“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.

Designated Survivor is Designated Viewing

First a disclaimer… I will watch absolutely anything starring Kiefer Sutherland. I even liked him in Melancholia which was a terrible movie. So my review of his new dramatic thriller Designated Survivor is naturally going to be biased. The title comes from the fact that whenever the president, vice president, cabinet, and Congress gathered together for the State of the Union Address, they always designate a low-level cabinet member to go to an alternate location in case of some disaster that would wipe out everyone. That way there would be a continuity of government because the Constitution says that after vice president and Speaker of the House the line of succession falls to individual cabinet members in a particular order.

Kiefer Sutherland plays the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman who is appointed just such a designated survivor. Earlier in the day the president tells him that he has been “promoted” to an ambassadorship which is basically saying that you’re fired from the cabinet. But before that promotion/demotion is official, there is a terrorist attack on the capital building leaving Kirkman as the sole survivor of the administration and by default becomes the president.

Although Kirkman is much more mild-mannered than Sutherland’s more famous character Jack Bauer from “24“, you cannot look at the man and not say to yourself “Wow… Jack is back. And he’s in the Oval Office as president!” It’s sort of reminiscent of the series of Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy in which CIA agent Jack Ryan eventually becomes president in a backdoor kind of manner.

Kirkman is a family man. His wife is played by Natascha McElhone whom you may recognize for playing the wife of David Duchovny on Californication. He has a teenage son and a younger daughter who are whisked away into the White House and struggled to adapt to the new surroundings.

Other characters include a speechwriter played by Kal Penn and an FBI agent played by Maggie Q. Most of the people of the government don’t believe Kirkman is qualified to be president and he himself is uncertain of his role but determined to prove himself.

The show is portrayed reasonably believably. There is one scene in the opening episode where Kirkman wanders out to the White House portico to collect his thoughts shortly after the attack. There is no way the Secret Service will allow him in the open like that even within the secure confines of the White House. Especially just a few hours after a terrorist attack. He would either be locked in the underground bunker or in the air in Air Force One escaping the capital for security purposes.

There really isn’t a lot more to say about the show except that it’s very engaging and well done. I highly recommend it especially if you are a Kiefer Sutherland fanatic. I’m going to rate it “must-see” but keep in mind my bias.

“This Is Us” is Parenthood 2.0 and Well Worth It

In a recent Facebook message I said that the new NBC family drama “This Is Us” might be the successor to its previous hit family drama Parenthood. After having just watched the pilot episode I can say that it most definitively meets the high standard of that show. It is extremely well written and well acted on every level.

The story follows 4 people who all happen to be celebrating their 36th birthdays. The first is Jack played by Milo Ventimiglia whose wife played by Mandy Moore goes into labor with a risky pregnancy six weeks early. You may remember Ventimiglia as playing Peter Partrelli on Heroes. Moore is known for romantic comedies like A Walk to Remember.

Next is Randall played by Sterling K Brown is a successful businessman and family man who has recently tracked down his biological father. He was abandoned as an infant by that father who was a drug addict. His mother died shortly after his birth was also an addict. Although he was planning on confronting his father and giving him a piece of his mind and storming out, he ends up inviting him home to meet his grandkids. Brown recently won an Emmy for playing DA Christopher Darden in American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson

Next we have Kate played by Chrissy Metz. She is a seriously obese woman who is struggling to deal with single life in a world where an obese person is a social outcast. She ends up going on a date with a man she met at an obesity support group. Although comparisons to the recently canceled Mike & Molly are inevitable, they play this one much more seriously although there is some humor as well. Metz was most recently seen in American Horror Story as the fat lady in the carnival.

Finally we have her twin brother Kevin who is played by Justin Hartley also celebrating his 36th birthday. He is an actor starring in a bad sitcom called Man-ny where he plays a male nanny. During the taping of an episode he has an emotional meltdown and storms off the set because it is such a ridiculous show. Hartley is a veteran of soap opera The Young and the Restless and Revenge but I remember him mostly as Oliver Queen in Smallville.

Other than the fact they are all celebrating their 36th birthdays it is not immediately apparent what the connection is between these four people except that Kate and Kevin are brother and sister. There is a big reveal about two minutes from the end of the show that explains the connection all of these people and it will leave you very much surprised yet very much pleased. It is a very clever bit of storytelling.

All four of these major characters give memorable performances in this opening episode and I already see a guest star Emmy nomination for Gerald McRaney as Mandy Moore’s OB/GYN.

Be sure to watch this episode before watching any others so that you get a clean viewing of the plot twist. Check it out on demand or watch for reruns if available. The critics are raving about this show and you can count me among their numbers. This is quality television from beginning to end. On my TV rating scale this one is a definitive “Must-See“.

Review: Executioner Delivers

The only thing that kept fans of Sons of Anarchy from going into massive withdrawal sickness when they learned that the show was ending was the news that creator/executive producer/show runner Kurt Sutter had already sold a new show to FX networks. So it’s a great understatement to say that there are a lot of people, myself included, who have been anxiously awaiting the premiere of “The Bastard Executioner”.

The shires of 14th-century northern Wales would seem to be a huge change from a motorcycle gang in the fictional town of Charming California. However Kurt Sutter has no difficulty seeing the similarities. Both settings are well-suited to violence, betrayal, heart wrenching loss, vengeance, and devotion to family/clan.

The story follows Wilkin Brattle who was a loyal soldier in the Army of King Edward I. He was set up by jealous officers of his own army who felt that he was rising in the ranks too quickly and arrange for him to get caught in a trap massacre in a border skirmish with the Scots. He was left for dead but managed to survive. A vision from an Angel urged him to lay down his sword to become another man. He moved to northern Wales where he settles down as a barley farmer with a wife and kids.

The Shire where he lives is ruled by a ruthless Baron who excessively taxes his subjects. Wilkin joins with a group of his fellow farmers to intercept and kill the Baron’s tax collector however Wilkin uses a wooden club having put away the sword as commanded by his angelic visitor.

The Baron retaliates by destroying his village and massacring the women, the children, and the elderly and burning the village to the ground. Wilkin picks up his sword so that he and his fellow farmer/raiders can seek vengeance. Without giving away too much more of the plot, he ends up faking his own death and taking on the identity of a traveling executioner. He is hired against his will to serve at the Castle of the Baron as their resident executioner. This gives him the opportunity to seek out those who massacred his village.

The amount of blood and gore easily meets or exceeds Kurt Sutter’s usual standards. The evisceration of Wilkin’s pregnant wife is especially gruesome above and beyond the usual sword battles. This show is definitely not for the squeamish. The drama and sadness created by the massacre is also up to Sutter’s usual high standards.

Fans of Sons of Anarchy will recognize many of the actors who have been recast in this new show. However Wilkin is portrayed by newcomer Lee Jones. For the Anarchy fans who were worried about missing Katey Segal, her husband Sutter couldn’t resist casting her in the show as well. She plays a mysterious healer/witch named Annora of the Alder. Fans of her previous character Gemma Teller will be well pleased. There are hints she has more connection to Gemma than is immediately apparent. Sutter himself plays even creepier character with a scarred face who is listed as “The Dark Mute” in the IMDB cast listing. He and Annora lurk in the shadows and seem to have a secret agenda all their own.

There are some lighter moments such as the impish character “Ash y Goedwig” who has a love affair with his pet sheep and the camaraderie among Wilkin and his rebel compatriots is noble and familiar as that of the SAMCRO motorcycle club.

The violence and brutality means that this show, like its ancestor Sons of Anarchy, is not for everyone. But it is definitely everything that Kurt Sutter fans have hoped it will be. For his fans like me this is a must-see. And if you’re new to Kurt Sutter’s work, don’t mind violence, brutality, blood and gore and are looking for some of the best written and acted drama on television then I recommend you check this out.

One caveat, this is not a casual watch show. I actually had to watch the two hour premiere twice through because I missed some plot points and was unfamiliar with the new characters. But now I’m confident I’m up to speed and the storytelling will be much easier to follow.

Review: The Muppets… A reboot of The Office

Last night ABC brought “The Muppets” back to prime time TV but it’s a much different show than the one that we grew up with. Rather than a reboot of the original “The Muppet Show” from 1976-1981, this is more of a reboot “The Office” or perhaps “30 Rock“. The show is from the perspective of a documentary crew covering behind the scenes and the personal lives of the staff and characters of a late-night talkshow. It includes interview segments where the characters talk straight into the camera. They even make fun of this “mock-u-mentary” style while employing it.

Miss Peggy is the host of “Up Late with Miss Piggy” and Kermit is the producer. Fozzie Bear is the on-air announcer sort of the Ed McMahon-type character who attempts to warm up the audience. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem featuring Animal on drums are the house band. The talkshow format gives them the opportunity to have actual celebrities as guest stars. So in that respect it’s a little bit like the original show. However not only resembling “The Office”, it also resembles “30 Rock” in that is not afraid to make fun of its guest stars. Kermit sent Scooter over to the set of Dancing with the Stars to recruit a last-minute guest for the show. Kermit was unable to suppress his disappointment when he brought back Tom Bergeron. “That’s the best you could do?” he says in disgust.

For me the real test of a kid show is its ability to not only keep the kids entertained with funny fuzzy characters but the ability to slip in a few adult jokes that will be over the heads of most kids. This is been a tradition ever since the days of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The Muppets seem to be taking this to a whole new level. Here are a couple of examples…

Kermit is holding a staff meeting going over what went wrong with last night’s show. Dr. Teeth suggests “Uh, perhaps we should dismystify any further misconfusion with a daily confabulation-type meeting.” To which Kermit explains they have just such a meeting every morning and they’re having one right now. Then Zoot the way too cool saxophone player says “Meeting? I’m in a meeting? Okay hello my name is Zoot and I’m a…” But he gets cut off and is told “It’s not that kind of meeting.” Obviously Zoot thinks he’s in a 12 step program. The Muppets were always cool but they were never cool enough to pull off a drug joke. I will be anxious to see if the adult jokes get them in trouble in the media.

The second example surprised me even more. Fozzie Bear is preparing to meet his girlfriend’s parents. He has a human girlfriend named Becky. As he’s driving down the street he’s telling the unseen interviewer “I really want to make a good impression on Becky’s parents. She’s the first girl I’ve dated in a long time. When your online profile says ‘passionate bear looking for love,’ you get a lot of wrong responses. Uh, not ‘wrong.’ Uh, just wrong for me.” So not only did we get a very veiled reference to harry gay men, we even got a wink and a nod to Seinfeld’s classic “not that there’s anything wrong with that” quote.

So not only will longtime fans be pleased with the usual Muppet antics such as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew abusing his assistant Beaker, Gonzo being Gonzo, Animal being Animal and so on… we also look forward to these next-generation inside jokes aimed at the adults. And of course Statler and Waldorf are still in the audience heckling the gang throughout. They now do it from the front row instead of the balcony but it’s the same old stuff.

If you are a fan of the Muppets no matter what your age, you should definitely check this out. I’m giving it a definite “Must-See” on my scale.

Review: “Fear” is Aptly Named

Given that I am a huge fan of the AMC Network series “The Walking Dead”, it’s going to be a bit difficult for me to review the new spinoff series “Fear The Walking Dead”. To say that it has been highly anticipated ever since it was announced that a pilot had been approved is a big understatement for me and all of the show’s fans. We presumed however that since it was being written and created and produced by basically the same team responsible for both the comic book and the original “The Walking Dead”, fans expect it to be of an exceptionally high quality.

For those of you not familiar with either the original or the new show but have just heard that it’s a zombie show, you need to understand that when we say “high quality” were not just measuring how gross the special effects are or how many scary or surprising moments we are delivered or even the technical aspects of the special effects. The Walking Dead is one of the best written and acted dramatic hours on television. In a way it’s a shame that it is so gross and violent because that’s going to drive away some people from seeing what is otherwise a quality piece of television.

This new spinoff series received a green light for an initial six episodes but has already been renewed for a second season. We have seen 2 episodes that you would have to catch on demand or on reruns. (The first two episodes are being shown several times this Sunday Sept.6 all evening.)

The original series follows a deputy sheriff Rick Grimes who as the show opened the zombie virus had just broken out but he was unaware of it. He’s in a car accident and in a coma for several months. When he awakens he’s in an abandoned hospital in the world has gone to hell. So we didn’t get to see how the world got into the shape it is in when Grimes awakened in the first episode of the first season. This new series takes place in Los Angeles rather than Atlanta area and shows us what happened in the first days of the breakout.

Our main characters in this new edition are blended family consisting of Madison Clark played by Kim Dickens. You will remember her from such shows as Deadwood, Lost, and Sons of Anarchy. She is a high school guidance counselor. Her husband Travis Manawa is played by Cliff Curtis you might recognize from 2014 series Gang Related for the 2009 TV series Trauma. He portrays a teacher. She has 2 grown children. One is a drug addict Nick played by Frank Dillane a young British actor mostly known for playing Tom Riddle Jr. in one of the Harry Potter movies.

The show opens with Nick in some drug den in an abandoned church waking up from his latest dose to find that his girlfriend has turned into a zombie and is eating the face-off of one of his other druggy friends. He runs out into the street screaming and is hit by a car in France in the hospital. I guess that’s a parallel to Rick Grimes experience in the other show. However Nick awakens right away to tell his story which of course even he doesn’t believe. In some ways it may have been good for him because it’s scaring him straight. He thinks it was a bad drug trip.

Apart from that opening gory scene, much of the first episode is just introducing this family which extends to Frank’s son from another marriage and his ex-wife neither of which he gets along with.

As it unfolds, Nick is trying to track down his drug dealer to see what the hell he gave him that into such a bizarre hallucination. However Frank investigates and finds out that at least some of Nick’s story may be true. Nick catches up with his drug dealer who leads him to a remote location in the LA River and tries to kill him. There is a struggle for the gun and the drug dealer gets shot and dies. Nick’s mother and stepfather catch up with him and he confesses to killing the drug dealer in the struggle over the gun. But when they return to the scene of the crime, the body is missing. This is among several instances where the audience is familiar with how the zombies work more than the people in the show. We know from our experience in the original series that everyone has the virus dormant in them. When you die of any cause, you turn into a zombie whether you were recently bitten by one or not. The now zombie drug dealer soon shows up and survives repeated attempts by Nick to kill him. All this witnessed by Nick’s parents who were nearly killed by the drug dealer zombie. They now understand everything he was saying was true.

Except for the gory scene in the beginning and the attempt to kill the drug dealer at the end there was little or no action whatsoever so fans of the show including myself were a wee bit disappointed. But the previews of the second week promised we would see more action and indeed we did.

The second episode shows that the zombie situation is about to go public with the police shoot a zombie and it is all caught on camera. Of course the zombies aren’t the wrinkled up dead people that we are used to seeing in The Walking Dead. These are freshly deceased people for whom it’s not immediately evident that they are zombies. LA goes into a complete panic over this apparently unjustified police shooting and you can see things starting to fall apart. By the end of the second episode we are much more familiar territory where you don’t know whether you’re going to be in danger from the zombies or from the surviving humans were behaving badly as civilization is coming about them. So if the second is any indication, we’re going to get all the action we expect out of this series.

the reason I titled this review “Fear is aptly named” is that that first episode even with its lack of action actually gave me a nightmare the following night. There was something quantitatively different about the worlds of the two series even though they are the same world. We’ve come to understand in the original series that although this once was the world that we currently live in, it no longer is. The drama from the original series comes from being in a decimated world where you have to scrounge for resources and avoid not only the zombies but the other survivors who can be as dangerous as the monsters themselves. We can imagine being in a post-apocalyptic world especially because we’ve seen so many examples in movies and television but we never really experienced that world unless you’ve lived in some war zone or disaster area.

The fear factor from this new series comes from the fact that it is set in our world right now. This is punctuated even more by the timeliness of the police shooting subplot. Somehow it makes the series seem all the more plausibly real and that’s where the fear comes in. In my nightmare, I wasn’t being chased by zombies. I was living in a world where there was a zombie outbreak and we were trying to figure out what we needed to do to survive the coming disaster. The show illustrates in brilliant fashion just how fragile civilization is. One minor character, a high school student who has been following the outbreak sort of as an Internet conspiracy theory keeps reminding our other characters how quickly things are going to fall apart. Once people stop manning their posts we are going to lose Internet, television, and even electricity. He’s trying to explain to people just how bad things are going to get and how quickly it’s going to happen. We just celebrated the 10th anniversary of Katrina and we saw how quickly civilization came to an end in that particular situation. “Fear of The Walking Dead” if it has any message to it at all is that we have much to fear whether there is a zombie outbreak or not.

On my standard rating scale this one of course is getting a definite “Must See”.

Review: Gotham

Every time the Batman saga gets a reboot it always starts with a young Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents. Then we jump forward to an adult Bruce Wayne either being Batman or at least training to become Batman. But what happened in all those years in between and how did all the other characters in this DC comics universe get to be the iconic characters they are destined to become? And how did the city of Gotham itself become a city that would attract such costumed arch criminals and a masked vigilante to fight them? Fox network’s new Monday night series “Gotham” attempts to answer those questions and if the first episode is any indication of what’s to come, it does so brilliantly.

The story is told through the eyes of Detective James Gordon whom we know will later become the famous police Commissioner Gordon who is Batman’s contact in the Gotham City Police Department. He is portrayed by Ben McKenzie who you would most recently remember from the TV series Southland where he played police officer Ben Sherman. Gordon is a young rookie detective who is partnered with the veteran Detective Harvey Bullock who has appeared in the Batman comics but has never been in any of the films or TV series. He is very aptly played by Donal Logue who has recently done multiple episodes guest starring roles on Law & Order:SVU, Vikings, and Sons Of Anarchy. He is a tough, shoots first and ask questions later kind of guy who is not afraid to do what needs to be done to catch the bad guys. In contrast to Gordon who literally shouts “stop or I’ll shoot” while chasing a bad guy who is firing at him. Gordon never did fire his weapon throughout the chase. In another scene he talks down a crazed junkie who is holding someone hostage rather than just shoot the guy and get it over with as Bullock would have preferred he had done.

While this good cop/bad cop duo would make it interesting enough show on its own, we also get to see Gotham’s up-and-coming band of young criminals. It gives us the opportunity to see their origin stories in a new light as well.

First off is Selena Kyle who is a teenage street kid who picks pockets, agilly slinks around rooftops and fire escapes, and likes to steal bottles of milk to feed stray cats. She is also a witness to the killing of Bruce Wayne’s parents and throughout the first episode keeps an eye on the young orphan showing us that Catwoman’s interest in Bruce Wayne goes back a lot farther than we thought. She is portrayed by newcomer young actress Camren Biscondova. Although she hasn’t had any lines yet, she certainly portrays the physical aspects of the character well.

Oswald Cobblepot is a young henchman who is already going by the nickname “The Penguin” because of his odd walk. However it’s a name he is not yet embraced and is angry whenever called by that name. He is a right-hand man to a new character not found in the comics. Jane Pinkett Smith portrays Fish Mooney. She is a nightclub owner with connections to a local mob boss Carmine Falcone.

We are also introduced to Edward Nygma who is a police evidence technician who is unusually obsessed with riddles. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to figure out his future. We also get a glimpse of a very young and timid girl named Ivy Pepper who avoids dealing with her abusive father by tending houseplants. We know her future as “Poison Ivy”. There is also a glimpse of a comedian who is auditioning to play at Fish Mooney’s nightclub who is not identified as a criminal but whose dark sense of humor could eventually land him the title Joker.

Gotham itself is a character in the show. We get to see its corrupt police department is achieved a tenuous detente with the criminal underworld. Gordon’s struggle will be between doing what’s right and maintaining this balance between law and organized crime that keeps the city from decaying into total chaos.

If TV shows get Emmy awards for casting (I don’t know if they do or not) this one is certainly worthy of earning one. Gordon, Bullock, and Mooney are familiar faces to TV viewers but they fit the roles excellently. The young criminals however are mostly unknowns with extremely short resumes on IMDb.com but each looks as though they were born to play their parts as these characters.

If you are a fan the Batman saga then this is an absolute “Must-See” on my rating scale. But even if you are not a comic book fan but are a fan of film noir crime drama with fascinating characters and amazing art direction then I would highly recommend this to you also. You won’t see capes, or masks, or the usual comic book shtick. This is just juicy crime drama that’s well worth a look see.