Tuesday, November 4, 2014

TV Review: Person of Interest Season 4

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

Bottom Line: This continues to be a good show that flirts with being great but falls short of that mark largely because it is on the broadcast networks

For those unfamiliar with Person of Interest the basic premise is that Harold Finch (played by Lost's Michael Emerson) has created a supercomputer for the government designed to track terrorist activity, but it can also predict deadly crimes and he and his “associates” (John Reese played by Jim Caviezel and Sameen Shaw played by Sarah Shahi) try to prevent those because the government does not care about them.  The series has played out in a procedural format where each week this group gets a new “number” and they shadow that person to prevent the crime.  But there is also a background story arc about a secret cabal trying to take control of the machine, and this group eventually gets a machine of its own (Samaritan) that supplants Harold’s original computer.  At the end of the third season, the group had to go rogue and it looked like the show might be headed on a course change that would have it focus on more of its science fiction AI elements and less on the procedural routine.  But then this is network television, and they abhor change (thus the reason the Nielsens still lord over their renewal/cancellation decisions).  We still have the number-of-the-week stories, but the group tracks these down while maintaining their new cover identities (bringing it even closer to the superhero series format it has been toying with since it began).  We still get the occasional arc story episode that focuses on the AI concepts at the show’s core, but CBS has apparently set an allotment that only allows one of those per three or four procedural episodes.  And the number-of-the-week stories sometimes flirt with the moral ambiguities of the show’s pre-crime premise, but they almost always end up pulling their punches and resorting to a pat television wrap-up because network television prefers not to challenge its audience too much (meanwhile cable shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad continue to push the boundaries and top the audiences of many of the network shows).  I have been following Person of Interest since it started and have enjoyed it well enough, so I’m in for the long haul as long as it doesn’t jump the shark on me.  But I find myself regularly wishing they would take more chances with the procedural episodes and also delve more into the AI concepts.  But CBS is convinced that the CSI/NCIS format is the one its audience wants and won’t allow it dramas to veer to far beyond that (we saw a similar pattern with last year’s short-lived Intelligence which also pulled its punches and fell short of being great).  Person of Interest is still a decent show with good characters that we have become invested in.  But more often than not I feel rather unsatisfied by the episodes and wish this show (and the broadcast nets in general) would take the hint that audiences want more challenging programming and that watered down content is likely a significant factor in the ratings attrition those channels are experiencing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

TV Review: The Flash

Rating: 3 out of 5 Star (after three episodes)

Bottom Line: So far The Flash has delivered a straight-forward superhero romp with a dose of fun.

So last season on The CW’s Arrow we were introduced to Barry Allen who every good comic book fan watching knew would eventually become the superhero the Flash.  And now this Fall the network has spun the character off into that expected Flash series which expands upon the DC Universe that has already been building up on the parent series (but which has no connection to the Smallville version of the DC milieu that we previously saw on the same network).  In this series, Barry becomes the Flash in a similar manner to the comics which involves a lightning strike and spilled chemicals.  But they throw an interesting twist at us with the lightning linked to a super-collider malfunction which is also responsible for creating other super humans like the Flash.  So thus you get the title character as well as an instant rogue’s gallery of super villains, and perhaps some superheroes to partner with as well.  Then you have the STAR labs team who we responsible for the super-collider malfunction who are helping Barry get up to speed (sorry, couldn’t resist) with his new powers and to use them judiciously.  This series also gives us a welcomed call-out to the much-loved 1990 Flash TV series that aired for one season on CBS as that show’s star John Wesley Shipp is onboard to play Barry’s father (and I understand that Amanda Pays will be making an appearance as well).  There is a side story with the senior Allen that looks like it will carry through much of the season, which is good because I like have Shipp around.  And so far this show has avoided going dark like the DC live action adaptations typically do, which is a nice change of pace.  Plus, there is very little in the way of the soap opera side steps that derail Arrow from time to time.  I’m not too thrilled with what they are doing with Professor Xavier stand-in Harrison Wells (played by Tom Cavanaugh while channeling Jeff Goldblum) as that could likely lead to plenty of unnecessary, copy-and-paste angst-filled stories at some point.  But for the most part the show has been a fun watch and I will keep tuning in for now.  I wouldn’t rank it above the 1990 Flash series just yet, but it has a much lower camp quotient and could develop into a fun little show.

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 Audible.com (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.