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

Sanditon Cliffhanger not Resolved Well

Cliffhanger

The first episode of Sanditon ended in a pair of cliffhangers. One when Miss Lambe and Miss Heywood, Alison that is, crashed their coach. The army officers training on the beach rushed over to rescue them and Charlotte’s little sister gazes up into the eyes of her handsome hero.

The second when we find out Sidney Parker, before his death, learned something distressing about Miss Lambe. Now, generally speaking, when ending an episode or a season with a cliffhanger it’s reasonable to expect it to be resolved fairly quickly in the next episode. It’s not a necessity by any means and there are good reasons not to do so, which I’ll talk about later.

Generally speaking, the reason you include a cliffhanger in an episode is to draw the audience back for the next episode. People want to find out what happened. Cliffhangers are generally structured so a resolution is the next possible event. But not always.

Were the choices made good ones? Let’s discuss.

Coach Crash Cliffhanger

The coach crash falls into the immediate category. We left off with the young women spilled out all over the beach, knocked nearly unconscious. We sort of need to know if Alison and Miss Lambe suffered any serious injuries.

I imagined we’d pick up right where we left off. We’d see the rescue, first aid applied, a rushing over of concerned bystanders, and eventually a return home. Later scenes might include a visit to the doctor and the concern of Charlotte for her sister’s safety, an admonishment to Miss Lambe for her careless driving. None of that happened.

Instead, we pretty much immediately see both of the young ladies up and about in good health and spirits. The only mention of the accident comes when Captain Carter comes to deliver invitations for the ball and Alison somehow doesn’t even know his name. It seems like information she’d have from the aftermath of the crash, but, whatever. Not a big deal.

The problem with resolving the crash this way, for me at least, is I found myself totally confused during the opening scenes of the episode. Wait, wasn’t there a crash? Did I miss an episode? Is this out of order?

I’m guessing, without any evidence, a rescue scene was filmed but the editor decided it didn’t add much to the story and cut it. It just felt like an odd way to handle the cliffhanger.

Miss Lambe’s Finance Cliffhanger

The other cliffhanger was less immediate. We learned Sidney was investigating something about Miss Lambe and we suspect it might be financial shenanigans. This is the sort of cliffhanger that doesn’t need an immediate resolution. The truth of the matter can slowly unfold over the course of the next episode and those that follow.

That being said, it barely got a mention at all. The only time I recall it coming up occurred when Arthur Parker is speaking with Miss Lambe. They both seem aware of the situation involving Sidney but no further information is divulged.

I found myself surprised that someone told Miss Lambe about the situation at all considering they don’t know much. How did Arthur find out? Presumably discussions occurred but all off screen. I’m not a big fan of handling a major plot device with such exposition. Show us the scenes where Miss Lambe is told about the potential irregularities. Let’s see her reactions. It’s an important plot point because Miss Lambe’s wealth is a major focus of her many suitors. If she’s not the heiress we all imagine, if the money is gone, that is pretty important information.

Why was the situation largely ignored in the second episode? I’m sure more is coming but a few scenes where Miss Lambe is informed of the problem, perhaps where Charlotte is told, are in order. The lack of those scenes dulls my interest. If this is to be a major plot point, we need some information, some scenes, some concern about the potential consequences, but nope, a couple of useless lines.

Conclusions

I find myself quite disappointed in the way Sanditon handled the two big cliffhangers from the premier episode. Confused at the opening scenes of the episode and mostly forgetting about the Sidney situation.

The show is largely lacking the deft touch of say, Jane Austen.

Tom Liberman

The Many Saints of Newark Stages of Grief

Many Saints of Newark

I’m sorry to say that I finally got around to watching The Many Saints of Newark. To say it was disappointing is not to do it justice. I feel like I went through some version of the stages of grief while watching the hot mess that can charitably be described as disjointed fan service.

I’m a big Sopranos fan. I loved the show and watched the entire arc twice through and wouldn’t mind doing so again. I even wrote a blog about how Little Carmine Lupertazzi most certainly did not kill Tony Soprano in the show finale.

I read the various reviews of The Many Saints of Newark and I knew it didn’t live up to expectations, that people were disappointed. These reviews did not prepare me for the reality. On with my grief.

Stage One: Expectations

Even though I read the negative reviews of The Many Saints of Newark I still went in with at least middling hopes. I didn’t expect it to be great but I did imagine a mildly entertaining movie and perhaps a few nods to the brilliance of the original series.

My expectations were largely met in the first twenty minutes or so of The Many Saints of Newark. Then we kept getting scene after scene but no actual plot, not story, no through theme, no structure. I discussed this problem in The Gilded Age so you can read my full thoughts here. Eventually, I said to myself, there has to be a main plot, right? This is David Chase after all. His brilliance in the series cannot be denied.

Stage Two: Confusion

We’re an hour into the show now and there is still no sign of plot. Wait, did they just kill the Ray Liotta character. I saw previews where he spoke with Dickie Moltisanti in prison. He can’t be dead, can he? No, he’s dead. I mean, he’s on fire and not saying anything which is a good indicator.

No, seriously? A twin brother? You’ve got to be kidding me? Is this an afternoon Soap Opera? I’m utterly confused at this point and still waiting for a plot of any kind. There has to be some direction eventually doesn’t there?

Stage Three: Rage

I’m angry now. It’s nothing but a series of scenes with lots of fan service. Entire scenes are simply designed to provide a line of fan service to those of who loved The Sopranos. This is ludicrous. How did this happen? Screw you for spitting on the legacy of the Sopranos. Why, David Chase. Screw you, Many Saints of Newark.

You are this bad. You are really terrible. The acting is fine. The sets are good. There is no main story. There is no structure! Why is anything happening? There are twelve different storylines going on and none of them are explored with anything other than superficiality. There is no central thread. This movie sucks!

I hate every single character in the movie. I hate them all.

Stage Four: Rationalization

Ok, I accept The Many Saints of Newark is awful. I’m over that. It’s bad and these things happen. It’s got to be that Chase didn’t want to make the movie. That he made it at the behest of money loving studio executives and intentionally sabotaged it.

He let the executives write the script. He did everything they wanted in a deliberate attempt to make a bad movie. Yeah, that’s got to be it. Chase can’t have completely gone off the deep end. It’s deliberately bad. There will be some nod, some tip, right near the end, to let me know it’s all a goof.

Stage Five: Acceptance

Dickie drowns the girl? Junior kills Dickie? The ending is more fan service? Ok. It’s bad. They tried. The magic is gone. You can never go home again. At least I’ll get a blog out of it.

Tom Liberman

By Jove The Gilded Age Finally Got it!

Gilded Age

It took an entire season, but The Gilded Age finally came through with a worthwhile episode. The season finale delivered on the hype by giving us an entertaining and watchable episode. I cared. I’m not saying the episode made me change my generally negative opinion about the show, but it gives me hope for season two.

Huzzah! Hurrah! I’ve been writing largely nothing but negative things about the show and I think that gives the impression I enjoy doing so. That I’m one of those reviewers who prefers to give negative assessments and make cutting remarks.

This is not true. I want The Gilded Age to be good because excellent entertainment is in my best interest. I prefer good shows. I’m not the sort to be happy when my team loses because it validates my hate. In any case, why was this episode good? Read on.

A Central Theme in the Gilded Age

I wrote an entire blog on why an episode needs a central theme to hold it together and the season finale had it. The entire episode swirled around the debutant coming out party for Gladys. Sure, we had Marion’s ice hot love life to distract us along with Peggy’s revelation and the chef’s troubles, but the entire episode had the structural support it needed.

With the debutant ball to hold everything together we came back to the main structure again and again. The side plots entertained us briefly but then we returned to the support that held everything together. This is the foundation of a good episode. It keeps us grounded and focused on a particular thing.

I hope my complaints earlier about the lack of such support make more sense now that we’ve seen it done properly. The actors are all working around this idea. The scenes are not scattered all over the five boroughs without relation to one another. Cohesions.

A Single Timeline

With the support of the debutant ball to focus the plots, the fuzzy timelines of all the previous episodes vanished. We didn’t see one character pass through a week while other characters were still back on the same day eating dinner. Because of the ball, everyone moved at the same rate. Everyone was going to the ball so time, by force, had to pass at the same rate for everyone.

Improved Acting

I’m not going to pass out awards for the acting but it showed a marked improvement. It wasn’t all about one character cutting down another with witty remarks. We didn’t have an overwhelming plethora of quick scenes designed around a zinger at the end. The main story forced the characters to work with one another, to care for one another. We saw longer scenes, real interactions, meaningful character development.

We had Raikes as a foil and the battle of wills between Bertha and Mrs. Astor played out through the friendship of their daughters. I was immersed in the battles.

Contrivance

Ok, there was a ton of contrivance, I know. The bank loan, the chef’s revelation and his drunken replacement, the letter revealing Peggy’s son, the elopement and the ball on the same night, it was all clearly contrived and rather silly but I can overlook that when everything else is well done.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there must be conflict and sometimes that requires coincidence and a little creativity from the author. Believe me, I’ve done it my books and I don’t begrudge the writer a bit of leeway in this regard.

Conclusion

I’m very pleased to be writing this positive review of The Gilded Age. I wish I could have done it earlier. The season finale did things properly as far as structure and that elevated the entire episode.

The idea is technical and I won’t get delve deeply but there is a thing called the Five Act structure. It’s been around since ancient Greece. It’s a foundation upon which to build a story. Ignore it at your peril.

Tom Liberman

The Value of Transitions

Transitions

I just caught up with the latest episode of The Gilded Age and I’m happy to report myself moderately satisfied. Episode Six: Heads Have Rolled for Less than This wasn’t the greatest piece of film in cinematographic history but it showed a marked improvement over episode five.

However, that is not the topic of today’s blog. Today I will discuss transitions. Not particularly exciting, I know, but bear with me.

Transitions: going from one scene to the next. I’ve commented before that the scenes in The Gilded Age don’t have a common thread. That we’re thrown from one to the next without a lifeline to guide us. I tried to explain this in a previous review but two transitions in this episode particular illustrate the point I tried to make then.

Bad Transitions at the Red Cross Meeting

The scene begins with Marion and Peggy walking down the street discussing various things and ends with their arrival at the front of the building in which the meeting will take place. They are greeted by Clara Barton who exits a coach, speaks with them briefly, and then heads inside.

The scene cuts and we are now at the Van Rhijn household although it took me until almost the scene finished to figure this out. The transition was quick and without explanation. I had no idea where I was or who was talking. It turned out to be the maid and Ada Brook. The maid paying back the loan taken to cover her gambling debts.

Then the next scene we are inside at the Red Cross meeting where Mrs. Russell is being discussed. The transition between the Red Cross scenes served only to confuse me.

Why place the maid scene in between the two others? It made no sense and forced my mind away from the goings on at the Red Cross, the topics being discussed by Marion and Peggy, the general flow of the story.

The transitions did not enhance either of the scenes and there seemed to be no connection. It was jarring, unnerving even, and certainly took me out of the flow.

Good Transitions at Lunchtime

The good transition begins in the servants’ quarters at the Van Rhijn household where young Jack is filling in for Bannister. He nervously prepares to serve the luncheon and is encouraged by Bridget as he heads off into the lion’s den to face the aunts.

As he opens the door the transition happens. The doors that open are those at the Russell household where the grand lunch is being served. It was perfect, seamless, and purposeful.

This illustrates that scene transitions don’t necessarily have to be about related events. It was the simple fact that doors opened to a luncheon, in different locations, that worked.

Film Editing

The film editor sorted through various scenes and chose to put these scenes next to one another. That’s a conscious action. It’s done presumably for a reason and yet I can find no good reason for the first instance and applaud heartily the second.

It’s frustrating to see the luncheon transitions because it means the film editor is actually paying attention. If the film editor observed such attention to detail in one case, why not in others?

Conclusion

Why, I ask, why? It’s clear someone does know how to create good transitions. The luncheon proves it. Why not do it more frequently? Why not structure the episode so that one scene flows into the next without jarring the audience?

I hope this small illustration gives you a better idea what I tried to convey in my other blog. Good transitions and proper scene structure can enhance a show greatly.

Does my explanation of the good and bad transitions make sense to you?

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Tom Liberman

Accounting for Change in Around the World in 80 Days

Around the world in 80 Days

A moment in the finale of Around in the World in 80 Days gives me a chance to discuss accounting for change. As probably a few of my regular blog readers know, I write novels. And a serial as well. In the writing process, not everything stays the same from draft to draft.

One vitally important thing is accounting for change. When something changes early you must remember it and change later events to match.

I can’t say for sure what changed from one episode to the next in Around the World in 80 Days. I’m not privy to that information, obviously. But, as a young man who grew up reading Jules Verne and other authors of the same ilk, I am familiar with the source material.

Let’s talk about Abigail Fix.

The Original

In Around the World in 80 Days there is no Abigail Fix. There is Detective Fix of the Scotland Yard. Fix spots Fogg in Egypt and mistakes him for a bank robber of vaguely the same description. The purpose of the change is of little interest to me, it is accounting for it that focuses my attention.

Abigail adds to the story in a number of ways. She is a love interest. Fix is a confidant for Fogg. The plucky Fix is an independent woman in the world. What is she also? A reporter. That’s important. Because, you see, in the original version of the story, the journey is largely made in anonymity. The press knows nothing of the endeavor.

No one knows of the arrival in London. Our heroes think they are too late to win the wager and only learn of the mistake just in time. They rush to the Reform Club in the nick of time. All well and good, in the novel at least.

The New Version

In the new version of the story someone needs to be in charge of accounting for change. You see, Fix has published the exploits of Fogg to the world. They are met in New York by a phalanx of reporters and the boarding of the Henrietta is international news. The clamor of the world is upon them. This change from the original story is brought on by the addition of Fix the reporter instead of Fix the detective.

The passage of the Henrietta and thus Fogg and his companions is public knowledge. They are famous. It’s an integral change to the original story. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the change. I don’t mind Fix as a female reporter. I don’t mind the fame of the journey. I’m no purist. If a female dwarf doesn’t have a beard, I’m completely fine with it.

Accounting for Change

The problem, I’m sure you realize by now, even if you did not while watching the episode, is all of London should be waiting for the Henrietta to dock. One imagines an adoring crowd waiting to carry Fogg and his companions to the Reform Club in glorious triumph. Oopsie.

Someone didn’t account for change!

The ending needs to change! The ending must be altered to accommodate for this change or it makes no sense. As, I said, I’m not a purist. It’s fine to change things to match a modern standard, to tweak the story in interesting ways.

A sat mouth agape, “This doesn’t work,” I said to myself, perhaps out loud even. I’m a nuisance this way, just ask anyone who knows me.

Conclusion

Luckily, I wasn’t all that invested in this show anyway. It never grabbed my interest the way I hoped and my previous reviews get into that. I’ll not reiterate here. Even with that said, failure in accounting for change at the climax left me downright peeved. The officious customs clerk makes no sense. The lonely journey to his home, the surprise of his butler, none of it. It’s all so very, very wrong.

That was before the denouement hinting at further adventures. All I have to say about that is; Adieu, Professor Pierre Aronnax, it appears it’s into the rubbish bin for you as well.

Tom Liberman

The Difficulties of a Travel Story

Around the world in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 Days is a travel story. There is no getting around it and this presents story-telling difficulties. This week’s episode of Around the World in 80 Days demonstrated some of the problems and I’d like to look at it closely from that aspect.

The overarching problem in a travel story is that locations and secondary characters change from week to week or chapter to chapter in a book. I’d like to examine how the most recent episode of Around the World, set in the western United States, handled the issue and why it largely, in my opinion, did not succeed.

Believability in Introduced Characters

New characters come into a travel story on a regular basis and it’s important to distinguish them quickly and effectively. This way their story is compelling to the audience.

In this episode the primary new characters were a United States Marshal and his prisoner. They joined the group when the marshal flagged down our heroes’ stagecoach and demanded to ride along. We quickly learned the prisoner was a racist from the south and veteran of the Civil War.

The marshal was a one-dimensional caricature at best; frankly I’d like call him a quarter-dimensional or worse. He lacked even the most basic, white-hat wearing, cartoon hero’s credibility. The villain was no better. They both appeared to be on the show simply to have a good guy and a bad guy. I believed neither as a fully formed person.

Because I wasn’t interested in the new characters, their story did not engage me in any way. It’s important to like the hero and dislike the villain, sure, but if I find neither interesting or realistic, it doesn’t work. I can’t hate or like either one.

Intermeshing Goals

The new characters need to interact with the main characters in a way that advances their arc. That is to say, introduced characters must mesh meaningfully with the established characters in a travel story. It’s not easy to mingle a new story with the main plot and, unfortunately, I thought Around the World failed miserably in this case.

Around the World attempted to have the villainous new character appeal to the base, racist nature perceived in the main character. It didn’t really work for me because Fogg never seemed racist at any point of the story, classist certainly, but not racist. If the appeal focused on the inappropriate relationship of a servant and a well-to-do young woman, I might have found it interesting but that wasn’t the point of the story at all.

Meanwhile the marshal and Passepartout were meant to interact as black men in a racist white world. Again, it seemed ineffective to me. Passepartout didn’t have reason to see the entire world as racist, only that miserable caricature of a villain. I never saw a bond or growth in any of the main characters throughout the episode.

The Conflict

The conflict in the story was a little better although so contrived and ridiculous I didn’t find myself concerned about the outcome. A shootout at the saloon with the bad guys is a staple of westerns and I see what the writers were trying to do. It never came across emotionally to me because the villains and hero never seemed real.

The ending with Fogg and the villain was so contrived it had no impact on me whatsoever. I get the idea. Fogg gaining his courage, but it just did not work for me at all. The villain’s monolog and surrender stirred no emotions.

Playing for Laughs

I must take a moment to talk about the insertion of humor into tense situations. It’s the fourth or fifth time Around the World played a dramatic fight or chase scene for laughs. When Fix flashes the peace sign with a goofy grin and Passepartout goes into his impromptu speech, it seemed to me an attempt at humor and ill-timed to say the least. I’m not sure what’s up with all of that but it’s not working for me.

Conclusion

Another poor episode in my opinion. I don’t think the main characters gained any insight or moved forward. It seemed like a simple attempt to say racism bad. Yeah, well, ok. Count me in on that. Racism is bad, I’m with you. Now, tell a convincing travel story where it emotionally impacts me, not this mess.

Tom Liberman

Finding Good in The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

Instead of talking about what didn’t work in this week’s episode of the Gilded Age, I will focus on the parts that did. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be all smiles and sour candy. I do love me some sour candy but that’s neither here nor there. Now, I reserve the right to contrast the parts that work well with those do not.

This is the third episode of The Gilded Age and I think I’ve got a pretty good feel for the show. It’s not great, frankly it’s not very good, but it has moments. My reviews of Episode One and Episode Two cover lots of things I think didn’t work. So, if you’re looking for witty and critical thoughts, check out those reviews.

Competing Stories

There are an absolute ton of stories going on in the Gilded Age. We go from one unrelated scene to the next with dizzying speed and it’s all I can do to keep up. Really the only thing that makes a difference is the acting. The storylines all meld together and I really don’t care about one more than the other except where the actor makes a difference.

The Best Storyline in the Gilded Age

The most compelling story in the show is likely the least important. Competing story lines include George taking on City Hall, Marion’s love life, Ada’s unexpected suitor, and Peggy’s short stories among many others. Yet, the one that grabs me, the one for which I eagerly await the next scene is Jack’s pursuit of Bridget. Why? Because Ben Ahlers is killing it as Jack.

Ahlers is the only actor who seems capable of ignoring the direction and dialect coaching that plagues this show. Every moment on screen his youthful exuberance and joyful expressions shine through like a beacon on a dark and stormy night. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little but his performance is so vivid and full of life compared to everyone else that it absolutely pops.

Taylor Richardson as Bridget falls into the middle ground. Sometimes she’s bright and enthusiastic like Ahlers but then you can almost see the director come into the room. Less emotion! Less expression! Less tone! Read the lines, don’t say them!

Young Jack gives us more in a single glance at Bridget while attending the Theater Optique then most of the rest of the cast do in the entire series so far. I’m interested because Jack is interesting.

The Second-Best Story

The next most interesting story involves the trials of Gladys Russell. Taissa Farmiga plays her with a wide-eyed innocence that comes across well. As with Richardon’s portrayal of Bridget, at times Farmiga falls prey to wooden block school of acting apparently encouraged on the set of the Gilded Age. That being said, she is often quite endearing and sweet and I am rooting for her eventual coming out party.

It’s clear now said party, with a full Russell ballroom, is being setup as the denouement to season one. That’s a good thing because it means we’ll see more of Farmiga. Sadly, I suspect the ball will be more about Bertha than Gladys. Still, it’s something.

Small Guest Role

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the literary agent’s scene with Peggy at the newspaper. He was extremely effective in portraying the economic impact of institutionalized racism. It was clear he was not a racist himself but also did not possess enough courage to risk his business to fight those who are so.

It was a nuanced performance and I thought the actor handled it perfectly.

Conclusion

I’m afraid that’s about it. No one else is very good and none of the stories are all that interesting because of it. Sure, potentially they could be fascinating studies of the Gilded Age and the people who lived it. Sadly, I’m just not feeling it.

Tom Liberman

Why isn’t Hugh the Villain in All Creatures Great and Small?

All Creatures Great and Small

The latest episode of All Creatures Great and Small featured the return of Hugh. It afforded the writers an opportunity to present a clear villain to contrast with heroic James. They didn’t do so. Perhaps they had a couple of shots where Hugh smiled at the misfortune of James but that’s as far as it went.

Today I want to examine why Hugh is portrayed in this manner and what I think about that choice. It’s an interesting concept because most shows tend to break down the world into simple choices. Good guy versus bad guy. All Creatures Great and Small chose not to go that route.

Who is Hugh?

Hugh was the romantic interest and rival for Helen’s affection from the first season of All Creatures Great and Small. The two were engaged with their marriage marking the season finale. Helen, for various reasons including her affection for James, calls off the marriage at the last moment leaving Hugh at the altar.

The Reappearance of Hugh

Hugh is absent from season two up until now, although he is mentioned several times. This episode starts with James going to Hugh’s estate to ring a young bull. Hugh seems to smile at James’s misfortune with the bull and that leads the audience to believe Hugh is going to play the villain.

It turns out Hugh had the nose ring inserted because he planned to give it bull to Helen’s family as gift in replacement for a bull purchase that fell through as part of an episode in the previous season. He also puts Helen’s name on the farm deed as part of the renewal. Here is where we see Hugh not behaving in a villainous fashion. We learn he’s actually a decent fellow.

The central plot point of the episode is the cricket match between the landed gentry of the region and the local farmers. Hugh is the star bowler for one team while James is a late entry for the local side, although he lacks much experience with the game.

The Big Match

During the match, Hugh has a heartfelt talk with Helen where he admits his own trepidation about their relationship and shows no hard feelings.

In the big match Hugh faces James with the entire game at stake. James allows Hugh to win and rationalizes later to Helen that he felt he owed Hugh a win. Hugh then shakes James’s hand and offers him congratulations for a good game.

Why is Hugh Generous?

This question is the main focus of my blog. Why not make Hugh a monster? He has every right to be angry at James over Helen. Why not have him seek revenge? He might fail to renew the lease. He could purposely hit James with the cricket ball. He can make snide and nasty remarks at James’s expense. He doesn’t, but why?

Certainly, in a lot of other shows, that’s exactly the way they’d portray Hugh. A villain for the sake of comparing him to the hero. How are we to know James is a good guy if we don’t have a bad guy for the sake of comparison?

It’s my opinion the reason Hugh is a good egg is because that’s more realistic. It trusts the audience to understand that sometimes life happens. Just because James is a fine fellow doesn’t mean his romantic rival must be evil. It makes us view Hugh as a human being, not as a caricature of one. It’s nuanced and it’s interesting.

I like it

I think it’s probably pretty easy to guess my opinion on the portrayal of Hugh in All Creatures Great and Small. I think it’s great the writers are willing to trust my judgment. They don’t need to turn the world into tropes and boring cliches.

I don’t need Hugh to be bad to understand James is good. I don’t need James and Helen to be good all the time either. If anyone is a bit petty and angry in this episode, it’s James.

Well done, well done indeed.

Tom Liberman

Around the World in 80 days on an Island

Around the world in 80 Days

I’ve been complaining about Around the World in 80 Days since the start but I’m happy to report I mostly enjoyed this week’s episode. I’m not saying it’s the finest piece of television ever produced but it generally hit the mark despite some enormous plot holes.

Around the World in 80 Days never lacked from actors with talent but the story failed in so many ways we didn’t really get to see them action until this episode. Here we see Fix, Fogg, and Passepartout largely stuck on an island which allows us to learn about them. This is the sort of information that gives an audience reason to care about the characters.

That being said, the episode still has problems. Enough prelude, on with the review.

Stuck on an Island

The main plot structure allows us to learn more about the characters as they are stuck on an island after being forced off the luxury liner. I initially found myself extremely put off by the opening but I’m willing to forgive. The obvious question is; how did they get there?

Apparently, the gun-toting villain rounded up the characters, had them lower the lifeboat into the heavy seas, climb aboard, and launch. All without the crew or other passengers intervening. This is obviously ludicrous and certainly why it wasn’t shown. It makes no sense. But, let’s get past that and discuss character development once our heroes wash ashore on a deserted island.

We learn a great deal about Fogg and his lost love. I’m saddened this information did not find its way into the story until so late in the series. It’s the kind of thing that invests an audience into rooting for a character, to care what happens. Now, Fogg’s story is so pathetic, so weak, that I find him somewhat distasteful rather than heroic but it’s something at least. For the first time I feel for Fogg. I care.

We also get background information into about the friendship between Fogg and the others at the Reform Club after Passepartout correctly surmises who is trying to prevent them from accomplishing the goal. Again, this is really useful information and makes us like the characters. We understand the dynamics between the Fogg and his friends for the first time. This information should have come earlier but we finally get there.

Coming Clean

We also get apologies from all parties. Fogg admits his own failings. Passepartout comes clean about drugging Fogg and Fix admits revealing Fogg’s lost love was not proper. This is real character bonding. We start to actually like the heroes. Again, it took six episodes but we’re here at last.

My next opinion is nitpicky but it bothers me enough that I find myself compelled to mention it. The old British Stiff Upper Lip. Fogg as portrayed by David Tennant is over the top. He screams, yells, and waves his arms all the time. His histrionic banishing of Passepartout just didn’t work for me. I want a cold heat; a burning intensity being suppressed in order to act like a gentleman. I want Fogg to tell off Passepartout with cold, calculating words while heat burns underneath. It came across to me as improper and wrong.

Wrapping Up Around the World in 80 Days

The episode wraps up with all the characters displaying noble traits, working together, sacrificing, and coming through with a triumph. It’s all a little too convenient but it largely works. I’m actually on board with Fix, Fogg, and Passepartout for the first time in the series.

Conclusion

It’s probably too late. I never built up enough emotion for Around the World in 80 Days but at least we finally got some interesting character development and story structure. Having them stuck on the island without competing main plots helped us get here.

The best episode of the series so far. It’s a shame it took so long to get here.

Tom Liberman

The Gilded Age without a Central Support

The Gilded Age

Episode Two of the Gilded Age came and went with a number of the same problems as the premier and new ones to add to my distress. I assure you, dear readers, I want to love this show. I love the time-period portrayed and the many ideas it might explore but it is, so far, failing to rise to the occasion.

This episode carried over the wooden acting from the first episode and failed utterly to focus on a main story. If you read my reviews of Around the World in 80 Days, you’ll remember my complaint about competing main plots. It’s the same here.

Too much was left to happen off-screen as well. We need to see the important things, not be told about them. In any case, on with the review.

No Central Support

This episode had no structure. It was just a series of scenes swirling with a dozen different plot lines. It needed central support. One theme to rule them all, one theme to find them, one theme to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. The interesting part, at least for me, is that there is a central theme to work around. The charity event could easily be the structure upon which the entire episode is based.

The charity event is the subject of the denouement when George defends his wife’s feelings by shutting it down with an ostentatious display of wealth. My problem is that the episode didn’t use the event as a central support by which to drive a compelling plot.

What we Didn’t See

A number of important events happened off screen and we only learned about them via exposition from various characters. This is particularly appalling when you take into account the shortness of the episode at forty-five minutes. Show instead of tell but with time to spare, nope.

The biggest omissions involved the charitable gathering. The coincidence of the event having to switch venues is critical to the entire plot but it’s not explained in any way at all. It just happens. Why not have Bertha or George engineer the conflict? That’s interesting.

Then have a scene involving the picking of a new venue instead of a couple of lines of exposition where the organizers blame each other. We don’t know what is true and what is fabrication. It leaves the audience out of show entirely and it’s extremely frustrating from a viewing perspective.

If we see this, then the scene where Bertha throws her tray becomes significantly more impactful. The next thing we didn’t see is George consoling Bertha and making his grand plan to ruin the event. I want to see George’s love for Bertha, his rage at the snub. Not just the cold finale. I want to see the events that led up to it.

Of less concern is why didn’t we see Mrs. Bauer’s proclivity for gambling at some point? Even a simple background scene where she’s playing cards for money or tossing dice with the handsome young footman. And why didn’t the debt collector want silver candlesticks? They are valuable.

Also perhaps worth noting is Oscar’s eagerness to meet with Gladys. If we are to believe he’s a gold digger then we need to see more of it. It comes across as flat and unreal.

Wooden Acting

The acting continues to be largely, but certainly not completely, atrocious. The on-screen chemistry between Marian and Raikes is only rivalled by the intensity of Anakin and Padmé. You could actually put out of a fire with the sparks that fly between them.

It’s quite interesting to watch because certain actors are good for a few lines but then you can almost see them forcing dialect and becoming stilted and monotone. Oscar is believable and relatable and then utterly monotone and boring all within the same scene. It’s inexplicable.

Mystery for the Sake of Mystery

I also want to take a moment to discuss the plot line involving Mrs. Chamberlain. It’s clear she’s an important figure and her desire to becomes friends with Marian is interesting but totally unexplained. It seems the writers want to keep the viewers out of the loop so they can spring some surprise on us. It’s not a good way to write.

I’m not suggesting the writers need to tell us everything but we need important information. In a mystery you don’t give away the murderer but you also don’t hide the fact that the murderer has a twin sister until the final reveal. You must trust the audience. Give us something. Don’t treat us like idiots.

Conclusion

I’m going to continue watching The Gilded Age because there are a few excellent performances and the time period is fascinating. They need to get cracking though. I’m quickly getting bored.

Tom Liberman

A Dog too Far in All Creatures Great and Small

All Creatures Great and Small

Another week of excellent entertainment from All Creatures Great and Small was marred by a pair of imperfect plot lines. It’s saying a great deal about how much I like the show that the only things I can find to complain about are pretty nitpicky.

In this week’s wonderful episode there is a sick dog that plays only a minor, largely unimportant role, in the conflict and plot. And a missing limp. That’s it, those are my complaints. The problem here is that I’m running out of good things to say about the show. I enjoy it tremendously but I can’t keep writing that week after week.

So, it’s to the dogs!

The Episode of All Creatures Great and Small

We start the episode with Tristan being entrusted to take the lead on his own calls. It’s a big step for him although it’s clear Siegfried, Mrs. Hall, and James all have lingering doubts. In any case, off go Tristan and James to attend to business.

Meanwhile, Siegfried stays back to perform an operation on a dog. The operation is a success, Mrs. Hall lays a blanket by the space heater, the dog is dropped off. The dog whines but Siegfried assures us, that is to say, Mrs. Hall, that the dog is fine and whining is a normal under the circumstances.

In any case, the episode continues. Tristan is filing down the teeth of race horses and is somewhat intimidated by their spirit. He’s kicked in the knee by one of the animals but soldiers through the pain. He spots the daughter of the owner and later maneuvers a date with her for his birthday party.

James continues to struggle with telling Helen about his job offer. Eventually the various plot lines come to a head at the party. Helen already knows about the job offer but she and James have a heartfelt moment to smooth over hurt feelings.

Meanwhile, Siegfried, annoyed by Tristan’s acting performance during the day’s rounds and the whining of the dog reveals that the young man failed his exams. Tristan is crushed. The situation is not resolved but Tristan enjoys some sort of revenge by nicking some of his brother’s good whiskey. I approve, Tristan, I approve.

My Nitpicks

I have two very nitpicky problems with this otherwise excellent episode. I’m honestly more worried about the dog and the damn space heater than I am about Tristan on his own. That’s a problem. Spoiler, there’s nothing wrong with the dog. Siegfried is perfectly correct and the dog is fine despite all the whining and fussing he’ll be doing for the next hour.

It’s entirely possible the writers want us to be worried about the dog only as a way to show that Siegfried, for all his bluster, is an excellent veterinarian. I think that’s a reasonable explanation but it doesn’t solve the issue. I spent almost the entire episode worrying about that dog! Is it going to get burned by the space heater? Was the operation a failure? Is it going to die? Why is whining? Is it going to live? I’m distracted from the main plot.

My other nitpick is even more nitpicky. Why isn’t Tristan hobbling around for the rest of the episode? That horse kicked him right good. I want limps!

Conclusion

The episode illustrates why this show works so well. They continued with the main plot lines built previously while creating episodic conflict. It’s interesting to watch. I’m always eager to find out what will happen next.

A wonderful little sequence occurred at the dinner party when Tristan’s date noted Helen and James sitting next to one another. The date is a good friend of Hugh, who Helen left at the altar. She gets a little snippy with Helen who defends herself but also admits she waited too long to end things and accepts responsibility for the hurt and embarrassment Hugh suffered.

The date apologizes for being snippy and Helen accepts. It’s a scene showing we don’t need Hugh to be a villain and Helen to be a hero in all things. Life is complicated and there isn’t always a good answer. This small scene makes me believe the characters are real people in real situations. That’s the goal in a fictional show, to invest the audience in the lives of the characters.

Well done, despite my nitpicks.

Tom Liberman

Around the World with 80 Coincidentally Helpful Things

Around the world in 80 Days

This week’s episode of Around the World in 80 Days filled me with incredulity from beginning to end. To eliminate suspense immediately, it was not the good kind of incredulity. Almost everything in this episode revolved around either a remarkable coincidence or illogical behavior.

The episode also lacked a clear central theme to anchor the various plot lines. It bounced from one plot to the next and I found none of them particularly compelling. All in all, I’d say this was probably the worst episode of the series so far.

I’m saddened by this episode because it held tremendous potential. All of the competing plot lines had the possibility to be compelling stories on their own but none of them grabbed me. But, enough prelude, onto the review.

Competing Main Plots

A plot in this episode of Around the World revolves around Fogg and his companion’s inability to access money after arriving in Hong Kong. Exciting, huh? Not really and particularly egregious because the other plots are much better.

There is the governor and his wife and her yearning for romance. This is something meaty to grab the heart. Then we delve into vile colonial looting of native relics. That’s something well-worth exploring in detail. Fix’s article exposes Fogg’s lost love and this causes him great embarrassment. That’s drama and character arc for both Fogg and Fix. Good stuff. Lastly is Passepartout’s previous life as a criminal which gets short-shrift indeed.

The problem here is the five ideas are competing for screen time with one another and all of them get a cursory, at best, examination. The episode of Around the World in 80 Days failed to focus on one of its compelling ideas and thus all failed.

Coincidence upon Coincidence

My bigger criticism of this episode is the series of unlikely events that drive the plot. Each one on its own takes me out of immersion as I shake my head, but the endless line of inexplicable actions left me downright peeved.

Once Fogg cannot access his money, we suddenly learn Passepartout speaks Cantonese and is an old acquaintance of high-ranking member of a Chinese Tong. This strains the incredulity because it was not mentioned, nor even hinted at in previous episodes.

Passepartout visits his old friend leaving Fix outside to eat a bowl of soup with chopsticks. I know it’s nitpicky but, seriously, I’ve eaten at Chinese restaurants. They give you one of those flat-bottomed spoons. Frankly, it’s insulting to the Chinese culture.

Fix is trying to eat soup with the chopsticks, comic relief I guess, and the Tong leader asks Passepartout to steal a relic looted by the colonial English. The Tong leader claims he cannot steal it as no Chinese are allowed in the governor’s compound. Only the former thief can do it. It is just so, so unlikely.

Passepartout refuses emphatically as he is not a thief anymore. After the refusal his old friend is apparently ready to kill him but Fix barges in for reasons that are unclear. As writer guy at Pitch Meeting might say when questioned by her appearance, “She barges in because it’s in the script. I wrote it. It’s right here.”

Next our heroes find themselves at the governor’s estate for a party held by the romantically challenged Englishman and his romantically starved wife. In it, Chinese natives act as servants and are seen everywhere. Hmm.

In a stunning coincidence, the governor’s wife brings out the stolen relic and asks Fogg to place around her neck for reasons that are unclear. Passepartout tries to get the governor drunk for reasons that are unclear.

Fogg asks for money and doesn’t get it because it’s important to drive the plot forward. Passepartout, unwilling to steal for money a moment ago, now takes it upon himself to steal the relic. Why? Because it’s in the script, that’s why. The governor’s wife wears the necklace to bed. Ok, whatever, I’ve given up trying to assign rationality to anything that happens.

Passepartout steals the necklace whilst showing off bad-ass ninja skills. Is there anything this man can’t do to forward the plot?

Sometime around midmorning the governor’s wife realizes the necklace isn’t around her neck anymore despite going to bed with it. Immediately it’s decided Fogg stole it because the police find money, in the first place they look, at his quarters.

Cultural Looting is fine when it’s for Love

The governor stole the Chinese relic from the grave because he loves his wife. His wife is romantically fulfilled. Passepartout confesses. I don’t know, I gave up a while ago, I’m not paying a great deal of attention. The governor pardons everyone. There’s a race to stop Fogg from getting flogged. Despite everyone yelling to stop, at precisely noon the first strike is delivered but further punishment is withheld. Yay.

The End

With funds restored our intrepid band boards a liner where Fogg is waylaid by the gun wielding villain. How will he get out of this mess? Maybe Passepartout is actually a time traveler and has a teleportation ray gun. Who knows, who cares?

Tom Liberman

All Creatures Great and Small Episode 1 Review

All Creatures Great and Small

In addition to Around the World in 80 Days we get the first episode of the second season of All Creatures Great and Small. Your faithful blogger is going to have busy Mondays for a few weeks. You can refer to my review of the first season of All Creatures Great and Small here.

I won’t go too deeply into my thoughts on the first season. It was very enjoyable. I anticipated the second season with great hopes but also deep fears. Wrecking a show with sequel seasons is not exactly impossible. However, I’ll dispense with any drama, All Creatures Great and Small is once again great!

Spectacular Opening Scene

I can’t express enough the wonderfulness of the opening scene of All Creatures Great and Small. I’ve written a review of the first episode of Around the World and the opening sequence here is something the writers of that show should commit to memory.

We start off with James working in what is clearly not Darrowby and Siegfried’s surgery. What is going on? Has he left? Drama from the first second without a word of dialog! James finishes splinting kitty’s leg and then all is explained. The veterinarian at this high-tech surgery offers James a job after his two-week stint filling in.

The vet is highly impressed with James and so is the nurse. Conflict! Basically, what is clearly going to be a season long storyline is introduced in the first minute of the episode. This, this, this is how you do it! There is also mention of transferring the practice to pets instead of farm animals, another season-long conflict I suspect.

Now, we know James loves Darrowby and there is no way he’s taking this job. So, what do we do? We give him reasons. His father is ill, his mother wants him home, he has friends, knows the town. Within five minutes of the credits, we have drama, conflict, a season-long story with an unknown outcome.

Then there are the little touches. The nurse is keen on James so a potential love interest is thrown into the mix. The vet is kind and gives James time to think about the job offer. The mother makes a home cooked meal and tries to convince James to stay with the phrase, “Home is where the heart is.”

Meanwhile the father knows his son, he knows James is making his own way and is proud of it. It’s not a black and white decision to stay or go. It’s shades of gray.

This is delicious, delightful. We all know where James’s heart is. Mom says you can’t get home cooking like this in Darrowby but we know Mrs. Hall’s feasts all too well. Yes, mom, I’m afraid he can. Mother is saying one thing but we, the audience, are hearing something entirely different. It’s superb writing. The writers understand the story, the characters. This is how you start a season.

Another Conflict

James arrives back in Darrowby and we find out it’s around Easter thanks to Tristan eating some of the chocolate egg. Simple, effective.

We then cut to Siegfried’s house where Mrs. Hall has embroidered professional credentials on Tristan’s bag. Uh oh, we say to ourselves even before Siegfried tries to stop the plan. We know Tristan hasn’t passed his exam. Another season-long conflict brewing!

The Main Story

Only after setting up the entire season, do we get into the episode. There are two story lines, one involving a dead bird and the other a wayward puppy.

The dead bird allows us a little comic relief, provided as usual by Tristan. I’d like to take a moment to discuss a small touch. Mrs. Tompkins budgie needs its beak clipped. The bird is her only companion these last ten years since she lost her vision. Tristan is on the job. That is until the bird dies.

Now, there are some people in this world, not to name names, who will immediately look up the lifespan of a budgie to see if natural causes are possible or if Tristan just committed parakeetacide. Wikipedia informs people like the aforementioned that a Budgerigar has a lifespan of five to eight years. So, natural causes are perfectly reasonable and poor Tristan did nothing wrong.

It is little touches like this that bring a smile to my face. A writer included the dialog about the bird being a companion for ten years. Someone knows the lifespan of a Budgerigar. It all fits. They took the time to do it right. Doing so isn’t easy but it is appreciated.

Small Problems

My only issues with the episode are nitpicky and unimportant. Having all the sheep passed out was overkill. Anyone would know to train Scruff rather than kill him. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the solution to the problem.

That being said, conflict is necessary and there’s nothing wrong with a little drama to move the story forward.

The Music

I’d like to take a moment to reiterate my thoughts on the music from this show. They don’t shove it down your throat like every other drama. The music is there, quiet, subtle, enhancing a scene. It’s not blaring and distracting. I don’t understand why this is apparently so difficult to understand.

Conclusion

Superb start to the second season of All Creatures Great and Small. I can’t wait for more.

Tom Liberman

Around the World in 80 Days Episode 2 Review

Around the World in 80 Days

I watched the second episode of Around the World in 80 Days and enjoyed it more than the first. This, if you’ve read my first review, is damning with faint praise. Still, I thought this episode showed an understanding of the Hero’s Journey and the structure of a good story even if it didn’t generally succeed.

In this episode our band traverses Italy by train heading toward, well, that is a bit of mystery to me as the geography didn’t make much sense. I’ll get to that later.

The Strangers

We start the episode on a train with a group of Italians led by an industrialist giving a speech and being interrupted by his son who spots our heroes in a balloon. Soon enough the balloon crashes and Fogg, Fix, and Passepartout climb aboard the train where class restrictions send the Frenchman into the rear with the unwashed masses while our heroes enjoy the luxury of privilege.

I was a bit confused about where our heroes got their evening wear but I shall not nitpick too much, it’s not important.

The idea of the main characters encountering strangers and interacting with them is obviously going to be a major theme of Around the World in 80 Days. This requires a deft touch because we only meet people for a short time. I expounded on the problems with this in my review of the first episode in Paris.

This time the situation is handled with greater aplomb. We actually get to meet the father and son while seeing their conflicts first hand. We see the son’s wonder at new inventions and the father’s staid demeanor. This helps later when the two become focal points in the story.

Personal Conflict in Around the World in 80 Days

Conflict makes a story and we have it aboard the train in two ways. First, Fogg is berated by the Italian father for not being much of an adventurer. It’s a good conflict in that it exposes Fogg’s weaknesses but I’m just not sure from whence it came. Why such vitriol? Still, this is actual character development and a good thing. We learn Fogg is insecure about his life and rather timid in nature. Episode one might have spent time developing all of this but at least we’re getting it now.

Meanwhile Passepartout is getting drunk and losing at cards in back. He is upset by his brother’s death, understandable although it came and went so fast, I’m having trouble finding empathy for the Frenchman. Then Abigail Fix arrives on the scene.

Fix begins blathering on and on about how she is independent and doesn’t need a man. This annoys the card players as they simply want to play. It’s an interesting scene but I am confused. Is Fix actually this socially oblivious? If so, why didn’t we see it earlier? In her first scene she seemed to be interacting with the rough and tumble newspaper men with ease and style.

Perhaps Fix is a card sharp who recognized Passepartout’s inept playing and contrived her social ineptitude as a way to limit the Frenchman’s losses without embarrassing him. This is an interesting story idea but, necessarily, we need to know Fix is good at cards. Again, the failures of the first episode of Around the World in 80 Days is haunting us here in the second.

The Bridge is Out!

Conflict is necessary. Sure, the bridge being out is contrived but that’s fine. We writers need to do things like that. Yes, the son’s gaping wound is overkill but I can live with it and it’s necessary for the boy to eventually inspire the despondent Fogg. More on that in a moment.

The reluctant protagonist finding out he has the resources necessary to overcome obstacles shows a firm understanding of the Hero’s Journey. Fogg figures out the load of the train and the support of the remaining track and guides our team, with no small help from Fix and Passepartout, to success.

My problem with this scene is that we didn’t know Fogg was an engineer by trade or at least has significant education in that regard. Maybe it was mentioned in passing at the Reform Club but not with enough emphasis to make me notice. This is the sort of development we needed in the first episode of Around the World in 80 Days.

Nitpicking

I know I said I wasn’t going to nitpick, but I would have simply emptied out the carriage of seats and other heavy items. Then there’s enough coal for the journey. It makes no sense.

In addition, they mention it is six hours back to Rome and two hours to their destination. Rome is basically near the center of Italy and I’m guessing they are heading south to catch a ship across the Mediterranean to Cairo. This indicates a journey to Taranto which is 268 miles from Rome. Now, I’m no engineer but the time scale seems way off to me.

The bankruptcy of Fogg’s fellow Reform Club member and need to create further obstacles is sprung on us too quickly and, frankly, I find it unnecessary. There should be plenty of conflict on the journey without the mysterious villain. Why weren’t the financial troubles mentioned earlier if they are so important? Again, missed opportunities in the first episode.

Fogg the Hero

Eventually they arrive at their destination and Fogg is still despondent for some reason. Fogg just saved the boy’s life; he solved a major obstacle. Why isn’t Fogg elated, ready to take on any adventure? In any case, a quick word from the wounded lad and he’s ready to go again. The writers have the right idea of Fogg needing inspiration, I just thought a lighter touch necessary.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this episode far more than the first. It shows an understanding of story structure, character arc, the Hero’s Journey, conflict, and other elements required for engrossing entertainment. Having said that, it all seemed heavy handed at best.

It gives me hope.

Lego Masters or how to Mess up a Good Idea

Lego Masters

Lego Masters reality show! I can’t tell you how excited I was when I saw the first promotion for this show. Teams of Lego Masters building complicated designs and being judged by professionals in the field? What isn’t to like about that? Elimination competition, cool Lego builds, reality drama! Bring it on! Let’s go! Today, I want the episodes to start now! I want Season Two!

It’s a wreck. I’m willing to admit my hatred of the result is certainly a product of my expectations. I thought it was going to be amazing and it leaves me bored, disappointed, and simply angry at the bad choices they’ve made. If I thought it was going to be awful and it was, I’d shrug my shoulders and move on. After last night’s episode, I’m so triggered that I have to write a blog. So, buckle your seatbelts, prepare for rants, gird your loins, build a Lego fallout shelter; I’m going to explain all the mistakes.

Problem number one is the challenges are completely unfair to the competitors. No one has the same challenge! Seriously. Everyone is given different objectives. The premier episode got it right. They were all to build a section of an amusement park centered around an epic ride. That gives the audience immediate understanding of the challenge and we get to see creative differences immediately arise. Who has a good idea? Who has a bad idea? How does each team implement their plan? Good stuff. We got it for one week.

Week three illustrates the problem. The competitors were given an object to cut in half and they were to fancifully build the second half. The problem? Everyone had different objects. Therefore, it’s completely unfair to the teams and judges. One gets an exciting and dynamic object while another gets a static and dull object. It’s also impossible for the judges to rate the teams. The third problem with this format is that ten to fifteen minutes of the show are wasted showing us each of the different objects for the teams. If there was one object for all to finish that takes a minute, the creativity of the teams is paramount, and judging is based on an equal scale.

It’s not hard. It’s really not. Create a store at a mall. Create a floor in a skyscraper. Create a bucolic country scene for a kid to view while traveling cross country on vacation. You had it right in the first episode and abandoned it. Yarg!!

The second issue is that Will Arnett is performing skits with guest hosts and others for about half the Lego Masters show. Meanwhile we don’t get to see anyone building. In the most recent episode, the winning team had a supervillain and sidekick that were a Pharaoh and Scorpion Queen. This gave them a huge advantage over the Bathtub Guy and Plant Girl team, see above for my rant about that. In any case, we saw them laying the groundwork for their structure and after all the skits and guest host nonsense, we see the finished product! Seriously, almost zero building, zero design, zero planning. Nothing.

The Golden Brick is a disaster. The idea is the team that wins one week gets a Golden Brick they can use to stave off elimination subsequently. They hold the brick for as long as they want. This created an enormous problem last week when the Superhero/Supervillain teams combined builds to make a battle between their original builds. Well, the team that had the Golden Brick had no pressure and the team paired with them and the other teams weren’t on a level playing field. Immunity, fine. But the Golden Brick just doesn’t work this late in the game or when there is a combined team competition. It’s fine for the first couple of weeks, maybe.

I’m willing to give the judges somewhat of a pass because problem number one makes their job all but impossible. Still, I will touch on the idea of their inherent unequal treatment of contestants. Two of the contestants, Aaron and Christian, were significantly more experienced and skilled than most of the other teams. The judges seemed to rate their efforts largely on the idea that their builds should be not better than the other teams, but much better! Anything less than awesome was bad.

This was illustrated in the last episode. Their build was clearly better than poor Bathtub and Plant team, who again, were at a huge disadvantage from the start. Still, the better build should win.

I hope they get Lego Masters right next season because it could be amazing. As it is, it’s unbearably sad to watch.

Tom Liberman

Misspelled Jeopardy Question – Thomas Hurley III

Jeopary Alex TrebekThere’s an interesting story in the news about a young teenager who misspelled the Final Jeopardy question which was ruled incorrect.

The young man told a media outlet in his home town that he was “cheated” out of being given credit for answering the final question correctly.

Money is not at stake but something far more important, accuracy. Thomas Hurley III was not going to win the game in any case. He was far behind the teen who won that particular episode and even if his answer had been ruled correct he would have finished in second place and taken home the exact same amount of money.

What happened is fairly straight forward. In Jeopardy, for those of my readers who don’t know the game, the contestants are supplied with an answer and then must formulate the question. In this case the question should have been, “What is the emancipation proclamation?” In Final Jeopardy contestants must write down their answer as opposed to simply saying it as they do the rest of the game. In this case Hurley wrote, “What is the emanciptation proclamation?” Essentially inserting one extra letter.

The host of the show ruled that answer incorrect. The show’s judges later confirmed this decision. Incorrect decisions by Alex Trebek have been overruled in the past.

His feeling about being cheated is, in my opinion, quite interesting. I could not find any official rules about spelling but the show is notoriously strict about these sorts of things. If the answer was “The First President of the United States” a question of “Who was Washington” would be correct as would “Who was G. Washington” but “Who was J. Washington” would be incorrect. The idea being that you must know the answer generally but also fully. Clearly, anyone who put “Who was J. Washington” meant George Washington. They had the essence of the answer correct but not its detail.

The show does accept phonetic spelling of a word, spelling the word the way it sounds. That was not the case here. I don’t watch the show regularly but reading the comments on the story it seems spelling is a judgment call. Some misspelling are accepted and others not, this might not be true, as again, I couldn’t find any official rule about misspellings.

The comments were generally hostile to Hurley calling him entitled and worse.

I see Hurley’s point here but also see the show’s. Hurley knew the right answer and he misspelled the word by inserting a single extra letter. Trebek felt the extra letter was enough to declare the answer incorrect.

But, as always, I cannot simply comment. I must give my opinion as to who is in the right and who is in the wrong even when the difference is relatively narrow. In this case I side with the show. It is their show, their rules, and Trebek is the initial arbiter. If the answer was wrong, in even the most minor way, they have the right to rule it incorrect. However, I do think they should apply that rule across the board. If one spelling mistake is wrong then all spelling mistakes, except intentional phonetic spellings, are wrong.

As for Hurley, I don’t have as much hate and derision as the internet seems to have for him. He knew the answer, misspelled the word very slightly, and certainly wasn’t complaining about money, simply about what was right. In this case I think he misses the point but not by much. It was a minor technicality and in life getting the answer correct is often the most important thing.

If you feel you were cheated then you should speak up. If the situation is investigated by the proper authorities and it is determined you were not cheated, then it’s time to move on with life. I’m sure that’s exactly what Hurley will do.

No harm, no foul. Jeopardy gets some publicity and Hurley gets a lesson about complete accuracy. Not a bad outcome in the end.

Tom Liberman