Ian Thomas Malone

TV Reviews Archive

Tuesday

15

November 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Crown wallows in an annus horribilis of its own making

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

The general logic behind rotating the cast of The Crown every two seasons was to give the show a chance to cover the spread of major events in the Royal Family across the long and storied reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The transition in practice is a bit clunkier, with the need to reacquaint the audience with the characters gunking up the narrative flow of the show. A further complication stems from the reality that The Crown is slowly creeping up on recent history, particularly one saga that’s been covered ad nauseam for the past few decades.

Season five centers its narrative on decay. The Crown is quite preoccupied with positioning the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia as a broader narrative for the downward trajectory of relevance for the Royal Family as a whole, a notion that might confuse viewers fresh off the triumphant Platinum Jubilee, as well as the global outpour of affection following the death of Her Majesty in September. The fairly rosy outlook for the monarchy was hardly a given in the midst of 1992’s infamous “annus horribilis,” which saw the breakdown of 75% of the Queen’s children’s marriages as well as a tragic fire in Windsor Castle.

The overabundance of doom and gloom illustrates season five’s predominant shortcoming, a textbook example of showing without telling. Bad things happen to the monarchy and the Queen (Imelda Staunton) is very sad about it. She loses her boat, her kids get divorced, and Diana is tricked into going on national television to pull back the curtains as to what an uncaring and unsympathetic family the Windsors really are. That’s kind of it. The Queen doesn’t really do anything other than mope and cling to the past, even with regard to her choices in cable television. 

Previous seasons of The Crown, particularly the third season, struggled with Her Majesty’s place in a narrative that often found her relatives far more interesting to depict. Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and Margaret (Leslie Manville), once primary focuses of the series, are reduced to idle background characters, the former seeing his primary arc consumed with carriage riding and a friendship with Penelope Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) that the show rather openly wishes was more than that. The Crown retains its contempt for the Queen Mother (Marcia Warren), one of the most interesting members of the family who’s been reduced to a window draping for the entire course of the series.

The Crown also refuses to let its fascination with the Duke of Windsor slip away, giving the long-dead former monarch an epilogue in the form of his valet Syndey Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), who later served Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) in his efforts to ingratiate himself to the Crown. Episode three perhaps best highlights the main issue for the season as a whole, a narrative so strapped for plotlines that it would dedicate a full episode to the father of the man who died in the same car crash that killed Princess Diana. Such screentime might have been better deployed to the Queen’s three other children. After a season of relative prominence, Anne (Claudia Harrison) is reduced to almost complete obscurity, while Andrew and Edward barely exist at all.

Unsurprisingly, season five dedicates much of its runtime to the end of the marriage between Charles (Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki). The biggest problem with this dynamic is the reality that the show brought upon itself. The irrevocable breakdown of the marriage was already defined throughout season four, leaving this season with little but the epilogue. There are interesting moments here and there in the saga, particularly toward Diana’s mindset heading into the Panaroma interview that was solicited under false pretenses, but there’s not enough meat here to carry a season. Debucki does a fabulous job as Diana, but she’s hardly given many moments to define the Princess of Wales as her own like Emma Corrin was able to manage.

West is perhaps in the most strenuous position among the leads, portraying the future King of England in the midst of his most unlikable era. Along with Pryce, West suffers from an inability to truly sink into the role, neither actor able to deliver an accent that sounds much like their subject. Charles is fundamentally correct in most of his concerns about the future of the monarchy, but nothing can change how insufferable and entitled he fundamentally comes across as. Late-season remarks by Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) lay out the challenges with Charles quite well.

The Crown spends its own annus horribilis oddly bored with itself, a meandering season without the passion it once evoked toward its privileged subjects. There’s nothing new to explore and nothing fresh to say about Diana and Charles. As much as stagnancy may have defined this chapter of the Royal Family, it’s hard to forgive the show’s exceedingly boring delivery. As an institution, The Crown will always have to deal with the “why” of monarchy, an existential moral question with real-world implications. As a show, The Crown might want to take a more deliberate approach to its own execution and present a better thesis for its own existence. 

Monday

24

October 2022

2

COMMENTS

House of the Dragon delivers a gripping finale that brings its first season full circle.

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

House of the Dragon headed into its first finale with one simple mandate. All the chaotic time-jumps and recastings that threw ample hurdles at an audience just trying to learn its characters’ names served the singular purpose of getting all the pieces in place for the main event, the last dance, to borrow a phrase from Michael Jordan’s documentary that saved America from boredom in the early days of Covid. Episode ten, appropriately titled “The Black Queen,” had to deliver a suitable rationale for letting a family squabble devolve into a realm-shattering war.

The absence of the Dragonstone crew from the previous episode embodied a broader problem for the show’s back half. Rhaenyra functioned early on as the closest thing to a definitive lead for House of the Dragon, lacking a clear counterpart like the dynamic between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, the ice and fire. House of the Dragon had to clear over a decade of backstory before it could introduce characters like Aegon and Aemond, vital figures for the rest of the events of the series. “The Black Queen” gave the show a chance to come full circle, resolidifying Rhaenyra as the emotional core of the series.

Emma D’Arcy showed off their range repeatedly throughout the episode, Rhaenyra contending with the deaths of her father, stillborn daughter, and second son all while preparing for war in the infancy of her reign. Rhaenyra’s coronation was easily the most moving scene of the season. The acting, score, and cinematography demonstrated the Westerosi sense of awe and wonder at its best, a high point for the entire franchise. Matt Smith beautifully captured the reverence that Daemon holds for his wife, even as he bristles with restraints on his appetite for control.

The episode did highlight the show’s broader disconnect toward how its own characters might be received over the course of its sprawling, chaotic season. The defection of Kingsguard member Ser Erryk Cargyll delivered an emotional moment when he revealed the crown he spent much of the previous episode acquiring, putting himself in opposition to his brother Arryk. There’s easy sympathy to be had in the idea of twin brothers going to war against each other, but Erryk and Arryk have received such little screen time that it’s hard to care much about them as characters.

A similar predicament befalls the scene between Corys Velaryon and Rhaenys Targaryen, the former lamenting the current state of his family. House Velaryon has had a mess of a season, with plotlines such as Corys’ effort to marry his prepubescent daughter to an old man, the marriage of his closeted homosexual son to Rhaenyra, and the execution of his younger brother for stating the blatantly obvious reality that his grandchildren from that marriage did not possess an ounce of Velaryon blood. It’s hard to take House Velaryon seriously when the show remains so hellbent on making them the patsy for every storied Westerosi pastime such as incest and adultery.

Anyone who’s read the novellas that make up Fire and Blood would be excited for Lucerys’ ill-advised trip to Storm’s End, a plan so stupid that House of the Dragon wisely chose not to spend much time explaining it. After an extended sequence where Daemon hurled excessive amounts of exposition into Westerosi geography, the show wisely didn’t try to explain Rhaenyra’s senseless decision to send her young children as envoys to anyone other than reliable allies. Lucerys did not really travel to earn the support of House Baratheon, but to get killed by his uncle, giving his mother a worthy excuse to go to war against the Green’s.

Lucerys didn’t make much of an impression in his limited screen time, but Ewan Mitchell seized every opportunity to endear Aemond to the audience. The beautiful sequence of the behemoth Vhagar chasing down the much smaller Arrax represented some of the best special effects we’ve seen from either House of the Dragon or its predecessor. The audience doesn’t need to care that a young boy was senselessly murdered, not when his uncle is the far more compelling character.

House of the Dragon concludes its first season on an extremely high note. It is more than fair to acknowledge the reality that this season would have worked better with two or three additional episodes given the amount of ground it covered. Ten episodes is an arbitrary number, and the cost is hardly a concern for a flagship HBO offering.

The highs of “The Black Queen” ultimately demonstrate House of the Dragon’s ability to stick the landing. Things may have been rushed, but the show delivered in its efforts to set the stage for the dance. Time will provide a better rubric to evaluate the pacing issues throughout the season, but the show did a fantastic job establishing the stakes of its premise.

Tuesday

18

October 2022

0

COMMENTS

House of the Dragon soars above its vacuous source material

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

House of the Dragon may very well be the most expensive television show ever born out of a procrastination project. Largely based on the novella The Princess and the Queen and its prequel The Rogue Prince, published originally in the anthologies Dangerous Women and Rogues respectively, both edited by George R.R. Martin and his late friend Gardner Dozois, the depiction of the Dance of the Dragons was less a fully realized world than a side project by an author hellbent on doing anything other than finishing The Winds of Winter. The repackaging of said novellas along with some other material as Fire and Blood gives the whole project a sense of grandeur that covers up what’s largely a shameless cash grab by Martin’s publisher, understandably thirsty for some new Westeros content.

The main books in A Song of Ice and Fire presented their chapters through varying point-of-view characters, giving the readers an intimate first-hand perspective into the people we’d grown to love and hate, sometimes both. The novellas that make up House of the Dragon were presented through the lens of Archmaester Gyldayn, an elusive unreliable narrator. The execution of the text put a fair bit of distance between such legendary figures in Westerosi lore as Daemon and Aemond Targaryen, and the audience gobbling up these morsels of story. House of the Dragon has far less concrete substance to work with than its predecessor Game of Thrones.

 Part of the beauty of Thrones was the show’s need to juggle seemingly countless strands of plot within its ten-episode seasons. Fans scoured the opening credits to see which characters would appear in the episodes, screen time serving as the ultimate limited commodity. House of the Dragon couldn’t be more different, with a limited cast of characters predominantly set in King’s Landing. Without the benefits of Thrones’ frequent changes in scenery, HotD has had to double down on the gritty mechanics of television storytelling to fuel its narrative, wisely sparsely deploying its greatest asset in the realm of spectacle, the titular dragons that prompted HBO to favor this narrative over competing spin-off concepts.

House of the Dragon is less a Game of Thrones spinoff than a Westerosi adaptation of Succession, another HBO crown jewel. Like Succession, HotD features a large family wielding capitalism’s most nepotistic instincts in service to selfish goals no reasonable human being should care about. Television doesn’t need to care about right or wrong. It’s fun to watch attractive bad people doing naughty things. HotD isn’t an existential fight for survival against unthinkable evil like Game of Thrones, but a petty family squabble between people with the fantasy equivalent of nuclear weapons.

Showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik pulled off an immensely impressive feat with season one. House of the Dragon lacks practically every defining attribute that made its predecessor great, but the steady narrative pacing and first-rate acting allowed the show to succeed on its own merits independent of the broader spectacle. The show managed to get its audience invested in characters even amid a clunky time jump that saw two of its leads, both its princess and its queen, recast midway through the season.

The early first-rate performances by Milly Alcock and Emily Care as Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower might have presented a lot of problems for Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, tagging in midway through in a confusing narrative with a cast of characters with oddly similar names. House of the Dragon is the rare kind of show where you actually feel for the characters without necessarily needing to identify them all. The legend of Daemon Targaryen manifests itself through Matt Smith’s uncannily minimalistic performance, commanding all the attention in a room with a single smirk.

One doesn’t need to pick a side between the “Greens” and the “Blacks” to feel for the patriarch ushering in his own family’s demise. King Viserys Targaryen slowly withers away over the course of the season, but Paddy Considine delivers every line with the grief of a dying man faced with a horde of relatives who hate each other. It’s surprisingly easy to relate to this collection of selfish incestuous royals and the oligarchs who feed off their scraps.

Unlike its predecessor, the audience can tune into House of the Dragon knowing how all of this is going to end, who’s going to kill who, and who’s going to lose an eye for implying their cousins are bastards. There is a surprising level of dramatic tension for a show without the benefit of natural suspense. HotD is a lot slower than its predecessor, but there’s ample beauty to be found in the ways that the cast manages to bring its meager source material to life. Game of Thrones was a great show based on a great series of books. HotD is a great show based off Martin’s various procrastination musings thoroughly content with their own mediocrity. The latter is unlikely to leave a lasting impression on popular culture, but it might end up being the more impressive piece of work when all of this is said and done.

Tuesday

11

October 2022

2

COMMENTS

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law confidently grows into Marvel Studio’s best television series

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Phase Four should be the greatest time to be a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The sprawling, seemingly-interconnected franchise carries the aura of being stuck in a rut, with frontline entries falling flat from meandering scripts and an overabundance of ugly green screens. Marvel Studios still hasn’t established a cohesive vision for its post-Endgame fare, sending its established television heroes on entertaining, if not inconsequential affairs (Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, Hawkeye). WandaVision, its crowning TV achievement, saw its thesis completely undone by the mess that was Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Other entries such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Ms. Marvel succeeded largely by doing their own thing, only loosely grazing the peripheral vision of the vast broader world.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law essentially splits the difference between the two camps of Marvel Studios TV efforts, a series focusing on a brand-new character that feels like it firmly exists in the MCU’s present. Borrowing heavily from Ally McBeal, the show leans heavily on Marvel’s penchant for humor while rewarding superfans who spend time in every nook and cranny of the MCU, making stuff like the eminently forgettable The Incredible Hulk feel relevant again. Comic books as a genre always try to serve two distinct audiences in diehard fans as well as those potentially picking up a series for the first time. She-Hulk feels like the first Marvel Studios series to really play for both at the same time.

Despite its abundance of MCU heroes, the series largely succeeds off the strength of Tatiana Maslany’s performance in the title role. Reluctantly thrown into the deep end of the superhero world, Jen Walters is a great conduit for the viewer to experience all the chaos, sharing the space with established MCU favorites such as her cousin Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Wong (Benedict Wong), and Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) without ever ceding agency to her own narrative. For a show firmly rooted in sitcom humor, She-Hulk displays remarkable restraint toward not overplaying the gags, especially the title character’s long history of breaking the fourth wall. Thor: Love and Thunder could’ve learned a thing or two from She-Hulk’s responsible attitude toward the role of comedy in its narrative.

Many of the Marvel Studio TV series have suffered from Disney’s self-imposed mandate of six-episode seasons that every other live-action show after WandaVision has followed. She-Hulk benefits from a bit of breathing room for Walters’ transition from lawyer to super-lawyer. At times, the show does feel a bit like it’s being engineered for a different era, riffing off shows like Ally McBeal that benefited from then-standard twenty-two+ episode seasons. The mechanics of television production call for characters like Nikki (Ginger Gonzaga) and Pug (Josh Segarra) to occasionally be treated like actual cast members with their own B-plots, but the show doesn’t have much interest in such antics beyond brief fourth-wall gags.

Nine episodes is a weird, completely arbitrary number of episodes for a formula like She-Hulk. The idea of a sitcom functioning like a prestige series makes sense for this unprecedented streaming era that doesn’t need to care about things like episode length. Seasons could function that way too if the heavy hands of capitalism weren’t guiding Disney’s every move. The space afforded to She-Hulk allowed the series time to hit its stride, giving the audience a chance to endear itself to both the characters and the world that’s been lovingly crafted over the season.

Episodes like the penultimate “Ribbit and Rip” demonstrate the flip side of this equation. The return of Matt Murdock to the Daredevil costume for the first time since his own Netflix series was unceremoniously canceled in 2018 was an epic comeback completely out of left field, a tonal change for the darker character that felt completely natural due to Maslany and Cox’s instant chemistry. Daredevil’s return demonstrates just how keenly the entire operation understands the pulse of its audience.

She-Hulk could have easily suffered under the weight of its many sitcom tropes and excessive cameos, but the show rests comfortably on Maslany’s big green shoulders. She-Hulk is Phase Four’s crowning achievement thus far. We still don’t really know where the MCU is headed in its post-Infinity Stone era, besides some inevitable multiverse cameo shenanigans. She-Hulk’s sense of confidence makes it easy not to care where this is all headed, a show that’s never forgotten that it’s not the Endgame that matters, but the journey along the way.

Thursday

1

September 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power gives Prime Video its streamer standard-bearer

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The modern streaming era churns out more content than any single person would be able to watch. Television has largely moved on from the idea of water cooler shows, collective pop culture consciousness fading away in favor of tribes divided by individual subscription services that families often begrudgingly add to their budgets. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power represents Jeff Bezos’ best effort to reverse that trend, a billion-dollar gamble to produce a television show too massive to ignore.

Spectacle is The Rings of Power’s best asset. For all the money invested in a single television season, the show does succeed in its effort to be one of the most beautiful series ever made. With many of its rivals cutting corners on cheap green screens, The Rings of Power wields its on-location filmmaking and beautiful practical sets to invoke a natural sense of awe and wonder from its audience. Middle Earth feels like a living breathing entity.

Of course, prestige television cannot sustain itself on gorgeous cinematography alone. The original Lord of the Rings trilogy was powered by the true fellowship (pun intended) of its characters. The Rings of Power has a diverse cast that’s fairly spread out over Middle Earth, the show lacking a “Council of Elrond” moment where all the principals were together in the same spot. Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is himself a main character, a wide-eyed diplomat still trying to find his place in the world, but the main elf at the center of the action is the not-yet-Lady Galadriel (Morfydd Clark).

Galadriel, caught in a similar pull between Middle Earth and the comforts of dreamy Valinor as Arwen was in the original trilogy, supplies much of the interesting action in the show’s first two episodes. The Arwen/Aragorn dynamic is on full display with a relationship between Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a human apothecary, and Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), an elvish archer stationed in the Southlands in a posting that’s much to the resentment of the humans in the region. The show’s frantic pacing doesn’t give much time to the colonialist sentiments introduced, but the material is presented in a far more digestible manner than Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or his similarly dense appendices.

The show is lacking a bit in levity, some supplied by the Harfoots (Hobbits in need of a better deep conditioner) and by King Durin IV (Owain Arthur), an eccentric dwarf and estranged friend of Elrond. The Harfoots are probably the most interesting to watch, young halflings Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) sparking the wide-eyed sense of curiosity that high fantasy tends to elicit when done properly. In keeping with the traditions of the genre, there’s far too much going on to keep up with, but it’s also fairly refreshing to see a massive show not intentionally weigh itself down with too much exposition.

The Rings of Power does suffer a bit from an unevenly defined sense of purpose. Sauron is hinted at as the show’s true big bad, but the show doesn’t have anything like the original material’s clearly stated mission to guide its narrative. The first two episodes don’t exactly do the best job of outlining what this show is about, a dynamic that would be a bigger problem if it wasn’t so beautiful to watch.

The lack of true narrative purpose stands in stark contrast to Bezos’ own mission for The Rings of Power, which carries the heavy mandate of needing to be Prime Video’s standard bearer in the streaming wars. Anything less than global popularity on the scale of Game of Thrones or Stranger Things would essentially represent a billion-dollar failure. Global phenomena can’t exactly be willed into existence, but capitalism is banking on a Lord of the Rings-style booster rocket to try and prove otherwise.

The Rings of Power needs more time to flesh itself out, but Bezos delivered on his mandate to produce the most beautiful show on television. TV is once again shooting for the stars instead of hiding behind hideous green screens to fuel the content mill. This show isn’t perfect, but you do get the sense that it is sincerely trying to be a spectacle. That sheer ambition alone is a sight to behold.

The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power were screened for review

Monday

21

March 2022

1

COMMENTS

Big Brother Canada is the best reality show on television right now

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Most successful reality television works best when operating in the realm of mindless escapism, beautiful people doing terrible things to each other in luscious locations. Big Brother stakes its territory out in the pages of Foucault’s seminal classic Discipline & Punish. The Panopticon comes to life within the confines of the Big Brother house, where the world can tune at any hour of the day to watch a bunch of strangers stuck together with nothing to do but stab each other in the back.

Season 10 of Big Brother Canada followed shortly after the conclusion of the third season of the American Celebrity Big Brother, a golden opportunity for those of us who felt more than a bit underwhelmed by the poor quality of play in CBB, where many of the contestants barely understood what show they were on, leaving themselves easy marks for winner Miesha Tate and her primary ally, runner-up Todrick Hall. Big Brother is anything but easy, months of isolation from the outside world, unstable nutrition, and terrible sleeping conditions.

The Big Brother Canada house sets itself apart from other iterations of the show with its commanding beauty. Canada gives its houseguests significantly more space than its neighbors to the south, the season 10 buildout looking like a postmodern casino warehouse pop-up. With plenty of rooms to plot schemes, “BB Can,” as it’s affectionately referred to, manages to keep the drama elevated without the sense of claustrophobia favored in other versions. 

There have been more than 500 different seasons of Big Brother across the world since the show’s launch in 1999. Patterns tend to develop with that kind of longevity, even putting aside the fact that the American and Canadian versions follow a different set of rules than the rest of the world. The jocks of the house tend to align early on, making easy targets of the lone wolves, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Efforts to introduce a more inclusive cast of houseguests haven’t done all that much to fundamentally alter the status quo of this reality.

What sets Big Brother Canada apart from its American counterpart is the relentless way its houseguests actually engage in the game. It’s easy for the flow of the house to feel inevitably pointed in one direction, where the strongest competition players are able to control the tempo until the time comes for them to turn on each other. Twists rarely happen early on.

Season 10 of Big Brother Canada delivered some of the juiciest drama in BB history, just in its third week. Head of Household Kyle Moore sat pretty on top of his alliance, the wind at his back. HoH Icarus took one look at the sun and decided to take his chance to cement his reign as one for the ages. In a game where no one should trust anyone, Kyle began to target his own alliance for no apparent reason.

Tolstoy wrote with great skepticism about the power of generals to use their sheer force of will to conquer throughout War and Peace. Reality spares little time for the whims of men who sit in cushy chairs far removed from the action. The proletariat houseguests are used to falling in line, lest they find themselves next on the chopping block, but emperors cannot simply force their will into existence.

Kyle reaping the fruits of his disastrous HOH run. Courtesy of Big Brother Canada live feeds.

Big Brother Canada finds such beauty in the simple mechanics of the game. Kyle initially nominated Stephanie Paterson and Moose Bendago, both key allies, for eviction. When Moose won the Power of Veto competition, Kyle saw a chance to go down in history by turning his fire on another ally, Josh Nash, widely viewed as one of the strongest competitors in the game. The seeming inevitability of Josh’s fate came up against his sheer force of will to stay. Campaigning for his life, Josh pulled off a stunning upset in the eviction ceremony, a 9-2 vote that sent a visibly shocked Stephanie home. Season 10’s eighth episode seems destined to go down as one of the most thrilling episodes in the entire franchise’s long and storied history.

How often is reality TV capable of genuine excitement? BB live-feed diehards find joy in the often-mundane nature of the game. Big Brother is a marathon, not a sprint, but for large chunks of the time, it can barely feel like much of an actual competition. That’s where Big Brother Canada distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack. The houseguests came not merely to survive Big Brother, but to play Big Brother. 

A game based on treachery and deception deserves houseguests willing to perpetually sharpen their knives. Big Brother Canada is vastly superior to its American counterpart through its commitment to engaging in the ugliness of humanity’s baser instincts. Americans aren’t used to being bested in the reality-TV category, but our neighbors to the north certainly have us beat on this front. BB diehards should not sleep on this amazing season. 

Friday

25

February 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Book of Boba Fett never makes the leap from product to art

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, Star Wars, TV Reviews

Science fiction often carries its greatest impact through the genre’s ability to invoke a sense of awe and wonder. The cantina scene in the original Star Wars practically changed cinema all its own, a dazzling display of creativity and world-building. Throughout his time at the helm of the franchise, George Lucas placed a heavy emphasis on world-building, to take his audience to places they’ve never seen before.

Disney loves its piles of rocks and sand. As if Tatooine wasn’t enough of a remote desert wasteland, Star Wars threw cheap knockoffs Jakku and Navarro at the audience to switch things up. There’s a certain obvious joke to be made at how Boba Fett saw the show that bears his name co-opted by The Mandalorian, but it was never really his show in the first place. The Book of Boba Fett was always The Book of Tatooine.

Why go to another planet when you can film a whole season using only a sandbox and a green screen? Seven episodes is hardly a long season, but Disney struggled to come up with enough plot for even that amount for its empty shell of a show, choosing instead to give up halfway through in favor of The Mandalorian season 2.5. Apparently that’s life in the streaming era. When things aren’t working, just make episodes of a different show and pretend it’s still The Book of Boba Fett. The whole mess is certainly fitting for a character who had four lines in the original trilogy.

Temuera Morrison can hardly be faulted for an occasionally wooden performance. The Book of Boba Fett never laid out any clear vision for what it wanted Fett to be, a menacing bounty hunter turned morally righteous crime lord. Ming-Na Wen gets even less to work with as Fennec Shand, an alliance seemingly born solely out of the idea that she might be fun for the spin-off.

It’s easy to see the logic. Morrison and Wen have a natural, easy chemistry that was pretty apparent from their first pairing. The premise of the show should have followed suit, staying out of its own way to let two bounty hunters do what they do best. Instead, the gang plot often played second fiddle to Fett’s silly Sarlacc and Tusken Raider flashbacks, dragging down a narrative that never seemed to find its footing. The show even managed to botch introducing a character like Black Krrsantan, popularized in Kieron Gillen’s excellent Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra comics, neutering the wookie in service to absurdly silly Mos Espa politics.

There was something oddly depressing about watching Fett and Mando stand in a wide-open street being shot at during the finale, a fitting metaphor for the state of Star Wars under the Disney regime. Both men could easily use their jet packs to seek more advantageous tactical positions, but they don’t, for no reason at all. Too often, The Book of Boba Fett comes across as the product of a brainstorming session that lasted five minutes, with no critical thought or pushback applied to a single decision.

Disney left its content farm out in Tatooine’s suns for far too long, a wilted mess of a commodity masquerading as a television show. What a sad showing, not just for Star Wars, but for art itself. There is no reason on the planet why this show needed to be this bad.

Boba Fett is not the most interesting character in the world. He barely qualifies as an actual character in the original trilogy, an enigma that lent itself well to stories children play with their action figures. That kind of dynamic could have worked well for The Book of Boba Fett, especially with the Nikto gang and their ridiculous speeder bikes that look like toys from a different playset. You could probably make better Boba Fett stories in a local playground sandbox, which just needs a green screen to complete the Tatooine look.

All blockbuster franchises are products, even the ones that are crafted with love. That’s the problem with The Book of Boba Fett. It never looks like something anyone enjoyed making. Star Wars doesn’t need an artistic mandate, but maybe a little effort would be nice. It’s hard not to feel sad that this abomination exists.

Monday

29

November 2021

0

COMMENTS

South Park: Post COVID is an imperfect step in the right direction

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There’s a certain irony in the accusations of declining quality that have been levied against The Simpsons right around season twelve, which aired more than twenty years ago, as fellow stalwarts of the adult animation genre such as Family Guy, American Dad!, and Bob’s Burgers have all hit that number. Old age is no longer an outlier. With 23 seasons under its belt, South Park has managed to stay culturally relevant in a way that sets it apart from its contemporaries, largely due to the show’s narrative emphasis on current events.

It’s been over two years since South Park released a full season’s worth of material. South Park: Post COVID is the first of 14 planned hour-long features for Paramount+, following the two pandemic-themed specials produced for Comedy Central in 2020 & 2021. One can certainly understand Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s reluctance to try and return to normalcy in a world that is anything but normal. Both Comedy Central specials demonstrated the challenges of operating under the cloud of COVID, neither producing enough humor to carry their elongated runtimes.

Post COVID is set forty years in the future, a world that finally managed to conquer the virus. The time jump provided a much-needed breath of fresh air, giving a glimpse of an America fully reliant on plant-based foods, advanced AI, and far too many streaming services. For a show that’s been desperate to get away from the news of the day, centering its narrative on the murder of the now-adult Kenny McCormick offered the show a chance to ground itself in one of its oldest gags.

While Parker & Stone rarely speak fondly of the increasingly serialized seasons, Post COVID demonstrates some of the sharper takeaways from that era. South Park plays the long game well, possessing a deep bench of endearing characters constructed over the past few decades. The chance to see them all grown up after all this time in fourth grade hit the right balance of touching, sad, and amusing, an accurate reflection of the challenges of crafting comedy against reality’s hellish backdrop.

The hour-long runtime also gave the show a chance to stretch its narrative legs without needing to deliver as many jokes. The characters mostly steer clear of spending the episodes on nostalgia, avoiding their own “member-berries,” while laying down the groundwork for over a dozen subsequent Paramount+ specials. It’s not the South Park we’re used to, but it’s admirable to see Parker & Stone shoot for a higher sense of purpose than mere reactionary comedy. The show’s pacing was quite strong, building up a new status quo that’s quite easy to get behind.

Post COVID’s biggest problem lies with its inability to move on from repetitive humor. The characters frequently openly remark that they’re in the future, a gag that quickly grows old. Another overused bit centers on Jimmy’s comedy career, ostensibly designed to poke fun at overly-PC comedy that starts to serve instead as a sign of the writers’ inability to craft new material. The character-based jokes fair far better.

Parker & Stone have often expressed a desire to move away from the show’s heavy emphasis on ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling toward the broader silliness that encapsulated its early years. Recent seasons haven’t shown much desire to follow through on those intentions, as the past few seasons retained a strong preference for reactionary-based narratives. Perhaps the show doesn’t really want to acknowledge that its contemporary relevance is almost completely owed to its inane ability to respond to modern culture in seemingly real-time. Even if it would rather not, South Park is far-better suited to speak on the state of the world than The Simpsons or Family Guy.

Though far from perfect, Post COVID is a decent start to the Paramount+ era and the strongest effort from the show in a few years. The pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, but South Park demonstrated that the awful state of the world can coexist alongside its broader narrative intentions. It’s not necessarily the show that we all wanted, but there’s still life in that quiet mountain town.

 

Monday

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October 2021

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‘You’ Season Three Review: The Suburbs Are a Welcome Change of Pace

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

The more things change, the more things stay the same. You centers its narrative around a deeply damaged man, unable to completely wrestle control of his life from the trauma that’s acted like an anchor throughout his existence. Joe Goldberg is not a good person, but Penn Badgley plays him with such a purposeful sense of glee that it’s hard not to be captivated by his world.

Season three presents an opportunity for Joe and Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) to move on from their murderous ways. Happily married with a baby and a nice house in Madre Linda, a quiet generic suburb full of athleisure-adorned people constantly checking their gluten intake, the two have a seemingly picturesque life, one that makes it easy to forget how close one of them was to murdering the other last season. You makes a welcome pivot away from Joe’s stalkerish inclinations, but the delectable psychological thriller wouldn’t be the same without some fresh bodies to hide.

The change in scenery works wonders for the show. Gone are the cliched publishing characters and the unintentionally realistic predatory comedians who dragged down the show’s strong writing. Madre Linda is hardly a bastion of originality as a location, ripped straight from a Lululemon fever dream, but the town is populated with grounded, three-dimensional characters. Season three has by far the show’s strongest supporting cast.

As local librarian Marienne, Tati Gabrielle delivers the strongest performance of all the newcomers, one of the few characters who actually feels like a real person and not a walking cliché. The more superficial characters work pretty well too. Neighbors Sherry (Shalita Grant), Cary (Travis Van Winkle) and Matthew (Scott Speedman) break through their superficial introductions. Madre Linda often feels like a Foucaldian panopticon, the depth of the characters giving the town a lived-in quality that conveys its suffocating nature.

Season three works best when Joe and Love are on the same page. Badgley and Pedretti have wonderful chemistry, making it so easy to root for a relationship that should not exist. Even putting the attempted murder aside, the two are not a good fit, but the show sells it so well that you believe in them.

Of course, You is not the story of balanced people looking to put in the hard work toward building a happy future together. Conflict is inevitable for couples, especially within the confines of a television season that needs drama to fuel the narrative. The show has a lot of fun exploring the pitfalls of picturesque lives, demonstrating the challenges of engineering a happy life even when all the pieces seemingly fit together.

The ten-episode season does hit some pacing snags, particularly in the back half, at least two episodes longer than it needs to be. Few shows do a better job answering any plot questions their audience might have. There are several times across the season where the story takes a head-scratching turn, only for the show to confront this dynamic an episode later. You might be the most self-aware show on television, perpetually nimble in addressing its own narrative shortcomings.

There’s a lot of natural goodwill that stems from the show’s ability to gauge its own perception. You may not always agree with the way You structures itself, but it’s the kind of production that clearly values the intelligence of its audience, with a few exceptions. Joe and Love’s marriage in particular is a vulnerable dynamic, relying a bit too hard on the confines of the traditional family structure when there are bumps in the road.

There is another point where Love vents about the burdens placed on young mothers to remain sexually desirable for her husband while also juggling a career and a newborn child. Trouble is, the baby is little more than a prop for either Love or Joe. The bakery that Love opens early on the season is an outlandishly low priority, a new business with few customers and seemingly no overhead. Money is only a problem when You wants it to be, which is to say, rarely.

You occasionally struggles with putting forth a case for why Joe and Love should be together, a lie that countless people have told themselves while in unhappy marriages. The show doesn’t want them to be blissfully in love, for obvious reasons. “Stay together for the kids” isn’t widely regarded as good advice, but it might be for Joe and Love as murderous parents. Season three doesn’t spend enough time exploring this reality, too much else on its mind.

While other shows have avoided mentions of the pandemic, You plots an interesting course. Covid isn’t completely outside the show’s peripheral vision, a forgivably moving target that a massive television production would naturally struggle to adapt. There are some puzzling moments, but it’s admirable to see the show attempt to provide some commentary on this peculiar moment in our collective history.

Backed by strong writing and excellent performances, You isn’t showing any signs of aging in its third season. The story isn’t a perfect fit for the confines of a ten-episode season, but the cast makes up for any lulls along the way. The suburbs are a place where people go to settle down, a calmer form of life than what’s offered in big cities. You finds some of its most creative work smack dab in the environment where creativity is thought to die, where the young go to grow old. This show still has plenty of life left.

The entire ten-episode season was screened for review. Season three drops on Netflix October 15th.

Friday

6

August 2021

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Season Three Is Titans’ Best Yet

Written by , Posted in Blog, TV Reviews

Few shows in the streaming era fire on all cylinders quite like Titans. Through a bit uneven at times through its first two seasons, there is much to appreciate in the way that the series took more after its DC siblings on The CW in emphasizing episodic storytelling rather than the slow burn dynamic deployed by costumed heroes on other premium services. Titans has never been afraid to bite off more than it can chew, a refreshingly ambitious show that manages to pay homage to seemingly every single Teen Titans era through its nearly sixty-year history.

Titans second season often struggled with the intense balancing act between the current Titans, the seemingly retired first generation, the new heroes, Bruce Wayne, and the Wilson family tree, a tall order that even Trigon would struggle with. The early episodes of season three demonstrate immense progress on this front, giving the series its strongest sense of focus since it first premiered. The pacing kinks have been thoroughly ironed out.

Season three takes a fast yet methodical approach to its narrative. As the titles of the first two episodes, “Barbara Gordon” and “Red Hood,” suggest, there’s a natural emphasis on Gotham, the home that Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) can never seem to leave behind. There are some who might roll their eyes at the heightened role of the “Bat Fam,” but the change of scenery works quite well for the narrative, while still managing to include the characters whose superhero lineage doesn’t trace through the Dark Knight.

Newcomer Barbara Gordon (Savannah Welch) is an early standout. Longtime fans of the Birds of Prey comic or of Babs’ time mentoring Stephanie Brown in Batgirl vol. 3 will find much to love in Welch’s portrayal of the character. Welch hones in on Barbara’s duel tutelage from Batman and her father, a woman trying her best to put the skills from her two worlds to good use.

The inclusion of Dr. Jonathan Crane (Vincent Kartheiser) is a bit more of a mixed bag. Kartheiser puts forth a thought-provoking take on Crane, one of the meatier villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, but the framing of the character in the narrative feels more than a bit derivative of another famous villain from outside the world of comic books. For a show as steeped in DC lore as Titans is, Crane is a peculiar miss.

Season three’s biggest triumph is the way that the team really does feel like a family. There’s less pressure on Dick to be the glue that holds everything together. Interpersonal conflict exists without constantly carrying the notion that this group is one blow-up away from implosion.

The cast is probably still a bit too big for a thirteen-episode season, but season three does a much better job of sharing the spotlight. Gar (Ryan Potter) and Conner (Joshua Orpin) have a natural sibling-like chemistry that boosts every scene they’re in. As Starfire, Anna Diop remains one of the show’s best weapons, her acting elevating one of the season’s more lackluster plotlines. Hank (Alan Ritchson) and Dawn (Minka Kelly) continue to shine as elder statesmen on the team.

As a show, Titans constantly makes it easy for the audience to forgive its narrative shortcomings that bump against the confines of its television medium. Evident in practically every character is the show’s deep commitment to the long game, building on foundations established in earlier seasons. This is perhaps most evident in Jason Todd (Curran Walters), a character whose entire series arc has been building toward this particular storyline. Titans pays homage to decades’ worth of Gotham history while also paving its own course through these streets.

As a character, Jason Todd is a pretty singular figure in the Batman family. Controversially killed off in 1988, the second character to assume the role of Robin was the rare superhero who actually stayed dead for an extended period of time. Resurrected in 2005 during the “Under the Red Hood” storyline, a byproduct of the events of the multiverse-restoring “Infinite Crisis,” Jason returned, with an understandable vengeance.

The story of Jason Todd is a tragedy, destined to play second fiddle not only to his predecessor, but to the Robins who came after him. Jason’s status as the least-loved among Bruce’s children is practically a running joke throughout the source material. Though more than a bit melodramatic at times, Jason is not necessarily wrong to have a chip on his shoulder.

Titans doesn’t have the luxury of twenty years to build this sense of natural tension that flows so easily on the comic book pages, but the show manages to put forth a pretty masterful study of the character on screen. Walters captures the essence of Jason beautifully, eliciting a sense of empathy that might not come easy given the character’s abrasive nature. Certain plot choices are bound to rile some hardcore fans, but the results make for quite compelling television.

The real world has changed quite a bit since Titans first debuted, putting immense strain on practically every show currently in production. There are probably fewer on-location scenes than earlier seasons, but the crew pulled off a rather miraculous feat of crafting a product that doesn’t look like it was negatively impacted by the pandemic. Few covid-era shows provide top-notch escapism on Titans’ level.

Season three features Titans’ strongest storytelling, a confident narrative that juggles its many pieces with deep reverence for the source material. There are a few bumps along the way and storylines bound to elicit a few eye-rolls, but the show has clearly learned from some of season two’s shortcomings. Titans moves with a brisk pace, the kind of narrative that would probably be better off with an episode count similar to its CW siblings.

It’s hard to define what constitutes a “normal” run for a show in the streaming era, with shorter three or four-season arcs becoming more common. Titans could in theory last for as many seasons as Arrow or The Flash, but precedent doesn’t suggest that’s likely. With that in mind, it’s reassuring to see the show pursue its big ambitions, even knowing that not everything is going to land perfectly. The streaming landscape would look a lot better if more shows followed Titans lead and tried to leave everything on the field.

The first five episodes of the season were screened for review. Season three of Titans premieres on HBO Max on August 12th.