“The Good Doctor” Challenges Preconceptions Perhaps Too Much

I have a lot of mixed emotions about ABC’s new medical drama “The Good Doctor”. The main character is surgical resident Dr. Sean Murphy played by famous child actor Freddie Highmore. You may remember him from the 2005 version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and Finding Neverland among other roles. My favorite of his films was “August Rush” in which he played a foster child who is a musical prodigy who goes on a journey to find his real parents. That one brought me to tears many times.More recently he played Norman Bates in his teen years in the TV series “Bates Motel”.

The gimmick in this particular show is that Dr. Murphy is an autistic savant.

We’ve already seen a number of other TV dramas depict characters with Asperger’s syndrome which is a form of autism that manifests itself mostly as extreme social awkwardness. My favorite such characters were Max Braverman played by Max Burkholder on the TV series Parenthood along with his mentor Hank Rizzoli played by Ray Romano. Another good example was Jerry “Hands” Epperson on “Boston Legal” played by Christian Clemson. We’ve even seen portrayals of surgeons with Asperger’s syndrome when Mary McDonnell guest starred on three episodes of Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Virginia Dixon. Although Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” has never been officially labeled as having Asperger’s, a number of commentators have suggested that he exhibits many of the characteristics.

However unlike all of these Asperger’s examples, Sean Murphy goes way beyond the simple social awkwardness that we’ve seen in any of these other characters I’ve just mentioned. They do not describe his form of autism as Asperger’s Syndrome. It is just described as “autism”. This character exhibits a much more extreme awkwardness of personality. Highmore plays him with a very childlike voice and broken speech pattern more akin to someone like Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man”. The childlike quality of his personality more closely resembles an adult with Down Syndrome.

Naturally when someone encounters this man-boy the last thing they would think was that he would be capable of being a doctor of any kind let alone a talented surgical resident. In the opening episode there is a meeting of the hospital staff in which they attempt to reject his entry into the surgical residency program. His cause is championed by hospital president Dr. Aaron Glassman portrayed by former West Wing staffer Richard Schiff. Glassman literally puts his career on the line and says that if Dr. Murphy does not succeed in the program, he offers to resign as the hospital president. Most strongly opposed to Murphy’s position is surgical chief Dr. Marcus Andrews played by Hill Harper who you may recognize from Homeland, Limitless and Covert Affairs.

Theoretically one would expect me to be extremely sympathetic towards a character who has a disability and is attempting to overcome people’s extremely low expectations of his capabilities. But the way this particular character is portrayed, I’m finding myself squarely on the side of Marcus whose attitude is “Get this freak out of my hospital and away from my patients.”

It’s apparent that each week Dr. Murphy is going to use his alternate way of thinking and perceiving to diagnose patients and save their lives in ways that escaped the attention of the so-called normal doctors. Without this proof of his medical genius there would be no way he would be remotely considered capable of doing the job. There’s more to being a doctor then simply coming up with brilliant diagnoses and having skill with a scalpel. The ability to communicate and collaborate with colleagues is an essential part of the job for which Murphy is totally unsuited.

The fact that he was given the opportunity to take the job, stretches the credibility of the TV show almost to its breaking point. I think the only way to enter into the story is to consider it science fiction. Imagine an alternate reality where such a person could get a chance to take a job for which they are seriously deficient in necessary skills.

We get lots of flashbacks to Murphy’s childhood. We learned of his abusive parents, that he ran away from home with his brother and they attempted to live on their own, and of his brother’s tragic accidental death. The death of his brother along with the death of his pet rabbit led him to the field of medicine. He couldn’t save either of their lives but maybe he can save someone else’s. We also get glimpses into his relationship with his mentor Dr. Glassman who is been in his life since his childhood and the loss of his brother.

These flashbacks serve to illustrate his approach to events in the present day. But even further stretching the credibility that this person could be taken seriously, during the flashbacks Murphy goes into an almost trancelike stare as he recalls the events. Someone will ask him a question and he goes into this trance while we watch the events of his past play out. When the flashback is over, he is still standing there with a blank look on his face while everyone wonders what the hell is wrong with him. Then having gained the perspective he required from the flashback, he comes up with an answer to whatever was asked of him. The fact that he is not fully present in the current moment further stretches the credibility that anyone would or should take him seriously.

Clearly the intent of the authors and producers of the program is to challenge us to accept people who are “different” and not impose our prejudicial limitations upon them. After watching three episodes and despite watching him use his medical brilliance to save multiple lives, I’m still not convinced he can do the job. Maybe I’m like the racist fans of Archie Bunker who didn’t see him in a negative light but saw him as a hero. Maybe I’m on the wrong side of what the creators of the show intended. But I can’t shake my perspective even though one would expect me to be sympathetic.

I would not find credible a television show about a person like me who attempted a profession that required physical capability beyond my capacity to matter how sympathetic of a character I might be.

Apart from all of this, show is a really very well written, well acted, medical drama. While Murphy is the primary character, he is not the sole focus of the story. There is the typical politics and competition between the other surgical residents, the egos of the attending physicians, and the politics of hospital management that are the staples of medical drama shows like Grey’s Anatomy and ER. On that level, the show works pretty well. The stories of the patients that they treat are compelling. The other characters besides Murphy are three-dimensional and considerably more believable than Murphy.

For now I’m going to sort of hold my nose and continue to watch the show to see where it goes. The non-Murphy parts of the story are sufficiently interesting to be entertaining and I’m curious to see what they do with the Murphy story as the show progresses.

So as I said at the beginning, I have very mixed feelings about this program but for now I’m giving it a very cautious rating of “I’m watching it”.

“Valor” is young, pretty, and empty of content.

Valor” is the CW network’s entry into the crowded military drama genre. Both NBC and CBS also have a new military dramas this year that I’ve already reviewed here. This one centers around a female Army helicopter pilot. It’s definitely geared towards the 20-something audience that is the typical CW network demographic. It’s populated with lots of attractive young actors you never heard of. No grizzled veterans to be found.

Unfortunately it is not much of the way of interesting characters or plot either. Normally I would tell you about who is in the show, a bit about the characters, the bit about the plot. This is so generic cliché that it isn’t worth my effort to describe it to you.

Unless you are greatly inspired by the story of a military woman trying to make her way in a man’s world there’s nothing much to see here. The action is not as interesting as NBC’s new show “The Brave” and the character back stories are not as interesting and CBS’s new show “SEAL Team”. If you want a good military show, go watch “Top Gun” for the 10th time or try one of the other new military shows we just mentioned.

Obviously this gets my rating of “skip it”.

“9JKL” Not as Lovable as Raymond

After spending eight seasons playing Dr. Hank Lawson on Royal Pains, Mark Feuerstein got away from comedy and played the bad guy on the reboot season of Prison Break. Now he’s back to comedy in his new half-hour single camera sitcom “9JKL” on CBS.

In this show he plays Josh, an actor who had his TV series “Blind Cop” canceled and he lost everything in a nasty divorce. So he moved to New York into the apartment building where he grew up. He lives in apartment 9K next to his overbearing parents in 9J and his brother and sister-in-law and their baby in 9L.

His smothering overbearing mother is played by Linda Lavin and his goofy somewhat senile father is played by Elliott Gould. I really like both of them in these parts.

The question I have is can they really make a show out of the one joke that this guy has these overbearing parents and a nosy brother who live too close to him? In some respects that was the major plot point of “Everybody Loves Raymond”. But that wasn’t the entire story. Raymond was married with kids and although his parents were the major source of conflict and therefore source of comedy, it just wasn’t the whole story. If the first episode of 9JKL is any indication, it doesn’t go much deeper than that.

There are other plot lines as well. Josh is trying to figure out how to start dating after his divorce. The second episode is all about his attempts to have a one night stand because he apparently has never had one before. He dated his high school sweetheart, college sweetheart, a series of six-month relationships followed by the woman he married and then divorced. Of course he fails when his mother makes the one night stand girl her new best friend. The other subplot of episode 2 is that his father bought too many bananas. Yawn.

The show has a very annoying and overbearing fake laugh track. It is single camera edited rather than filmed in front of an audience. Even if it did have an audience, it would still need the laugh track because it isn’t really that funny.

As I said earlier I really like Lavin and Gould and was a big fan of Feuerstein from Royal Pains but I think two episodes was plenty enough for me to get this rating of “Skip It”.

“Me, Myself and I” is a lighter, funnier “This Is Us” and better alternative to “Young Sheldon”

Me, Myself, and I” is a new single camera half-hour comedy created by producer Dan Kopelman who is most famous for his other coming-of-age comedy “Malcolm in the Middle”. When I first heard about this show it was obviously a show with a big gimmick and I wondered if that’s all it was. Fortunately it seems the gimmick works pretty well.

It’s a life story of Alex Riley as told through three different time periods in his life over a 50 year time span. The main character is portrayed by three different actors in each of those time periods. The young Alex is 14 years old in 1991 portrayed by Jack Dylan Grazer. He recently appeared in the Stephen King horror film “It” but has few other acting credits.

The show starts with him in the midst of three major turning points in his life. The young Alex is uprooted from his home in Chicago when his mom marries an airline pilot and they moved to LA. The most difficult part of this move for him is that he absolutely adores Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls but is suddenly transplanted into LA Lakers country. He is a bit of a nerd and loves inventing things.

His new stepbrother Justin takes him under his wing and tries to help him navigate life in a new school environment. He calls him “little brother” even though he’s only 30 some days older than him. In the opening episode Justin plays the role of wing man as Alex tries to hook up with one of the hottest girls in their class. Justin is played by Christopher Paul Richard who has previously appeared as one of Bobby Axelrod’s sons in the Showtime series “Billions”.

The adult Alex is 40 years old and takes place in present-day. He’s played by SNL veteran Bobby Moynihan. Here he is a struggling inventor whose company was worth about $2 million but now has fallen on hard times and is on the verge of bankruptcy. He’s recently divorced and living out of a friend’s garage. He’s trying to put his life back together and still be a good father to his nine-year-old daughter. At the end of the episode he finds out his ex-wife is moving out of town and taking the daughter with her. His business partner and sidekick Darrell is played by Jaleel White who you’ll remember from his iconic childhood role of Steve Urkel on Family Matters.

The older Alex is 65 years old in the year 2042. He’s portrayed by veteran comic actor John Larroquette. In the opening episode the turning point for this stage of his life is that he recently recovered from a heart attack and decided to retire as CEO of his now successful technology company Riley industries. He is searching for what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. We will avoid spoiling a minor plot twist near the end of the first episode that hints at where that part of the story is going.

The show is funny, has a lot of heart, and is well written and acted. At first I thought it was just a ripoff of the multi-time period approach to the hit NBC drama “This Is Us”. And while that may be true, they pull it off successfully. It is a little bit rushed to trying to get these three different stories moving along in just a half-hour comedy. The first episode was about 60% young Alex, 30% adult Alex, and 10% older Alex. We will have to see if subsequent episodes shift that balance so we get more of the other stories. Still if it remains mostly a coming-of-age story about a young Alex that would be okay. The writing does a pretty good job of tying the story together. Events in one of the time periods connects to the other time periods. Think of it as a sort of one person rather than three-person version of “This Is Us” with all of the heart and comedy and not any of the tearjerk aspects.

I also can’t help but make contrasts to the new series “Young Sheldon”. If you are looking for a coming-of-age story about a nerdy young kid and how his childhood influenced his adulthood then this is a much much better choice than Young Sheldon. In many ways this is the show that Young Sheldon could’ve been but isn’t. One of the reasons this show might succeed where Young Sheldon will not is that we can see the adult and the older versions of the character evolve along with the young version. This show is not saddled with 10+ seasons of history of its adult character with which it must somehow correlate and provide some sort of continuity.

For now I’m giving it a somewhat tentative raising of “I’m watching it”. I suggest you check it out and see if it resolves your disappointment in Young Sheldon.

A pair of new Marvel series are just okay. The jury is still out on The Gifted and Inhumans

Marvel comics is continuing to expand its TV offerings with 2 new series this season. On ABC we have “Marvel’s Inhumans” and on Fox we have “The Gifted”. This is in addition to 6 seasons worth of offerings on Netflix of various Marvel heroes with more to come and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD already on ABC.

“Inhumans” is more closely related to Agents of SHIELD. In Agents we’ve already been introduced to these so-called inhuman characters. Basically if you have a particular genetic marker and come in contact with a substance called Terrigen it transforms you and gives you some sort of mutant ability. In Agents there was a plot line in which Terrigen was released into the world’s water supply and people are randomly popping up with these superpowers. Some use them for good others for evil.

In this series we have a group of humanoid alien inhumans living in a secret domed city on the moon called Attilan. They are led by a Royal family who all have mutant abilities. However some percentage of the population of this hidden lunar city do not develop these abilities when they go through Terrigenesis. Most notably Maximus the brother of King Black Bolt. Maximus is played by Iwan Rheon you will recognize as Ramsey Bolton from Game of Thrones. He stages a coup and the royal family have to flee to earth. It appears to be earth at approximately the same time. As Agents of SHIELD because people they encounter on earth seem to be aware of Inhumans.

The first two episodes were pre-released in IMAX theaters before the show aired. It got mixed to bad reviews. My initial reaction was that I was glad that I didn’t waste my money on IMAX tickets. In general it’s not a bad show but it’s nothing extra special. The cast of characters includes… King Black Bolt played by Anson Mount who you will recognize from the AMC Western series “Hell on Wheels”. His mutant ability is that if he speaks even the slightest sound he emanates a huge destructive shock wave. This ability resulted in the accidental death of his parents when he first developed it as a teenager. As a consequence he communicates through sign language. The writers of the show made up their own sign language because he is not from Earth and therefore would not use such systems as American Sign Language.

The Queen of Attilan is Medusa portrayed by Serinda Swan. She has floor length red hair that she can control like an appendage. In the opening episodes she is captured by Maximus and he shaves her head to render her powerless. There are a variety of other mutant characters insufficiently interesting to detail here.

The only other memorable character is a 2000 pound giant dog named Lockjaw that is capable of teleporting anywhere including to earth. He’s responsible for helping the royal family escape. The character is rendered in full CGI and claims to be the first regular TV character to be full CGI. Press interviews reveal he’s going to be a bit of comic relief but so far he’s been nothing but my proverbial plot driven technology.

It’s a little bit difficult to judge what the actual series is going to be like. The family of Royal Inhumans are going to be stranded on earth currently in Hawaii. They are being hunted by Royal guards loyal to the brother Maximus who has overthrown them. Somewhat like Star Trek: Discovery the first two hours are almost a prequel to the actual series itself.

Again there’s nothing really wrong with the show but it just isn’t anything very special.

The other offering based on Marvel characters is Fox’s “The Gifted”. It’s more closely related to the X-Men movies. It takes place at about the time of the recent X-Men film “Logan” or possibly slightly before. It is in an era where the X-Men have “disappeared” and the government is rounding up mutants… some because they are dangerous and others “for their own safety”.

The basic plot revolves around the Strucker family led by the father Reed Strucker played by former True Blood vampire Stephen Moyer. He is in Atlanta prosecutor who specializes in prosecuting mutant criminals however he seems to have some sympathy for them. He has a wife and two teenage children. Unbeknownst to him his daughter Lauren has had mutant abilities for a few years. She has to reveal them in order to save her brother Andy who accidentally discovers his own mutant abilities. He is a young teen who is being bullied at school. The bullies dragged him from the high school dance into the locker room to torment him. He unleashes shock waves that nearly tear down the school in a scene reminiscent from Stephen King’s Carrie.

As a result the family has to go on the run to avoid being arrested by federal “Sentinel Services” who have broad powers to detain any dangerous mutants. Reed turns to a mutant underground group that he has been pursuing in order to help his family escape. It looks like the story is going to be equally divided between the story of the family and the mutant underground.

This series has a very dark tone to it as the mutants are presumed to be dangerous terrorists whether they are or not. The themes of prejudice and racism are prominent in the series as they are in many of the X-Men stories.

Again unfortunately the opening episode focuses mostly on setting up the series and it’s a little bit difficult to see exactly where it’s going from here. Overall I would say that the action and special effects are more interesting than Inhumans and the characters certainly are more interesting. It is apparently going to focus mostly on the teenage kids which tells me the show is reaching for a young adult audience along the lines of Hunger Games, Divergent etc. It almost looks as though the show would be along the lines of something you would see on CW network.

In general I’m giving both series a “Could be watchable” rating with more emphasis on “The Gifted” than “Inhumans”. We will have to see where each of these go to see if they develop more compelling stories or interesting characters or if they are just another opportunity for Marvel to cash in on more of its B-list characters.

The Brave vs. SEAL Team — Take your pick

This season we have at least three new military themed dramas of which I’m aware. I’ve seen two of them and around neither of them are anything exceptional they are mildly interesting and unfortunately quite similar. The two we are talking about today is NBC’s “The Brave” and CBS’s “SEAL Team”. Yet to come is CW network’s “Valor” about U.S. Army helicopter pilotspremieres October 9.

NOTE: there are minor plot spoilers from the premier episodes.

“The Brave” opens with some text reminiscent of NBC’s other flagship dramas “Law & Order”. It says “The defense of the United States and its citizens relies increasingly on two groups… The intelligence analysts in Washington, who uncover and interpret threats. And the Special Forces operators tasked with eliminating.” That pretty much sums up what the show is about. We have a group of analysts back in Washington DC led by Patricia Campbell who is played by Anne Heche. And we have a small group of special forces operators led by Adam Dalton played by Mike Vogel. You might recognize in from the sci-fi series “Under the Dome” in which he played Dale Barbara. The rest of the cast is not anyone you would recognize.

The opening episode involves the rescue of a female American doctor who is kidnapped by terrorists while working in a relief mission overseas. Our heroes are tasked with rescuing her. Just as they are about to rescue her, they discovered she was kidnapped not as a hostage but to treat a wounded notorious terrorist leader. The dilemma then comes… Which is more important? Killing the bad guy or rescuing the princess… (Whoops excuse me the female doctor).

The show is strictly procedural with reasonable amounts of action and pretty good special effects. At least in the initial episode we didn’t spend a lot of time developing the characters, their personalities, or the back stories. We do know that Heche’s character recently lost a son in battle somewhere and there are whispered questions about whether or not she got to be back to work given her recent tragedy. That’s about the extent of the subplots. Presumably incoming episodes we will get to know more about the characters but this one seems to be strictly about the action. The trailer for the second episode is also a hostage rescue mission of some kind.

I will give the show for one thing. There was a minor plot twist that I thought was a plot hole. A terrorist which had been subdued suddenly escaped. I thought it was a plot gimmick to allow the escape just so there would be more danger and more action in the rest of the episode. As it turned out they let the terrorist escape as part of a plan to get the bad guy and rescue the doctor all right this same time. I guess I got cynical by so many shows with obvious plot holes that was a bit refreshing that what appeared to be a hole was actually a pretty clever twist.

“SEAL Team” is CBS’s entry into the field. It stars David Boreanaz who has just come off 12 seasons of playing FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth on “Bones”. I did not recognize any of the other cast from either TV shows or films.

In contrast to “The Brave” this one deals at least 50% with the back story and regular lives of the characters. Boreanaz’s character has an ex-wife and teenage girls. Part of the show has him in mandatory therapy to deal with the loss of one of his team members under his command. He continues to stay in contact with the widow of his dead teammate. Another member of the seal team has a pregnant wife at home. The show is going to be much more character driven. Whether or not those characters are interesting enough to keep you watching is yet to be determined. A lot of it seems a bit cliché so far. With its combination of action and family drama back stories this show is quite reminiscent of the 2006 military drama “The Unit“.

The plot for the opening episode is sadly extremely similar to the opening episode of “The Brave”. This story is slightly reversed in that they are sent to try to capture a high-value terrorist alive and along the way discover that a hostage is being held. Again the dilemma of which is more important… Rescuing a hostage or capturing the bad guy.

Without giving away the entire plot of those shows, the outcome of these extremely similar situations is quite different. I will stop short of calling SEAL Team resolution of story more “realistic” and say perhaps it is a slightly darker yet somewhat more probable outcome.

Neither of these shows even come close to being “must-see TV”. But both seem to be reasonably watchable with a fair amount of action if that’s what you’re looking for. And depending on whether you want more family back story and character development or whether you want a mostly procedural action drama you can pick between the two accordingly. I’m going to give both of them a couple more episodes before I decide which if either will become regular viewing.

For now I’m giving them both a reasonably strong “might be watchable” rating. We will let you know if CW’s entry into the field “Valor” has anything extra to offer.

Young Sheldon is a Warm Fuzzy Disappointment

If I had to give a one-word review of Young Sheldon I would have to say “disappointing”.

Don’t get me wrong here… It’s a very well-written, well acted, well produced program. It just isn’t what I expected. I am a HUGE fan of “The Big Bang Theory”. I’ve seen every episode some of them multiple times. It is currently my favorite sitcom on TV right now. It probably ranks in my top three or four sitcom favorites of all time alongside such classics as Seinfeld and M*A*S*H. So when I heard they were going to make a spinoff series based on the early life of Dr. Sheldon Cooper I was really excited.

I think my biggest problem with it is I’m not entirely sure it’s a comedy. While it did have a few funny moments there were more parts that could be better described as poignant, sentimental, heartfelt or many other adjectives not necessarily comedic.

The adult Sheldon comes across as eccentric and at times childlike but because he’s an adult your approach is to laugh at him. The other characters put up with his eccentricities with an attitude of “Oh well… that’s Sheldon. You take him as he is flaws and all.” And it’s easy to laugh at him. But in many ways he really is sort of a pathetic character. You take that same pathos and apply it to a preteen child I’m not sure it’s so funny. You end up feeling more pity for him and it’s harder to laugh at him.

Given the tone of the series, I applaud the fact that they are not doing it as a typical three camera sitcom taped in front of a live audience. It’s a single camera edited program with no live audience and no laugh track. That was a good choice. Again especially because I’m not really sure it’s a comedy.

I’ve heard people compare it to shows like “The Wonder Years” but I never saw that program. So I can’t really comment on that. Many have suggested that Sheldon Cooper is an excellent example of someone with Asperger’s syndrome. I think the young Sheldon perhaps confirms that diagnosis. So appropriate comparison among TV families would be Max Braverman in Parenthood. Although that show did have its funny moments spread throughout, you’d have to call it a drama for the most part.

If we take Sheldon’s Asperger’s as a disability, one could draw comparisons to the cerebral palsy character JJ DiMeo in “Speechless”. But that character is not at all deeply flawed in his personality as is Sheldon. You can sympathize and empathize with him and the show is definitely played for laughs even though it does contain some poignant moments. In Speechless you can laugh at the situations that JJ encounters without laughing at him personally. You’re not making fun of him or his limitations. That formula just won’t work with Sheldon.

Zoe Perry does a reasonable job as Sheldon’s mother and her characterization matches well with the portrayal by Laurie Medcalf. I saw one reviewer suggest that the show would be better if she was the focus of the show and they had Medcalf do the voiceover instead of Jim Parsons as the adult Sheldon. I think I might agree with that. His twin sister provides a few comedic moments with her snarky comments. His older brother and father sort of cruise through the show without contributing anything useful to the story.

One of the things that makes the adult Sheldon not be totally pathetic and unlikable is the way that his character has evolved in recent seasons mostly through his relationship with his girlfriend now fiancé Amy Farah Fowler. The problem is we don’t have an opportunity for young Sheldon to grow because we already know what a deeply flawed person he was in the early seasons of Big Bang.

We know that at some point along the way his dad is going to die so that’s going to be a real downer. Annie Potts has been cast as his MeeMaw for future episodes so she may add something interesting to the mix.

I hate to say it but I think the whole concept behind the show is deeply flawed and I’m not sure what can be done to fix it.

For now I’m giving it a very mild rating of “Could be watchable”. I will continue to give it a chance for a few episodes but I’m not very hopeful.

Star Trek Discovery Is Worthy but Is It Worth It?

It was 51 years ago that the original Star Trek series premiered on TV. Since then we have had 4 other TV versions of Star Trek and over a dozen movies. So one has to ask do we really need another TV series in this franchise. After seeing the first two episodes of the new Star Trek: Discovery, I think the answer is a definitive yes. Well… Maybe it’s not so much that we need it but we can definitively say that it now that it is here, it is a very welcome and worthy addition to the long-running franchise.

Although it is a bit early to tell, it appears that for the first time the central character of a Star Trek series is not going to be the captain. Our central figure is Cmdr. Michael Burnham, an African-American female human played by Sonequa Martin-Green whose previous credits include 8 episodes of The Good Wife, 7 episodes of Once Upon A Time and most notably 69 episodes of The Walking Dead. In the opening scenes one might guess that she was a Vulcan. She’s wearing a hooded costume on a desert planet so you can’t see her ears. She is speaking in very logical, precise, Vulcan-like manner. Throughout the opening episodes however we find out that Burnham is a human whose parents were killed in a Klingon attack. She was raised on Vulcan as the ward of none other than Sarek who is, as all Star Trek fans know, the father of Spock. In this version Sarek wonderfully played by James Frain.

Not only is Sarek her adoptive father and adult mentor, they also share a long-distance telepathic link courtesy of a special mind meld during a near-death experience when she was a child. Throughout the opening episodes she communicates with him either by subspace radio or by this telepathic link wherein he advises her on her current situations.

We also have flashbacks that show her first days in Starfleet wherein she appears to be even more Vulcan-like then she is in the current time period. Speaking of time period, this series takes place just 10 years prior to the events of the original Kirk/Spock/McCoy original series.

During the first two episodes Cmdr. Burnham is assigned as first officer of the USS Shenzhou which is captained by Capt. Georgirou portrayed by guest star Michelle Yeoh. The fact that she is listed in the opening credits as a special guest star is your first clue that she isn’t going to be around for very long. We will try to avoid too many spoilers and not tell you exactly what happens.

The only other major character we get to know in the first two episodes is Saru played by Doug Jones who is accustomed to playing aliens in fullface makeup. He was recently seen as Cochise in the alien invasion series Falling Skies. Jones by the way grew up in Indianapolis, attended Bishop Chartard High School and Ball State University. In this show he is the science officer and is constantly cautioning the captain to play it safe. At first he comes across as cowardly but later we learn why his background makes him so overly cautious. He explains that humans live on a planet that has a food chain with humans at the top but on his planet everything is either exclusively predator or prey. His species was always the prey. They were essentially bred to be eaten. Their entire life was based on the idea that they were destined to die. However in the second episode when the only option available was to fight, he is not hesitant to help the crew plan the attack on the Klingons. Essentially his character is constantly in a fight or flight situation and while he often chooses flight over fight, when all else fails he is definitely up to the task of fighting.

Given the unique background of Cmdr. Burnham being a Vulcan-raised human and the unusual back story of science officer Saur there appear to be rich opportunities for great storytelling in future episodes.

Again trying not to provide too many spoilers, Cmdr. Burnham will not be serving on the USS Shenzhou in future episodes. She will be transferred to the USS Discovery under the command of Capt. Gabriel Lorca played by Jason Isaacs. He did not appear in the first two episodes. You may recall seeing him in the one season USA Network series Dig.

Essentially the show is going to do a bit of a reboot after these first two episodes so it’s a little bit difficult to know what the actual series is going to be like.

The storytelling is definitely up to excellent Star Trek standards and is a worthy successor to previous versions of the franchise.

The set design, props, and most of all CGI special effects are way beyond what we would come to expect from a Star Trek TV series or any TV series for that matter. The opening scene on an alien planet is so far beyond the kind of alien planet environments that we saw in the original series 50 years ago that it makes the old show looked totally ridiculous. One of the criticisms of this new show is that the sets are so detailed and technical that they seem out of place in the canon of Star Trek stories as a prequel to the original series. The critics accuse Star Trek Discovery of being noncanonical as if it is using technology that didn’t exist in the original series. I don’t find a problem with that. In the first two episodes I didn’t see any real technology that seemed out of place in a ten-year prequel. Just because they spent more money designing the sets and props and the CGI is so far superior to anything that we were capable of creating with practical models 50 years ago doesn’t mean that we violated any continuity. At least that’s my opinion.

The other major deviation from previous incarnations of Star Trek is a complete redesign of the Klingon race. Click here for a video showing the differences. We’re told that the Klingon consist of various tribes or houses that have been split from one another and that part of the plot of the opening episodes is an attempt to reunite the Klingon race. Each of the various tribes seems to have a different facial structure. All of them have fullface head makeups not just the traditional Worf-like forehead piece or the even more minimal Klingon makeups from the original series. That lack of continuity doesn’t bother me but it may bother some people.

A quick browse through YouTube reviews have been mostly negative because people are saying “it betrays 50 years of Star Trek” but that so-called betrayal is only continuity issues such as the redesign Klingons. I’ve not seen any negative reviews that really answer the question is it contrary to the heart of Star Trek. I don’t think it is. So if you don’t like the continuity errors, don’t collect a prequel. Call it a re-imagination. The JJ Abrams Star Trek films get away with changing things because of a alternate timeline excuse. Even though this series doesn’t have that gimmick excuse, I still think people should judge it on its own merits as good sci-fi entertainment and if it has the same level of quality we expect from Star Trek. One negative review described it as “Game of Thrones” in outer space. Pardon me but I’ve got no problem with that.

Overall everything that we’ve seen the way of special effects over these opening episodes makes it look very much on par with a current theatrical movie and far beyond what we normally see on a weekly TV series. They are definitely putting in a lot of money into special-effects on this show. Now it may be that they blew their entire CGI budget on these opening episodes to get you hooked and the quality may deteriorate in future episodes. We will have to wait and see.

One of the disappointing parts of the show, this may seem trivial, was the opening title sequence. The new theme song seems Star Trek worthy with lots of audible references to previous themes and it even concludes with a few bars of the original Alexander Courage theme song. However the graphics are completely uninteresting. They are animated set of technical drawings and some other strange animation. I would’ve rather seen a traditional Star Trek opening sequence with the spaceship flying through space. See for yourself in this YouTube video.

I recommend you check out other videos from the Star Trek YouTube channel for more behind-the-scenes info about series.

https://www.youtube.com/user/startrek/

The biggest problem with Star Trek Discovery is its availability. While the opening episode was broadcast on CBS network, it left you with a cliffhanger. Episode 2 and the remaining episodes which will appear weekly are only available using a subscription paid service called CBS All Access. Outside the US where CBS All Access is not available, the show is airing via Netflix. I don’t know if it’s possible to use a VPN to spoof Netflix into thinking you are outside the US. If it were available on Netflix everywhere then it would definitely be worth it to subscribe to Netflix because of all of the other things that you would get along with it.

The real question is if it is worth it to subscribe to CBS All Access just to get Star Trek Discovery. Of course after the airing of this first episode, subscriptions of the new service increased phenomenally as was expected. In some ways we have to presume the entire creation of this new series is just a gimmick to get people to sign up for the new subscription service. As of right now, the only other original programming available on CBS All Access is the reboot of “The Good Wife” as a show called “The Good Fight” staring all of the original cast and characters except for Julianna Margulies. The first season of “The Good Fight” already streamed late last year and was an excellent series especially if you are a fan of the original “The Good Wife”. Although there are new original series in the works for CBS All Access, currently these two shows are the only original programming and everything else is reruns at archives of CBS programming.

While I imagine diehard Star Trek fans will find it worth it to sign up for CBS All Access just to watch the new series, the irony is that the average Star Trek fan probably has the technical skills necessary to acquire the series from bootleg sources without having to pay for it. Until and unless something more compelling than Star Trek Discovery and The Good Fight are available on CBS All Access is available, I doubt that the average TV watcher will bother to subscribe.

Meanwhile Star Trek fans will definitely want to see this new series and they will watch it by whatever means available whether that is from legitimate subscriptions or other methods.

For now I’m rating it “I really like it”.

By the way it occurred to me that the initials of this series are “STD”. It took everything I had not too title this review “STD is infectious” 🙂

The Orville Works as both Sci-fi and Comedy

Seth MacFarlane’s new sci-fi comedy “The Orville” has been described as either an homage or a spoof of Star Trek. However he insists it’s really its own show and although it draws heavily on Star Trek genre it should be considered on its own merits. Having seen the opening episode I think all of the above is true. It is part spoof, part parody, part homage and a legitimate sci-fi adventure in and of itself.

If we set aside the issues of Star Trek connections and just judge it on its own merits as a sci-fi adventure and a comedy I think after one episode I have to say it works on both levels. It really is a decent sci-fi adventure show with a reasonably credible sci-fi plot. It also made me laugh really hard several times even if it is at times over-the-top silly.

MacFarlane plays Capt. Ed Mercer who in the opening of the show finds his wife in bed with a blue skinned alien. We fast-forward one year to find him down on his luck and depressed over the failure of his marriage. However Adm. Halsey played by guest star Victor Garber tells him he’s being given command of a mid-level exploratory shape called the Orville. Apparently there are 3000 ships in the fleet and they are little shorthanded for captains so despite the fact that he’s been a basic screwup over the past year they are giving him a shot at redemption despite his recent troubles.

Unfortunately his dream assignment turns into a nightmare when he finds out that his first officer is going to be his ex-wife Kelly Grayson played by Adrianne Palicki.

His best friend Gordon Malloy played by ER veteran Scott Grimes is going to be his new helmsman who is supposedly the proverbial “best pilot in a galaxy” but is also a ne’er-do-well alcoholic. We are also introduced into a variety of other alien crewmembers such as his petite female security chief Alara Kitan played by Halston Sage whose size hides the fact that she grew up on a planet with much heavier gravity and so exhibits superhuman strength. We also have a Worf-like character named Bortus played by Peter Macon who you might recognize as Dominique’s police officer father from Shameless.

One surprise bit of casting is Penny Johnson Jerald as the ship’s medical officer Dr. Claire Finn. You will remember her as Capt. Gates from the detective/romance show Castle. It’s a little bit hard to imagine her in a comedy but the character she’s playing seems to be very straightlaced so it might work after all. She does however have some genre credit because she played Kasidy Yates on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

As a sci-fi show the opening plot was actually not too bad. Their first mission is a resupply mission the scientific colony but when they arrive they find out that they aren’t really there to resupply but are to guard a new piece of technology that can speed up time. While it has peaceful uses such as making crops grow quicker it can also be used as a weapon by making your enemy age 100 years in a few seconds. The alien enemy race the Krill are after technology. There is an outer space battle and a ground attack that provides lots of action.

The show also works as a comedy mostly by humanizing the crew in ways that traditional Star Trek type shows do not. For example 2 crewmembers meet in a hallway and one of them asks “Do you have a minute we can talk?” And the other replies “I only have a minute… I’m on my way to pee.” It calls to mind the strange fact that after decades worth of Star Trek we’ve never had anyone talk about taking a leak. In another scene the navigator asked the captain if it’s okay for to keep a drink and his console. The captain agrees as long as he keeps his under the desk and doesn’t spill it on anything. Later in the middle of a tense moment we see the navigator sucking on a Slurpie.

The humor isn’t really so much jokes or funny situations as it is breaking your expectations of what a space adventure is like. In another scene the captain needs to stall the attacking alien while they try to repair the ship and so he engages in a debate with his ex-wife/first officer over there marital problems and they asked the alien commander’s advice. It’s all pretty silly but for some reason it works.

Despite what I’ve said about this not being a Star Trek spoof there are plenty of Star Trek influences everywhere. The design of the bridge echoes features of Star Trek: The Next Generation as does the orchestral soundtrack. On the other hand it breaks some Star Trek conventions such as one-shot that shows an extremely long hallway that had to be done with some sort of optical effects. Traditional Star Trek and other sci-fi spaceship based adventures rely on short corridors or curved corridors to minimize the size of the set. So in some ways is not so much what is similar to Star Trek that makes this show interesting. It’s the ways in which it is different. But you have to be a fan of the original to see and appreciate the differences.

They have ordered 13 episodes and I don’t know if there options to extend it to a full season if it’s a hit or if it’s intended from the beginning to be a limited series. Time will tell whether or not the silliness gets to be too silly and whether or not the hard-core sci-fi aspects continue to hold up episode after episode. For now I’m giving it a rating of “I really like it”. I recommend you check it out for yourself. It might provide an alternative to the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery which will only be available through the streaming subscription service CBS All Access. The first episode of The Orville is available on demand. Episode 2 is next Sunday and then it moved to its regular timeslot on Thursday nights beginning September 21.

America Horror Story: Cult Capitalizes On Political Fear

Normally I only bother to review new series however American Horror Story is an anthology series that reboots itself every season with totally new characters and new situations. It even takes place in different time periods. So in many respects it is a new show each season.

This particular installment for season 7 begins with election night 2016 when Trump was elected president. Considering that as a liberal and Hillary supporter I thought that evening was terrifying enough, I wanted to see what the team from AHS was going to do to capitalize on an already scary situation.

The first three or four seasons of the show I thought were really well done but in recent years I’ve been disappointed. Season 5 titled AHS: Hotel took a very long time to get going. They seemed to go for the shock value of lots of blood and gore for the first three or four episodes before they really got into the character development. Eventually the characters began to reveal themselves with the memorable performances but the overall plot I thought fell very flat.

Last season premiered with great secrecy and hype not revealing the subtitle “My Roanoke Nightmare” until the premier. There were promises that this season was going to tie together all previous seasons. With a few minor exceptions that were references to previous season characters I thought that aspect fell flat. The structure of last season was based on a reality documentary series that recounted the events in a haunted house. The second half of the season was in the form of another reality documentary revisiting the haunted house and re-examining the events from the first half of the season. Overall it was sort of a gimmick season that in some ways was a commentary on fandom of shows like AHS. I sort of liked the gimmick even though it was very gimmicky .

This season is titled AHS: Cult however it’s not really clear yet what the cult aspects of the show will be. Although we do get one very bloody scene near the beginning of the episode, fortunately we do dive right into character development which is where AHS has always been strongest. The opening scenes are of different families witnessing the election results and reacting to them in different ways. On one end of the political spectrum we have Kai Anderson played by AHS veteran Evan Peters. He becomes hysterically giddy with joy over Trump’s election. Throughout the show he reveals himself as an anarchist who sees the election as validation of his radical views. In one scene he goes before the local Town Council to speak against a proposal to allocate police overtime to guard a local Jewish Community Center. He goes into a diatribe about how people love fear and how the Jewish people in particular craved being persecuted. He suggests we allocate no additional resources to their protection because they love to live in fear.

On the other end of the political spectrum we have Ally Mayfair-Richards and her family. She is portrayed by AHS veteran Sarah Paulson. She and her lesbian partner Ivy played by Allison Pill have a 10-year-old son. Ally also becomes hysterical over the election results but out of total abject fear of what it means for her as a lesbian. We later learn however that she also is a deeply disturbed person who is haunted by crippling phobias of clowns, objects with holes in them, and either irrational fears. We learned that the only way she was able to overcome these phobias was through the stable relationship with her partner Ivy. But now that the political climate seems to threaten their way of life, her entire life becomes unhinged. She begins hallucinating that she is being taunted by clowns. But then again is it really hallucination or is it real?

One of the interesting things about this season at least through the first episode is that we have seen nothing that requires a supernatural explanation. The psychotic evil of Evan Peters is all too real. And Ally’s psychosis does not require any supernatural basis. I seriously doubt that the show will avoid dipping into the supernatural considering how heavily it has relied on those themes in the previous six seasons. But I think this would be a much more interesting season if they made it more reality-based. I’ve got my fingers crossed but I’m not holding my breath.

Overall I like the fact that they’ve gone into interesting character development right off the bat and I’m very optimistic this will be an interesting and enjoyable season. For now I’m giving it a very strong rating of “I’m Watching It