino tells the story of an English woman running a hotel in Italy in the early 1920’s when Mussolini first comes to power. It focuses on Bella Ainsworth and her immediate family including a war-traumatized son, a daughter with a young child, and a wayward husband. We also get to meet a wide variety of guests.

So, is it good? To quote my favorite YouTube lawyer, it depends.

Acting in Hotel Portofino

The acting is generally solid and often excellent. Natascha McElhone is strong in the lead and is generally supported well by a large cast including her scheming husband Cecil played by Mark Umbers. I don’t have any problems with the acting in the show.

Sets and Costumes in Hotel Portofino

This is where the show is truly outstanding. Everything in the hotel, the scrumptious surrounding countryside, the fancy cars, and the wonderful costumes are spot on. Details in the scenes are excellent with every room of the hotel looking lived in and real.

The costumes also appear period to my eyes and wonderful. Everyone is dressed the part and I’m immersed in the world of Italy.

Writing and Dialog in Hotel Portofino

The writing and dialog are largely good although there is the never-ending problem of British actors portraying citizens of the United States. It’s a real problem but I’m not sure I can really blame that on anyone. If you’re a fan of period pieces on PBS you’ll have noted this yourself and I need not elaborate.

Story and Structure in Portofino

Here’s where all the good comes to a screeching halt. There are far too many characters, far too many story lines, and the structure of the episodes have no central support. We meet character after character in the first episode and it’s impossible to tell one from the other after a while. We meet even more guests in the second episode.

Scene after unrelated scenes spawns on the screen, often without any linear sense of story or structure. The nanny suddenly finds the son attractive out of nowhere. The food deliveries stop for no apparent reason. Is the American an art critic or a CIA agent? What’s up with his yoga practicing wife? The young waiter is an anti-fascist suddenly? I’m totally confused.

The writers don’t trust us with any information and its impossible to figure out what’s going on with all the plots. A good example of this is the local fascist blackmailing Bella over a letter. The contents of the letter? A complete mystery. The American’s real goal? A mystery. The nanny’s personal tragedy? A mystery.

The first two episode had no central support. Like the Gilded Age, we just got scene after scene, plot line after plot line but nothing to hold it all together.

In the second episode the cutting off of food deliveries might have brought the story together. Perhaps the staff all heads out, fishing, scavenging, finding friends, and bringing the entire story together. Instead, we spent forever on a scene painting when we learn, out of nowhere, the nanny has talent as an artist.

Conclusion

If you like beautiful scenery, lovely costumes, good acting, and you don’t particularly care to try and follow a mind-numbing number of plots with little explanation; this show is for you.

It’s not a bad show by any stretch. I think a tighter structure, more scenes devoted to just a few plots, and fewer characters are required to make it excellent entertainment. In its current state, it’s ok.

Tom Liberman

Irma Vep the Review

Irma Vep

I watched the second episode of Irma Vep on HBO and I’m glad I held off writing a review for a week. There’s a lot going on with this show and a single episode wasn’t enough to write an informed opinion about the show.

A lot of times I’m tempted to immediately wax poetic about a story I read in the news or some event that happened in my life. Often times it’s a great idea to get my thoughts down immediately, fresh, raw. Other times, particularly when the situation is nuanced it is better to wait. In any case, the wait is over, let the review of Irma Vep begin!

What is Irma Vep?

The show is not easy to describe. At its heart, it is about an actor making a film. That actor is Mira Harberg as portrayed by Alicia Vikander. Harberg is coming off a highly successful although soul-murdering role in a super-hero film. She’s now a highly sought-after and successful actor but she’s taken a role in a low-budget vampire film called Irma Vep.

Now comes the difficult part in describing this show. The film is a remake of seven hour long silent-film of the same name. The audience, that’s me, is shuttled back and forth between four different realities. First is Harberg and her life. Second is the making of the film in which she channels the Irma Vep character. Third is the film they are making itself as seen through the director’s eyes while watching the dailies. Finally, is the original silent film with scenes interspersed with the new scenes.

It’s a lot. It’s ambitious. It’s good. I’m really enjoying it and not just for the lurid suggestion of lesbian dominance and submission. Although, I admit, that does pique the old imagination.

The Acting

I’m absolutely loving all the acting. Vikander is delightful as the unfulfilled and spoiled actor trying to broaden her career. Devon Ross as Harberg’s new assistant is quirky and interesting. The old assistant, the vivacious Adria Arjona, is the aforementioned lesbian former love interest.

Particularly outstanding is Vincent Macaigne as Rene Vidal, the psychologically unstable director. His quirky, edgy performance is a thing to behold. His portrayal of the damaged director hoping to pay homage to one of his favorite films is breathtaking. The scene in the second episode where he insists on making it abundantly clear to his psychologist that he masturbated as boy to not Diana Rigg, who he respects as an actor, but to the character of Emma Peel is an absolute delight.

Vincent Lacoste as the insecure actor insisting on changes to the script to secure his fragile ego is marvelous. He doesn’t want to live with his mother who serves him herbal tea at night because it makes him look weak. Vidal tells the insecure actor he has written mom out of the script but she’s actually still in it. The scenes move from rollicking hilarity to brutal insecure honesty. I’m enthralled.

And I haven’t even mentioned Lars Eidinger as the crack-addicted Gottfried, Jeanne Balibar as the set coordinator, Carrie Brownstein as Mira’s agent hoping to lure the star away from the small remake into playing the Silver Surfer!

Structure

The structure of the story is complex, to say the least. We move back and forth between the four stories being told and it gets confusing at times. It’s a silent movie, it’s a real movie, it’s the making of a movie, it’s an actor becoming the character. Be prepared to pay attention.

Conclusion

I’m rather surprised it even got made, let alone picked up by HBO. It’s madcap, it’s mayhem, it’s heart-wrenching, it’s hilarious, it’s erotic, it’s complicated, it’s not for everyone, but it’s for me.

Tom Liberman

We Own this City Review

We own this city

I watched the last episode of We Own this City on HBO and largely enjoyed it. It’s based on a book by Baltimore journalist Justin Fenton and created by David Simon of The Wire fame. It focuses on the Gun Trace Task Force led by Sergeant Wayne Jenkins in Baltimore.

The Wire is a great show about the problems of drugs in Baltimore specifically but all across our nation and, indeed the world. It doesn’t sugarcoat the violence and spares neither the police nor the drug dealers. We Own this City continues in the same manner and I came away discouraged about the world in which we live.

That being said, I think it’s a good show and well-worth watching, particularly by those invested in perpetuating the War on Drugs.

The Premise of We Own this City

The Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore engaged in criminal activity that resulted in many of its members being given lengthy prison sentences, particular their leader, Jenkins. They stole money, stole and resold drugs, took money from taxpayers for overtime they didn’t actually perform, and engaged in generally despicable and illegal behavior with impunity. Bullying, harassing, assaulting, framing, and otherwise attacking the citizens of Baltimore.

The six-episode mini-series details their behavior in horrifying detail and ends with the sentencing phase of their crimes.

The Quality of We Own this City

The acting, writing, sets, camera work, and everything else in We Own this City is excellent. It’s a slick and well put-together show. It’s a bit jarring seeing actors like Jamie Hector in role-reversal from The Wire but I managed to overcome that eventually.

The biggest problem with the quality of the show is the non-linear time flow. I understand they wanted to start with the arrest of Jenkins but the constant back-and-forth with time made the show difficult to process. They tried to make it easier by having Jon Bernthal, who played Jenkins with frightening aplomb, adjust his facial hair indicating the time frame.

The display of dates on the screen didn’t really help me follow the story. Is this happening before the scene we just saw? After? When is this? Has the previous scene we just watched already happened when we’re watching this scene or is it going to happen later? Very confusing. That’s pretty much my only problem with the show.

Who Watched We Own this City?

I wonder if the target audience of We Own this City actually watched it or is it a case of preaching to the choir. I have no doubt Simon and Fenton are passionate. They well-understand the War on Drugs and the horrors it begat.

The sad truth is the people who will watch this show already understand the problems associated with the War on Drugs. The people who must be convinced of its folly are not going to watch, at least I don’t think so. They don’t want to see beloved police officers turned into nothing more than the single largest criminal enterprise in the history of the world. Hyperbole? No, I’m afraid not. Police are the worst criminals in the United States.

Treat Williams Daggers the Problem

Now, having read the previous paragraph I feel certain you think I’m anti-police. Let me explain why that is not the case.

Treat Williams plays Brian Grabler, a retired officer who understand the real problem. He tries to explain its nature to Wunmi Mosaku. She plays Nicole Steele an attorney from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice department.

Near the end of the last episode, Grabler asks Steele what’s not in the report detailing the many systemic problems in the Baltimore Police Department. What’s not in the report? She doesn’t understand and he must lead her to the answer.

The problem isn’t law enforcement officers. It’s not a legal system willing to stomp the rights of citizens. It’s not the violence on the streets committed by those plying the drug trade and those trying to stop them. It’s not that police departments are completely at odds with the communities they serve, enemies unwilling to cooperate.

The problem is the War on Drugs. It’s the root cause of everything else. Its corrupted our legal system. Its corrupted our police departments. Its corrupted city hall. The War on Drugs hasn’t stopped drugs, its just created an army of amoral criminals. Police officers, lawyers, judges, politicians. All engaged in criminal activity wrapped in good intentions and driven by the money the drug trade creates.

The system forces law enforcement officers to become criminals. Judges to twist the Constitution into a laughable parody of words used to enact that which it is designed to prevent. Politicians to actively work against their constituents.

Conclusion

We Own this City is an excellent show marred by a confusing timeline. It’s also a show that clearly illuminates the errors of the War on Drugs. Sadly, the people who need to understand the root cause of the problem have little interest in fixing it. Those who understand the problem don’t have the power to fix it.

Tom Liberman

Depp and Heard are a Billion Dollar Industry

Depp and Heard

Depp and Heard are in the middle of contentious legal battle and it’s a billion dollar industry. I’m conflicted. I’m talking about Amber Heard and Johnny Depp but I don’t think anyone needs that clarification. Who isn’t cashing in on the Depp and Heard drama?

I’m conflicted about this blog. Writing it means I’m part of the legion of Depp and Heard opportunists. Am I expressing genuine thoughts here or do I just want clicks and eyes on my blog? Maybe this post will go viral and indirectly result in the sale of millions of my novels.

On the other hand, the sheer volume of people trying to cash in on this terrible and tragic story is nauseating. I suppose it’s all moot in the end, you’re reading this and that means I wrote it. Let’s get on with it.

Depp and Heard Trial

The trail is all over the news and I’m not going to expend any time talking about the awfulness of one party versus the other. It’s a terrible tragedy. A marriage gone horribly wrong. Two people whose love turned into an international tragedy and lawsuits.

Cashing In

Who is the big winner in all of this? Not Depp and Heard. It’s mainstream news channels. Alternate news channels. Misogynists, social justice warriors. It’s social media personalities, all the influencers. Even morally bankrupt politicians are trying to garner a few votes by picking sides. Scalpers! Yuck.

Twitch watch parties with some of the biggest streamers. YouTube personalities with millions of subscribers releasing daily videos with sensationalistic titles. Depp this! Heard that! The Big Moment! Twitter is trending Depp and Heard. TikTok. Name a social media outlet and I’ll show you opportunists trying to take advantage of the situation to make some money.

Sick to my Stomach

I’m honestly feeling nauseas just writing this. I’m regretting it. I’m thinking I shouldn’t be doing it just because it means I’m part of the problem. Still, I think it’s important to call out everyone profiting off this situation.

I know this lurid story is interesting and people are genuinely picking sides. That being said, there is no doubt that a YouTube video that suddenly generates millions of watches is a strong motivator to make more such content. A Twitch streamer watching the legal case live with thousands of viewers is cash in the bank. It’s money and its gross money, at least I think so.

Human Nature

People love a train wreck. It’s undeniable. People cheer at the hockey game as much during a fight as they do for a goal. Many people enjoy the lurid, the sensational, the exciting. Depp and Heard is all that. Everyone has an opinion and if they can make some money expressing it, all the better.

I suppose I’m tilting against windmills here, just the same as when I rail against drafting in professional sports.

Conclusion

I think I’ll wrap this up quickly and then go wash my hands. Gross. It’s all so gross.

Tom Liberman

A Mess of a Winning Time Episode

Winning Time

Any carry over from last week’s excellent episode of Winning Time quickly dissipated with this mess of an episode. No focus, no central theme, back to unnecessary salacious content, lots of fourth wall breaking, and just a general hodgepodge of an episode.

I honestly find it difficult to believe the people who put together Pieces of a Man also released Momento Mori. Same director, largely the same writers, and yet a completely different result. I find it unfathomable.

What went wrong with this episode of Winning Time? Let’s discuss.

Lack of Central Theme

I’ve discussed before how a central theme holds an episode together and allows other, smaller stories to swirl around it with an anchor to bring them home. The theme was readily available, the catastrophic injury to Coach McKinney. The necessity for assistant coach Westhead to grab the team and take over.

The episode certainly showed us the blood covered McKinney often enough but the other story line of Magic Johnson and his endorsement deals shared the spotlight. Frankly, both made good thematic elements but by splitting the episode back and forth between them with a cursory look at dementia inflicted Momma Buss only diluted the impact of everything.

The added theme of the financial troubles for Dr. Buss took up another big section of the episode. Each vied for supremacy and nothing really emerged. We just jumped from one scene to the next along all three plot lines. It ended up being largely confusing and unimpactful.

Too Fast

The various story lines just went too quickly. Magic’s relationship with his girlfriend and father came out of the nowhere. It seemed like a vehicle for the fourth wall breaking punch line of the Nike rep at the end. I’m not a big fan of an entire storyline dedicated to setting up a zinger at the end, even if the zinger is a good one.

Coach McKinney’s injuries and the team responding to them all happened so fast. It was just a whole bunch of scenes tenuously strung together. The emergence of Michael Cooper as a premier defender is an interesting story but you’d only get what was happening if you already knew the outcome. It wasn’t cohesive storytelling.

The loan situation was really interesting as well but it came in short snippets interspersed with the other stories. Everything just raced along toward zinger conclusions. The episode completely lacked the deliberate and intense pacing of Pieces of a Man.

Fourth Wall in Winning Time

Not surprisingly, this episode of Winning Time broke the fourth wall almost continuously from beginning to end. The previous episode resorted to this tactic only once or twice and briefly at that. This time we found ourselves listening to long monologs as characters explained their motivations and plans. I found it irritating, pointless and detracted from the interesting stories.

Conclusion

It’s a real shame of an episode following the brilliance of its predecessor. The show is still largely entertaining and worth watching but I hope we get more of the good stuff and less of the mess.

Tom Liberman

Pieces of a Man Winning Time’s Statement Episode

Pieces of a Man

Pieces of a Man is the fifth episode of Winning Time and what an episode! Booya. If you’re wondering how to craft a story properly, watch Pieces of a Man. It showcased fantastic acting, an intense and compelling story, and passion. An episode like this is why I love entertainment; this is why people filled stadiums to watch Greek Tragedies two thousand years ago.

I know I’m waxing overly poetic here, but it’s been a while since I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed a television episode. I’d probably have to go back to the heyday of the Sopranos to remember a time when I found myself so engrossed.

Last week I mentioned what a solid understanding of character Solomon Hughes brings with his portrayal of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If only I knew what awaited. Anyway, on with my review.

The Central Theme of Pieces of a Man

It is generally a good idea to have a central theme to focus an episode and the characters therein. In this case we leave Dr. Buss and Magic Johnson and focus on Abdul-Jabbar. We start with him as a young witness to terrible racial injustice. His father, a police officer and a devout Christian, does not see eye-to-eye with his son, Lew Alcindor.

Being a superb athlete and champion is not enough for Alcindor. This young man is a piece of what he will become but he wants more, he wants to be more. He comes to Islam and takes a new name much to his father’s chagrin but that is just another piece in the man that Abdul-Jabbar is becoming. It’s a fantastic start to the episode.

This isn’t about the Lakers, it’s about Abdul-Jabbar, but it subtly becomes about the Lakers. It becomes about Magic Johnson, Jack McKinney, and Dr. Buss. It’s a story about all of them and all the pieces of them. It’s a profound episode.

Salaciousness

I’ve complained about the unnecessary salaciousness in Winning Time. We get it here but it is part of the story. It’s part of the locker room. I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms. I played sports. The locker room scenes in movies with men in towels everywhere and overly condescending locker room talk always strikes me as fake. Not here.

Here the players talk about cut cocks with Wood Harris, in all his glory, playing the role of Spencer Haywood. He brings it to life with a monolog that sounds like the locker room. I believe! Whether it’s a true story or not hardly matters. I believe these are real athletes in a real locker room and that’s no easy trick. Most sports movies fail miserably in this regard because it’s difficult for an actor to portray a professional athlete.

The Other Characters as Pieces of a Man

Dr. Buss plays a small role in this episode which was an incredibly brave move and it works. While Abdul-Jabbar is struggling to reconcile what he has become as compared to the youthful energy and enthusiasm of Johnson, we also see Dr. Buss struggling to put together his pieces as well. Can he step back from the edge of the cliff and admire the view?

Will Abdul-Jabbar add another piece in his journey? Can Magic Johnson become more than a fragment, a single piece of a man? Can Jack McKinney put together the final piece that he’s been striving for all his life?

The Importance of Dialog

This episode functions on many levels. The conversation between Heywood and Abdul-Jabbar in regards to young Magic is thoughtful and moves the story forward.

The disagreement between McKinney and Abdul-Jabbar where the later exactly predicts the result of his performance is profoundly interesting. McKinney realizes that Abdul-Jabbar knows what he’s talking about. It brings their relationship to a new level.

The locker room fight between Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar trying to put together their own pieces and find their place in all of this is raw and powerful.

The conversation between the financial advisor and Dr. Buss brings us a deeper understanding of his struggles to put together his own pieces. Even Jeanie finding Paula Abdul to lead the cheer squad is interesting.

Abdul-Jabbar at the mosque talking with the Imam moves the story toward its inevitable conclusion. We know what’s going to happen but it’s the journey that compels us to keep watching.

The dialog pulls the entire episode together. There is no telling in this episode, just showing. No exposition. Just actors performing, owning their characters and their lines, pulling us into their world.

Conclusion

You’ve probably figured out I liked this episode. Go watch it. Well done. Well done, indeed.

Tom Liberman

Sanditon is it that Difficult to Keep a Timeline?

Timeline

Argh, Sanditon, I say. Argh, I repeat with emphasis. Is it really that difficult to construct a timeline that makes sense? Of what do I speak, you might ask? The latest episode centers on a festival later on today or tonight or next week or tomorrow afternoon. I’m not sure. They keep changing it.

I know I’m the only one in the world who cares about this sort of thing, but the fuzzy timeline of the big festival largely ruined my immersion in this week’s episode of Sanditon. When is the festival? When? Every time I think I have a handle on the timeline, it shifts likes the sands of Arrakis.

The Festival is Today

Tom Parker gets a package. He looks up at the sky and tells the clouds not to rain. Clearly there is something on tap for today. He opens the package and finds a bunch of fliers for a festival. Oh, good, he exclaims with glee as gazes at them.

I’m already confused. He just looked at the sky and told it not to rain. Does that mean the timeline for the festival is today? That seems like the only explanation but why are the fliers only arriving now? Why haven’t those been pasted all over town a month ago?

The Festival is Next Month?

Tom doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to paste the fliers all over town. I am utterly confused. Maybe the festival isn’t happening today. Next month, perhaps? Surely, he understands promotion well enough to know he can’t post the fliers a few hours before the event?

The Festival is Tomorrow Morning

The elephant is cancelled? If the event is happening tomorrow, I’d expect the elephant to be on premises at least a few days early. There’s much to do, setting up a pen for the mighty beast, arranging for food, and other necessities.

Everyone does seem excited about the elephant. Tom is ripping down the fliers, that the timeline hasn’t accounted for putting up, because it’s embarrassing that the elephant he promised, today, won’t be here tomorrow.

Charlotte is Time Traveling Again

Charlotte is with her employer and the girls, Alison is out on a date with the shady officer, now they are talking to each other with Miss Lambe at the Parker house. Now she’s back with her employer having a picnic. When is the festival? I’m lost. Is Doctor Who in charge of the timeline of this episode?

It’s Tomorrow

Oh, it’s tomorrow. When is the festival starting, tea time? Everyone is going about their business like the thing is happening later but it’s been all day already. Charlotte woke up, went to work, had a picnic, tutored the girls, and is still back in Sanditon in time for the hydrogen balloon, no hot air required for those of you with inquiring minds.

Winch

How incompetent is Colonel Lennox? You’ve got three soldiers holding a rope for the balloon? Winch. You need a winch. Not a wench, Alison is all over that. I know, this has nothing to do with my rant today but I can’t stop myself.

At least we’ve got jolly Arthur Parker to save the day. Although, honestly, after that fiasco I’d be less inclined to make the ascent. The soldiers are clearly all idiots.

Conclusion

Is it really that difficult to construct a coherent timeline? Why weren’t we told about the upcoming festival last episode. The elephant, the fliers, all the things required to make this week’s focus, the festival, make any sort of sense.

Argh, I repeat for likely not the last time.

Am I the only one who cares about out of sequence events?

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Tom Liberman