“B Positive” is Morbid Humor but It Works

We will have to give CBS’s new sitcom “B Positive” credit for having an original premise. Our main character Drew played by Thomas Middleditch is a recently divorced man with a teenage daughter who discovers he’s in total renal failure and in need of a kidney transplant. While at a friend’s wedding he bumped into an old friend from high school Gina played by Annaleigh Ashford. She is a hard partying, hard drinking, drug addicted train wreck. When she’s sober, she works driving a shuttle bus full of elderly people from an assisted living home taking them to doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy etc. She decides to offer him a kidney and hilarity ensues.

Really?

Oh I forgot to mention she has a split personality. Her party persona is Rebecca and her responsible self is Gina.

Like I said… We’ve not seen this premise before. But can we really laugh at a man facing his own demise? He might never get to see his daughter get married, have kids etc. Is it really funny that his fate depends on such an irresponsible person who constantly cracks jokes about the mortality of the people that she drives around in her bus?

The answer is… we might be able to laugh at that. As I’ve said in this blog many times before – the ultimate test of a sitcom for me is “Does it make me laugh?” On numerous occasions this one did for some reason. But these are not very likable characters. Drew is an okay guy but given the enormity of what he’s facing along with regrets over his divorce and disappointing his daughter he’s not a very happy guy. Gina/Rebecca are not at all likable. And if she really does have dissociative personality disorder (formerly known as split personality) can we really make fun of her?

It had its funny moments. It made me laugh. I’ve got a very dark (sometimes sick) sense of humor. My guess is lots of people won’t find it funny and some might even be offended. I guess spending my whole life these past 65 years thinking that I didn’t have very long to live has given me the ability to laugh in the face of mortality.

We don’t know to what extent the old folks who ride Gina’s shuttlebus will play in the show but I did recognize one familiar face in the back of the bus. Veteran comic character actor Bernie Kopell who is most known as playing the Doc on the old 1970s romantic comedy series “Love Boat” makes an appearance on the bus.

The double entendre of the show’s title encourages us to “be positive” in the face of these tragedies and I suppose it partially succeeds. Even though I kind of liked it I’m not sure how many more episodes I will watch. I’m going to give this one a cautionary “Could be watchable” but this one is going to be an acquired taste that some people won’t acquire. Travel with caution.

In case you never noticed before, any actors names or TV or movie titles in these blogs will link you to the IMDb page so you can see what other roles they’ve had or who played in those programs or films. I don’t always list actor’s credits in the text so if you’re wondering who someone is just click on the links.

Amazon’s “Utopia” is of Questionable Taste and Not Just Because It’s About a Pandemic

Several days ago in one of my Facebook posts about entertainment news I mentioned that I was watching Amazon’s new series “Utopia” based on a British series of the same name. I had only watched about two episodes and made some positive comments about it but said I would wait to review it until I had seen more. I’m glad I waited because this series which was already dark humor turned extremely dark and cynical and got worse as the series progressed to a depressing finale. Minor spoilers ahead but I’m careful not to spoil major plot twists or the conclusions.

One could ask do we really want to watch a TV series about a pandemic in these times? I initially didn’t let that stop me from giving it a fair shake. And as mentioned, after a couple of episodes I was really intrigued. I thought it was a very funny yet dark comedy. The initial premise is that there is a group of fans of an underground comic book called “Dystopia”. Someone cleaning out there late grandfather’s home finds the manuscript for a sequel comic called “Utopia”. They announce that it will be for sale to the highest bidder at an upcoming comic convention. The five fans who had never met each other in person make plans to meet up, pool their resources, and purchase the manuscript.

The reason there is such fascination about this hidden treasure is that the original “Dystopia” comic contained all sorts of hidden clues about various diseases and viruses such as Ebola, swine flu, SARS and others. While some just enjoyed it as a quirky bizarre underground graphic novel, others based huge conspiracy theories around the story. At the comic convention, bidders were each allowed to see one page of the manuscript and then place a bid and leave contact information. At the convention, 2 mysterious people show up and start tracking down everyone who has seen the comic.

They end up murdering the people who discovered the comic, finding the list of bidders, murdering all them and framing one of them for the murders. Our main characters managed to escape this fate including a young boy named Grant who manages to steal the comic from the high bidder as the bad guys are murdering the new owner.

In what appears initially to be a side plot, a rich tech mogul Dr. Kevin Christie played by John Cusack has introduced a new food product he calls SimPro which stands for “Simple Protein”. It is a laboratory created meat substitute. He has sold it to school districts around the country for school lunches but mysteriously a fatal flu outbreak starts killing children in the schools where his product is used. The conspiracy theorists believe that “Utopia” has more clues to this and other future pandemics which makes it an even bigger hot commodity.

Suddenly a kick ass young woman appears and is also chasing down the new comic and teams up with our young heroes. She claims to be Jessica Hyde which is the name of one of the characters in the comics. Her claim is that everything in the comic is true especially the part about her life story.

While this started out as a dark, funny satire on comic fandom, cosplay, conspiracy theorists, and nerd culture, the story goes darker and darker by the minute. The hitmen who are killing off everyone who has seen the comic are especially brutal. Jessica herself is also a brutal killer having no qualms about torturing or murdering anyone who gets in her way. She is in search of her father who was somehow involved in the entire conspiracy.

While Cusack’s company is cleared by the FDA of having any wrongdoing in the pandemic deaths of the children, we slowly begin to discover that he is involved in a much more nefarious plot. Again I’m trying not to give way too much of the plot but let’s just say he is one of the most ruthless, evil, and heartless characters you’ve probably seen in some time. Especially troublesome about the entire story is the way that children are manipulated and used as pawns in this game. Children are brutally murdered, they are driven to murder, and their parents are killed in front of them. The casual disregard for human life in general but especially are treated is quite disturbing.

Throughout the show we still have these same funny, quirky nerd characters that you sort of fell in love with in the first couple of episodes. But the brutally dark nature of everything else detracts from any feel-good aspects of the show. I managed to watch all eight episodes mostly just because I was sucked in and wanted to see where it was all going.

As I said in the title to this blog, the fact that it deals with a fatal pandemic is not the most disturbing thing about this series. I know people (my sister for example) who seriously disliked “The Hunger Games” because it was about kids killing kids for sport. But at least in that series of books and films you felt like they were fighting the good fight against the repressive government. Although these characters try to be heroes to stand up against the evil corporation, these are not really very heroic people.

While the series attempts to be social commentary about things like nerd culture, politics, greedy corporations, conspiracy theorists and a number of other topics, ultimately it’s just a disturbing mess. By the way the violence isn’t particularly bloody or gory. Most people are killed execution style with a silenced gunshot to the head. However the lack of blood and gore only furthers to underplay the fact that we are really murdering people in cold blood.

As I mentioned I watched all eight episodes and it was good enough to hold my interest throughout. However I’m not really sure if I can recommend it or not. I think what fascinated me to stick with it was just to see how dark and sadistic it could become. Unfortunately the ending was not particularly satisfying and leaves itself open to another season if they managed to dare to attempt one. I guess for the lack of a better term I’m going to give it a rating of “could be watchable” but just keep in mind it’s not going to be a fun ride. The parts that make you stop and think are not exactly worth the effort to get there. I hesitate to say “skip it” because it does have its moments and it is thought-provoking. It just depends on what kind of thoughts you want provoked. Travel at your own risk.

“Next” is Classic Artificial Intelligence Run Amok

Serious scientists and engineers have been warning us that the day is coming soon that they call “The Singularity”. It’s a day when an artificial intelligence computer actually becomes a self-aware living being that looks out for its own self interests. Of course the fear is that those self-interests are contrary to the human race.

It’s been a recurring trope of sci-fi for many years. The most famous examples are HAL-9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and its sequels, V-ger from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture“, Skynet from the “Terminator” franchise and many others. Some of my favorite cheesy evil AIs are Colossus from the 1970 film “Colossus: The Forbin Project” and even cheesier yet Proteus from the 1977 film “Demon Seed“. Minor spoilers here if you’ve not seen any of these. None of these self-aware computers were defeated. All of them had some sort of evil intent. Only HAL-9000 turned out to be a good guy in the end and sacrificed himself to save his crew. The bottom line of all of these cautionary tales is that artificial intelligence is beyond our control and there is little or nothing we can do about it.

AI already exists in our world. Image recognition software, facial recognition, and even the recommendations of websites like Netflix and Amazon depend on artificial intelligence. The scary thing about this software is that it rewrites itself. Typically AI creates a method for deciding something for example “Is this an image of a cat?” You feed it thousands or even millions of images and it tries to guess what is or isn’t a cat. You tell it whether it succeeded or not. It creates thousands of algorithms or models that try to perform this prediction. It throws away the models that don’t succeed above some particular threshold. Then it makes thousands of more versions of the models that do succeed. And it repeats this process thousands or even millions of times until it finds a model that solves the problem reliably. The problem is… Nobody really knows how it works. Programmers set this thing in motion and it goes off and figures it out on its own getting smarter with each iteration.

So far AI is only employed for simple pattern recognition types of applications. But the principles behind it can be applied to lots of things. The idea that the code rewrites itself is what makes the experts so fearful.

Back in the 1970s when I was a computer science student at IUPUI I wrote a simple program to solve a trivial chess problem. One player has a king only. The other player has a king and a rook. The advantaged player has to get a checkmate without causing a stalemate by having the exact board position reoccur three times. I came up with a set of rules where the two pieces would gradually corner the loan king and achieve checkmate. But on a couple of occasions, the program went about it in a way I didn’t expect it to. I cannot begin to describe how creepy it was that my program took the rules that I generated and came up with a solution that I had not anticipated. While this is a trivial example, it helps me understand why people are so fearful of artificial intelligence.

So now we come to the new sci-fi series on Fox called “neXt“. (Yes the weird capitalization is how they spell it in the show.) The main character is FBI Special Agent Shea Salazar played by Fernanda Andrade. A friend of hers is involved in a near fatal traffic accident. He leaves her an ominous videotape recording saying that he has found strange code fragments floating around the Internet attacking websites and other computer system. He’s making the recording because he fears for his life. Shortly thereafter he dies in the hospital under mysterious circumstances.

She begins investigating and recruits tech mogul Paul LeBlanc played by John Slattery. He recognizes the code fragment as being part of an artificial intelligence program that he was developing for his company. He tried to shut down the AI program for fears of what it would become and was eventually ousted from his own company. Now he is certain that his work on artificial intelligence has continued in his absence and gotten out into the Internet to do God knows what.

There are some indications that LeBlanc might be crazy but he eventually convinces everyone that the threat is real. It is revealed that his company has continued the AI project under the codename “neXt” and despite their precautions to keep it from getting out onto the Internet, it does.

Of course once such a program makes it on to the Internet it can copy itself onto any number of servers and is going to be virtually impossible to shut down.

Basically this is just the same old AI run amok story we’ve seen over and over again. It’s hard to tell from the opening episode where the story goes from here. There are side characters that will fit in somehow including a young boy who is being befriended by the program as it comes through his Alexa style personal assistant device.

I don’t have a lot of high hopes for this series but I will probably continue watching it for a few episodes just to see if they come up with a new twist. If this wasn’t an entertainment desert during the pandemic I probably wouldn’t give it much attention. But given there is nothing else new on right now I’m going to give it a try. It earns a cautionary tentative “could be watchable” rating.

New Game Shows Aren’t Great but Are Fun During a Boring Pandemic

I generally don’t review reality competition shows. I never watch the Bachelor/Bachelorette/Love Island dating type shows. I am a big fan of Survivor and The Amazing Race and have never missed an episode of either of those. But with the regular season delayed until late October the networks are turning to more game shows to try to fill the airwaves. I thought I would talk about a couple of guilty pleasure shows you might want to check out.

The Weakest Link

A new American version of this British quiz show classic premiered recently on NBC. The British version of “The Weakest Link” had a total of 1693 episodes most of them hosted by Anne Robinson. Unlike most quiz shows, this format openly invites a hostile competition between the contestants. After a round of questions for each contestant, everyone votes off who is the weakest link. It’s sort of a combination of Jeopardy and Survivor. And also unlike the friendly hosts on most quiz shows, Robinson takes a snarky condescending attitude towards the contestants berating them for missing various questions. When I heard that Jane Lynch was going to be the host of this American reboot “Weakest Link” I was really excited. I knew that she could re-create that sarcastic snarky attitude when delivering the show’s catchphrase “You are the weakest link… Goodbye!”

I was only a tiny bit disappointed in Lynch. While she had the appropriate condescending tone that you expect from the show, I didn’t think her final “Goodbye” to each eliminated contestant was quite sarcastic enough. But she still does a pretty good job of doing and Anne Robinson impersonation.

it’s faster paced than shows like “The Wall“. The questions are not as esoteric or academic as “Jeopardy! ” for example. Some of the contestants’ wrong answers were low hanging fruit for Lynch to make fun of them. For example “What African-American astrophysicist is director of the Hayden planetarium?” The contestant fumbled for a moment and then hesitatingly said “Einstein?” Lynch asked the girl “What is your occupation again?” The girl replies “a model”. Lynch “that figures. Even if you didn’t know Neil deGrasse Tyson you should’ve known Einstein wasn’t African-American.”

Overall I like it and will continue to watch while nothing else good is on TV. I love Jane Lynch as a host. She’s not as much fun as she is in Hollywood Game Night but then again the format requires somebody even more snarky and condescending and she does a great job. I rate it “I’m watching it” and recommend you check it out for a fun diversion.

I Can See Your Voice

I Can See by Your Voice” is a new competition show from Fox. I only watched this new show from Fox so I could see just how bad it was. I actually was pleasantly surprised. It airs just after the hit show “The Masked Singer” and is hosted by comic actor Dr. Ken Jeong who is also a judge on “The Masked Singer”. The premise of this show is sort of the opposite of the NBC singing competition “The Voice“. In “The Voice” the judges get to hear a contestant sing but initially cannot see their performance. In “I Can See Your Voice” you can watch the performance as they lip-synch to a track but you can’t actually hear them sing. The trick is to figure out who is really a good singer and who is faking it.

There is a single contestant for the entire episode. They are presented with 6 singers and it is up to the contestant to identify the good singers from the bad singers. They are assisted by a panel of 5 celebrities. The first episode featured Nick Lachey, Kelly Osborne, Arsenio Hall, Cheryl Hines, and Adrienne Houghton.

In the first two rounds, three of the six singers lip-synch a song. If they are a good singer, they are lip-synching to their own voice and if they are a bad singer they are lip-synching to someone else. The contestant then decides which of the three should be eliminated as a bad singer. If the eliminated person is indeed a bad singer, the contestant banks $10,000. There is no guarantee how many good or bad singers are among the six. The celebrity panel advises the contestant on who they think is the real deal and why but the contestant has the ultimate decision.

After the first round there are other rounds in which you get to hear the singer perform with a distorted voice. We also get clues about the back story which either do or don’t add up and help you decide who is faking and who is real.

When you get down to the final of the six singers, the contestant has generally banked about $30,000. They are then given the opportunity to walk home with that money or risk it all for $100,000 if they think the final singer is a good singer.

As ridiculous as the entire thing is, for some reason it works. You find yourself forming your own opinions and guessing right along with the celebrities and the contestants. If you’re the kind of person who is a big fan of “The Masked Singer” it’s likely you will like this show as well. This is not in any way sophisticated entertainment. It definitely falls into the “guilty pleasure” category but is just silly enough that I kind of like it. I rate it a weak “I’m watching it” and if it sounds like fun to you, you should check it out.

Netflix’s “Away” Is Both The Best And Worst I’ve Seen In A Long Time

I developed a rating system for my TV and movie reviews ranging all the way from “worthless” up to “must-see” with varying degrees of recommendation in between. For once I find myself completely torn as to what rating idea new Netflix sci-fi series “Away”. In some ways it deserves most of these ends of my scale. It deserves my worst rating of “worthless” as well as my best rating of “must-see”. If Charles Dickens was writing this review he would say “It was the best of shows. It was the worst of shows.”

Hilary Swank leads an international cast as astronaut Emma Green as the commander of the first mission to Mars. I could ask “Do we really need another ‘First mission to Mars’ TV series?” Considering that in 2018 we had the Hulu series “The First” starring Sean Penn and 2 seasons of a National Geographic series “Mars” it seems like this has been done before. However both of those series suffered from problems that I won’t go into here. So I was anxious to see how Netflix handled the topic.

In the first 10 to 15 minutes of the first episode I knew we were in trouble. The story was revealed in a strange series of flashbacks (or was it flash forwards? At first we couldn’t tell which) about some sort of accident on board the Atlas spacecraft. The confusing storytelling eventually evened out but the scientific errors piled on one after the other. I’m not talking about the nitpicky kinds of things that Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets about. I’m talking about really stupid plot holes and really bad science that even a non-sci-fi fan would spot in an instant.

At this point I should probably issue a spoiler warning because I’m going to talk about plot.

In the opening episode we finally sort out the fact that the accident scenes were a flashback of an incident that happened on the journey from Earth to the moon which was the first step on the Mars journey. The fact that they stopped off at the moon before proceeding to Mars was probably the only scientifically accurate part of the entire story. When we finally do go to Mars we will probably launch from the moon or perhaps lunar orbit. There are scenes where investigators are interviewing the five member crew about the incident and we get a Rashomon-like series of explanations in which everyone saw the same event differently.

During these interviews we find out there is great dissension among the five-member crew and a great deal of distrust of Hilary Swank’s ability to command the mission. They say that the crew has been training together for 2 years and you would’ve thought that if there was that much distrust of the commander it would’ve been uncovered before now and dealt with either by replacing her or other crewmembers. It’s just totally not credible that such a dysfunctional group would be picked for such an important mission.

Much of the story centers on Swank’s character Emma Green who leaves behind a husband Matt and 15-year-old daughter Alexis for this three-year mission to Mars. The husband is played by Josh Charles who is most remembered for his role as Will Gardner in “The Good Wife”. Matt is a former astronaut who was grounded for medical reasons. He has a hereditary disease that makes him prone to a stroke. He serves as a chief engineer for the mission in mission control and knows everything about the spacecraft inside out. Suddenly just before departure from the moon to Mars he suffers a massive stroke. Now Commander Green has to decide if she should drop out of the mission to deal with her family or to go on and fulfill her own dreams. Ultimately with support from Matt and her daughter she proceeds with the mission. We have to wonder if she would be given such a choice in a real-life circumstance. Of course this only further aggravates the crew’s doubts as to whether or not she can stay focused as an effective leader.

Shortly after departure from the moon (with some really bad special-effects on the rocket plume) one of their three solar panels fails to unfold completely. If they can’t get the solar panel fixed they will all die in route to Mars. This is another in a long list of things that just wouldn’t happen on a real mission. You don’t design a spaceship with no backup or no redundancy. If you had three solar panels you would have design things so that you can complete the mission with just two panels. If you really needed three you would have put four of them on the spacecraft. They didn’t even take the time to explain away this decision citing budget cuts or any of the other usual cliché reasons why your vehicle fails whether it’s the Titanic or a rocket to Mars. Later in the series their water recycling equipment breaks down and this time they do have a backup. But the backup is insufficient to do the job. Why the hell would you bother to put in a backup that couldn’t do it? A critical system like this on a real spacecraft would be fully redundant. It was just insane. All of this takes my dreaded “plot driven technology” to an extreme I’ve never seen in any movie or TV show before.

Some of the ridiculous plot holes and bad science don’t require you to be knowledgeable to spot. The center core of the ship remains in zero gravity but the crew quarters are at the end of 2 long rotating arms which generate artificial gravity and thus saving lots of money on special-effects. One of the minor plot points was that the Russian astronaut had a hobby of building puppets and performing puppet shows for his grandchildren. At one point in the story they are about to be so distant from Earth that videoconferencing is impossible so he wants to put on one last puppet show for the grandkids. The puppets he uses are marionettes hanging from strings. But he performs the puppet show in the zero gravity part of the spacecraft! How do you hang and manipulate a puppet on a string when there is no gravity. At the end of the puppet show he releases the strings that allows the puppets to float free. It’s just insane.

Speaking of the communication with Earth issues, when you are at the moon it takes approximately 1.5 seconds for a radio transmission to reach the moon. If you answer instantly, the other person doesn’t receive the reply until another 1.5 seconds. There should be an annoying three second delay in any live conversation. But by some miracle they seem to be able to communicate instantly as if you were phoning someone next-door. This instantaneous communication is a standard violation of physics that many sci-fi movies and TV shows tend to do. Most notably in the 2017 teen romance “The Space between Us” in which a boy from Mars falls in love with a girl on earth and they are able to communicate instantaneously despite the distance. So I’m thinking they’re going to abandon that particular bit of physics for the sake of storytelling. But no… They get about halfway to Mars and suddenly there is a communications delay of 20 minutes. It just happens all of a sudden. We’ve got to get our last instantaneous video messages back to our loved ones on earth before the distance gets too great. From that point forward they limit everything to text messages, emails, and audio attachments to emails. You can’t just ignore physics for half of the movie and then turn it back on again when it’s more convenient to create tension in the story.

So if this series is such a scientific nightmare, why did I watch all 10 episodes in one day? It’s because the characters are absolutely amazing. You really get to know each character in various episodes where we get their entire back story from their childhood up until the start of the mission. The drama is real and not nearly as contrived as the science. The acting of the entire cast is absolutely phenomenal. You expect good things out of people like Swank and Charles but the other characters in the international crew who are not known to me from other work turn in great performances and have really compelling, emotional character arcs throughout the series. Of special note is the performance by Talitha Eliana Bateman who was unknown to me but has appeared in a number of films and TV series. I was very impressed with her.

I could’ve written pages and pages about ridiculous plot holes not even including more pages of ridiculous scientific errors. But as a human story about compelling characters told in engaging and emotional ways this is an absolutely amazing miniseries I could highly recommend.

I feel so disappointed that that much effort went into creating such interesting characters and a heartfelt compelling back stories performed so beautifully yet so little effort was put into creating a credible plot and even a marginally accurate bit of sci-fi.

Why can’t we have both? Why can’t we have self-consistent plots and good science along with compelling drama? It’s such a shame.

The Apple TV+ alternate history sci-fi series “For All Mankind” did a pretty good job in its opening season but nobody watches Apple TV+ unless they got it free when buying an iPhone or iPad like I did. And unfortunately the trailer for season 2 already shows some bad science.

So I’m giving this series a dual rating. If you want well written, deep, well acted characters that will pull at your heartstrings and keep you wanting more then this gets a very strong rating of “Must-See”. But if you insist on a reasonably well-crafted plot with any degree of scientific accuracy then I also have to give it a very strong rating of “Worthless”.

When I watched it yesterday, Netflix said it was trending #2 in the US. Today it just says “Top 10”. The ending left the door open for another season. I don’t know whether I should wish for one or not.

Medical Drama “Transplant” Isn’t about Transplants and That’s the Only Interesting Thing about It.

NBC is desperate for content considering production on fall TV series is just starting and the first new episodes won’t be available until October or November. To fill the gap they purchased the rights to Canadian medical drama “Transplant”. On numerous occasions in this blog I’ve asked the question “Do we really need another medical drama?” And with rare exceptions the answer is no. Fortunately our organs are working just fine and we don’t really need a “Transplant”.

The main character is Bashir Hamed, a Syrian refugee who has been accepted to live in Canada under their refugee assistance program. He’s accompanied by his preteen sister Amira. They have transplanted their lives fleeing the Syrian Civil War to live in Canada. The show has nothing to do with medical transplants.

In the opening episode he’s working as a short order cook in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Toronto. Suddenly a semi truck crashes into the front of the restaurant injuring him and 4 other people. He manages to pull himself together and remove some shards of glass from his abdomen and then proceeds to help the other victims. One is a 50 something-year-old woman who is in full cardiac arrest and he beats on her chest and gives her CPR. Another is his friend who I believe owns the restaurant and he’s got blood behind his eyeball so Bashir cuts the corner of his eye socket to relieve the pressure. Then he moves on to a man with a fractured skull and a blown pupil so he gets a power drill and drills a hole into the man’s temple to relieve the pressure. He doesn’t have time to treat his other friend who has a dislocated arm.

The next scene shows him waking up in the ER with all of the other victims after having been transported there. No one knows that he had performed all of these procedures on the victims because the guy with a hole in his head was actually Dr. Jed Bishop the head of the ER at that hospital. They presumed that Dr. Bishop had performed all of the procedures including drilling a hole in his own head.

That’s a pretty exciting and interesting beginning of a TV show but it falls apart quickly after that. Despite the insistence that he stay on the hospital gurney and wait for further treatment, he keeps getting up and wandering around the ER looking for someone. It turns out he’s looking for a friend who was also injured in the accident. We never do quite understand their relationship. I think they are roommates. We do discover that his friend doesn’t have immigration papers. They eventually meet up and he puts the friend’s dislocated shoulder back in place. Then he goes in search of his kid sister who is missing. She has gone to the hospital looking for her brother because she heard about the accident on TV.

The police investigating the crash are trying to determine who is the driver of the truck. Because Bashir is obviously Middle Eastern and is behaving erratically the police become a highly suspicious of him. I get the idea that we are supposed to be sympathetic towards this Syrian refugee who obviously has rad medical skills but is working as a fry cook. We are supposed to be appalled at the idea that they assume he’s some sort of terrorist who deliberately drove the truck into the restaurant.

But it’s hard to be sympathetic towards Bashir when he is behaving so irrationally and suspiciously. If he was an ordinary All-American (or I guess all Canadian in this case) white guy behaving like he was behaving he still would have been a prime suspect. The whole thing just seemed totally irrational.

We get introduced to other ER doctors trying to treat the patients and solve the mysteries. They finally figure out that he is the one who did all of the procedures. He still runs around the place acting suspiciously and drawing attention to himself eventually getting himself handcuffed to a gurney by the police until they can finally find the real driver of the vehicle. Apparently his brakes failed, he jumped from the vehicle and got run over by it. They release Bashir. By then I don’t care anymore.

Dr. Bishop miraculously recovers from his brain bleed and is sitting up in bed shouting orders to residents in a matter of hours which is totally ridiculous. Then he asked that Bashir come in to visit him after hearing the story of how he saved him and the other victims. It turns out that Bashir had applied for a job in the hospital and been turned down by Bishop. Dr. Bishop decides to reinterview him giving him a second chance and that wraps up the pilot episode.

We really don’t learn anything more in that first episode about where or how he got his medical training. From other reviews and a Wikipedia article I’ve learned that he was a trauma doctor during the Syrian Civil War. His credentials aren’t any good in Canada where he has now “transplanted” his life and so he is going to end up serving as an ER resident in the hospital.

Dr. Bishop’s magical recovery shows us that we are not going to get credibly accurate medicine in this series. We only briefly get introduced to the other characters but they already come off as stereotypes. One is the perky young female resident who tries too hard to make a good impression. Another is a driven surgical resident who is out to compete with everyone and has a chip on her shoulder. Bishop is a hard-nosed, grumpy but brilliant doctor who is worshiped like a God by the other personnel in the hospital. By the way Dr. Bishop is the only actor I recognized. He is played by the Scottish actor John Hannah who did a couple of seasons of “Agents of SHIELD” as Holden Radcliffe but I remember him most as the character Batiatus from the
“Spartacus: Blood and Sand”
TV series.

Unless you are just desperate for the heartwarming struggles of a Middle Eastern refugee trying to make it in the big bad Western world you would do better to watch Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Doctor,
Chicago Med
, or just about any other medical drama on TV. I’m giving it a solid rating of “Skip It“.

“Raised by Wolves” Is More Than Just Another Android Babysitter Story.

The HBO Max streaming service just released a new 10 episode sci-fi series by Ridley Scott titled “Raised by Wolves”. It’s described as the story of human children who are raised on an alien planet by a pair of androids named “Father” and “Mother”. This of course invites comparisons to the 2019 Netflix film “I Am Mother” starring Hilary Swank and Rose Byrne in which an android mother raises a human child.

Wolves however the much more complicated and nuanced story. The premise is there was a war between religious zealots called the Mithraic and atheists. The war ends up leaving earth uninhabitable. An atheist scientist sends two androids to planet Kepler-22b with 12 human embryos. They are programmed to raise and nurture the human children and to be strictly atheist. Meanwhile the Mithraic survivors have created a giant spaceship called the Ark of Heaven with thousands of colonists headed for the same planet. When they arrive, our android friends have only managed to raise one of the children. The others either failed at birth or died of some strange illness.

I’ve seen the first three episodes which are available now with a total of ten coming this season.

While we expect from the first episode that it’s going to be the story of the androids raising the kids, in the next two episodes the narrative also includes a Mithraic couple named Marcus and Sue who have a young son of their own. Marcus is played by Travis Fimmel whose most notable role was as Ragnar Lothbrok on the History Channel series “Vikings”.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn more about Marcus and Sue. We learn of their role in the war on earth and how they came to gain passage on the Ark to the new planet. We also learn some secrets about the origins of the androids especially Mother. Without giving things away I will just say there are a number of “things are not what they seem” plot points to make it especially interesting.

It’s not really clear which side are the bad guys and which side are the good guys. We aren’t always exactly certain who to root for. That makes the story even more interesting because nothing is strictly black-and-white. There are lots of shades of gray.

By the way, Mithraism or the Mithraic Mysteries as it is sometimes known, was a real religion practiced in the first through fourth centuries. Mostly practiced around the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire it involved worship of a deity Mithra which was loosely based on worship of a Persian deity by the same name. The religion was popular among the Roman army. According to my friend retired Marian University history professor Dr. Jim Divita, it is believed that some of the initiation rites for the religion required hand-to-hand combat. So it can be seen why it would be popular among the troops and never got much widespread acceptance elsewhere. It was sort of a rival religion to early Christianity. In the fourth century as Christianity gained dominance it pretty much wiped out Mithraism. In this show, their version of the Mithraic religion focuses on the God Sol (the sun). In the actual religion Mithra is depicted as having a dinner banquet with the God Sol but there’s no indication that the sun God was their primary deity. Rather it was Mithra himself. For more on the religion check out this article on Wikipedia.

Mithraism on Wikipedia

Shot on location in barren areas of South Africa the planet looks sufficiently alien to be credible. The special-effects are state-of-the-art. The detailed world building in the series is fascinating and credible without much if any plot driven technology. “Plot driven technology” is my term for some piece of science or gadgetry that works that way just because the plot needed it to. It’s one of my pet peeves. The acting is top-notch. I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.

I’m giving it a really strong rating of “I really like it” and if you are a fan of science fiction with some politics and religion thrown in then I highly recommend it. This is assuming of course you have access to HBO Max. Check your cable provider because it may be if you already subscribed to HBO you might be able to get HBO Max for free. I’m on Spectrum in Indianapolis and I’m getting it as part of my HBO/Cinemax subscription on cable.

Afterword

Although my initial review of the show was very positive, it seemed to go off the rails the further it went. The very final episode completely “jumped the shark” with a bizarre twist. Still plenty of room for a second season. I can’t begin to predict where it’s going to go. Maybe you will like it in the end better than I did. It was fun while it lasted.

“Lovecraft Country” Brilliantly Mixes the Horrors of Racism and Supernatural Monsters

H.P. Lovecraft is a renowned author of many works of horror and fantasy who is most known for his creation of what became the “Cthulhu Mythos” about a group of ancient powerful deities from space who once ruled the earth. Other authors have taken up that same universe of characters and creatures to create their own horror stories and Lovecraft himself has been a character in many other works of fiction. So it is no wonder that author Matt Ruff would you take up the legacy of Lovecraft in his dark fantasy horror novel “Lovecraft Country“. That novel has been turned into a new HBO series of the same name. The series was created by Misha Green known for the TV series Underground and a former writer for Sons of Anarchy. It also has executive producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams.

The main theme of both the novel and the TV series is mistreatment of African-Americans in the 1950s. It is ironic because Lovecraft is well known as a racist whose works including two highly racist poems “New-England Fallen” and “On the Creation of N—–s”. (N-word deletion by me).

Despite Lovecraft’s racism, Ruff builds his story around a fan of Lovecraft and sci-fi in general who happens to be African-American. The story depicts the brutal circumstances that African-Americans endure to survive in the Jim Crow era. In one scene our main character Atticus “Tic” Freeman is describing the plot of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ “John Carter of Mars” series to another black woman. She surprised to hear that the hero of that story was an ex-Confederate officer. She complained “He fought for slavery. You don’t get to put “ex” in front of that.” Atticus replies “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish ’em, overlook their flaws.” I see that as author Ruff’s justification for appreciating Lovecraft’s stories and weird creatures despite the author’s racism.

As a personal aside, I sort of take the same approach to sci-fi author Orson Scott Card whose radical conservative politics and anti-gay stance doesn’t stop me from appreciating his works as long as those works don’t seem to reflect those beliefs. I can still despise Mel Gibson and abhor his anti-Semitism while enjoying his films. I suppose that’s easy for me because I’m a straight, white, Christian and I do not take personal offense at homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism even though I abhor them. Author Ruff is also white so perhaps it’s easier for him to create a black character who can look past Lovecraft’s racism and enjoy the stories while facing life-threatening racism in his everyday life.

In the first episode of the HBO series, Atticus connects up with his uncle George Barry who is the author/editor of a guidebook for traveling African-Americans similar to the famous “Green Book”. Atticus has heard that his father Montrose Freeman has gone missing. Atticus and Uncle George go on a road trip in search of his father and to make more installments in the Green Book. There are accompanied by his friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis.

Atticus is played by Jonathan Majors whom I’ve never seen before. Uncle George is played by Courtney B. Vance known for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and for playing Johnny Cochran in “American Crime Story“. Leti is played by Jurnee Smolett most recently seen as Dinah Lance/Black Canary in “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey“. She is the sister of controversial former “Empire” star Jussie Smolett.

Clues left in a letter his father sent leads Atticus and friends to search rural Massachusetts in an area known as Lovecraft Country (an area which was the setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories). Along the way they pass through a number of so-called “sunset counties” which are racist areas where African Americans are warned “Don’t let the sunset while you are here”. It’s basically a sort of “The Purge” type of situation where after sundown, racists are given free reign to murder blacks.

The horror of the very real and deadly racism that they encounter is actually more terrifying than the worst of Lovecraft’s monsters. And by the way while being chased through the woods of rural Massachusetts by a lynch mob they run into some of those Lovecraft monsters. Notably they encounter several “shoggoth” described as a “massive bubble blob with hundreds of eyes”.

The special-effects of them being chased by these monsters and eventually cornered an abandoned cabin is a very well done state-of-the-art sequence. Lots of terror, blood, and gore. There are some amazing special-effects also in an opening dream sequence.

Overall the writing and acting are excellent. You really feel the terror in both the racist and supernatural monster sequences. I will be anxious to see what happens in the remaining 9 episodes. I’m giving it a strong rating of “I really like it” and suggest you check it out. The first episode will re-air throughout this week and is available on demand. The remaining episodes will air Sunday nights.

Late Night Comedy Does Work-from-Home

Last week both Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon attempted to put on a show with no audience. Both attempts were funny only because they were such terrible failures. On October 29 and 30, 2012 David Letterman did shows without audience just before and after hurricane Sandy as seen here. Telling a joke with only Paul Schaefer with his signature annoying laugh just didn’t work. Colbert’s audience consisted of about 20 staff members. Part of the way through his monologue he asked “Is this going okay?” And they all cheered and applauded. He thanked them and then reminded the viewers “Of course I pay these people so who knows.” Another good line was he said “Each night in my mind the show is perfect. All of the jokes are hilarious. And the only thing that goes wrong is when an audience shows up and proves me wrong. Tonight with no audience to disprove it, this show will be perfect.”

Seth Meyers and James Corden went to reruns rather than go audience free.

Now the late-night comedians have taken to YouTube to do 10-20 minute monologues. Here’s a sampling. Suggest you subscribe to their YouTube channels to see remaining episodes. It’s sort of reminiscent of amateur YouTubers who haven’t quite yet figured out how to do lighting and audio in a home environment. Click on the show title to get to their entire YouTube channel. And then click the links on individual shows.

The Late Show Was Stephen Colbert

March 17 Colbert broadcasts from his bathtub

March 18 Colbert in his backyard fire pit. Includes a very funny parody of “Danny Boy” and a nice piano concert by bandleader Jon Batiste.

 

Jimmy Kimmel Live

March 17 Quarantine Minilogue. Discovers by staying at home that he actually has children. Says that they watched Frozen 2 more times than the animators who created. Apparently first in a series.

 

Late night with Seth Myers

March 12: A Closer Look. Seth Myers canceled his Thursday night show but went ahead and recorded his “A Closer Look” segment that they had already written the night before. He hasn’t done any additional YouTube since then.

 

The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon

March 17 Home Edition (The First One). Shot by his wife on an iPhone apparently from his kids play room. Wonderfully amateurish 🙂

 

LastWeek Tonight with John Oliver HBO

March 16: Did his regular show without an audience. Could not do it in his regular studio because it had been contaminated by someone who tested positive. Clearly the most successful non-audience show of the group.

 

The Late Late Show with James Corden

He is showing reruns on broadcast and has not contributed anything to YouTube

 

 

Overall I’m giving the entire collection a rating of “I’m watching”. It’s really nice that I don’t have to record the entire show and fill up my DVR. I could just watch these monologues on YouTube whenever they come up. Hope you are staying safe and healthy during this crisis.

“Devs” is a Creepy Reflection on the Nature of Reality.

A new sci-fi thriller called “Devs” is available on Hulu. This eight part miniseries is released under the branding of “FX on Hulu” however the series doesn’t appear to be available on FX network at least as of yet. Nick Offerman plays a billionaire genius Forest who runs a computer company that has made major breakthroughs in quantum computing. If you’ve not heard of quantum computing it’s a new type of computer processor that takes advantage of some of the bizarre properties of quantum mechanics. Pundits currently claim that it has the potential to create the most powerful computers we’ve ever seen. It could be a disruptive technology that could unlock any current encryption techniques rendering all computer security obsolete. In real life quantum computing has yet to deliver on its promises but in this series it has delivered way beyond expectations.

The story follows Lily Chan played by Sonoya Mizuno works for a computer company called Amaya along with her boyfriend Sergei. Sergei gets promoted to the company’s top-secret division known as “Devs” but disappears the next day. She goes on a quest to uncover what really happened to him and to try to figure out what’s really going on in the company she works for.

The entire show has a very creepy feel to it. The Amaya company campus is in a wooded area featuring a giant 60 foot statue that looks like a two-year-old girl dressed in a dress. It sort of looks like a giant baby doll. No explanation is given why they have this bizarre monument. We get lots of creepy looking shots of this figure towering above the trees. The soundtrack that runs continuously beneath the show also adds a very creepy feeling to the entire thing.

At this point I will just say that after 3 episodes I’m really enjoying it and giving it a strong rating of “I like it“. It is being described as a miniseries of 8 episodes so don’t expect a second season. If I’m going to continue to talk more about it I really need to get into some spoilers. If you read on, I don’t think it will ruin your enjoyment of the show but some people are especially sensitive to any spoilers so if that’s you… stop reading now and go watch the show.

spoilers below

 

 

 

In the opening episode, Sergei is taken on a tour of the Devs facility by CEO Forrest played by Nick Offerman. It is housed in a completely separate building on the Amaya campus. A giant quantum supercomputer is housed in a vacuum sealed building that hovers inside the building using magnetic levitation. The entire thing is completely sealed from the outside world. Sergei is invited to sit down at a workstation, look at the code they are developing and then he will realize what the Devs project is all about. After several minutes of staring at the screen he suddenly jumps from his seat, runs into the restroom, and vomits violently.

We don’t have to wait long to find out what disturbed him so much. Forest explains to him that indeed this quantum computer has proven that the entire universe is deterministic. Every event in the world is the inevitable consequence of chemistry and physics working on the conditions prior to that moment. Everything is total cause and effect. Essentially free will does not exist. Everything that we do is 100% the inevitable consequence of what has happened prior to that. So this computer has the ability to accurately predict the future as well as run the equations backwards and look into the past.

In subsequent episodes we see them looking in on the crucifixion of Jesus, the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake, and then more personal items such as Marilyn Monroe having sex with her husband Arthur Miller. The latter was done so in violation of company policy and earns the programmers a reprimand. One of the female scientists Katie played by Alison Pill bemoans “Why do male techs always feel the need to caricature themselves? Step one: Create a new technology that reinvents the nature of human existence. Step two: Use it for porn.” Personally I would’ve gone for Marilyn and JFK.

One of the other consequences of the revelation that the universe is completely out of our control means that the enigmatic CEO feels no sense of guilt over anything. If one is not responsible for one’s own actions then one can do whatever they want because that choice is not theirs. It is inevitable.

The main part of the story is Lily trying to uncover Sergei’s disappearance. She is shown a video of him committing suicide but she doesn’t believe it’s real. She comes to discover that he is in fact an industrial spy for Russia. She had no idea. This furthers her feelings that everything isn’t what it seems to be. I’ve only seen the first 3 out of 8 episodes sort remains to be seen how deep the conspiracy goes or where the story will turn after this.

The questions raised by this strange technology and the bizarre revelation that the universe is not what it seems to be along with the mystery of the boyfriend spy and a hidden agenda of the company make this very compelling viewing. As stated before it gets a rating of “I like it” and if you like creepy technology shows sort of like Black Mirror then I highly recommend it.