Wednesday, December 26, 2018

DVD Reviews: More TV Seasons

The Flash, Season 4: During a time-travel episode in a previous season, when Barry "The Flash" Allen travels to a possible future to learn what it will take to stop that season's recurring villain, there is a throwaway line about a gadget Team Flash would use (sometime between that future and then-present-Barry's then-present) - oh, I give up. Time travel gives me a headache. Let's just say, there's been a hint before that an upcoming villain would be named DeVoe. This is the season in which he comes up. As Season 3 ended, Barry sacrificed himself to the Speed Force to save the planet. Team Flash has been trying to get by without him, led by Iris West, who has found a new purpose in life while still hoping to get Barry back. They still have a speedster (Kid Flash, remember?) and a little help from such meta-human teammates as Vibe. But when a new meta-threat rolls into town, it becomes apparent that they can't do without Barry. So, they work out a way to bring him back, and bring him back they do. Unfortunately, something about the way he comes back sets off a new epidemic of meta-powers, focusing on the passengers of a certain bus that Barry buzzed during his re-entry.

One by one, these newly powered people emerge in Central City, and one by one, they disappear again, taken by the nefarious DeVoe - who, to the outside world, seems to be a really nice, wheelchair-bound professor. Barry/The Flash actually comes out looking pretty bad when he tries to fight DeVoe, but his conviction and imprisonment are all just a part of that criminal genius' plot to take over the world. First, however, he needs to absorb a bunch of heroes' superpowers - and the way he does that is fatal for each person he takes over. One of the people in his way - perhaps the key person, whose meta-powers will make DeVoe unstoppable - is a seedy ex-cop turned private detective who, during this season, becomes an unexpectedly beloved member of Team Flash. He grows from being a minor irritant to an indispensable member of the family, which just adds to the emotional stakes of the season's climactic battle with DeVoe. Meantime, there's also a subplot involving a meta-human woman named Amunet who is making her fortune in meta-human trafficking, and another involving Harry gradually losing his intelligence, and love and marriage and baby-making and so forth. All kinds of fun!

"Three Scenes That Made It For Me" here would usually include in-jokes and casting stunts, but I let this review "pend" for too long, so I don't remember the season in that kind of detail. In retrospect, I think some of my favorite moments were (1) any of the goofball scenes featuring the Council of Wells, doppelgangers of Harrison Wells from various parallel earths; (2) the episode in which Barry uses "Flashtime" to freeze a nuclear bomb at the moment of detonation, in hope of finding a way to neutralize it before it destroys Central City; (3) any time Danny Trejo appears as Breacher, the dimension-hopping bounty hunter father of Cisco's main squeeze.

Episodes that did nothing for me, however, include the inevitable crossover episode with other DC series (Supergirl, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow), of which only the installment that aired on The Flash made it into the DVD box set – the kind of shenanigans that, in past seasons too, has allowed major developments in series continuity to take place outside the series, and forces anyone wanting to catch up on the storyline to invest in DVDs of the relevant seasons of four different TV series. In short, it's complete crap.

MacGyver, Season 1: After seeing some of the recent reboots of classic TV shows of the 1970s and -80s, I've noticed a recurring issue of which this series (2016 ff.) is a prime example. The original MacGyver, which aired from 1985 to 1992, featured comic tough-guy Richard Dean Anderson as a man of action who never touches a gun, but can "macgyver" his way out of anything through amazing feats of science and practical know-how. While there were several recurring characters, the show basically featured MacGyver going out on his own and getting stuff done, with only one regularly appearing co-worker, Pete Thornton of the Phoenix Foundation. In the new series, MacGyver (played by the absurdly handsome Lucas Till) is surrounded by an ensemble of regular characters, including some based on recurring characters from the past. In my opinion, the amount of time invested in developing all these characters, and allowing them to do hero stuff, takes away from the stories about MacGyver achieving feats of macgyverness. As a result, he only gets to macgyver something about once or twice per episode, and the time he spends making character-developing patter with the rest of the ensemble often leaves very little time for him to engage with the situation at hand. To be blunt, I like the solo MacGyver better than the ensemble one.

Nevertheless, in Season 1 of the reboot, the new, stupidly good-looking, ensemble-cast MacGyver delivers at least three things that made it for me: (1) the whole "protecting a witness from assassins on a runaway train" episode; (2) Team Mac competes with a family of bounty hunters to catch a dangerous bad-guy; and (3) the team gets burned during a covert trip to the Netherlands.

Star Trek: Discovery, Season 1: The first issue I have with this CBS prequel/spinoff of Star Trek is that you can't actually watch it on TV unless you have a subscription to CBS All Access – and, I mean to say, who does? – or Netflix, which, alas, I don't. But right now, I can't even afford to have cable TV or home internet, which is one of the reasons it takes me so long to catch up on my movie, TV and book reviews these days. So, I had to wait for this season to come out on DVD; after that, all was well. Second problem: The artistic redesign of the entire format of this series, with special emphasis on the Klingons (featured so heavily that they are, in fact, the first characters you see at the beginning of the first episode). Personally, I find the redesign to be so radical that it borders on effrontery. I mean, it's one thing to make respectful improvements, and another thing to send a visual message that you don't respect your source material or its fans. Third problem: The unrelenting darkness and pessimism that dominate the background of this entire season of television, to the extent of seeming to contradict the fundamentally optimistic spirit of Gene Roddenberry's creation. If your lips just parted to register a counter-argument, shut them. This series sins against the very root of what Star Trek is. Fourth problem: The fact that this series takes itself so damn seriously that it hardly ever cracks a smile, let alone laughs. When it does, or even when it inadvertently gives the viewer an opening to do so for himself, the release of pent-up tension is so great that it may lead one to realize what an almost abusive hold the dramatic arc has exerted on one. Sixth problem (Will I go on? Yes): The visual style of this season is dominated by unmotivated camera movement, with a heaping helping of gratuitous lens flares on the side. Both are symptomatic of a style over substance approach to filmmaking, and the former (at least) denies the actors the opportunity to use their talents to sell the drama. Flamboyance for its own sake – bad. Finally, because I want to get down to details and not because there are no eighth, ninth or umpteenth problem with this season – Seventh Problem: Serialized storytelling taken to such an extreme that one loses track of what happened in which episode. As the "episodes that made it for me" bit will show, the exceptions are where my favorite moments in the season take place. I think this shows that the discipline of having to fit a story into a single, hour-long episode is good for a TV writer. Also, there comes a certain point in a certain arc of episodes this season when a reasonable person, e.g. Yours Truly, is compelled to scream, "How long is this outfit going to be stuck in the Mirror Universe?!"

For those of you joining the Star Trek universe late, Discovery is an exciting development for Trekkers because it represents the first fresh direction the franchise has taken in, like, a dozen years. Its main cast is, if you count the failed original pilot back in the mid-1960s, the eighth crew to headline a Star Trek entertainment spectacle – what with original Trek, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and the alternate-timeline-original-series-reboot movie series. It follows not the captain of the ship, but a crew member – a human woman named Michael Burnham who was raised by Vulcans and made it to first officer of a Starfleet ship before being busted down to nobody after committing an unprecedented act of mutiny. For some reason, which gradually becomes a matter of considerable importance, Burnham attracts the interest of a starship captain named Gabriel Lorca (played by Jason Isaacs of "Lucius Malfoy" fame), who is considered to be something of a monster by some of his own officers, and he recruits her to serve as a science specialist on a top-secret mission to exploit a truly bizarre, new form of propulsion in a war against the Klingons. Their shipmates include Engineer Paul Stamets, who is really more of a specialist in a network of fungal spores that reaches across the cosmos; First Officer Saru, a Kelpien, whose species plays the role of prey in his homeworld's food chain; a security officer named Ash Tyler, whose first appearance as a regular character is timed in such a way that an alert viewer may suspect something about his true identity – only to be surprised to learn later that his secret isn't the only one of its kind on board. There's also a cadet named Tilly, who seems to be there mostly as comic relief but isn't; a ship's doctor named Culber, a gay love interest for Stamets whose not being listed in the main credits is surprising until it isn't; the captain from Burnham's previous ship (played by Michelle Yeoh), who doesn't let being killed in the second episode stop her from popping up later in the season; the irrepressible Harcourt Fenton Mudd, played by comic genius Rainn Wilson in two of this season's episodes; and Sarek, the father of Spock, who turns out also to be Burnham's foster father and is played by James Frain.

Three things that made it for me: (1) The episode in which Sarek is wounded by a terrorist's bomb and Burnham has to use her psychic link with him to help him help himself. (2) The one in which Mudd uses a time gizmo to make the same hour or so repeat over and over until he can figure out a way to take over the ship, and because of Stamets' connection with the mycelial network, babble babble babble, yadda yadda, etc., and Tyler ends up kissing Burnham, so everyone goes Awwww. (3) Tilly, impersonating her mirror-universe doppelganger "Killy," tries to act tough in a video call to an officer on a Terran Empire ship(!). That was one of those comic relief moments that made this season just bearable to watch. Overall, however, it wasn't so unbearable that I'm not willing to give Season 2 a chance to show me how much this series can improve. When it comes out on DVD, then!

S.W.A.T. (Season 1) is a reboot/remake of a TV series that lasted two seasons (1975-76) and starred Steve Forest as "Hondo" and Robert Urich as Jim Street. The pair were also played by Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell in a 2003 movie. In the current series, they are played by Shemar Moore, late of "Criminal Minds," and Australian actor Alex Russell. It's a cool series, and even though I was about 3 years old when the original show aired, hearing that theme music was a neat blast from the past. Basically, your SWAT team ("special weapons and tactics") is the brute-force squad that goes out to control crowds before they become riots, to bust down doors, respond to hostage situations, take down dangerous suspects, etc. The original S.W.A.T. was apparently so violent that the Los Angeles Police Department complained about it. The current series hasn't softened it much, in spite of depicting to some degree the domestic side of the lives of supporting characters "Deacon" (the married guy), Alonso (the girl guy), Luca (the third-generation SWAT guy), Tan (the Asian guy) and their commanding officer, Capt. Jessica Cortez (all girl, this one). Against a background of family drama, personal tragedy, office politics and whatnot, they basically go out and kick ass without bothering to take names, because hey, they're not detectives. And yet sometimes, they also solve crimes. They're funny that way. But they also bust some heads, and when bombs go off, you sometimes see body parts flying in various directions (an image you definitely won't forget).

Three things that made it for me: (1) The episode in which Deacon's wife has a stroke while visiting SWAT headquarters, and it's actually the antagonistic boss (the guy above Cortez in the chain of command) who saves her life – one of the series' rare "shades of gray" moments. (2) The one where Hondo and Deacon rush out to the backwoods to protect Deac's former partner from a killer bike gang, only to find out he's gone over to their side and now he has to kill them. (3) The one where the team has to protect a Russian journalist from an assassination plot while she's meeting with a confidential source in L.A.

There are also some things that un-made it for me. I totally didn't care for the whole story arc in which Street runs around and lies to his team while taking care of his manipulative mother, both before and after she gets paroled from her prison sentence for murdering Street's father. Also, there's a city councilman played by Peter Facinelli, who also played a recurring character on Supergirl; in both roles, I felt his potential to be a truly obnoxious villain was not properly developed. I guess we'll see what happens in Season 2.

The Good Doctor (Season 1) is a remake of a Korean TV series about a high-functioning autistic who becomes a surgical resident. In the present series, he joins a team of residents at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital, supervised by a wunderkind of a more mainstream kind who doesn't believe the kid has any business operating on people, but who is slowly won over by Dr. Shaun Murphy's surgical brilliance. Less easily convinced is the Chief of Surgery, played by Hill Harper of CSI: NY, while the hospital's president, played by Richard Schiff of The West Wing, has staked his career on Shaun's success, having known him since he was 14 years old. However, Dr. Glassman also believes Shaun needs more help coping with tasks of daily living, which creates conflict between them – including one shocking scene in which Shaun strikes Glassman in the face during a hysterical fit. The series does an interesting job of balancing medical mysteries and stories about medical ethics with an attempt to portray the challenging ways in which Shaun's perceptions differ from everybody else's around him. There's an episode in which he has to treat an autistic patient, and finds it uncomfortable. There's one in which the patient is the spitting image of Shaun's brother, who died shortly after they ran away from home, around the time Glassman met him. There's an episode in which he plays hooky, trying to work his way up to asking the girl in the apartment next door on a date, though his love is destined to prove one-sided. There's one, maybe more than one, in which Shaun's behavior upsets the families of his patients, but they later learn to be grateful for his talents. And then, there are also side-adventures for his fellow residents, the studly Dr. Jared Kalu and the nice girl Dr. Claire Brown.

It's all very interesting, but the real reason I have watched this season all the way through, not once but twice, boils down to three things that made it for me: (1) The heartbreaking scene at the end of the episode featuring the late Steve Murphy's doomed doppelganger, in which Shaun asks the dying boy to listen to him read aloud the end of the book he had not quite finished reading with the real Steve when his brother died. At the end you know what the bemused kid in the hospital bed cannot possibly understand – that simply by lying there and listening, he helped Shaun let go of Steve. (2) The "flirting trifecta" plot line, in which Shaun attempts to understand other peoples' mating rituals. (3) The very last exchange of dialogue in the season, in which Shawn and Glassman are about to face the music for a mistake Shaun made. I don't want to blow it for you, but the emotional power of that scene was stupendous, all as a result of good preparation and top-quality writing.

The Orville, Season 1: I concur with a video that I recently watched on YouTube, which comments that the best Star Trek movie that isn't actually Star Trek is Galaxy Quest. In a similar vein, the best Star Trek series that isn't actually Star Trek is The Orville – which started the same year as Star Trek: Discovery and, one could argue, is the more faithful TV Trek reboot of the two. Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane, it's an awkward comedy that bases a lot of its humor on the general idea of ripping the average young adult of today off of the couch in his mother's downstairs game room and plopping him onto the bridge of a 25th-century starship. Multiply that by pretty much everybody on the ship, and squirm-inducing hilarity ensues. But also, some genuinely interesting science fiction happens, such as the one in which – well, let's not steal our own thunder. Joining MacFarlane's character, Capt. Ed Mercer, on the ship are First Officer Kelly Grayson, who happens to be his ex-wife; the ship's doctor, played by Penny Johnson Jerald who became the captain's wife at the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and who has two sons on board, neither of whom shows any signs of being likely to grow up into Wesley Crusher; a helmsman who only has the job because he's Mercer's best friend, a complete slob; a second officer who comes from a male-only race, cue all kinds of uncomfortable jokes; a girlish-looking security chief who comes from a heavy-gravity planet, with the result that she gets all the jobs for which the standard command phrase is "Open this jar of pickles for me"; a navigator, later chief engineer, who long concealed his genius-level intellect in order to get along socially; an android from a race of artificial life-forms who all consider themselves superior to organics; and a gelatinous blob who works in engineering (voiced by comedian Norm Macdonald).

It's worth noting that about half of the episodes this season were actually written by MacFarlane. Other writers included Star Trek alumni Brannon Braga and Andre Bormanis, and directors included Braga, sometime Trek director James L. Conway and Trek cast members Jonathan Frakes and Robert Duncan McNeill. The pilot episode was directed by feature film actor/director Jon Favreau (Rudy, Zathura, Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens).

Three things that made it for me: Besides the comedy and the sense that this series depicts people as they actually are, not as Gene Roddenberry would like to dream of them becoming, and the many casting stunts, including guest appearances by Victor Garber, Jeffrey Tambor, Rob Lowe, Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron, and other familiar faces, I liked: (1) The episode in which LaMarr (the navigator) gets tried in the court of public opinion for making lewd gestures toward a revered monument. His bad luck: The planet where this happens, truth is determined by a real-time democratic process of "up" and "down" votes in a round-the-clock social media dog and pony show. (2) The episode in which the crew risks being squished to death by traveling through a tunnel in two-dimensional space. (3) The one in which Kelly inadvertently sparks a new religion on a world that periodically phases into another dimension, advancing 700 years in 11 days before reappearing for only a few hours. The crew gets to see the impact of one small mistake develop over long periods of time – and the solution to the problem is really nifty.

I've given most of these shows a fair chance. Some of them, I have watched through twice. Most of them, I would gladly see another season. I must add that, in general, watching TV shows on DVD is a wonderful alternative to the old-school method of waiting until next week (and sometimes longer) to find out what happens next, and being forced to sit through commercials as opposed to being able to take a break any time you want.

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