Friday, October 17, 2014

TV Review: Forever

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars (after four episodes)

Bottom Line: It's a fun little cop show with a fantasy twist, that's worth a look but hardcore genre fans may find it lacking.  

Forever gives us a show about a man stricken with a "curse" that he cannot die (why do people on TV shows always look these sort of things as bad) and has developed a fascination with death that has led him to studying it for the two hundred years he has been alive.  In the modern day, he is a medical examiner and also a very Sherlock Holmsey type of person who has a keen eye to detail.  And thus we get the case-of-the-week stories in which somebody dies and his expertise is called upon to solve the murder (and there's also the obligatory Highlander style flashbacks to his early age and some event that relates to the case he is working on).  I really didn't expect that I would like this show when I first heard the premise, yet found myself oddly drawn to it.  It borrows quite a number of elements from a wide variety of genre sources including of course the Highlander movies and TV series, but also The Immortal (a short-lived 1970 series starring Christopher George), New Amsterdam (a short-lived 2008 series starring Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Unbreakable (2000 M. Night Shyamalan film starring Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson), and more.  On top of that, it gives us yet another procedural with a fantasy twist and and haven't those flashback sequences been done to death yet?  And yet, even as I processed these derivative factors while watching the pilot, I found myself enjoying it.  Maybe it was Ioan Gruffudd's excellent performance as Henry Morgan.  Maybe it was Judd Hirsch's presence in the cast (he's a particular favorite actor of mine and has been criminally underutilized on TV).  Maybe it was the ageless Sherlock Holmes-type character that Henry Morgan gives us (I've always loved Arthur Conan Doyles' SH tales).  Maybe it was the show's somewhat fun, light-hearted tone that was mixed in with its more dramatic elements. But I found that something just clicked for me.  I'm not saying it is a great series or a must-watch new entry on the schedule, but it's good fun and managed to keep my interest across subsequent episodes.  Of course there is a story arc of sorts in the background as someone who shares the same "affliction"  has been making cryptic calls to Henry.  But the Sherlock Holmes style case of the week is what this show is about and that side story is probably only there to appeal to genre fans who prefer a more ongoing tale.  But I'm not sure if it has done enough to distinguish itself as a cop show or a fantasy / sci fi show, and the genre blending could ultimately work against it as it may not quite grab enough fans on either side.  Still, I plan on keeping this show on my watch list, though it will be one that I catch up with as time allows as opposed to shows like The Walking Dead, Arrow, and The Originals that I usually watch right away.  And based on the current ratings, it looks like Forever will be anything but a Prime Time immortal, which is a shame because this fun little series deserves better.  But I will at least enjoy it while it is on.

Focus on Fall Sci Fi TV: Constantine

Constantine: NBC, New Series, Premieres Friday October 24th 10 PM EST.

constantine-nbc-cancelledHere is the official description of the show from its website:
Based on the wildly popular comic book series "Hellblazer" from DC Comics, seasoned demon hunter and master of the occult John Constantine (Matt Ryan, "Criminal Minds") is armed with a ferocious knowledge of the dark arts and a wickedly naughty wit. He fights the good fight - or at least he did. With his soul already damned to hell, he's decided to abandon his campaign against evil until a series of events thrusts him back into the fray, and he'll do whatever it takes to protect the innocent. With the balance of good and evil on the line‎, Constantine will use his skills to travel the country, find the supernatural terrors that threaten our world and send them back where they belong. After that, who knows... maybe there's hope for him and his soul after all.

What I have seen of this show looks interesting, but that is largely because Matt Ryan appears to be having so much fun chewing the scenery as the title character.  Apart from that, this looks like yet another supernatural series with a looming war between good and evil and apocalyptic overtones.  We already have that several times over across the television channels and for my money Supernatural has been doing it the best (as they add plenty of gallows humor to offset the darker themes).  Still, I'm intrigued enough by Constantine to give it a look.  I should note, though, that I have never followed the Hellblazer comic, and I hear that the show will be taking some liberties with the source material.  But maybe it will manage to hit the right buttons and give the other supernatural shows on television some competition.

As for its chances for survival, I have to say that the Friday 10 PM EST timeslot that NBC has this one scheduled in looks treacherous. Dracula did not do well enough in that hour last year to get a renewal (even though the show pulled relatively decent numbers for that low viewership slot). And I don’t know that Constantine will have as much draw from the comic book audience as FOX’s Gotham will. Plus, Constantine is not an international production like Dracula was, so it comes as a more expensive entry to its network.  NBC has ordered additional scripts for the show (only three), but that's not the same as a full season pickup and sometimes the nets do that just to stir up some buzz around the shows.  If this one pulls ratings similar to Dracula, then that angel visiting Constantine in the show may need to pull some strings from above to get this one a second season.

Here is the trailer for the show:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

TV Review: Agents of SHIELD Season 2

Rating: 2 ½ Out of 5 Stars (after three episodes)

Bottom Line: This show is still in search of a direction and it has unwisely decided to go dark rather than mine the comic book source material.

Last season, ABC's Agents of SHIELD was one of the most anticipated sci fi shows on the Fall schedule, and its monster debut in the ratings reflected that.  But after its premiere, the show's numbers started to slide largely because it did not quite meet up to expectations, and even a reboot of sorts (tied in with the Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie) toward the end of the season could not quite bring viewers back.  Still, the show earned a second season renewal, but debuted a few weeks ago to find itself still struggling in the ratings.  So why is this once highly anticipated series having trouble keeping its audience?  There are a few reasons that I can see for that.  For one, I'm sure plenty tuned in last year expecting to see a Marvel blockbuster on their screen each week.  However, television works on a much smaller budget and the series could not afford to deliver that level of spectacle on an ongoing basis.  That could be compensated for, though, if the series had a close enough tie to its comic book source material, but that instead has been a second major problem with the show. The main characters of the series are mostly new names except for Agent Coulson who appeared in several of the Marvel movies.  And apart from that, there has been little crossover with the comics.  Unlike The CW's successful Arrow which has made a concerted effort to bring in as many familiar names from the comics, Agents of SHIELD has mostly plotted its own course.  And for the second season, the show has decided to adopt a darker, grittier tone while still keeping the comic book universe it came from at arm's reach.  I realize this latter issue is because Marvel is targeting the big screen for many of its major and not-so-major superheros (and Netflix also scored a coup with the upcoming Defenders multi-part series that will team up Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones).  But still, Marvel has a LOT of characters (and good stories) out there that could be merged into Agents of SHIELD to help it find that spark it needs.  And the dark tone just doesn't fit well with it either.  That's the way the DC prefers to go, but one of the keys to the success of the Marvel Avengers films which the series is so closely tied to is that they have a spirit of fun.  We saw that to an extent early on with Agents of SHIELD as Season 1 started with some witty and fun scripts, but by mid-season it just seemed to have lost steam.  I'm guessing that's because the corporate suits at Disney and Marvel wanted the show to have broad appeal and they dialed back the trademark quirkiness of the Whedon clan who have been helming the show.  But then we have a show that falls short of the superheroics comic book fans are looking for, lacks the cult feel that the Whedon fans prefer, cannot deliver the spectacle that the wider audience demands, and now its going dark which is a different direction than the Marvel movies usually follow.  This is a show that has been in search of an identity and just hasn't quite found it yet while the audience is in the process of tuning out in favor of options that have better appeal to comics fans like Arrow, The Flash, and Gotham.  And personally, my interest in the show has waned as well.  I may tune in to check up on it as its second season progresses, but it is no longer on my must-watch list.  And I think that's true of the general sci fi audience which means this one may be done by the end of the season.

Monday, October 13, 2014

TV Review: Gotham

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars (After 3 Episodes)

Bottom Line: This Almost Batman series has its moments but may need a bit more super-heroics to keep up interest.

Debuting this season on FOX, Gotham gives as the story of a young Jim Gordon (eventually to become the well known Commissioner Gordon from the Batman mythos) as a green yet honest cop trying to find his way in the crime-ravaged, corruption-filled Gotham City.  In the first episode, he comes in contact with a young Bruce Wayne who has just suffered the loss of his parents in an apparent street robbery, and Gordon vows to bring in the person responsible for their murder.  And thus we set off into early years that forged the Batman and eventually brought Gordon and the Caped Crusader together in an unlikely partnership against crime.  You should know right away that this series does not tie in with the movies, as it sets up its own version of the Batman universe.  It is also thus far absent of any of the superheroes or supervillains from that mythos, though we see many seeds planted for the characters we know all too well from the comics.  We have been introduced to Selina Kyle (Catwoman), Edward Nygma (The Riddler), Ivy Pepper (Poison Ivy), and Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin) thus far (and there may have been a few other names dropped that I missed).  And the current story arc is focused on how Cobblepot morphs into that fowl character so famous from the comics.  Also in the picture is Harvey Bullock (who is Gordon's rather seedy partner), and Gordon's girlfriend Barbara could factor is at some point as Batgirl (or would Batwoman be more appropriate seeing the age difference between her and Bruce Wayne?).  The thing about this show thus far, though, is that it is pretty much just a crime drama with the names of Batman characters sprinkled about.  And while it's a decent enough crime drama, don't we have more than enough of those on television these days?  And how long will fans of the comic stick around for this "Almost Batman" series before they start to demand some payoff from the source material that is more than just teases about what the characters will be some day?  I believe one of the reasons that Agents of SHIELD has lost much of its audience is that it delivers too little of what the audience expects from the comics, and that could get to be a factor for Gotham as well.  I'm willing to tune in for a crime drama if it keeps a close tie to the source material, but if this turns into CSI: Gotham, then I will be losing interest quickly (as will probably many from the show's audience).  I'm on board for now, but still waiting for them to deliver on the goods.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Audiobook Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Rings: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

The Two Towers: 4 out of 5 Stars

The Return of the King: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is of course and all-time classic of fantasy literature and one that I have read all the way through twice way back in my college days.  But I never did reread it completely around the time that the films came out as I had planned (just made it through the first book) and as I started on my audiobook adventure several years back I was disappointed that the full version of the trilogy was not available in that format (the closest were BBC dramatizations that ran about the same length as each of the films).  But apparently there were audiobook versions produced back in the books-on-tape days that have now finally surfaced during the digital age, so I snatched these up from (who I have a love/hate relationship with) and set about revisiting the world of Middle Earth.  The Fellowship of the Rings I had reread in the late 90’s, and like the movies I still consider it the best of the trilogy.  And Peter Jackson’s film version actually follows it fairly closely, though with edits and alterations to move things along more quickly (and poor Tom Bombabil got left out completely again).  The Two Towers is the most talky of the three books and has the least amount of action even though it has the Battle of Helms Deep and the Ents assault on Isengard (which is mostly recounted as a flashback).  The Jackson film differed immensely from this book, though he had little choice because this one was not structured well to work as a film.  The Return of the King delivers the epic finale to the story and I had nearly forgotten about the final part of the book where Frodo and the other Hobbits must reclaim the Shire which has fallen on dark times.  That part didn’t make it into the movie for logistics reasons, but could practically be turned into a spin-off fourth film itself.  Revisiting these books was a labor of love as I slipped back into the world of magic and myth that Tolkien created, and it felt like catching up with a dear old friend.  All three are read by Rob Inglis, and while at first I thought his aged voice was a bit craggly for some of the characters, I developed a liking to his venerable British accent which fit well with the tales and ultimately leant itself to the enjoyment of the books.  He also has a surprisingly good singing voice which proved essential as many songs are  interwoven through the books.  I became so accustomed to Inglus’ voice over the 50+ hours that the three volumes span that eventually I could imagine no one else bringing Tolkien’s story to life.  And fortunately as I am now venturing forward into The Hobbit on audiobook, I have found that he narrates that one as well.  The audiobook format is a great way to revisit this timeless, classic trilogy and definitely worth the hours you will invest into it. 

Focus on Fall Sci Fi TV: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, AMC, Returning Series (5th Season), Premiere Tuesday October 12th 9 PM EST

the-walking-dead-season-5Here’s the official description for the fifth season of The Walking Dead:
Season Four of The Walking Dead ended with Rick and the group outgunned, outnumbered, and trapped in a train car awaiting a grim fate. Season Five picks up shortly thereafter. What follows is a story that weaves the true motives of the people of Terminus with the hopeful prospect of a cure in Washington, D.C., the fate of the group’s lost comrades, as well as new locales, new conflicts, and new obstacles in keeping the group together and staying alive. Stories will break apart and intersect. The characters will find love and hate. Peace and conflict. Contentment and terror. And, in the quest to find a permanent, safe place to call home, one question will haunt them…After all they’ve seen, all they’ve done, all they’ve sacrificed, lost, and held on to no matter what the cost…Who do they become? AMC
Season 4 of this show was definitely an exhausting affair, giving us the final showdown with the Governor and then all the struggles that followed when the group was scattered afterwards.  I’ve heard that the upcoming season will deliver a bit less in the way of gut-wrenching drama and instead focus more on action.  That may not be such a bad thing, as fans could use a break from some of those heart-stopping moments.  But TWD being what it is, don’t count on too much of a respite (especially with the specter of cannibalism lurking in Terminus).  Still, I expect this show to keep up the level of quality we have seen through its first four years (that includes the much-maligned second season), and I would direct you to Syfy’s Z Nation if you are looking for any zombie levity.

As far as the show's ratings prospects for this coming season, don't expect those numbers to be dropping much any time soon.  And the fact is that it could still slip a couple of points and still rank as the highest rated shows across the broadcast nets and cable. TWD even beat high profile sporting events pretty regularly based on the ratings in the 18-49 demo several times last season. This one will almost certainly be going out on its own terms and that won't be any time soon (and that spin-off series should be hitting some time next year).

Here is the Trailer for Season 5:

Buy The Walking Dead on DVD and Blu-ray or Stream Episodes from

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: Z Nation

Rating: 4 out of 5 Guilty Pleasure Stars (after three episodes)

Bottom Line:  This show is just good, cheesy zombie fun

Syfy has apparently decided to try and grab a piece of The Walking Dead’s massive genre audience with Z Nation, and personally I think the show is off to a good start.  The basic premise is a given: there’s been a zombie-pocalypse (do we really care why or about the details?) and small pockets of un-infected people are trying to survive.  This show’s twist: one person has been given a (now lost) vaccine and survived several zombie bites and he may be the key to saving the world.  Problem 1: he’s an asshole.  Problem 2: a group of survivors has been tasked with getting him across country to a lab that can get the cure from his blood, but they don’t like him nor did they willingly accept their mission.  From there, plenty of zombie-gore and post-apocalyptic yarns ensue.  And whereas The Walking Dead goes for grim, gritty reality, Z Nation revels in the exploitive nature of the zombie genre while also deliverimg plenty of dark humor.  The show comes from The Asylum, notorious for mock-busters like Transmorphers, The Almighty Thor, and The Day the Earth Stopped as well as those Sharknado movies (a third is on the way).  And it definitely borrows some of the same absurdity those latter flicks are known for (though toned down, fortunately), but it does it with a gleeful smirk and a wink at its audience.  They aren’t going for classic sci fi here, and they know it.  But they do the cheesy zombie shtick well enough and they brought aboard a bang-up troupe of actors (mostly unknowns apart from Lost’s Harold Perrineau) who are so far having great fun with their roles.  And the icing on the cake is watchful Citizen Z monitoring the progress of this group from an NSA station in the North Pole (with plenty of fun jabs at that Orwell-Come-to-Life organization) played completely over-the-top by the always enjoyable D.J. Qualls (I was disappointed he did not become a regular on Supernatural, but all the better for this show).  Some may say that Z Nation is The Asylum’s mock-buster take on The Walking Dead, and you could make an argument to that effect.  Don’t sign on to this one expecting well thought out, carefully crafted stories as the leaps of logic and plot holes are almost as prevalent as the zombies.  And while it does give us some of the same moral ambiguities that are stock-and-trade for TWD, Z Nation is much more about action and shock value and much less about gut-wrenching drama.  Approach this the way you would any cheesy, low-rent zombie flick, and know that they embrace that milieu and do it as well as it can be done.