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.

“Westworld” is thoughtful sci-fi with lots of action.

The new HBO sci-fi series Westworld is yet another new TV series this season based on a movie. The 1973 film Westworld starred Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, and Majel Barrett. Both the film and the series are about an adult theme park where rich guests can live out their fantasies in a wild west setting. The facility is populated by robots that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. You can shoot, stab, rape or pillage with no consequences and although the robots can realistically kill one another to add to the atmosphere, the robots cannot kill you. The film was written and directed by Michael Crichon 20 years prior to his most famous theme park Jurassic Park. He also created a previous TV series in 1980 Beyond Westworld that only ran for five episodes.

The HBO series of 10 episodes as an all-star cast that includes Anthony Hopkins as the chief scientist who invented the Westworld robots. Ed Harris is a mysterious “Man in Black” whom at this point we aren’t sure whether he’s a robot or a human. He is on a quest to discover hidden secrets within the park. Evan Rachel Wood plays a robot Farmer’s daughter. Thandie Newton is a robot saloon madam. Luke Hemsworth is a robotic cowboy. Jeffrey Wright plays one of the designers of the robots and you will recognize him as Beetee the weapons maker in the Hunger Games film series. The series was created by writer/producer Jonathan Nolan whose credits include the screenplay of The Dark Knight and Interstellar as well as the TV series Person of Interest.

The plot is that something strange is going on with the robots. Although they are supposed to have their memories wiped at the end of every day so that they don’t recall being killed or maimed by the parks visitors, some of the robots are beginning to retain their memories and are becoming more self-aware. We are not yet sure whether they are gaining this awareness on their own or someone working within the park is manipulating them and somehow educating them to understand their true nature.

As with most sci-fi’s featuring extremely humanoid robots, one of the underlying themes of the series is exploring the philosophical questions of what it means to be human. It also explores what it is about our human need to play out our fantasies.

My favorite scene so far is at the end of the second episode. One of the game designers is pitching a new storyline to the Board of Directors. Also in attendance is designer emeritus Dr. Ford played by Anthony Hopkins. We are told he generally does not attend such presentations. The enthusiastic young designer has on display dozen or so of the humanlike robot characters. Among them are fierce looking Indian warriors, banditos, and women. He delivers the following pitch…

“This storyline will make Hieronymus Bosch look like he was doodling kittens. I have vivisection, self-cannibalism, a special little something I call the ‘whoroborus.’ Now, I don’t want to appear immodest, but this is the apex of what the park could provide, horror, romance, titillation. Our most skilled guests will fight their ways to the outer limits of the park, besting fearsome braves, seducing nubile maidens, befriending tragically ill-fated sidekicks, and of course, like all our best narratives over the years, our guests will have the privilege of getting to know the character they’re most interested in… Themselves. I present our guests’ next obsession: ‘Odyssey on Red River'”.

The Board of Directors applauds enthusiastically but Anthony Hopkins vetoes the project saying “No. No I don’t think so. What is the point of it? Get a couple of cheap thrills? Some surprises? But it’s not enough. It’s not about giving the guests what you think they want. No, that’s simple. The titillation, horror, elation… They’re parlor tricks. The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one has ever noticed before… Something they’ve followed up with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

This kind of psychological and sociological commentary is what sci-fi does best. And for those of you who do want the blood and gore and pillaging we get plenty of that as well. The special effects are excellent. The bizarre 3-D printing machine that creates the robots behind-the-scenes is futuristic, awesome, and freaky. Although the plot moves a little bit slow and there are times when it’s difficult to follow the mysterious conspiracy theories that run throughout the story, we are hoping it will pay off big by the end of the season.

Highly recommended viewing for any sci-fi fan or anyone interested in the themes that the show explores and there is plenty of action for action-adventure fans as well. I’m giving it a very high “I really like it” rating was a borderline “must-see” for hard-core sci-fi fans.

“Timeless” is Time Travel That Travels Well

Although NBC’s new time travel sci-fi adventure series Timeless is not directly based on a previous series or film, it is very much a re-imagination of a number of well-worn time travel stories. It reminds me most of the 1966 TV series Time Tunnel. Both tell the story of a top-secret government facility consisting of a time machine. Our heroes travel back in time sometimes to famous historic events. The opening episode of Time Tunnel took us to the sinking of the Titanic while Timeless allowed us to visit the crash of the Hindenburg. If you’re not old enough to remember Time Tunnel there are also hints of 1989’s Quantum Leap TV series.

The show opens with a very well done depiction of the phrase of the Hindenburg and then jumps to present day where a group of commandos are storming a secret government facility. After a bloody gun battle, one of the attackers is able to successfully steal a time machine. The government then recruits history professor Lucy Preston played by Abigail Spencer to assist and advise them as pursue the thief across time. They make use of a somewhat clunkier looking backup time machine. Spencer has appeared in TV series such as Suits, and True Detective.

She is accompanied by a Delta force commando Wyatt Logan played by Matt Lanter and engineer Rufus Carlin played by Malcolm Barrett. Lanter is most known for his role in the more recent of the two versions of 90210. Barnett is lesser-known but played in the series Better off Ted. The master criminal they are pursuing is Garcia Flynn who is portrayed by Goran Visnjuic who has a long résumé but is mostly known as Dr. Luka Kovac from the TV series ER.

Although I really like the series and I’m going to recommend it to sci-fi fans, it does suffer from much of the “plot driven technology” that I spoke about in my previous review of the new series “Frequency”. I invite you to see that review for more details of what I’m talking about. We get the typical “If we have a time machine and fail in our mission, why can’t we just do it again?” The response is the stereotypical technobabble about the dangers of meeting yourself in the past and the irreparable catastrophic damage that would be done to the space-time continuum. The slightly more detailed explanation of the “rules” is that you can’t visit any event that you’ve already visited. At least that’s a little more specific than the Doctor Who concept of “fixed point in time that cannot be changed.” Because it never really tells us why they are fixed.

There are hints that the bad guy really isn’t a bad guy after all. It suggests that he has some greater purpose for wanting to rewrite history but we are never really sure the details of his hidden agenda. In the opening episode he still wanted the Hindenburg to blow up but to do so on his time schedule. While it initially appears that our heroes have in some way set history right by the end of the show, Abigail discovers that there are some far-flung side effects to the changes they made in history and those changes will affect her personal life in dramatic ways which I will not spoil.

Other episode titles tell us that we are going to visit the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The Alamo, and perhaps discover what happened to the missing 18 minutes of the Watergate tapes. The opportunity for a bit of social commentary is available because our hero is female and one of her companions is African-American. Neither of them are treated with much respect in the 1930s compared to their handsome rugged white male soldier companion.

The story held my interest. We like the ongoing mystery of who is this bad guy and why does he want a time machine? The negative consequences of changing the past will also add extra tension to the story. Basically after seeing one episode it left me wanting more. I’m giving it a rating of “I like it” and unless you totally hate sci-fi I think you might enjoy it as well.

“Frequency” is Time Travel Without the Travel

We’ve already talked about 2 new TV series based on movies in our reviews of Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist. This time we look at a somewhat lesser known 2000 film Frequency starring Dennis Quaid and its TV reboot on the CW network also called Frequency. In the film Quaid uses an old HAM radio and some strange atmospheric phenomena to be able to talk to his father 30 years in the past. His father was a New York City firefighter and Quaid was able to warn him of his impending death in a warehouse fire. He manages to save his father’s life but it changes the future in a way that leads to the murder of his mother. They spend the rest of the film working together to try to prevent that murder before it happens.

In this TV adaptation the main character is female. Payton List stars as NYPD detective Raimy Sullivan who also connects via an old HAM radio with her father Frank Sullivan who was also an NYPD detective 20 years ago. He was killed in the line of duty but was believed to be a dirty cop. In the opening episode they figure out that they are actually father and daughter communicating across time. As in the film version, she warns him of his impending death and it is prevented. Also as in the film there are disastrous unforeseen consequences of changing the past.

Peyton List has had a number of television roles including over 300 episodes of the daytime soap As the World Turns however I recognize her from her guest starring roles on The Flash as Lisa Snart/Golden Glider.

These two time periods 20 years apart remain fixed relative to one another by those exact 20 years. As events unfold in 2016, events unfold in 1996 in lockstep parallel fashion. You get some of the typical time travel clichés such as the ability to predict the events of a baseball game across time. But you also get a rather spooky way in which events in the past sort of magically manifest themselves in the present. For example Frank and his daughter are communicating using the same radio. When Frank lays his cigar on the radio it begins to scorch a burnt place in the wood cabinet. That burn mark appears and smolders 20 years later. He later uses a soldering iron to scratch a drawing of a flag on the cabinet and the daughter witnesses it appearing in real time “simultaneously” 20 years later.

All science fiction stories struggle with what I call “plot driven technology”. That means that the author sets up the rules of how the technology works in such a way that it helps the plot of the story telling move forward. This is the opposite of what I would like to see which is “technology driven plot” in which the author designed some sort of sci-fi technology be it time travel or spaceflight or whatever… and then the plot is driven by the circumstances and consequences of that technology. The premise behind Frequency does a reasonably good job of being technology driven plot which in my opinion is the way it ought to be.

Any time travel story wrestles with the problem of developing the rules as to how time travel works. Some time travel stories draw the drama out of asking the question “Can we change the past or the future?” Some stories take the approach that our fates are inevitable and no matter what we do, it is what was destined to happen anyway. Others wrestle with the idea of “Should we change the past or the future? Will there be unexpected consequences?”

Someone always asks “If we fail to change things, why can’t we just go back and do it over again. If we could travel anywhere in time why don’t we continually do things over until we get it right?” Some time travel stories explore that possibility and usually end up concluding that it is futile to do so. Typically the author cops out and artificially put the some sort of limitation. In Doctor Who there are so-called “fixed points in time” which cannot be changed. Another new time travel TV series called Timeless which we will review later have already reviewed here had something similar. They artificially impose the idea that once you have visited a past event from the future you could no longer revisit it. To do so would violate some made up mumbo-jumbo about disturbing the fabric of the space-time continuum especially if you meet yourself coming and going. Those are examples of plot driven technology where you manufacture the rules of time travel to avoid dealing with paradoxes and other storytelling impairments.

The premise behind Frequency cleverly avoids many of these issues. Because events in the past and present remain linked by a fixed length of time and events unfold in the two time periods in lockstep parallel fashion, there is no opportunity for a second do over. You get one chance to fix it and if you fail there is no further recourse. The limits on the technology seem to flow naturally out of the circumstances. We don’t need to know why the two time periods are linked. We don’t need some sort of technobabble explanation of why we can or cannot do certain things. While it is true that this particular model of time travel does serve our storytelling purposes, it doesn’t have the same artificial feel that you usually get when such rules of time travel are explained. To me this makes for a more intelligent and thoughtful storytelling premise than you often get in these situations.

Because time continues to flow unceasingly at both ends of the story, it allows for dramatic tension that you’re facing particular deadlines. If you don’t solve the problem in enough time, all is lost. Cutting back and forth between the two time periods adds to the drama. Overall it is a very well done and very satisfying experience for the audience.

I mentioned the other new time travel series Timeless which I will review in my next installment and while I will recommend it to hard science fiction fans, this one is a little bit more accessible to a wider audience. Is more of a typical action-adventure police procedural type of show was a little sci-fi thrown in on the side. The father daughter relationship is also compelling and adds an extra something to make the show even better. We want to feel for our characters and in this instance we really do. The show has a lot of heart.

I’m giving this one a rating of “I like it” and strongly recommend it unless you really hate sci-fi.

“Lethal Weapon” is a Satisfactory Reboot

In these reviews we’ve already lamented the fact that there’s nothing new under the sun with the reboot of MacGyver and a Kevin James sitcom that is essentially a reboot of his previous work. Many of the other new shows we’ve seen are extremely derivative of other shows. But there is also a trend towards turning hit movies or movie franchises into TV shows and there are three such offerings this season. We will look at each one in a separate review.

The first is “Lethal Weapon” based on the four comedy buddy cop movies of the same name starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as NYPD detectives. In its TV incarnation Glover’s character Roger Murtaugh is played by Damon Wayans. In both the film and TV versions he has a family man and is a pretty much “by-the-book” detective. In the film he was days away from retirement and waiting to just coast through his final days on the job. In the TV version Murtaugh is on his first day back on the job after having a heart attack. He has been told to return to work but keep stress to a minimum which of course will be difficult to do with his crazy new partner.

Mel Gibson’s character Martin Riggs is a nearly suicidal hyper risk-taking cop who acts insane most of the time but always gets the job done even if he does use extremely unorthodox methods. I don’t recall the back story on this character from the original film but in the TV version we meet him six months after the loss of his pregnant wife in an automobile accident. Still distraught over the loss he too is borderline suicidal. The TV version is played by Claryne Crawford who most recently appeared in the TV series Rectify but is mostly unfamiliar.

Wayans does an excellent job of re-creating the original character but Crawford not so much so. He is still unstable, constantly wisecracking, completely rogue, unconventional, and undisciplined. I guess for me Gibson has his own brand of insanity that cannot be re-created but the new character is good enough to make the entire thing work. After seeing only one episode the main thing that we miss is Joe Pesci as informant Leo Getz who joined the films in its second installment.

There is still plenty of action in the TV series with explosions, shootouts, and car chases as is the original films. On Riggs’ first day of the job he walks into a bank robbery hostage situation while pretending to be a pizza delivery guy. While in there he dares the robbers to shoot him. He ends up overpowering the robbers and saving all of the hostages. One of the bad guys that he killed has a bomb strapped to his chest. Riggs casually walks out of the bank eating a slice of pizza just seconds before the whole building blows up. It’s been years since I’ve seen the films but I seem to recall similar scenarios.

There isn’t a whole lot else to say about the show. It’s basically a satisfactory re-created of the original. Nearly as funny. Lots of action. Lots of fun all around. If you liked the original movies then I highly recommend you check this out. I’m rating it “I like it”.

Speechless Hits Close to Home

There is a new sitcom on ABC that tells the story of a high school student in a wheelchair. His mother goes to extreme measures to get him out of a special education program and into the regular high school. She’s constantly arguing with school officials and anyone else who will listen as she complains about the inadequacies of the handicap accessibility features. For some bizarre reason this show is not titled “The Fran Young Story”. After watching 2 episodes of the show I commented to my dad “a lot of this strikes very close to home.” His reply was “I don’t need to watch the show… I lived it”

The name of the show is “Speechless” because the young man named JJ has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak. He rides around in a power wheelchair and he communicates by pointing at a message board using a laser pointer strapped to the side of his head. Someone then looks at the board and follows the pointer as he either points to common words or spells out words. As is the case with most TV shows and movies featuring someone using an alternative communication device, they do not burden the audience with the tediousness of such forms of communication. It shows the young man pointing at the screen moving his head back and forth for a few seconds and then someone who is supposedly interpreting for him spits out an entire sentence faster than anyone could have possibly typed it out. We’ve seen the same thing in numerous movies about physicist Stephen Hawking whose voice synthesizer is controlled by a single pushbutton and other TV shows where characters have used extremely slow methods of communication.

The crusading mother is played by Minnie Driver. For some reason I’ve never cared for her as an actress. She seems to have annoying mannerisms in every part I’ve ever seen her play. In this particular story she’s supposed to be an annoying person and she does a reasonably good job of it. I can watch the show without thinking about how much I personally dislike her. As a character herself she does not remind me of my mother at all. But her dogged insistence that everything be perfect regarding accessibility and the extremes to which she takes her arguments is what reminds me most about my mother. Of course this is very much a comedy and she plays a part that most people would describe as “over-the-top”. If you had ever seen my mother in her “mother tiger defending her cubs” mode you would realize her performance was not as over-the-top as you might think it was. My mother could crusade on my behalf as ridiculously as this character does.

The reaction of JJ and the other members of the family where they sort of roll their eyes as if to say “oh no… there she goes again” is extremely familiar to me and dad and although I’ve not discussed the show at my sisters I’m sure they would see the same things we are.

The stereotypical condescending ways in which other people treat JJ are a bit exaggerated caricatures of the people I have encountered. I admit that some people I’ve met were very nearly as ridiculous as what is depicted in the show. As I said it’s all played for laughs in an exaggerated way. But it would only need to be toned down a tiny bit to make it really realistic.

One of the plots of the first two episodes is the struggle to find an attendant to help JJ with his daily living activities as well as speaking for him by reading the communications board to which he points. Those of you who know me know that I’ve been in a several month long struggle to get a home health aide so the portrayal of the difficulty of finding the right person is spot on. And when he finally does find an aide, his relationship with that man is very well portrayed.

The opening episode shows that the family has moved to a new house in order to get into a different neighborhood so that JJ can attend a regular high school instead of special education. That part of the story will strike home more closely to my uncle, aunt, and cousin. When my cousin Nancy was young there was no special education program in Lawrence Township so they had to sell their house and move into the Indianapolis city limits so that she could attend a special education school where I attended. Then both my cousin and I later made special arrangements to get out of the special education school and to get mainstreamed into regular education. Fortunately my family never had to move and she did not have to move again in order to get out of special ed and into a mainstream regular education program like they did in the show.

There haven’t been very many shows that dealt with disabled characters as main characters. In 2014 there was a short-lived sitcom called Growing Up Fisher starring J.K. Simmons as a blind father of three kids . I never watched it and don’t know much about being blind. My favorite show that dealt with the issues most realistically with a dramatic series Joan of Arcadia in which the main character Joan would get messages from God. She had a paraplegic brother so in that case he wasn’t the strangest character in the family. There were dramatic moments of that show that I thought built very realistic with the family issues surrounding someone with a disability. Walter White and Breaking Bad had a son with cerebral palsy but he was a relatively minor character.

JJ is played by actor Micah Fowler who himself does have cerebral palsy although my speculation that he is not so severe that he is unable to speak. I’ve known people with cerebral palsy who were for the most part speechless and they were much more severely spastic that JJ.

The father in this family comedy is played by John Ross Bowie who you will recognize from his recurring character Barry Kripke on The Big Bang Theory. I think it’s ironic that his character on Big Bang Theory speaks with a lisp but he’s on a show now named “Speechless” about a kid who can’t talk at all. There’s no sign of a speech impediment in the character on the new show. In fact it’s a little bit strange to hear him speaking plainly when we’ve gotten so used to him playing Barry.

There are two other kids in the family a son and a daughter. Part of the show is their reaction to their mother’s antics and it does touch a bit on the fact that JJ gets much of the attention of the parents. However there is some balance between the characters. Some of the plots deal with the everyday issues that the other children in the family deal with that are not related to having a brother with a disability. So overall it’s a general family comedy that doesn’t constantly deal with the disabled kid.

My criteria for any sitcom is always “Did it make me laugh?” and this one definitely did. I’m giving this one a rating of “I like it”. And if you’re looking for a new sitcom that is admittedly a little bit goofy, check this one out. I’m pleased to hear that ABC has ordered a full season of 22 episodes.

“Pitch” is Thursday’s Other Hit Drama

In my most recent review I had high praises for the new primetime soap opera Notorious. I recently saw an ad for the show claiming that was the highest rated new drama on Thursday night. That seemed like a very specific category so I took a close look at the schedule and saw that there was only one new drama on Thursday. It’s a new series on Fox network called “Pitch“. It’s about the first woman pitcher for a major league baseball team.

It is created by producer Dan Fogelman who also created my other favorite new show of the season “This Is Us“. It is also directed by Paris Barclay who directed many episodes of Sons of Anarchy which was a favorite of mine.

There isn’t really much to say about the show beyond the basic premise that is the first woman in the major leagues. Our main character Ginny Baker is played by relatively unknown actress Kylie Bunbury. She was in the miniseries Tut as well as the Stephen King TV series Under the Dome. In the opening episode it covers her arrival in camp and the media hype surrounding the pitching of her first game. Under the pressure of all the spotlight of attention on her, she totally chokes and walks several players before they pull her from the game. There are flashbacks to when she was a child first learning baseball from a very proud father played by Michael Beach.

After she has her embarrassing debut she gets in a shouting match with her father saying that it was always his dream and not hers that she play in the major league. It seemed to me that if they were going to have that kind of confrontation that would’ve happened way before this particular incident. However that particular scene was the only part of the opening episode that seemed a little unrealistic.

Overall it was well-written and well acted. It has a lot of heart but doesn’t get sappy. It also doesn’t get very preachy. Overall I can highly recommend the show however I have to admit I probably will not end up watching it. I’m not at all a baseball fan and I have a hard time identifying with a 20 something-year-old African-American female baseball player. But if the subject matter appeals to you at all I can easily recommend it.

You want to be sure to see the pilot episode on a rerun or on demand because there is a bit of a plot twist in the last two minutes of the opening episode.

So even though I won’t be watching more than a couple of episodes, I’m giving it a rating of “I Like It”.

Notorious is Guaranteed a Hit

ABC network had a dilemma. The problem is Shonda Rhimes can’t produce enough primetime soap operas to fill their entire schedule. She already produces Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Catch. Scandal had to be pushed to midseason because Kerry Washington is pregnant and they did not want to write the pregnancy into the show. Fortunately they found another producer who has created what should be a big hit for them. Josh Berman has created “Notorious” that fits right in with its Thursday night neighbors Grey’s and How To.

It’s another show full of beautiful people in powerful positions manipulating one another and the general public in a variety of very clever ways. The star is Piper Perabo who plays Julia George. She’s the producer of a cable TV news program. I apologize… She does not produce the program. When one character says “she produces the show” they get corrected. Another character explains “She produces the news. The number-one cable news program. She decides what the country cares about. She creates heroes and monsters, victims and villains. Julia George tells the world when to pay attention and what really matters.”

She is friends with a powerful attorney who represents powerful people. In the opening episode one of his clients, an Internet billionaire, is accused of killing a 15-year-old boy in a and run accident. Together the attorney of the producer manipulate the media to the advantage of his client and of course to boost ratings for the program.

Of course in a show like this, everyone is sleeping with everyone else and cheating on them with another person. Julia finds out her boyfriend who was recently appointed as an appellate court judge is actually cheating on her with prostitutes. She breaks up with him but tends to hold that over his head forever.

I’ve always been a big fan of Piper Perabo from her various film roles such as Coyote Ugly and her previous TV series where she played a kick ass CIA agent Covert Affairs. She’s got the looks and the swagger to fit in this new role perfectly. The remainder of the cast is not as recognizable but they are all pretty people.

Given its time slot is guaranteed to be a big hit because it will appeal to the same audience as the other Thursday night ABC shows. If you like Scandal you will definitely like Notorious. I’m rating it this “I like it”.

Review: A to Z

So far this season we reviewed two half hour romantic comedies such as Selfie and Manhattan Love Story and neither has been completely satisfying. After watching a couple of extra episodes of Selfie it is better than I originally thought. And I still have hopes for Manhattan but to paraphrase Star Wars “Those aren’t the rom-coms you are looking for.” However if the initial episode is any indication and you are looking for a good romantic comedy, “A to Z” starring Ben Feldman and Cristin Milioti might fit the bill. You might recognize Feldman from 30 episodes of Mad Men or 38 episodes of Drop Dead Diva neither of which I watched.

Like many shows we reviewed, it has a gimmick. Actually a couple of them. First of all the main characters are named Andrew and Zelda hence the title “A to Z”. The title gimmick also plays into the names of each episode and presumably the total number of episodes. Each episode is a letter from A-Z such as “A is for Acquaintance” and “B is for Big Glory” and “C is for Curiouser and Curiouser”. Presumably there will be 26 episodes although this list on IMDb.com only has through “E”. Also an opening voiceover declares “Andrew Lofland and Zelda Vasco will date for eight months, three weeks, five days, and one hour. This television program is the comprehensive account of their relationship from A to Z.”

The plot starts with a chance meeting between the two main characters but then we reveal that perhaps they had met before and that their meeting was “destiny”. This is not a new theme for Cristin Milioti because she was the infamous “Mother” on “How I Met Your Mother“. We had said previously that the only standard by which we judge a sitcom is whether or not it’s funny. Similarly for a romantic comedy it has the dual task of being both funny and romantic. This one seems to deliver. Maybe it’s just that I’m a sucker for stories where “we were destined for each other” is the theme. But the chemistry between the two is real and the show has a reasonable number of laughs.

I had previously compared Manhattan Love Story to one of my favorite romantic comedy TV shows “Mad about You”. This show is a much better comparison to that story. It also favorably compares to the romantic parts of HIMYM without all of the over-the-top comedy which at times ruined that show.

On my rating system this one gets a “I like It”. However you have to be in the mood for a romantic comedy and buy into the destiny plot. I do.