Showing posts with label TV series. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TV series. Show all posts

12 January 2019

Stephen's TV Chocolate Box 2018

by Stephen Ross

It's January, so it's a good time for me to reflect on the things I watched last year on television (TV shows, movies). And just a reminder, the best chocolate in the box for 2017 was Breaking Bad (which I finally got around to bingeing, after everyone else on the planet). Needless to say, there were a few Bertie Bott's farm-dirt flavored chocolates in 2018's box, and they were duly spat out. So, on to the good ones:

Dark Bittersweet 

I watched a handful more episodes of Black Mirror and its self-contained tales of technological terror, and it's still as great as ever. If you don't know this show, it's like the Twilight Zone, if Rod Serling had been British, on serious narcotics, and obsessed with messing with your head. Best episode in 2018: "Metalhead" — because it was taunt and tight, gave no ducks, and was in black and white (because at the end of the world there will be no color left).

Almendra de chocolate 

El Ministerio del Tiemo (The Ministry of Time). I like history, and I like science fiction. This show (3 series, 34 episodes) came out of Spain and put the two together. The premise of the show is that the Spanish government has a top secret division that has the facility to travel back in time; and their job is to put things right when historical events go astray, e.g., Salvador Dali painting a cell phone, the Spanish Armada actually defeating the English, Alfred Hitchcock getting kidnapped at the premiere of Vertigo. The show has a lot of humor; there's even a reference to the US having its own facility to travel in time: The Americans call it a "Time Tunnel." (Time Tunnel was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid.)

Nougat Nutty 

The Lobster. I like weird movies. And they don't come much bat-shit weirder than this one. If I told you the premise of this movie, you'd think I was nuts. Watching it, at times, reminded me of the first time I saw David Lynch's Eraserhead. Stars Colin Farrell & Rachel Weisz. Filmed in Ireland.

Salted White Chocolate

The Terror (1 season, 10 episodes). History mixes well with many genres, and here it's thrown into the icebox of the Arctic Circle along with horror. In the mid 19th Century, two ships, one of them called The Terror, set out from England to find (and chart) the Northwest Passage in the icy waters between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The two ships, and their crews, were never seen again. All completely true. This show (based on a doorstop-sized novel) speculates (fictionally) on what happened to them. And it isn't pretty. I read a review someplace of this show that described it as "beautiful and horrific." Yep. This was without doubt the best thing I watched last year. Great cast, good script, fantastic design, music, and photography. And very scary... Terror? Oh, yeah.

Peppermint Crème

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (first season) also had some nice writing, a great cast, and great art design (60s retro cool). It's about witches, if you didn't know. A friend of mine described it as Harry Potter dipped in acid and silly putty. If you're of the Christian persuasion (and don't have a robust sense of humor), this show might not be for you.

Other tasty treats in 2018: Stranger Things (season 2), Death in Paradise (first 5 seasons), Tientsin Mystic (season 1), Frankenstein Chronicles (season 2), The Detectorists (seasons 1 & 2), Atlanta (season 1), The Bletchley Circle (seasons 1 & 2).

So, what were your favorite TV treats in 2018?

And happy watching in 2019! I hear there's a TV adaption of Catch-22 on the horizon (a favorite book of mine from my youth).

18 August 2018

Wire Paladin, San Francisco

by John M. Floyd

Yes, I know this is primarily a blog about writing and about mysteries--and about writing mysteries--but today I want to mention an old TV series I've been re-watching lately, one that was a cut above most of those in its genre. (Its genre was western, but let's call it historical crime fiction. That'll make me feel less guilty about wandering off topic.)

The show was Have Gun--Will Travel, a half-hour series that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1963. It's something I rarely saw when I was a kid, because it aired on Saturday nights from eight-thirty to nine o'clock (CST), opposite The Lawrence Welk Show, which was on from eight to nine. My mother liked Lawrence Welk and his band, and although my dad and I always lobbied hard for switching channels at eight-thirty to see HGWT, that never happened. The three of us, and my little sister, always sat there and watched Welk and his Champagne Music-Makers for the whole hour before changing channels (thank God) to see Gunsmoke from nine to ten. Funny the things we remember, about childhood . . .

Anyhow, since I missed out on this entire series, I picked up a boxed set of DVDs from Amazon a few months ago that includes all 225 episodes. I'm well into season two by now (seasons back then were far different from the way they are now; each season then contained thirty or forty episodes), and I've found that I love the show. It's a little corny at times, yeah--TV fifty or sixty years ago usually was. But again, it was head-and-shoulders above most of the prime-time network fare of that period.

Very quickly, here's the premise. A gentleman gunfighter named Paladin, played by the not-traditionally-handsome Richard Boone, traveled the Old West helping people solve their problems, which usually involved bad guys. He always tried to avoid violence but of course wound up in the middle of it, and he charged a fee (usually a thousand dollars) for his mercenary services--a free that he sometimes declined or gave to the needy. His business card, which showed up in every episode, displayed the image of a white chess knight and the words HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL and WIRE PALADIN, SAN FRANCISCO.

Why was this show so good, when most TV series back then were barely watchable? I think one reason was the quality of the stories themselves, and that means the quality of the writing. Writers for Have Gun included Gene Roddenberry, Harry Julian Fink, Sam Peckinpah, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Irving Wallace, and other fairly familiar names.

Another factor: production values seemed to be higher, for this series. Many of the episodes were shot outdoors and on location instead of at cheap-looking studio sets, more arrention was paid to authenticity, and the "look and feel" of the show was almost always better than what viewers were offered in most TV westerns (or cop shows or comedies, for that matter).

The basic idea was also a good one: Paladin was a gunfighter with a code of honor, but still a hired gun, ready and willing to travel to wherever he was needed (or paid to go). This offered unlimited plot possibilities. Unlike Matt Dillon or Lucas McCain, whose antagonists had to wander into Dodge City or North Fork every week, Paladin could go anywhere, and did--sometimes as far away as Alaska. And the plots were never the same, even though it would've been easy to make them that way. Sometimes the storyline even intersected with the real world: in one episode Paladin was just over the hill from the Custer massacre at the Little Bighorn, and in another he rescued Oscar Wilde from a group of bandits.

Add to all this a few interesting quirks not seen before in a western hero. For one thing, Paladin had a love and knowledge of art and chess and fine wines and opera (he lived at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco), and the ability to quote Shakespeare. Also, he chose to wear a villainous-looking mustache and a black outfit when he was on an assignment, something heroes didn't often do in TV westerns. The icing on the cake: this show had an opening sequence with music by Bernard Herrmann of Psycho and Vertigo fame.

Even the title has become a catchphrase, altered to suit different purposes, like the cartoon Have Time Will Travel, and everybody seems to have heard of HGWT whether they saw the show or not. Someone told me that in one episode of Maverick, another western of that time period, a Kansas sheriff was talking about a gunfighter who had been in town handing out business cards--and viewers immediately knew this was a sly tip-of-the-hat to Paladin.

Do any of you remember Have Gun--Will Travel? Have you ever seen an episode? If so, do you agree that it was fairly unique among the incredible number of prime-time westerns on TV back then?

If, like me, you didn't watch it when it was first aired (or, unlike me, this was before your time), and if you find yourself feeling the urge to watch one (maybe not 225) of those episodes now, many of them are available via YouTube. Check 'em out!

Or, Heaven help us, you could watch Lawrence Welk instead.

21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
by Robert Lopresti

There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

28 September 2013

A Series Discussion

by John M. Floyd

A couple of years ago, I discovered a good way to watch mysteries. It's actually a good way to watch many different genres--though most of my time's spent with mystery/crime/suspense. I'm talking about the wide availability now of TV series on Netflix and other outlets, via either snailmailed DVDs or streaming video. So far, I've found the best of these to be made-for-cable series (especially those created by HBO) but I've also seen some great productions from places like A&E and BBC. Two excellent series that I've watched recently--House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black--were produced by Netflix itself.

In the past I've posted often about favorites of mine: authors, novels, short stories, novellas, movies, sequels, remakes, directors, actors, villains, sidekicks, even soundtrack composers. Today I'm at it again. Here, in no particular order, are twenty TV series that I've watched and thoroughly enjoyed over the past few years. (Again, most are mystery/suspense offerings, but I've included a few comedies, fantasies, Westerns, etc.) I've not included those that I didn't like, or that for one reason or another I just stopped watching after the first episode or so, like Continuum and Vegas and Shameless. By the way--and as always--I'd be interested to hear your take on the following shows, and any recommendations you might have for series I have not yet discovered.

Here are my favorites:

Longmire (A&E) -- The adventures of Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, the title character is the reason for watching: he's a dedicated, complex, and conflicted guy, a bit like police chief Jesse Stone.

The Newsroom (HBO) -- A behind-the-scenes look at modern-day newscasts, set in the offices of the fictional Atlantis Cable News channel. I think Jeff Daniels won an Emmy the other night for his portrayal of anchor Will McAvoy.

Orange is the New Black (Netflix) -- Based on the book by Piper Kerman, this is a comedy/drama about life in prison, seen from the viewpoint of a thirtyish woman arrested for transporting drugs. Surprisingly good.

Rome (HBO) -- Okay, I know this is way off the usual fare--but it's an outstanding series about Rome in the first century B.C., filmed mostly in Italy. It ran for only two seasons.

Dexter (Showtime) -- Proof that a serial killer can be the hero of a show. The secret? Unlike Hannibal Lecter, this dude hunts down criminals that evaded justice. Another quirk is that this weird vigilante's day job is blood-spatter analysis for the fictional Miami Metro PD.

The Wire (HBO) -- One of the best-made TV productions ever. Set in Baltimore, this series presents an truly authentic view of police work through the eyes of both cops and drug dealers. A little slow getting started, but it's well worth it.

Downton Abbey (BBC) -- Who says I don't put some variety into these crazy lists of mine? This is a show I thought I would hate, and watched only because I knew my wife would love it. I found it fascinating. A chronicle of the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in early-twentieth-century England.

Weeds (Showtime) -- The polar opposite of Downton. This is a hilarious comedy/crime drame about the zany adventures of a suburban widow who decides to start growing and selling marijuana. Sort of a low-voltage version of Breaking Bad. I watched all eight seasons via Apple TV, almost back-to-back.

24 (Fox) -- How many ways can counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer find to save the world (or at least save the nation)? Plenty of them. I especially liked the always fast-moving plots and the real-time narration technique.

Veep (HBO) -- Another comedy, this one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the U.S. Vice President. Better than you might think--and I'll watch anything anyway that features Seinfeld alumni.

House of Cards (Netflix) -- The betrayals, blackmailings, and backroom politics of U.S. Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). A unique feature: he sometimes "breaks the fourth wall" and speaks directly to the camera.

The Sopranos (HBO) -- Simply the best of the best. Gandolfini did one of the finest, most convincing protrayals I've ever seen by an actor. No description needed.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO) -- Has there ever been a more unlikely leading man than Steve Buscemi? Doesn't matter--he's great. He plays politician/gangster Enoch (Nucky) Thompson in this authentic look at Atlantic City during the Prohibition era.

Game of Thrones (HBO) -- Seven families battle for control of the mythical continent of Westeros. Based on a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. A well-done production, and another that I didn't think I'd like before seeing it.

Copper (BBC) -- A super-authentic historical mystery series. This is the story of an Irish cop in New York City's Five Points district in the 1860s. Dark but interesting.

Californication (Showtime) -- The life and times of Hank Moody (David Duchovny), a novelist who suffers from writer's block and a Porscheload of other problems as well. There's something in this series to offend just about everybody, but (God help me) I like it.

Breaking Bad (AMC) -- The story of Walter White, a brilliant high-school chemistry teacher who's diagnosed with lung cancer and starts cooking and selling crystal meth to pay the bills. I'm only two episodes into this one, and it's already good.

Borgia (HBO) -- This is almost as much a crime show as a historical drama. Set amid the nonstop corruption and violence of the Italian Renaissance, it deals with the infamous Borgia family and its struggle to gain and retain power. You'll never see another Pope like this one. (Not to be confused with the Showtime series The Borgias, which I've not yet seen.)

Fringe (Fox) -- Sort of a J. J. Abrams version of The X-Files. A female FBI agent teams up with an institutionalized scientist to investigate unexplained phenomena. The title refers to their use of "fringe science" to solve mysteries involving a parallel universe.

Magic City (Starz) -- Another behind-the-scenes story, this one about the world of hotels and gangsters in Miami Beach in the late 1950s. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a great job as Isaac (Ike) Evans, manager of the fictional Miramar Playa hotel.

In my opinion, the top five of these are HBO products: The Wire, The Sopranos, The Newsroom, Boardwalk Empire, and Rome. I absolutely loved those--although I should use present tense in the cases of The Newsroom and Boardwalk, where there are apparently (and hopefully) more seasons upcoming.

Other series that I enjoyed a great deal over the years, and that I faithfully watched every week on TV rather than later on DVD, were Hill Street Blues, ER, and Lost. And six that I somehow never got around to seeing regularly but that I now wish I had, were Heroes, Six Feet UnderThe West Wing, Mad Men, 30 Rock, and Castle. So many shows, so little time. For what it's worth, I still think the alltime best-written comedy series were Cheers, M*A*S*H, and Frasier.

Anyhow, there you have it. I think I've now managed to list my favorites in every visual and printed medium except maybe video games.

Anybody remember Pac-Man . . . ?