Category: television

Netflix Series Review: The Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a sucker for a good Sean Bean television show. So when I saw The Frankenstein Chronicles pop up on Netflix, starring Sean Bean as a policeman investigating a killer who’s been murdering children and stitching their corpses together in an unholy amalgam, I was intrigued. And when a friend mentioned she’d been watching and enjoying the show, I decided to give it a shot.

A reminder of my tastes, for those who might not know: I prefer plot to character studies, though ideally a great show will have both. But there are shows I’ve enjoyed but been unable to stick with. Justified is an excellent example. Great writing, solid characters, and I really had a good time for a couple of seasons, but in the end I lost interest, mainly because there was no big plot to keep me watching. Instead, it had smaller plots that masqueraded as a big plot.

Many shows will have a basic formula, and then repeat that formula week after week. House diagnosing strange illnesses. Michael helping out the victim of the week on Burn Notice. Monk doing crazy zany things while he solves the crime. To me, these shows are mainly relics of the Old Way of Doing Business. They stand up just fine for a once a week diversion, but when you binge watch them one after the other (or even just watch one per day), then it’s too easy to see the skeleton of the show. It starts to feel like each week was just a “find and replace” the same elements over and over again. Different zany situations. Different petty criminals. This can sustain a light show well enough, like a comedy, but anything more than that and I just don’t care to hang around.

So there are a number of shows left in the wake of my Netflix queue.

Frankenstein Chronicles has a couple of good things going for the first season. It’s only six episodes long, for one thing. Because sometimes the problem with newer binge-worthy shows is they’ll take a plot that can last five or six episodes and stretch it for ten or twelve. (I’m looking at you, Luke Cage.) Six episodes is long enough to really set up some interesting conflicts and have them pay off, without going overboard.

Second, it’s well acted. Sean Bean does a great job depicting a very confused man burdened with mounds of guilt, forced to investigate a crime he’s ill-equipped to understand. And there are cool supporting characters peppered throughout as well.

The story itself is intriguing, if perhaps a bit too tangled to follow too easily. There were unexpected twists I enjoyed, but others that left me bewildered. Some twists felt gimmicky, as if the show hadn’t taken the time to properly prepare me for what might happen. The best sort of twist is one that is totally unexpected, and yet feels inevitable when you look at it in hindsight. The clues were all there; you just missed them. Weaker twists come out of nowhere. They rely on information we had no knowledge of before they happen. In a murder mystery, this becomes more vital. You want to figure out whodunnit, and it’s upsetting if you weren’t given the right information to work it out ahead of time.

But this show isn’t really a whodunnit. It’s a mystery, for sure, but its success doesn’t rest solely on figuring out the culprit.

In the end, I enjoyed the show, and I plan on starting the second season next. I’d give it a 7/10. If you’re into broody English series with a vein of fantasy horror running through them, this is a good one to check out. It’s rated TVMA primarily for some gruesome scenes with corpses, and a couple brief shots of nudity. (Sean Bean’s rear end, pretty much.)

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Stranger Things 2: A Spoilerific Review

Denisa and I finished Stranger Things 2 last night, and I’m here to review the whole season at once. But because this is Stranger Things, it’s hard to review it and not give things away, so I’m embracing the spoilers this time. Don’t read this if you don’t want to know the ending. If you’re just looking for a rating, I gave it a 9/10. There were a few bumps that kept it from a perfect score, but the show still is right up my alley, and I loved it in spite of those bumps. You should definitely check it out.

Before I start the actual review, a disclaimer. Shawn Levy (an executive producer for the show and the director of two episodes last season and two this season) heads up 21 Laps Entertainment, the studio that’s in the works to produce the MEMORY THIEF movie. So am I motivated to have a creepy series with 12 and 13 year-old leads do well? You betcha. I would love nothing more than for creepy middle grade horror fantasy to become a huge thing right now, especially with the MEMORY THIEF sequel on its way.

With that out of the way, allow me to dig in. I think it’ll be easiest to list off the things I loved, followed by the few disappointments.

Loved

  • The main characters. The show might be about spooky, creepy stuff happening in Hawkins, but what makes it a show we care about is the fact that the kids at the core of it are so well done. Dustin in particular stood out this season. Watching him get his crush on Max, then turn to Steve for advice, and ultimately end up with his dance at the end of the season was just spectacular and illustrates my point. Right before the dance scene is the supposed climax of the season. Eleven closes the gate and shuts out the Mind Flayer, while the rest of the crew narrowly escape death. It was a cool scene (albeit a tad contrived if you start thinking about it too closely), but it had none of the same impact that dance scene did. That managed to capture the nerves of first dates and dances, touching on insecurities and nostalgia and twisting that all up with the characters we’ve invested so much time in. It was wonderful.
  • Supporting characters. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Steve and Bob Newby. I really enjoyed both of their arcs, even though they occurred more in the background. Bob’s death was something that you saw coming a mile away, but I was still genuinely sad when he died. Poor guy. And I was really proud to see Steve become less of an idiot, culminating in him joining the team to go burn the vines out of existence.
  • The 80s throwbacks. The show continues to do a lot of fun things with its soundtrack and other 80s references. (I loved seeing the old 3 Musketeers wrappers, for example.) Great details that help flesh things out. True, sometimes the soundtrack is a little *too* spot on, but in the end I just rolled with it. It’s supposed to be a fun ride, I think. And that’s what it delivered.
  • The plot. Sure, some of it worked just because characters do stupid things for stupid reasons. Poor Bob Newby ran from the demo-dogs, only to decide to just kind of chill in the lobby at the last second. Kind of a questionable approach to escaping, but hey. To each his own. The plot was solid enough to keep me wanting to binge, which is what it was designed to do. I think it really works because they had actors who managed to make it all come to life.
  • The creep factor. From Dart to rotting pumpkins to the demo-dogs, the season did a good job of constantly making me want to squirm. Poor Mew Mew.

Disappointments

  • What in the world was up with episode 7? The whole season is this finely tuned machine, ratcheting up the tension higher and higher, and then we have this commercial break of an episode, where suddenly we’re on a road trip with Eleven? I gave it the benefit of the doubt at first, assuming the things she learned from her mom were going to tie into the events happening back in Hawkins. And then she joined up with the punk rock assassins, and I just wondered what in the world was going on. It was like the pilot to a new show I had no interest in watching. The things that attract me most to Stranger Things have nothing to do with punks and hit squads killing people with shady pasts.  Did not work. Did not help anything. You could skip that episode entirely and have few questions when episode 8 started up.
  • Max’s brother is a caricature. Yes, they threw in the “he’s been abused by his father” scene to try and give him some depth, but it was just too ham fisted. The guy is such a jerk in every scene, and we’re supposed to believe that Max threatening one time to smash his crotch in with a nail-studded bat is going to keep him at bay for the rest of her life? I don’t think so, Tim. But perhaps they’re trying to set things up for later seasons. At least it worked better than episode 7.

As I write about the season more and think it through, I begin to wonder at my initial reaction. My 9/10 rating. There were some definite weak points, and I’m not sure the show would stand up to serious scrutiny. But I’m going to stick with my rating, mainly because I think that’s the sort of thing the show is going for. Campy, creepy, 80s fun. I know it made my Halloween season more enjoyable, and I was really happy to watch it. I also think I’d merrily rewatch the season. I still think about some of the scenes and the characters, and that says something right there.

But enough about what I thought. I’d love to hear what other people thought of the season. Please share!

TV Season Review: The Magicians

The Syfy show was put up on Netflix a month or so ago, and I’d heard mixed things about the series, but I loved the book, so it seemed like it was worth giving it a shot. (Especially when I’d heard rumblings that the second season has been a really nice upgrade from the first. Always good to hear shows improving.)

The book series is basically Harry Potter mashed into Narnia, with Game of Thrones thrown into it for good measure. It’s very much an adult series. Not for kids. But I’ve always been a huge Narnia fan, and so I was interested to see what Grossman had to say. It’s quite dark and depressing in many parts, but I had a great time with the trilogy. Imagine Hogwarts is an exclusive American university, and some students there discover Narnia isn’t just real, but the series told about actual events. But the books had been cleaned up for kids, and the reality turned out to be much darker and violent.

The TV show started strong, and Denisa and I pretty much binge watched it. (13 episodes in 10 days. That counts as bingeing for my schedule.) It was what I expected, more or less. Very much an adult show, but tons of winks and nods to fantasy fans. It’s not quite the adult level as an HBO series would be, meaning they don’t have full on nudity, but it’s got pretty much everything else as far as violence, language, and sex goes. So it isn’t for everyone.

But it’s pretty compelling. There were no episodes that I was completely blown away by, but each one was a solid base hit or double, and the first season managed to keep the tension high and the virtual pages turning. The characters took a bit of time to become established, and the plot lacked focus now and then, but by the end things were humming quite well.

I felt like they rushed a few areas of the plot too much, no more so than in the finale, which had to resort to a completely new storytelling device to manage to cram everything in. That was too bad, because other than that, the finale was pretty awesome. Tons of plot movement. Big surprises. Great stuff.

I’m encouraged, though, because the series made some big changes to the books, and I’m left hoping they no longer feel the need to cover everything that was in the novels and can instead just go start doing their own things. The stage has been set, but I think it’s been clear that when they tried to follow the books, they just didn’t have the budget or the time to do everything justice. I’m excited to see where they go now that they’re unfettered, and I imagine that might be one of the main reasons the second season has been doing great things. We’ll see.

In any case, check this one out if it sounds interesting to you. I’d give the season an 8/10 in my new tougher rating system. Though be warned that you’re in for a big ol’ cliffhanger at the end of the first season . . .

Television Review: Lemony Snicket

It took us a bit longer than I would have liked. (Sometimes persuading the entire family they want to watch a certain show can be difficult. There’s a fair amount of compromise that has to happen to keep everybody happy.) But the family and I finished the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s the first season, which covers the first four books of the series.

I wasn’t completely sure what I thought of it at first. It had a unique style to it: very imaginative, with a different sort of humor. I wasn’t sure if they would be able to stick to that consistently or not. But the show grew on me as it went on. I came to appreciate and understand the style it was going for, and I think in the end it did a fantastic job of it.

So what is the style exactly? It’s hard to describe. Deadpan humor, and lots of it. Visually, the show is very impressive right off the bat. Set design is imaginative and varied from book to book. A lot of it looks to be done digitally, but it feels like they played that up some. Sort of the Pee Wee Herman “I meant to do that” approach which makes it all better.

Acting is great. Neil Patrick Harris does a super job as Count Olaf, but the show can’t ride on his work alone. The two older kids do a really good job selling it too. And then there’s the surprising role of Lemony Snicket himself, played by Patrick Warburton (of Kronk and David Puddy fame). He weaves in and out of the storyline, narrating the events and commenting on what’s happening on the screen. It feels strange at first, but by the end his sequences are some of my favorites.

Another shout out to the music. There are a few musical numbers peppered throughout the show, and they’re a lot of fun to listen to. Same wit and dry humor as the rest, and always a pleasant surprise.

The whole family has enjoyed the show. Even MC watched it, though I’ll admit it’s pretty intense for a 3 year old at times. There’s no way I would have had Tomas watch it at that age. Clearly I’m slacking off as a parent. (Or just realizing that not everything that happens in the family can be dictated by what’s age appropriate for a three year old.)

If you haven’t already checked out the show, I definitely recommend it. It’s unique, which is more than can be said for many shows. It starts a bit slowly, and it will take you a little to get a feel for what to expect, but once you do, I think you’ll love it.

Who Else is Watching Travelers?

A few weeks ago, one of my friends on Facebook mentioned the new Netflix show Travelers, saying it was surprisingly good. I’m always on the lookout for new shows, and so when Denisa and I were deciding what to watch next, I figured we’d give it a shot. It’s always interesting to me, trying out a new TV show to see how good it is. You learn a fair bit about what makes a good show great.

Most shows can handle a pilot episode just fine. They’ve got all sorts of new ground to cover, and you can get by with dropping mysteries and hints left and right: things to hook the viewer and make them want to stay around. But once you’re past the first episode or two, it’s not enough to drop more hints at mysteries. You have to start giving viewers a reason to keep stay with the show. These are the things I look for at this point:

  • Characters. Are these people I want to spend more time getting to know? Am I rooting for them? Do they behave in ways that make me sympathetic? I don’t mean they need to be nice to everyone, but they need to feel real. If they’re making stupid decisions just so the plot can do something, then no thanks.
  • Is it avoiding repetition? I gave up on House after all of four or five episodes. Why? Because the show already felt like a routine by the end of those episodes. It was a formula. The same thing made me give up ultimately on Burn Notice, Black List, and many sitcoms. I want to be surprised. I don’t want to sit down to watch a show and have the only thing I wonder be what disease will be fought this week. I understand there are many people who like that out of a TV show, but I’m not one. In my ideal world, the show is about a theme and characters who explore that theme. That’s why The Wire was so awesome. That’s why I enjoyed Lost so much. Why I loved The Crown or Downton Abbey. A great show, to me, isn’t an “episode of the week” sort of experience. It’s a complete story. I love television for its ability to explore even more of a story than a movie.
  • Is it making progress with the big plot? What I mean by this is does the show start actually having plot progression, or is it artificially maintaining the status quo? The Mentalist is a great example of a show that failed this test. It had the Red John villain that was the supposed Big Bad of the show, and it tried to keep people interested with the mystery: who was Red John? What was the truth about him? But after a while, I realized they weren’t ever going to really resolve that, because it’s the one thing that kept the show running. It was the same thing with “Who burned Westin?” in Burn Notice. The show runs on a formula, with the one thing driving the characters forward from one plot to the next being this supposed mystery. That kind of show will make me watch in the middle of a season. I just gave up on Man in the High Castle for that. No thank you.

It typically doesn’t take long to figure out how a show is doing with those three points. They can fool you with smoke and mirrors for an episode or two, but here’s the thing: for a show to be successful long term, it has to make a pact with its audience. It establishes what the “rules” of the show are. What sort of show it’s going to be. And the pilot can be as awesome as they want it to be, but by the fourth episode, they pretty much have to reveal their hand. They need to, because otherwise they’ll be attracting an audience they can’t keep.

Sometimes there are exceptions to this. Under the Dome was able to run the whole first season with its mysteries, and then in the second season, it all fell apart. The wheels were churning, but it wasn’t going anywhere. No traction. I believe what had happened then was the showrunners knew they had a better thing going than what they’d planned, and so they tried to change the show to make it last longer. Make more money where they could, and so the show changed. It stopped making progress with the big plot and shifted into smaller mysteries that just didn’t matter.

Anyway. This is just a long way of saying I just finished the fourth episode of Travelers, and I’m really loving the show so far. It tells the story of a group of time travelers who have come from the future to save humanity from making a big mistake in the present. Great characters, intriguing situations, surprising plot developments. We could have a real keeper here. I need to watch the rest of the season before I can totally give it a Bryce Approved sticker, but so far, so good.

Anyone else out there watching?

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