Category: television

Under the Banner of Heaven Episode 1 Review

I’ve already had a couple of friends ask me what I thought about Under the Banner of Heaven, the new mini-series that’s out, adapting Krakauer’s book of the same title. It’s focused on a murder investigation in 1984 in rural Utah, and it very much delves into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, portraying events both from the church’s history and its “present” (in 1984). As an active media review and active member of my religion, it makes sense people would ask for my take.

I’d read a fair bit about the show before I watched the first episode last night. All about how much effort had been put in to “getting it right” when it came to how my religion is portrayed. I was hopeful, based on many of the reviews I’d read, as they said the faith was treated quite favorably in some aspects. I haven’t read the book, but I know there’s a fair bit of “not favorable” in it toward Latter-day Saints, arguing that much of the church’s history has a direct impact on some of the bad things in the church’s present. I actually agree with that premise: I do believe there are things in the faith that can lead some to get really carried away into whackadoodle land. You just have to look at the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping to see that’s still going on. I also acknowledge that for a long time, the church at best looked at its history through rose-tinted glasses, and often actually just ignored some of it, or claimed it was misinformation. So I don’t have anything against a show that explores how the history of the church can relate to the present.

I say that on the offset, just to put it out there. I didn’t go into the viewing loaded for bear. With a solid cast and creative team around the show, I expected to like it.

What I got, instead, was something that’s very hard for me to accurately review. I realize that my religion is large enough that many people will have many different impressions of what it actually feels like to be a member. How things were in Utah in 1984 will be different than how they are in Maine in 2022. However, I lived in Utah for stretches of time in the 80s. My family out there is large and sprawling and tight knit. Almost all of them are active members. My mom literally grew up with the Lafferty’s. They’re from Payson, though the town’s never mentioned in the show. She knew them. The murders happened in American Fork, about 10 minutes north of where I lived in the early 2000s. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m so far out of touch with the source material that I can’t evaluate it at least to an extent.

Black (the writer) might have done a lot of research into the religion. He grew up a member, but left years ago. But regardless of the amount of research he put into it, the end result leaves much to be desired.

To begin with, the use of Latter-day Saint lingo by all the members in the show is just off. Perhaps if you’re not a member, it all sounds like how we talk, but it’s sort of like having Google translate do your interpretation of a novel. Yes, the words are technically correct, but they’re used in ways that don’t ring true. At one point, Brenda says “The Savior would want me to go to BYU.” But we view Christ and God as distinct beings. We pray to God for guidance, not Christ. I’ve heard plenty of people ask “What would Jesus do?”, but I don’t remember anyone asking “Where would Jesus want me to go to school?” Again, maybe there are some that do, and so I just am out of touch there, but that’s simply one example.

Characters use the term “Heavenly Father” like it was on sale at Walmart. All the members are throwing it in left and right, to an extent that just doesn’t happen (in my experience). They talk about “vows” and “oaths” and generally come across as wide-eyed idiots, even in the cases where they’re supposedly sympathetic.

I get it. Plenty of people think we are wide-eyed idiots. The religion is definitely on the “Religions we can make fun of as much as we want list,” even with many or most who would staunchly defend any who might try to ridicule Judaism, Islam, or mainstream Christianity. But I’m here to say that while we might have a few whackadoos in the religion, they’re not the flavor of whackadoo being presented by the show, if that makes sense.

Every single member shown on screen acts off. The show doesn’t hesitate to show how strange we are, right down to our garments and (from the screen shots for upcoming episodes) temple rituals. I don’t know who they got to do their cultural sensitivity consulting, but it feels like they were asleep at the wheel. The closest analogy I can think of is a show focused on Islam that has an actor portraying Allah. Yes, you can do it for the shock value, or to really “explore the subject,” but you better realize that what you’re doing is stomping all over many people’s sacred beliefs, and it would be nice to ask yourself if the price is worth the end product.

But like I said, maybe this is how the rest of the world looks at me and my family. There’s a scene where the Lafferty family gets together to clear a field of rocks, and it’s done almost like an Amish barn raising. The men are out working, and the women are providing food. I don’t object to showing that some Latter-day Saint families can be very restrictive when it comes to how they treat their wives and daughters. (Though I’d point out that’s not unique to the faith.) But the show makes a point of saying how respected the Lafferty family is. “They’re like the Kennedys,” is how the main character puts it. And when you say that, and then show the Lafferty family all behaving very bizarrely, then you’re saying that’s the norm for members out there. That’s the ideal we’re all shooting for.

And it just plain isn’t.

Besides, “the Kennedys”? The Lafferty family might have been well known in Payson, but Payson was anything but the center of the religion.

Anyway. I could go on, but I won’t. This isn’t a show (so far) that I would really recommend to anyone. Perhaps it gets better. If my opinion changes, I’ll write about it, but I’ll be surprised if it does. And please, if you’re watching the show as a non-member, don’t assume what’s being portrayed there is par for the course. I can’t say authoritatively that it’s never like that, but I can say I’ve never seen it like that in my 40+ years of living in it. To make it seem like it’s the norm is disingenuous at best.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Television Review: Gilded Age Season 1

For all its frustrating flaws, I remain a big Downton Abbey fan. When it was really at its best, it was a delight to watch how different classes lived and interacted in areas that seemed commonplace to them, but were anything but to me, a middle-class white guy in 21st century Maine. (Of course, there were the other plot lines that focused instead on bizarre things like murder investigations, which always just seemed so idiotic. But let’s not talk of those.)

So when I heard Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, had created a show around late nineteenth century America, I was intrigued to say the least. The Gilded Age was on HBO, though, and I wondered it they’d just take Downton and give it an “adult” twist. It was TV-MA, after all, but Denisa and I decided to give the first episode a shot. We blazed through the rest of the season soon after, finishing the final episode last night.

Like Downton, it follows people of multiple classes, from servants to the middle class to the noveau riche and the established families. It adds in a Black character as well, allowing the show to explore race relations back then. The central plot is how the Russell family moves to New York City and tries to insert itself into the established upper crust circles. The Russells are filthy rich. The husband is a railroad tycoon, and quite ruthless in business, though he’s much nicer when it comes to personal matters. His wife, on the other hand, is desperate to be accepted by the upper crust, and the upper crust are just as set on ignoring her. Drama ensues.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. The TV-MA rating is a bit baffling. Over the course of the entire season, there was one risque scene, and one scene with brief nudity that had no real reason to be there. It was almost like HBO told Fellowes they wanted the show to have a TV-MA rating so that people would take it seriously, so he threw in a short scene to justify it. You can skip those parts easily and not miss anything significant.

It’s well plotted, avoiding some of the obvious lines that it could have taken, so that you’re never entirely sure what will happen with any of the stories. I won’t go into spoilers, but there was one plot that seemed very clear would go one way, but then when the time came to go that way, it veered off in an unexpected, refreshing direction instead.

It’s well acted, though most of it is “stuffy nineteenth century,” which feels a lot like Downton. Trying to convey the whole range of emotions in people who made it a point never to show emotion is a trick and a half, but the show pulls it off.

But really, the star of the show is the set design and costuming. It’s simply a pleasure to look at, one scene after the other. The time period comes alive in a way Downton Abbey never really was able to pull off. We see different parts of New York, and the city itself feels far more alive than Downton ever really got. In that show, you’d have the village life come up now and then, but the city plays just as much a part of this as the characters do.

Overall, I gave it a 9/10. It’s not necessarily for everyone, but if it’s for you, you likely already know it after reading this, and you should give it a shot if you have HBOmax. Any of you already seen it?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Giving a Series Time to Succeed

It’s a well known fact that I watch a fair bit of television. I like how consumable it is. How you can have a nice concise story told in under an hour, with a beginning, middle, and an end. (Typically.) Any while there are some shows out there that I’ll try for a bit and then just decide they’re not for me, I’m generally pretty forgiving for a show, at least for the first while.

A great television series is really hard to assemble. You have to get enough funding in the first place to get your series off the ground, and then you have to work with the producers (who often don’t share your exact vision) to create it the way you’d like it, and then you need to hope that enough people out there watch it and stay with it to justify a second season.

Ideally, that all works great right from the beginning. But that’s often not the case.

The first season of The Wheel of Time is a great example of this. I watched it, and I generally enjoyed it. Was it perfect? Definitely not. But it was intriguing enough that I’ll stick with it, especially since I know some of the issues I had with it were anything but self-inflicted. The finale felt especially rushed, but when you realize that the show was pitched as having 10 episodes (with a 2 hour premiere), you realize that the creators wanted to take more time with it as well. But The Powers That Be cut it short. Now that it’s been quite successful for Amazon, I’m hopeful the second season has a little more leeway to do what it’s trying to do.

People like to compare it to the already uber-successful Game of Thrones, but they forget that GoT took time to get to where it peaked. (I’m not going to argue about the last two seasons. I enjoyed them, though I felt they were rushed once again, this time apparently by an unfathomable desire by the creators to just finish the show and be done with it.) The show wasn’t nearly as well funded to begin with, and it ended up cutting corner as a result. It’s not like it started off able to show a fully rendered dragon attacking a wagon train, with all the special effects bells and whistles. It earned that by working up to it.

Evaluating the first season of a show by comparing it to a different show you loved might be somewhat useful, but ultimately it’s an unfair comparison. It’s sort of like saying a recent college graduate being told they really ought to get a better job because they aren’t making as much money as a forty year old.

So what would make me decide to give up on a show, and what would make me stick with one? The characters would be a big factor. If they’re relatable or intriguing, that goes a long way. The writing is huge: are the characters making decisions that are consistent with who they are? How is the dialogue? Are there people I can root for? The general conceit of the show is also a big factor. As long as the basic structure of the show is in place and sound, then I’m willing to forgive some fumbling along the way.

It was easier to do that when shows came out once a week, and bingeing wasn’t a thing. Now, it feels like people sometimes demand perfection right from the get go. Some of the shows that I’ve ended up loving, I didn’t love right off. The Wire is an excellent example. It took half the first season for me to really be intrigued, and then I was really turned off by the first few episodes of the second season. But there was enough there to keep me going, and I ended up loving the whole thing.

Right now, I just finished the second season of the Witcher. I’ve had issues with some of what it’s been doing. The timey-wimey-ness of the first season, and the seeming glee in reveling in obscure references and confusing plots are definite problems. But by the end, I felt like it had really found its footing and was some excellent television.

How about you? What makes you stick with (or abandon) a TV show?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

TV Review: Schmigadoon

I’m a big fan of musicals of all sorts. I’ve watched them since I was young, and I still enjoy finding new ones today. So when I heard Apple TV+ had Schmigadoon, a miniseries musical riffing on other musicals, I added it to my To Watch list. It’s only 6 episodes long, and each episode is about 25 minutes, so you’re looking at about a 2.5 hour musical. Daniela and I watched it over two evenings.

A couple whose relationship is on the rocks decides to take a camping trip together to try to reignite the flame. It doesn’t go well. They get lost, and they end up in a town called Schmigadoon, peopled with tropes from a wide variety of musicals. And while the people in the town don’t recognize it when they’re doing song and dance numbers, the couple definitely does, so there’s some nice opportunities for some meta jokes along the way. And of course, the couple discovers that they can’t leave Schmigadoon until they’ve found true love.

I . . . enjoyed it? Yes. I enjoyed it. There were many genuinely funny numbers. It’s got Kristen Chenoweth, Martin Short (for all of 2 minutes). Jane Krakowski, Alan Cumming, and stars Keegan Michael-Key and Cecily Strong. It’s created by the same duo who did Despicable Me and The Secret Lives of Pets, strangely enough. Good voices, and it was entertaining to see the ways the show played on musical tropes.

That said, I’m stumped about who, exactly, I should recommend the series to. While many of the songs and content aren’t blatantly crude, they’re certainly dancing around the precipice. It’s almost like the show tries to cater to two different audiences: one that likes adult humor and material, and one that loves classic musicals. For example, there’s a Do-Re-Mi song that’s about the reproductive system of the body. There’s just no way I’m recommending that to most people I know who love Sound of Music. The Venn overlap of the people who would find that entertaining is pretty small, I imagine. There’s a running gag that the mayor of the town is in the closet, with his wife singing a song about how strange he is: “He’s a Queer One, That Man o’ Mine.”

I suppose the show’s really aimed at the Book of Mormon crowd, and thinking of it in that light, perhaps there’s a big audience out there I’m discounting. Personally, one of the things I love about most musicals is being able to share them with my family. MC started out watching this with me. She definitely didn’t finish watching it. Daniela watched it through, and she enjoyed it as well, but . . .

Overall, I gave it a 7/10, and I really have no idea which of my friends would like it. For now, it’s limited to people who like classic musicals, irreverent musicals, and who also subscribe to Apple TV+. I’ve got a pretty big hunch that’s not a lot of you, but please tell me if I’m off.

Anyone else out there already watch it?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Wheel of Time TV Series Thoughts

I did not expect to like the Wheel of Time adaptation on Amazon Prime. I think I was gun shy right from the beginning. This is a series that I have been invested in for decades, ever since I first saw Eye of the World in the library and picked it up for two basic reasons: I thought the cover looked cool (a group of travelers in fantasy garb, up against a full moon), and it was very thick. I loved it, and I was hooked for the whole journey, waiting impatiently as the books came out over the years, culminating in them being finished by a good friend.

How in the world would a TV series be able to do them justice? Getting my hopes up seemed like too much to ask, so I just sort of let the series progress in the background, and when it actually was released I went into it expecting disappointment. You can’t be really let down if you’re planning on it, right? Surely the effects would be terrible. The acting would be off. I wouldn’t like it.

Except then I watched it, and instead of disappointment, I was just flat out excited. Excited to see the opening scenes with the Trollocs attacking Two Rivers. Excited to see Shadar Logoth. Excited to meet Thom for the first time. And as all of this unfolded and unfolded well, I got even more excited. I started to think about what might lie in store if this series keeps being successful. Seeing these characters grow. Seeing more of the world. The Stone of Tear? Dumai’s Wells? Yes, please!

Is the show a carbon copy of the source material? No, but I know if it was, then it wouldn’t be successful. Film has different strengths and weaknesses compared to books. To be successful, it has to change. And I’ve really been satisfied with the changes they’ve made so far. The story clips along at a fast pace. The characters are introduced and established, and there’s a driving sense of urgency to the whole thing. The effects aren’t perfect, but they’re very well done.

Honestly, I have few gripes at all. I was initially concerned they might try to Game of Thrones it, throwing in more extreme material than the books had, but other than a random bathing scene with Lan and Moiraine, and more physical romance with the main characters than was present in the book, they haven’t. (And some of that stems just from having the main characters be 4 years older or so when the series starts.) It sticks to its TV-14 rating, and that feels like a good place for it.

I know it hasn’t been universally loved, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s been super so far, and I look forward to more of the same. What have you thought?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

%d bloggers like this: