Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Winter TV Roundup, Week 4


The winter is setting in, and the shows keep flowing. January was a busy month and February might offer even more options. In these weekly posts I look at the pilot and second episode of new scripted fare this winter. Don't see a new show listed below? Check previous weeks.

Tuesday Nights:
Taboo, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX (Premiered January 10)
About: This latest series from FX is set in 1814 in England. It was created by Tom Hardy and his father, Chips, and Hardy stars in the lead role as a man who lost his father but now inherits a key piece of land in the Americas. With America and the United Kingdom locked in a war, both sides want access to the land. The ones that want it the most are the East India Trading Company, which will stop at nothing to pry it from Hardy's hero character. Hardy's character has some dark secrets. He was away in Africa for years, has a son that he takes care of financially by never sees, and has some sort of dark past with his half-sister (Oona Chaplain). They haven't said outright, but my thought is they were lovers, the kid is theirs and that's why he went to Africa. But that's just an educated guess. I liked the moody and uneven pilot and was curious to see where this series goes. It's completely unconventional, but it has a certain appeal. The second episode was slow, and even stranger, and I had less of a feel for where it's all going. There's some potential here, and Hardy is a gifted actor, but there's also the potential this goes full on off the rails going forward. I'm sort of excited by either prospect.
Pilot Grade: B
Second Episode: C

Wednesday Nights:
Six, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on the History Channel (Premiered January 18)
About: This scripted series about Seal Team Six was originally slated for the fall, but pushed until the winter. It stars Walton Goggins (a change from the original) as a former Seal Team Six member who is working as a private contractor in Africa when he's nabbed by terrorists. Now his former comrades, all of whom have two-dimensional characters with cliched sets of problems, have to come to his rescue. History Channel has dipped its toe in the scripted waters before, sometimes with strong results as in "Hatfields & McCoys" and sometimes not. This is in the sometimes not category. The pilot was uneven, overly patriotic, and scant on character development. I love Goggins as a performer, but his stuck with a listless character and story. This had potential, but it didn't come together in the pilot presentation.
Pilot Grade: D+

Jeff and Some Aliens, Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central (Premiered January 11)
About: This is a new animated series on Comedy Central. It's about an extremely average guy who becomes the host to a trio of aliens exploring Earth. Hilarity ensues... except it doesn't. I loathed the pilot, which was one of the worst half hours I've seen in some time. If possible, the second episode was worse. This might appeal to a juvenile humor set, but otherwise this is a total waste. Avoid it.
Pilot Grade: D-
Second Episode: F

Streaming Series:
Frontier, Now Streaming on Netflix (Debuted January 20)
About: Have you ever wanted a scripted drama about the battle to control the fur trade in Canada in the 1700s? Well, this one is for you. Its first season, a total of six episodes, was created and aired in Canada, and has come exclusively to Netflix in the United States. All six dropped Friday. The series stars Jason Momoa as a Native American trader who's trying to battle the nefarious Hudson Bay Company for control of the fur trade. The first two episodes had moments of intrigue and moments of violence. There's a lot of characters, and it can be a little hard keeping them and their motivations straight. I thought it was OK, but not overly compelling. If you like Momoa, or that era in history, it could be for you. Each episode is a crisp 44-48 minutes, so it's not a big time commitment. It has already been renewed for a second season abroad.
Pilot Grade: C
Second Episode: C

Monday, January 23, 2017

Championship Round Thoughts


I think we all had this match up at the beginning of the season, right?

Well, that happened. My streak of perfect playoff predictions ended on Sunday. I thought the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers would play in the Super Bowl. Instead, it's the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots.

We probably should have all seen the Patriots thing coming. The top seed in the AFC has advanced to the title game most of the time in recent years, and between the flu, being behind and the fire alarm, the Steelers were at a serious disadvantage.

The other game is a head-scratcher. That Atlanta could win wasn't a surprise. That they'd destroy the hottest team in football, well that was. And this was yet another playoff weekend with lousy games. In 10 games in the Post Season, we have had only two really good, competitive games. That's a bad sign.

But we could be in for a good one in the Super Bowl. Hope springs eternal. And if not, there's always the prospect of the NFL sweating out a Lady Gaga half time show. Boom!

Here's some other thoughts:

* Most people, myself included, have under rated the Falcons. The Falcons had a quietly strong season. They went 11-5 and slipped into the two seed. The thing is, no one thought they were going to the Super Bowl. I certainly didn't. But the 53 players in that locker room did, and they played like it on Sunday.

* Le'Veon Bell is the most important player on the Steelers. There were a few reasons they lost Sunday, but none bigger than Bell going out early with an injury. He is a game-changing player, and the Steelers looked pedestrian with DeAngelo Williams in the lineup.

* The Patriots are favored and should be. Experience counts. Before this season, Matt Ryan had won just one playoff game. Tom Brady has won 100, I think. Just a rough estimate. And, of course, Brady has won the Super Bowl four previous times. Atlanta has its work cut out for it.

* That Matt Ryan MVP talk should have been real. Ryan accounted for five touchdowns in the NFC Championship. FIVE! That's a herculean effort. He is for real.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Game-Changer


One of the most interesting and high-concept series to debut this fall was "The Good Place." It was about a woman (Kristen Bell) who died and ended up in the Good Place — TV Slang for Heaven. But  the thing was she didn't belong there. The architect of the neighborhood (Ted Danson) made a mistake. Hilarity ensues.

I thought the pilot and second episode were quite good, but I wondered how it was going to move forward. Of course, the pilot also took equal opportunity shots at a number of different religions, including Christianity, which was something to be considered. But there was a charm to the series, so I stuck with it.

Slowly, it developed into one of the best comedies on TV, and the best comedy NBC had done in years. While I enjoy its companion series, "Superstore," "The Good Place" reminds me of classic NBC comedies. Enough that I put it on my list of the five best comedies for 2016.

On Thursday, it wrapped up its first season. "The Good Place" got just a 13 episode season, with the final two airing together. In a lot of ways it made sense. With the premise and the way the story developed, there was only so much that could take place to carry on that dramatic tensions without some sort of resolution. Eleanor's secret (Bell) was out, she didn't belong. And the question became what would happen.

SPOILER'S BELOW

That's what made the final so interesting, and the show essentially flipped the concept on its head and reset the script. It turns out Eleanor wasn't wrongly admitted to the Good Place, she was rightly placed with three others in the Bad Place in a sort of game meant for them to torture each other for eternity.

Michael (Danson) wasn't a good architect, but rather the architect of a nefarious experiment designed to cause unending tension and pain for his four targets, and unending fun for those in on the experiment. It was a fascinating reveal that reframed all we'd seen, including the growth we saw in Eleanor as a person throughout the season.

This also opens up a world of possibilities for the second season. Much like the daring of "VEEP," which followed through with having Selina Meyers lose the election and the White House at the end of the season, "The Good Place" has reset the script and given themselves license to go in a lot of different directions for a presumptive second season.

Not only could this show be a salvation for NBC comedy, it could prove to be one of the most daring and clever shows on TV. I can't wait to see where it goes next.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

NFL Picks, Championship Round


Lindsay and I broke our deadlock on the one game we picked differently last week. Lindsay sided with the Chiefs, while I took the Steelers, and a one pick lead. Three games remain, and it's still anyone's game.

Green Bay Packers (10–6) at Atlanta Falcons (11–5)
About: Is there a better quarterback in the NFL right now than Aaron Rodgers? When the Packers were 4–6 and he said they’d run the table, people laughed. Others were skeptical. Even I didn’t believe they could do it. Eight weeks later, we all stand in awe. What he did in Dallas on Sunday was the stuff of legends. And yet, there’s Matt Ryan. Some thought Ryan should be the NFL’s regular season MVP, and what he’s done is nothing short of impressive. On Saturday, against the Seattle Seahawks, he simply threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions. And when these two teams met earlier in the year, it was Ryan and the Falcons that came out on top in a shootout. It’s hard to imagine a better game than that Dallas-Green Bay classic in the Divisional Round, and yet that’s probably just what we’re going to get. Expect points to be plentiful on Sunday.
The Pick: Packers 37, Falcons 35
Lindsay: Packers

Pittsburgh Steelers (11–5) at New England Patriots (14–2)
About: For two storied franchises in the AFC Championship Game, you’d have to be surprised at the stories this week. The Patriots are being criticized for “only” winning by 18 over the Texans, and for making it a game into the fourth quarter. While the Steelers, meanwhile, are being questioned for only scoring 18 points on field goals in a win. You’d have thought these two teams lost last week. But they didn’t. Instead, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady are, again, competing for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Patriots are missing some good players, the Steelers have Antonio Brown’s video fiasco hanging over them this week and that’s without considering the game. There’s plenty to talk about here, and I could see this game going either way. But I picked the Steelers before the season and I still believe in the Killer Bs, especially Le’Veon Bell, who I think is the best player in this game.
The Pick: Steelers 24, Patriots 21
Lindsay: Patriots

Last Week: 4–0
Lindsay: 3-1

Season: 171–93
Lindsay: 170-94

Friday, January 20, 2017

Hope and Change


"Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane." _ Red, "The Shawshank Redemption"

Today we begin a new chapter in the United States of America. Many have strong feelings about this. Some good, some bad, some hopeful, some fearful. And many people have strong feelings about the previous eight years. Some good, some bad, some wistful, some angry.

We endured one of the longest, most bitter elections in our history. And the two and a half months since that day have, essentially, been no different. But the decision has been made, the oaths of office administered, and we march on to the future.

Some feel President Obama was a great thing for our nation these past eight years. Others feel he was the worst President we've ever had. In the swell of emotion on this day, and with how close we are to his time in office, it's really impossible to tell. History will be the judge, and we likely won't have a good measure of the last eight years for some time.

I liken it to the race for Best Picture. In February of 1999, hundreds of voters felt that "Shakespeare in Love" was a better example of high-class filmmaking than "Saving Private Ryan." Now nearly 18 years later, we see that as absurd. Even those who voted for "Shakespeare in Love" would likely be ashamed. But at the time, in the swell of emotions, it was easy to be caught up in the campaigns.

So it is with our history. And so it is again today.

There are some that looked upon this day; this transfer of power, with fear and trepidation. They're convinced the next four years will be the worst and darkest in our nation's history. Others have looked to this day as a glimmer of hope, hope that the future will be better and brighter than the past. The truth is we don't know. Only God knows, and we have to trust that our future is in His loving and mighty hands.

It reminds me of "The Shawshank Redemption," and it's musing on hope. Red, a man who'd know suffering and loss for most of his life, saw hope as a futile and dangerous thing. But his friend Andy had a different take:

"Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." - Andy, "The Shawshank Redemption"

Eight years ago, President Obama swept into office promising Hope and Change. Some were jubilant. Some were fearful. All endured.

Today, President Trump sweeps into office promising change. Some are jubilant. Some are fearful. I have faith all will endure.

We can't control our world, our government, or our lives. All we can do is control our responses and what we contribute to the world. That's something to keep in mind always, no matter who sweeps into the White House.

And for those who fear today, remember: "The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming."

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Now Playing


Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.

Live By Night
Starring: Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper, and Brendan Gleeson
Synopsis: This is the latest film written and directed by Affleck, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. It's set in the 1920s, first in Boston and then in Tampa Bay. Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a police captain and a WWI veteran who turns to a life of crime. After being beaten and nearly killed by the Irish mob, Joe gets out of prison and throws in with the Italian Mob in order to get vengeance. He heads to Florida and helps build a rum empire during the height of Prohibition, finding love along the way. But nothing good lasts forever, especially in gangster films. Affleck is a talented director and a solid actor, and he puts together a good cast here. The source material is decent, as is the setting and the concept. But this just doesn't all come together. The film is plodding and lacks pop. The characters aren't great, and it feels like perhaps there's too much going on here. I've enjoyed Affleck's previous films, the under rated "Gone Baby, Gone," "The Town" and Academy Award winner "Argo." This feels like a noble attempt that comes up short.
Rating: R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Two stars out of four.

Patriots Day
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, Michelle Monahan, Michael Beach, and J.K. Simmons
Synopsis: For those who didn’t grow up in Boston or live in Boston at some point, Patriots Day might not mean much. But for those who are a part of that city and its rich history, it means a lot. Patriots Day is a holiday in Boston. It’s a day when the Red Sox play early in the morning and the Boston Marathon draws people in droves out for a day in the sun. It’s a Monday in April, but it’s so much more to residents of that city. And on April 15, 2013, that day was marred by tragedy. That was the day two brothers decided to make a statement, detonating bombs at the finish line of the marathon and taking three people’s lives. Of course many more were injured, and others died in the subsequent days until the terrorists were captured. A day that was meant to be a celebration kicked off a week of fear for Boston. The new film, “Patriots Day,” captures that day and the days that followed. It’s a violent, sometimes difficult story to watch. But it’s also a beautiful tribute to those who persevered, and to the city that’s come to be known as Boston Strong. Director Peter Berg is no stranger to doing emotional films based on true stories. He famously adapted “Friday Night Lights” as a film, and also a TV show. And earlier in 2016, Berg teamed with Wahlberg to bring the story of the tragedy on the Deepwater Horizon to life. Here, Berg worked on the script with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, and re-teamed with Wahlberg as a star and producer to bring the events of that fateful week to life. The film got a short release before the end of 2016, but finally went wide last Friday. It’s an emotional and gripping story, and one that in some years might be an Awards Season competitor. Some of the victims and their families were opposed to the telling of the story, believing it to be too soon. Only those who lived through that week in Boston can really say for sure how it feels to see it re-created on screen, but this is a movie that in large part is meant to be a love letter to the people of Boston. While most of characters in the film are real life heroes who played a part in the events, Wahlberg’s Saunders is a composite of the officers who took part in the manhunt to restore a sense of peace and security to a city that badly needed it. This is an emotional film that doesn’t pull any punches. In addition to following the police officers, FBI agents, city and state leaders that led the investigation, the film follows victims of the attack and those who were victimized by the Tsarnaev brothers in the days that followed. It’s a harrowing and emotional journey that is brought to life beautifully by the talented cast and crew. One of the most emotional and touching parts of the film comes at the end — footage of the real life events and interviews with those who survived it. That coda serves as a loving tribute to the people that make up the city, and adds an emotional wallop to all that comes before it. “Patriots Day” isn’t a perfect film. And it’s certainly predictable, especially for those familiar with the event. But it’s a well told story that does a nice job of celebrating and honoring those involved in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative.
Rating: R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.

Upcoming Releases:
Friday, January 20 -- "The Founder," "Split," "XXX: The Return of Xander Cage"
Friday, January 27 -- "Gold," "A Dog's Purpose," "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter"

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Final Problem


"All lives end; all hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage, Sherlock." — Mycroft Holmes

When "Sherlock" debuted in 2010, no one knew what to expect. Tales of Sherlock Holmes have been told and re-told many times over the past few years. And a new iteration, set in the modern era and starring someone named Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, didn't set hearts ablaze.

How times have changed. Now, Cumberbatch and Freeman are household names in the United States, as well as their native England. And "Sherlock" is one of the most anticipated series on both sides of the pond.

After wrapping their third three-episode season in February of 2014, fans were left to wonder when, and if, "Sherlock" would offer a fourth installment. They teased fans with a one-off last winter, before returning with another three-episode season on January 1. That season drew to a close with "The Final Problem" on Sunday.

It was an amazing season, which was never really in question. It had great, gutting stories and wonderful performances. I could probably watch Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Freeman as Dr. John Watson until the end of time and never grow weary. They inhabit the characters beautifully, and the stories are wonderfully told.

But the question after "The Final Problem" is whether that's the end of the story. There have been some talks about a possible fifth season — though when that would occur, and if it even will, are far from certainties at this point. But the bigger question is, should it continue?

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the show and I would eagerly await a fifth season, no matter how long it took to arrive. But after those powerful three episodes — and specifically how "The Final Problem" played out — I'm not sure there's a better way to end it.

"The Final Problem" was one of the better episodes of the series, and it felt a lot like a wrap on the series, not just the season. Again, all "Sherlock" seasons have some sort of wrap up, and there are still places this show could go. But if that was, indeed, the final episode, you could feel like the series went out on a high note.

We'll find out in the coming weeks and months what the future is, but for now I'm appreciating what we had, which was an incredible — and incredibly moving — fourth season that came to a near perfect ending.