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.

“The Morning Show” Best New Drama of the Year — Says Me

When I heard that the new Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show” starred Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell, I naturally assumed it was a comedy. I knew that it revolves around a morning network talk show similar to “The Today Show” or “Good Morning America“. Seeing the two of them sit behind a desk and crack jokes or perhaps a sort of ripoff of “The Office” that went behind the scenes at such a show just didn’t appeal to me.

Then I heard it was nominated for three Golden Globes in the drama category. Perhaps there was more here than I initially believed so I decided to check it out. I ended up binge watching all 10 episodes in a little over two days and at times it took my breath away. Jennifer Aniston and her costar Reese Witherspoon well deserved their Golden Globe nominations as well as the series nomination for best TV drama. Aniston, Carell, and Billy Crudup have also received Screen Actors Guild nominations.

Late Update: Aniston won the SAG award for Female Actor in a Drama Series.

There will be very minor spoilers ahead but I don’t believe it will ruin the show for you. If you are worried about spoilers just watch this show because it gets my highest recommendation.

Aniston plays Alex Levy and Carell plays Mitch Kessler. They are the anchors of a network morning news talk show called “The Morning Show” or TMS for short. In the opening episode it is announced that Kessler has been fired for sexual misconduct paralleling the true life story of Matt Lauer being fired from “The Today Show”. Note however that this is not at all intended to be a thinly disguised telling of that story. It is very much complete fiction.

Initially there is a scramble by the network to decide how to deal with this disturbing situation. Aniston’s portrayal of Alex is exceptional as she tries to express sensitivity towards the accusers, outrage towards Mitch, and her own personal hurt that such a thing could happen to someone who is her friend and with whom she has had a great working relationship for 15 years.

In the next few episodes Alex is in a fight with the network to keep her job and to try to have a say in who will be her replacement cohost.

Along the way she happens to interview Bradley Jackson portrayed by Reese Witherspoon. She is a local TV reporter that has a slightly embarrassing viral video moment where she gets into a shouting match with a protester at a coal mine. The network tries to intimidate Alex by hinting that she could be replaced by someone like Bradley Jackson at the drop of a hat. Alex reverses the tactics by publicly announcing that Bradley Jackson will be her new cohost starting Monday morning. Of course neither the network nor Bradley herself have any idea that this is going to happen. Rather than fire Alex for making an unapproved announcement, they decide to roll with it thinking that if it fails they can blame her. Although Bradley realizes she’s a pawn in a big chess game she goes ahead and takes the job.

While all of this politics of network TV makes for fairly interesting drama, the real story is the #MeToo issues about the firing of Mitch Kessler. Throughout the 10 episodes, we the viewers ride a roller coaster of emotions in regard to his character. He insists that although he had affairs with coworkers, everything was 100% consensual and that he doesn’t deserve to have his career ruined or to be lumped in with sexual predators the likes of Cosby and Weinstein. You can’t help but believe him that in some ways he is a victim of these accusations.

Along the way as he’s trying to fight for his reputation, he reaches out to a friend who is a filmmaker whose career has been similarly ruined by #MeToo allegations. This part is brilliantly played dramatically by Martin Short. But they are not far into the conversation where Mitch is trying to say “We aren’t like Weinstein or the other perverts out there” when he begins to discover that his friend really is a sexual predator. The contrast between Mitch and his predatory friend makes you more still sympathetic for him.

However in later episodes as we hear the other side of the story from his accusers, we get a different perspective of the whole thing. You begin to see in a very dramatic way that although Mitch can accurately say that everything was “consensual”, the power dynamic of the situation puts him in a much more negative light. You begin to feel deeply for his accusers. Although not the same kind of despicable sexual predator as the Short character or other Weinstein types, Mitch is not at all an innocent victim in the situation.

Bradley Jackson is a fascinating character as well being thrust into a national limelight overnight and basically being in over her head. Yet when presented with the opportunities to investigate the story deeper and perhaps uncover how the network brass had long known about and covered up Mitch’s affairs she has to run with the story. She ends up in a sort of conspiracy to overthrow the network president with the help of the head of the news division played by Billy Crudup. Also is the noteworthy performance of Mark Duplass as the show’s producer who assists in this network coup when he realizes that he is going to be the fall guy for allowing Mitch’s behavior to continue unchecked.

A brief aside for a moment… When looking up Mark Duplass on I came across this video interview in which he reveals that originally “The Morning Show” was supposed to be a quirky fast-paced comedy… the show that I didn’t want to see. But then they realized they could do something significant with #MeToo and they completely scrapped their original scripts and rewrote the show. Many of the episodes were written just in time to be filmed. I still find it amazing that shows like this and “The Watchmen” can be written on the fly like this.

Aniston has many outstanding dramatic performances throughout the series but the most touching revolve around the subplot of Alex’s family life. She has been separated from her husband and he asked for a divorce. Naturally the publicity people are worried that the public will think it’s related to Mitch’s departure when in fact it’s not. Her concerns about the effects of the divorce on their teenage daughter are also quite dramatic and well portrayed by Aniston.

At times this series is reminiscent of the Aaron Sorkin series “The Newsroom” which ran on HBO for three seasons from 2012-2014. This is especially true in the flashback episode where they go to Las Vegas to cover the mass shooting that occurred there. We also go on location to cover California wildfires.

The writing is superb. The performances by Aniston, Witherspoon, and Carell are all top-notch. Although there are a few funny moments it is mostly breathtaking drama throughout. It is very much the single most thought-provoking TV series I’ve seen in a long time. In a recent review of Netflix’s “The Messiah” I described it as the most thought-provoking show I had seen in some time but this one clearly eclipsed it.

On a variety of talkshows and news programs ever since the wave of allegations that launched the #MeToo movement, pundits have been saying “We need to have a national conversation on this topic.” As far as I’m concerned, these 10 hours of dramatic television are an excellent attempt to have that conversation. You really get an in-depth and personal look at the issues from all sides. Anyone who has any interest in understanding #MeToo or anything concerning sexual dynamics in the workplace absolutely must see this program.

In fact anyone who enjoys good dramatic television should consider watching this. I’m giving it my highest rating of “Must-See“.

I previously had high praises for 2 other Apple TV+ series “See” and “For All Mankind” and even said that the latter was almost worth subscribing to Apple TV+ on its own. But those both are fantasy or sci-fi genre shows that might not appeal to a wide audience. This however is an important TV series that needs to be widely viewed.

I got my subscription to Apple TV+ because I recently purchased a new iPhone and iPad. There is a seven day free trial which should be enough that you could watch the show if you set aside time to binge 10 episodes at about an hour each. The subscription is $4.99 per month which is very cheap compared to other services but note that their catalog is quite small containing only original programming. They’ve announced no intent to license outside TV shows or films that are not exclusive to their service.

The bottom line is you should sign up and binge this. It’s well worth $4.99 if you can’t get it all watched during the seven-day free trial. And if you have time check out some of the other series from this service. Links to my reviews below.

Related reviews.

“For All Mankind” is almost worth subscribing to Apple TV+

Fans of Dystopian Action Should See “See”

Would You Recognize Jesus If He Arrived Today? “Messiah” on Netflix Seeks the Answer.

“DUST” — An Amazing Source of Short Sci-Fi Films

I want to call your attention to a YouTube channel called “DUST”. It is an amazing collection of several hundred sci-fi short films ranging from about 5 minutes up to 20 minutes each. Here is the channel trailer video.

The description of their channel reads “DUST is the first multi-platform destination for binge watchable sci-fi. We feature science fiction short films and other content from emerging filmmakers with stunning visual effects, captivating plots and complex character explorations. Robots, aliens, space exploration, technology, and human experience are all a part of DUST. New uploads every week with DUST exclusive premieres and original series. Explore, subscribe, #getdusted, and follow for more.” That is a bold claim and it certainly lives up to it.

I’ve watched four or five of them and they are really amazing. They feature state-of-the-art special-effects, dramatic cinematography, and good hard-core sci-fi content. They upload one or two new videos every week. I’m going to have to go back to the very beginning and binge watch the entire channel at some point. If you are a fan of sci-fi at all you definitely need to check out this resource of great content. Check out the links below.

Anarchy Fans Rejoice. Mayans, MC is Everything You Loved about SoA

For those of us who have been morning the loss of the hit drama “Sons of Anarchy” our sadness has been vanquished. The anarchy universe has been reborn in the new FX series “Mayans, MC”. Kurt Suter who created “Sons of Anarchy” brings us yet again complex, nuanced characters placed into impossible situations that test their loyalty, morality, and self-image. Known for his surprising plot twists, Suter brings his creative magic to the small screen yet again. Fans of the original “Sons of Anarchy” will find themselves completely at home in this new incarnation. If you’ve not seen Anarchy we highly recommend you check out this new series that shows every indication of being just as compelling as our previous visit to this world.

“Sons of Anarchy” was about a Southern California motorcycle club whose stock in trade was gunrunning, pornography, and prostitution. They often collaborated or sometimes collided with an Hispanic motorcycle club called the Mayans. That club is the basis for this new series. In Anarchy, the president of the Mayans was Marcus Alvarez played by Emilio Rivera. He appears in the opening episode not as the president and as the “Godfather” or sort of president emeritus of the organization. IMDb says he will appear in a total of 3 episodes. None of the rest of the members of the Mayans are carryovers from Anarchy although there are some cameo appearances (such as Robert Patrick) of other characters from Anarchy.

The lack of carryover characters does not in any way make this new incarnation unfamiliar to fans of the original. The complex relationships between characters, the moral dilemmas they face, the test of loyalties, the mind blowing plot twists, phenomenal action sequences, and gut wrenching violence that were the hallmarks of Anarchy are in full bloom. Let’s face it… This is a reboot but it’s a wonderful reboot.

Our main character is Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes played by JD Pardo whose credits include TV series “East Los High“, and “Revolution“. Here’s a prospect or you might a pledge trying to join the MC. He is sponsored by his older brother Angel. Their father Felipe who is a butcher in the town is played by Edward James Olmos. The club president Obispo “Bishop” Losa is played by Michael Irby who has been seen recently in “SEAL Team” and “True Detective“.

The club is in business providing security for the Galindo drug cartel. When one of the shipments gets hijacked it sets off a chain of events that has them doing battle with a rival Samoan club. We also meet a Mexican vigilante group made up of survivors of cartel violence who are trying to take down the cartel because the authorities seem powerless to do anything.

The hijacking reveals that there has to be a traitor among the group which adds to the tension of the situation. It’s bad enough when you are hired to protect a drug shipment worth $2.5 million. But then to try to weed out the traitor among you makes things even more complicated. I won’t go into any more plot details because it would spoil some big surprises. Let’s just say that everything is not as it seems. Nearly everyone is carrying some sort of secret. And a tremendous amount of detail is revealed about secret agendas in the first episode alone.

There is action galore throughout the first episode. The hijacking involves a stunt where a truck flips and explodes. There is a bloody shootout in a cemetery when they confront the Samoan gang about the hijacking. They eventually capture, torture and kill the Samoan leader in ways that will make you cringe. This is a violent adult drama not for the squeamish. And much to my surprise for a basic cable TV show they dropped at least three F-bombs. I had heard that the rules for basic cable were one “F-bomb” per season. At least that’s the rule for AMC’s “The Walking Dead“.

If you were a fan of Anarchy you are already watching this show. If you never saw the original, you don’t need to have seen it to jump into Mayans. Highly recommended show that earns a strong rating of “Must See” on my rating system.

“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”.