Tag Archives: Netflix

End of Season Report: Making a Murderer, Season 1

25 Jan

Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer is probably the most frustrating and depressing program you’ll watch this (or late last) year, primarily because while, at the end of the day, whatever happens on most shows happens to fictional characters, fictional characters you’re deeply invested in, but fictional characters none the less, Making a Murderer leaves two possibly innocent people who were at the least surely not given a fair shake at justice in prison.

And while of course I want to talk about the quality of the show and not get up on my soapbox, it’s just about impossible to do one without the other, and that’s kind of the point. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction series of events, two people are sent to prison for decades for committing a gruesome murder, and the documentarians catch nearly every flaw in our American adversarial criminal justice system along the way: overzealous cops and prosecutors more motivated to get a conviction than get the truth, a law & order jury cowed and skewed in favor of conviction, regardless of the actual evidence, local elected judges willing to generally defer to prosecutors, incompetent defense counselors who don’t have their clients’ interests at heart, and a prioritization of incredibly unreliable witness statements and confessions over scientific evidence.

Oof, that’s a laundry list, and even for a cynic like me, Making a Murderer was able to generate, episode-by-episode a renewed lack-of-faith in the system. On top of everything mentioned above, the series also shines a light on our utter and unflinching trust of police and prosecutors and how “innocent until proven guilty” is basically thrown out the window when defendants are convicted in the court of public opinion by savage media reports that build off of speculation rather than facts. Confirmation bias leads well-meaning cops and lawyers to commit themselves so deeply to the fact that Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are guilty that they can’t see the obvious problems with the cases that the audience can.

And of all the utter mockeries of justice shown over 10 or so hours, the most tragic and troubling is the story of Brendan Dassey. Stephen Avery’s case is problematic on many levels, but Dassey’s is a complete joke. The only, and I repeat only, evidence the state has on Dassey is a confession, given to two cops when he had no lawyer, where he obviously was cowed into saying things he didn’t believe, very clearly making up fanciful stories to desperately please the investigators. There can be no doubt about this. It’s appallingly obvious to anyone who watches the confession on tape. Forget the blatant malpractice of Dassey’s first lawyer. The mere fact that police officers, prosecutors, judges, and 12 members of what had to be a unanimous jury could watch the tape of his interview and believe he did what he said he did is mind bogglingly troublesome.

So yeah, to sum up, I liked the show. If there’s such a thing as an “important show” without being intolerably pretentious, this might be one. It’s very difficult to sit through at times,and I yelled at my screen like a mad person, but it really provides a no-holds-barred reality based look at our criminal justice system, so when you hear and see claims about how every man and woman is treated equally under the law, and the truth will win out in the end, and the adversarial system serves justice better than the alternative, well, it’s good to be reminded sometimes that that’s just a load of bullshit. And while that’s depressing, it’s better to know than live under an illusion.

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Summer 2015 Review: Narcos

2 Sep

Narcos

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of plot in television. Sometimes plot is nothing more than a smokescreen to dig into other aspects of a television show; sometimes plot just gets the viewer on board so the creator can explore characters, relationships, visuals, emotions, and who knows what other themes. Think Hannibal, which had a monster-of-the-week first season only to bring viewers to a crazy and wildly experimental third season where plot was near last on the list of concerns. Rectify has a plot undeniably, but it moves at a snail’s pace so that viewers can take in the reality the characters face.

There’s nothing wrong with plot mattering though, and mattering a lot. The absolute best shows combine a number of elements and plot, or narrative, is a major tool in the TV writer’s toolbox. The Wire focus was wide and deep, but the rise and fall of Avon and Stringer Bell and then Marlo Stanfield was a major hook around which much of the show followed.

They call it storytelling for a reason after all; we like a great story, sometimes everything else be damned. Many mysteries and pulp fiction books are written with nothing but plot in mind. And that finally brings me to the subject of this review, Narcos. Narcos is lacking in many of the elements that denote great television. And it’s not a great show. But damn if it doesn’t have a plot that is immediately intriguing and flows along at smart pace.

Narcos tells a story everyone who has ever watched Entourage has at least a passing knowledge of. It’s about the rise and fall of Columbian drug overlord Pablo Escobar, whose power grew as cocaine took America by storm in the ‘80s. While I still don’t really know the deep details, it’s a story that has obvious movie and TV potential, and there have been several attempts to tell it. Besides the fictional Entourage version, there was a recent film starring Benecio del Toro.

And there’s a reason for all the Hollywood interest. It’s a fascinating story. The sheer size of his empire is staggering, and it’s easy to be attracted to a rise and fall story, even when, or perhaps especially when, the protagonist is a charismatic monster who could be charming, brilliant, and brutal all at once. The story comes from the point of view of a DEA agent who tracked down cocaine in Miami and moved down to Colombia to take the battle to Escobar himself.

That’s pretty much it. There’s a lot of Scorsese-esque narration moving the story along, and adding little historical tidbits and overview. I’m normally not the biggest fan of television narration, but the narration mostly fits into one of the categories I don’t mind as much, merely moving the narrative forward and adding exposition rather than insight. This type of narration can sometimes be superfluous but the story moves along fast enough that skipping forward and setting up scenes with narration isn’t really a problem. There is occasionally some narration which attempts to add big picture personal realizations which I don’t care for, but so far at least that seems to be kept to a minimum.

The protagonists doesn’t seem particularly interesting. The main narrator seems more like a vehicle to describe Escobar’s rise, and Escobar’s story is a lot more interesting than his character. He is a brute egomaniac who murders many, many people, after all. But it’s a well-paced and interesting story, and sometimes that’s enough for a fun view.

Will I watch it again? Yeah, I think I will. It’s nothing so special, but it’s a good story, and there’s some worth to that still.

Summer 2015 Review: Sense8

3 Jul

Sense8

Sense8 spans the globe, telling a story based on a telepathic connection that exists between certain people around the world. In particular, the focus is on eight people who don’t know each other and have never met in person but have some sort of telepathic link and are bound to figure into each other’s lives in important ways from now on. The scope is vast, as would be expected in a TV show from the Wachowski siblings, who were behind good movies like The Matrix, and bad movies like The Matrix sequels (I’m not even going to mention Speed Racer. Oops, I guess I did).

Daryl Hannah plays a woman, struggling in agony, in the ruins of an abandoned church. Naveen Andrews appears next to her, tells her he loves her, and that she can do it, it being, well, who knows, but something difficult, because she insists she can’t, though he eggs her on. We’re led to believe that Andrews is a projection, talking to her through some sort of telepathy. He, any viewer who has watched television or movies would quickly ascertain, is some sort of force for good. He’s countered by an older gentleman, also an apparition, apparently the force for evil, who attempts to persuade Hannah to join his side instead, and he remains convinced that she will, while Andrews insists that she will not. The bad dude comes in in the flesh, causing Hannah to kill herself rather than be apprehended by him.

Somehow, I think, and I could be getting this wrong, we’re led to believe that she somehow activated the powers of the eight people shown throughout the rest of the episode. These eight, four male, and four female, and I’ll run through them quickly in a moment, have all just started seeing visions, both of Hannah herself, and of each other.

Here we go. First, a Chicago cop who works in gangland south Chicago with his partner. Second, a British DJ, whose boyfriend seems intent on robbing some other dude. Third, a Russian guy who with his brother or cousin robs safes. Fourth, a Mexican soap opera-type actor. Fifth, a South Korean businesswoman being overshadowed by her brother. Sixth, an Indian woman who is about to get married to a very successful man she does not love. Seventh, a San Francisco woman who seems to be some sort of intellectual. Eight, a Kenyan van driver.

Some get more screen time in the first episode than others. The cop, the DJ, the San Franciscan, and the Russian thief, get a lot, while the South Korean woman and then Kenyan driver get almost none.

Most serial supernatural shows go out of their way to lay out a premise and several distinct questions in a plot-heavy pilot, trying to pack as much in to get viewers hooked on the story from just 40 minutes. Sense8, possibly because it’s a Netflix original not shown weekly or subject to the traditional pilot process; it had a full season order straight out of the gate – doesn’t feel obliged to do this. There’s a relatively small amount of plot in the pilot.

And so, well, that’s all I have to go on. The set up feels like one a director or writer would love to put issues of fate all over it, but thankfully Sense8, at least initially, refrains from any fate talk; it doesn’t sound like Tim Kring fake-heavy Touch or Heroes. Still, though, and maybe I’m just used to the packing of plot, but it was kind of boring. It looks pretty; and spanning the world, there’s certainly an epic quality which is welcome in a television series. But, there wasn’t enough for me to bite into. Eight people are now telepathic and supposed to do something good, presumably. The series look good. But what it is stuffed with is characters, and while they seem fine enough I don’t really find any of them so interesting I want to know more from the get go.

It’s tough with these types of shows. You make an investment based on guesswork, and hope that it’s rewarded by watching the rest of the season and the series. Is the hook catchy? Are the dialogue, cinematography and character work sophisticated enough to lift the show to being more than merely its plot?

Could Sense8 turn into something really interesting? Maybe. Does it pull me in from the first episode and make me want to immediately watch a second? Not really.  Sense8 certainly aspires to be more than its mere story, and it well could be, but despite the fact that it sometimes seems like it I can’t watch every episode of every halfway decent looking show and Sense8 doesn’t quite make it over the hump.

Will I watch it again? No, not right now, anyway. The production was impressive, but there just wasn’t enough there for me. Maybe if I hear good things from others who have seen it all, I’ll revisit. I’d be very happy to admit I’m wrong.

Summer 2015 Review: Grace and Frankie

25 May

Grace and Frankie

Grace & Frankie is a weird somewhat tonally dissonant half hour show from Netflix starring two legendary actresses in their 70s (and co-starring two legendary actors of the same age) from one of the creators of Friends.  The premise isn’t exactly unique (TV Land mined a very similar premise for Happily Divorced a couple of years back) but it is potentially fruitful and bold in its starring choices of women of retirement age. Unfortunately, it’s not quite compelling enough to be worth following.

Grace (Jane Fonda) is a somewhat uptight and prideful WASP type, who wants to grow old with dignity. She never had a passionate dynamite love affair with her husband, Robert (Martin Sheen), but she liked and respected him, and when she grew up that was more than enough; she liked their life and their children and wanted it to stay that way. Frankie (Lily Tomlin) is a hippie-ish wild child who did have that smoldering relationship with her husband Saul (Sam Waterston), the love of her life. Grace and Frankie have opposite personalities and naturally do not care for one another. Their husbands however are business partners and great friends. Grace and Frankie’s lives are turned upside down when it turns out that their husbands are also long-time lovers and are only now finally coming out to their wives because they want to get married. Grace is pissed, Frankie is heartbroken, and both are crushed. They both, after meeting and receiving sympathy from their respective children, exile themselves to the beach house the two couples share, which had been pitched to them as a financially prudent proposition, but of course was really a convenient love nest for the two husbands.

The series is billed as a comedy, but it’s not very funny. I don’t simply mean it’s supposed to be funny and fails, like Two and a Half Men, although it sometimes tries to be funny and fails. But it’s really much more poignant and melancholy than most traditional half hours; certainly from the get go. That makes a lot of sense when considering how depressing the situation is outside of the high premise. These two women have had their entire lives uprooted when they’re in their 70s and don’t have a lot of time to start over. Their husbands carried on their affair for years, and they desperately want their coming out to be a triumphant celebration of courageous love, but their decision to string along their wives for decades leaves Grace and Frankie holding the bag, alone, in their twilight years.

Grace and Frankie is, at the same time, loaded with very silly, obvious broad comedy which plays on the contrasting Odd Couple-relationship between Grace and Frankie, and which provides a strange contrast to the serious emotion at stake. The climactic scene of the pilot involves Frankie doing peyote to find some peace, while Grace accidentally has some as well, and they have a classic broad comedy drug scene, being outrageously silly while also somehow bonding.

Of the two modes of Grace and Frankie, the poignant emotional side works better; the actresses really are legendary for a reason, and it’s an unusual situation portrayed, especially in that older women are rarely portrayed as protagonists on television. As a comedy, it’s less successful. It’s really not funny and the jokes just don’t come through. I get the idea; dignified elderly ladies doing very stupid things maybe are supposed to be funny, but it isn’t.

Ultimately, Grace and Frankie is an interesting idea, but really not enough to make you come back to watch week after week (or binge, half hour after half hour, as Netflix goes).

Will I watch it again? No. It’s an interesting exercise, not without any merit, and it’s great to see people in their 70s, and women in particular, getting a chance to star. Still, there’s not enough there to be worth watching.

Spring 2015 Review: Bloodline

24 Apr

Bloodline

Bloodline is a new Netflix show from creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelamn, the people behind the underrated FX show Damages. Damages came right before FX really hit the big time with Justified and Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story, but it’s was generally well reviewed by those who watched, and while I stopped watching in the third season, even though I don’t really remember specifically why, the first season in particularly was a well told and well -acted taut legal thriller that doesn’t get enough credit.

Damages relied on a gimmick which is incredibly overused and one of my least favorite; each episode contains some small snippets of present time and then most of the show was flashback (or most of the show in the present and small snippets of flash forward, if you will). Crazy things happened in the present, and the show would then shoot back to the past, so that viewers would wonder how the events could possibly move from point A to point B. The gimmick worked fine for the show as these things go, but it’s a lazy and cheap way to build tension and I was thus disappointed to see the exact same gimmick used in Bloodline’s first episode. I don’t remember Damages pilot exactly, but I think Damages started in the future and moved back, while Bloodline didn’t flash forward until later in the episode. Still, the use was essentially the same.

Bloodline is a family thriller. The patriarch and matriarch of the Rayburn family, played by Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard, own a bungalow resort on the Florida Keys. They’re beloved around those parts, and the setting of the pilot is a family and friends weekend meant to celebrate a local pier being named after them. They have four grown children. John’s got a family and is in local law enforcement, although not the oldest, he seems like the caretaker. Kevin works with boats, Meg is an attorney. Danny, the oldest, is the black sheep of the family.  He’s nomadic, the least in touch with his family, and seems to have dabbled in drugs and at the least petty crime. He’s always getting into trouble and coming to the family for money, hanging around just long enough to break his mother’s heart when he leaves. Danny’s trouble, is the short of it, we’re led to believe. John clearly cares for him, despite his issues, as does his mother. Kevin and his father are tired of his act and Meg seems somewhere in the middle.

In the pilot, Danny, currently unemployed, is offered a presumably shady job by his crony and old running buddy. Considering the job, he instead decides to try to come back home and work with the family, which would thrill his mother, but not so much his father. After he drinks and does drugs too much and wakes up naked on the sand, any offer of family employment is rescinded and presumably that leaves him to rejoin some life of crime.

So that’s now. In the future it looks like, as John narrates, that he’s taking his brother’s dead or lifeliess body onto a boat and setting fire to it, killing him if he’s not dead already, and it’s implied, by John, that crazy things happened and that he had good reason for taking these actions.

Honestly, the episode was a little underwhelming. The primary cause of tension was the flash-forward, and as I mentioned that’s a gimmick that I don’t particularly care for. The rest of the show was fine; it wasn’t really boring per se and we were getting to know the characters but weighing the intrigue so heavily on the flash forward left the stakes in the present feel pointless. By no means was it a bad episode of television; it was even slightly above competent and the show did resonate with a certain basic standard of quality. The disappointment was only relative to my expectations from Netflix and the cast and creators. The cast is great certainly, the production values are solid, and as I’ve mentioned before I know the creators have done good work in the past, so I’m willing to cut the show a little slack personally going forwards. But as a pilot goes it really could have been better.

Will I watch it again? I think I’m going to but that’s more because of the pedigree and the Netflix connection, which has a pretty solid reputation and gives creators the ability to make slower pilots because they have a full season commitment. Also, I like all these actors. I was a little disappointed in the episode itself, and I wouldn’t have given many similar episodes another chance, but here’s hoping.

Spring 2015 Review: Daredevil

13 Apr

Daredevil

Marvel, which seeks to continue its world domination, and Netflix, which seeks to grow its library of hit TV shows, made a smart decision with Daredevil, a classic but underutilized Marvel character, by taking the property in a slightly different direction than the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While other superhero movies (and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) seem to be getting bigger and bigger – unbelievably powerful superheroes, alien invasions, intergalactic terror, and impending world destruction, Daredevil scales down. Daredevil localizes itself not only within one city, New York, but within one neighborhood within that city, Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil doesn’t deal with aliens or gods or robots, but with gangsters and corrupt politicians and businessmen. Daredevil battles thugs and henchmen via hand-to-hand combat.

The second way Daredevil differs from his superhero predecessors in film and television is that his day job is actually relevant to the show in a way most other superheroes’ occupations aren’t. Usually these jobs are just a convenient cover for the heroes’ nighttime pursuits. Here, however, Daredevil’s lawyering represents an integral part of his character is a way that’s simply not true for Spiderman as a photographer or Superman as a writer or Batman a wealthy playboy or C.E.O.

Daredevil is about the fight for justice and what’s right, which sounds similar to the motive of just about any other superhero, but Daredevil merges the legal and extralegal avenues toward that goal in a unique way through his work as a defense attorney. The justice he attempts to hand out during his nights is directly connected to his struggle to fight for justice as he truly believes it should be meted out, through the legal system during the day. The courts just need an occasional outside push to help them function correctly.

Daredevil fights are designed to highlight the smaller scale street level (comics term which refers to characters with no or few powers) nature of the characters – dark, martial art clashes in dark alleys under little light.

While Daredevil does take this interesting approach that stands apart in a couple of noteworthy ways from Marvel’s existing properties, it is still a relatively conventional superhero story. There’s not going to be anything groundbreaking here, and Marvel products, as I’ve said before, tend to have high floors but low ceilings. There’s something to be said for that; while I like to see programs shoot for the stars, there’s room for solid but not spectacular entertainment as well. Still, it’s worth pointing out. It’s difficult to be great with the restraints Marvel puts on its programming, but it’s also difficult to be awful. I don’t always like to reward that level of risk averseness, but to its credit, Marvel has done a good job putting enough of its properties closer to their ceiling, relatively low as that may be, that at least the calculation seems to make a lot of sense for them both commercially and creatively.

The acting is competent, the writing is adequate; the dialogue isn’t David Mamet but it doesn’t embarrass itself either. Daredevil is not for people who don’t like superheroes; there simply isn’t enough to differentiate it from what anyone who doesn’t like superheroes don’t like about them to begin with. Those who do, though, will probably find Daredevil enjoyable.

Will I watch it again? Yes. I like superhero shows well enough that I’m watching The Flash, Arrow, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.LD, and Daredevil seems like it could be at least as good as any of those, and maybe better.

Spring 2015 Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

25 Mar

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a new sitcom from 30 Rock creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. 30 Rock is one of the best comedies of the 21st century, and while second efforts from well-respected creators don’t always turn out so well, in this case, if you like or love 30 Rock, you’ll like or love Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That’s not to say the shows are exactly the same, but they are tonally similar enough that I would just about guarantee any fan of the former would like the latter.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shares 30 Rock’s rapid fire delivery method, its love of wordplay jokes, its over-the-top silliness, and for kicks, one of the four main characters in portrayed by Jane Krakowski, whose Jacqueline Voorhees is pretty much the same as her Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock – rich, entitled, vain, and egocentric.

The show begins with a high concept premise that could be misleading but is worth knowing. Kimmy Schmidt was kidnapped as a teen and spent 15 years underground in a bunker, held captive by a wannabe cult leader/preacher (the amazingly-named Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne) who told her and three other women that the apocalypse had occurred and all life on earth was destroyed beyond the bunker. She and the other captives were eventually found and released, and while the others move back to their small midwestern town, Kimmy decides she wants to use her newfound freedom to take on big New York City. She’s a classic fish-out-of-water, both having never been to a big city, and also being unaware of 15 years of culture and technology, which results in many hilarious miscues.

She moves in with a wannabe theater actor named Titus Andremedon who warms up with to her after displaying initial hostility and gets a job as an assistant for wealthy housewife Voorhees. The three of them, along with Kimmy and Titus’s landlord Lillian, make up the main cast.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not just good; it’s laugh-out-loud funny, a quality that even many of the sitcoms I watch and enjoy don’t feature on an episode-to-episode basis. Kimmy Schmidt does not shoot for perfect, squeaky-clean writing and plotting. Rather, Kimmy takes a Pete Rose approach – it goes up for 650 at-bats, swinging away over and over again, never passing up an opportunity to insert a joke, and yet its joke-joke-joke approach works because it connects an inordinate number of times. We forgive the inevitable misses because the hits are frequent enough and funny enough to make the trade clearly worthwhile. This scattershot approach leads to plenty of jokes which some people will find funnier than others, but more than enough for everyone to find some they like.

The show was written with Ellie Kemper in mind as Schmidt, and it shows. She’s a perfect choice for the part, and the part is a perfect showcase for her talents. Kimmy Schmidt showcases her sense of comic timing, her physical humor, her ability to be charmingly confused without looking dumb (something The Office unfortunately pushed too far to simply making her stupid), her ability to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, endlessly enthusiastic in the face of countless obstacles, yet not drive a constant cynic like myself off the wall with her good cheer.

Will I watch it again? Yes. Actually, I’ll be honest. It’s a Netflix show with ten half hour episodes. I already finished it, and you probably should too.