Saturday, July 28, 2018

All Creatures Great and Small

All Creatures Great and Small
by James Herriot
Recommended Ages: 12+

This semi-fictional memoir recounts the early years of a young veterinarian's career in the Yorkshire Dales during the last 1930s. Almost from the moment Scottish city boy James Herriot, fresh out of veterinary school, arrives in the village of Darrowby, he feels blessed to be there, even while being called out at all hours of the night to treat afflicted cows, pigs and horses. He falls in with a colorful pair of veterinary brothers, notices a pretty farmer's daughter, and gets up to his shoulder in the body cavities of various animals, all (so far) before the introduction of medicines and techniques that really made a world of difference, and yet somehow without losing his pride and passion for the work.

Herriot experiences terrifying moments, hours of paralyzing suspense, incidents ranging from wistfully sad to breathtakingly tragic, and hilarious high jinks. He makes mistakes, gets into scrapes, witnesses the lives of people both admirable and pitiable, and earns the respect of almost everyone around him. He also bears witness to backward superstitions and the all but magical methods of treatment from a discredited, bygone age. And for the enjoyment of readers since a bit before I was born, he tells all of this with an ear for the way people talk, an eye for the scenery (not to mention a nose for the fell-top air), and a sensibility about people that is unsparing of their foibles, least of all his own, while at the same time understanding them with compassion and respect.

I enjoyed this book in the audio-CD format, read by Christopher Timothy, about whom I have only one critical comment: To my American ear, his voice sounded perfectly English, though I gather that the narrator may have had a certain Scottish lilt to his voice. At one point he even uses the word "bonny." Timothy deftly portrayed various other regional accents, including Yorkshire and Irish, so I'm sure it wasn't from a lack of ability that he overlooked the opportunity to entertain me with a touch of Scots. I should probably spare more of my grouchiness, though, for the library-borrowed CD set that unfailingly went all skippy and scratchy just during the most interesting parts.

The real James Herriot, unlike the Herriot depicted in this book, was in fact quite English, and his real name was J. Alfred Wight (1916-95). He wrote loads of books, mainly about animals and many of them in a form of autobiographical fiction about his career as a veterinarian. His most famous books are published in America as a trilogy beginning with this book and continuing with All Things Bright and Beautiful and All Things Wise and Wonderful, though this trilogy was originally six books, published in the U.K. as (deep breath) If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, Let Sleeping Vets Lie, Vet in Harness, Vets Might Fly and Vet in a Spin . Later, two more books were added to the series, published in both the U.S. and the U.K. as The Lord God Made Them All and Every Living Thing. His animal stories for children include, among other titles, Only One Woof and Oscar, Cat-About-Town.

Aliens in Disguise

Aliens in Disguise
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this third installment in the series that began with Aliens on Vacation, young David and Amy, the girl he would like to kiss, get the opportunity to prove that they are ready to run the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast without adult supervision. It happens when David's grandma (who runs the hostel for alien tourists) wins an award and gets swept off on an all-expenses-paid trip to a pleasure planet in another galaxy, and Amy's dad (the b&b's security chief) runs off to protect her and gets trapped on a all-species-welcome singles cruise. The kids would have everything under control, if it weren't for a class full of misbehaving alien brats, a group of artists who can't keep their rainbows contained, and a couple of earthlings who are determined to crack the secrets of the b&b.

Fans of the series will probably best remember this book as the one in which the kids and their extraterrestrial guests mount a daring rescue of one of their own by parading through town, pretending to be science-fiction fans disguised as aliens. But the disguise theme cuts the other way, as a loopy couple of UFO hunters tries to pass as Mr. and Mrs. E.T. and later, many of the characters attempt another costume act that you have to read to believe. The weirdness is funny and the humor is weird, and a bit of youthful romance makes a nice garnish to a very light but charming adventure in the often overlooked hospitality side of science fiction.

Besides this trilogy, which also includes Alien on the Rampage, Clete Barrett Smith is also the author of Magic Delivery (about a load of magical Halloween costumes that turn the wearers into whatever they are pretending to be) and Mr. 60% (about a high school drug dealer with a heart of gold). I'm reading the former right now. But I wouldn't mind seeing more books in this series, populated with goofy aliens, goofier humans and two very resourceful kids.


There was a moment during this movie when I realized that I was laughing in an inappropriate manner, in response to a stimulus that was no laughing matter. But I simply had to laugh, to let some of the strain off my nerves. If I were a nail biter, I might have emerged from this movie with one of my arms chewed off up to the elbow. I spent numerous minutes of this movie gripping parts of myself and of the furniture around me. If the theater (on the last, lightly attended showing of the movie before it left town) hadn't been almost empty, I probably would have gotten punched for grabbing somebody else. I also grimaced, groaned, squealed, partly covered my face and peeked between my fingers. Who wouldn't, during 102 minutes most of which, to my recollection, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson spent dangling in a variety of ways from a burning 200-story building while representatives of three organized crime syndicates fired automatic weapons at him from one direction and the Hong Kong police fired automatic weapons at him from the other. Also, his wife and two kids were in the building. Also, his boss was in there somewhere, feverishly working out how to avoid ending up like Mr. Takagi in Die Hard.

Also appearing in this movie are Neve Campbell of Scream fame, who gets to kick a little ass herself as the wife of Johnson's one-legged security consultant; Pablo Schreiber, half-brother of Liev, as the best friend who betrays Johnson and gets his right away at the beginning; Noah Taylor, who played Mr. Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as a (spoiler deleted) whose dying scream suggests an alternate method of chocolate making; Byron Mann, who played Yao Fei on Arrow, as a Hong Kong cop; and as the lead villain, an actor who actually has an extensive criminal record. Talk about casting true to type!

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Dude with one artificial leg climbs up the outside of a 100-story crane gantry, extends the crane toward the burning skyscraper, and (long story short) takes a running leap across the gap toward a broken window. OK? (2) Dude with one artificial leg sidles along the outside of a skyscraper, way about the 100th floor, with duct tape on his hands to help him stick to the glass, then jumps through the blades of a whirling dynamo, then jumps back out again as the motor explodes, then dangles by said artificial leg by a rope connected at the other end to an objet d'art positioned precariously across another broken window, then - you get the idea. The audience watching from the street below did not cringe more convincingly than I did, though they were better company than the almost empty theater around me. (3) That scene where the mom has to walk a wooden plank that barely spans a collapsed section of a bridge over a drop into 100 floors of raging inferno, then carry her kid back across, while The Rock strains to hold the bridge up by sheer cussedness. Don't talk to me about it. I don't think I can look at that scene again in my mind's eye, just yet.

So yes, it's an incredibly intense piece of action/suspense, and Johnson displays a considerable part of his acting range that I have not seen before - specifically, the part that refrains from quirking an eyebrow. The movie is very successful in conveying a convincing sense that its characters are in, on, and dangling outside of a 200-story burning building. And what a lovely building it is; it's a pity to see it reduced to ruin. It's even, in my opinion, a pity that it doesn't actually exist, ruined or otherwise.

I am so glad that I got to see a movie this weekend (well, Thursday) that wasn't either Momma Mia 2, Hotel Transylvania 3 or Mission Impossible 6(!!!). The very idea of MI6 just makes me sick; I still haven't gotten over the staggering injustice the first film in the series did to the TV show it is supposedly based on, and I cared less to see each installment since then, to the point where the amount I care has gone past zero and gone out the other side into the realm of a passionate, vehement "No!" The opportunity to see a trailer for the new "Fantastic Beasts" movie, due out in November, was a big treat, too. But Thursday night's trip to see a truly towering inferno restored, for the moment, my lately lukewarm enthusiasm for the movies.

Have It Your Way

The town where I now live is famous for having the worst McDonald's restaurant in the memory of anyone who has visited it. A few blocks down the street is a Burger King restaurant that, if you can conceive of it, had an even worse reputation before it was suddenly closed, renovated inside and out, and re-opened with an entirely different staff. I was impressed the first time I went into it, and I've "dined in" there approximately four times since it re-opened. Each time, however, I've been less impressed.

One of the first improvements I noticed, when the joint re-opened, was the option of ordering at one of two touch-screen kiosks. The first time I tried this, it was OK. The next time, I had some difficulty getting the touch-screen to respond to my touch. The last time, this problem persisted, plus the machine asked me to pay $107 and odd change for a budget meal deal of two sandwiches, a side and a drink.

I went to the counter with the cash registers to ask for help. Though several employees walked past on the other side of the counter, it took several minutes for a cashier to appear and offer to take my order.

We quickly determined that I was better off placing my order with him than using the machine. So, I decided to try ordering the same budget meal deal, which starts with two sandwiches out of a choice of three. For my first sandwich, I wanted a bacon cheeseburger. The kiosk offered me that option; the sign on the menu board above the counter offered me that option; but the cashier said the restaurant was no longer offering the bacon cheeseburger as part of that deal. I said, "Fine, I'll have the regular cheeseburger as my first sandwich."

Sandwich Two was a classic chicken sandwich; on the kiosk, I had tried to order that with tomato subbed in for the lettuce, but I decided not to press my luck with Mr. Friendly at the cash register. I then requested my preference for the side item, an order of onion rings. The cashier said the restaurant was out of onion rings. Biting off a suggestion involving the sliced onions they put on their sandwiches and the deep-oil fryers that lined the side wall of the kitchen, I just hoisted my hands in the air and said, with the broadest sarcasm ever achieved north of Iowa, "Well, isn't this visit just the greatest?" I decided at that moment to forgo the idea of ordering a dessert item.

I also had to visit the touch-screen drink kiosk, which teases you with the offer of dozens of different beverages. This time it worked OK (other than a bit of that same trouble with the touch screen not detecting my touch). On a previous visit, I couldn't get any of the flavors I was interested in because the machine had apparently run out of practically everything. Apparently the store's new management hasn't caught on to the need to re-order supplies once in a while.

Another thing I noticed was that the place hasn't seen anything like the huge crowd that showed up when the restaurant re-opened since, like, when the restaurant re-opened. Maybe I'm not the first person to notice that Burger King is trying to wrest the "worst restaurant service in town" award out of the grasp of the local McDonald's.

I frankly don't know whether the cashier was telling me the truth about the restaurant no longer honoring the promises on its menu; for all I know, he may have been a lazy git who just didn't want to do any more work than he had to when his boss wasn't looking over his shoulder. But he definitely gave me the impression that I was there for Burger King's enjoyment, rather than vice versa.

I came away from these past few trips to the local Burger King knowing three things: (1) The words "Have It Your Way" have lost all meaning; (2) Even with better-tasting food and a more attractive look, the spectacular feat of exhibiting worse management and poorer service than the miserable McDonald's two blocks away is totally achievable; and (3) Life being too short to waste time, money and digestive juices being insulted by people who don't even know their own business, I will probably be happier if I dine elsewhere from now on. I have no complaints about the town's Pizza Hut, Subway, A&W or Dairy Queen restaurants, to say nothing of all the locally owned places to eat. They wouldn't even have to try particularly hard to win my business. All they have to do is act like they kind of want it. As far as that goes, they can have it their way.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Kestrel

The Kestrel
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Westmark, the picaresque adventures of former printer's devil Theo and his rogues gallery of friends and enemies turns into a tale of war when the neighboring kingdom decides to invade. Theo, sent out by Westmark's king to take the temperature of the kingdom, gets caught behind enemy lines and forced to fight alongside anti-monarchist rebels Florian, Justin and friends. Meantime he is separated from the love of his life, a sometime beggar girl he knows as Mickle, but who has lately been revealed to be Princess Augusta. Soon enough, Princess becomes Queen and, after sneaking out of the royal palace, makes her way to the front and takes command of her country's retreating army.

Before the two young lovers meet again, Theo's belief that killing is wrong will be tested to the point that he becomes the Kestrel, a guerrilla warrior whose raids terrify the enemy. Also abroad in the theater of war are two innocent children, a consumptive cartoonist, a bombastic master of disguise and deception, a spoiled young king who hasn't learned to distinguish between toy soldiers and live ones, and various shades of bad guys ranging from blackest villainy to pale-gray treachery - from almost sympathetic figures who find themselves trapped by their own bad choices, to downright monsters who threaten the existence of everything good. There are deep conflicts between sympathetic characters. There are characters (Theo included) who struggle with their conscience. There are momentous conflicts affecting the future of entire nations. Yet through it all, the story encourages the reader to care most about whether young Theo and Mickle/Augusta will find each other, and whether the two waifs and their satirical protector will ditto.

There is a third book in this series, titled The Beggar Queen, which I have found it a little harder to come by than the first two. Be patient while I explore options other than the regional library system, which knows nothing about it. It's a shame that the drive toward holding only new and up-to-date titles is driving the all-but-classic works of storytellers like Lloyd Alexander off library shelves. Books like the Prydain Chronicles, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, The Fortune-Tellers, The Iron Ring, The Rope Trick and The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio have, I would think, a timeless place among the masterpieces of American-made children's literature. Also, I'm unnerved at the prospect of all the effort it will cost to get hold of the six-book "Vesper Holly" series, which I have yet to read. At least, thanks to the Internet, one no longer has to take one's chances at the local library.

Monday, July 9, 2018


by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

The Kingdom of Westmark is primed to explode. King Augustine, rendered senseless by grief since his daughter's mysterious demise six years ago, spends all his time searching for a spiritualist able to put him in touch with the late Princess Augusta. Effectively ruling the kingdom as his chief counselor is the villainous Cabbarus, who disposes of anyone who threatens his power without the inconvenience of a trial. The king's only faithful adviser, his personal physician, has been banished and, for good measure, followed to the docks by one of Cabbarus's hand-picked assassins. Cabbarus wants to be king in name as well as in effect, but a few persistent obstacles remain in his way. Meanwhile, a rebellion is stirring, led by a charismatic nobleman's son named Florian.

Unwillingly caught up in it all is a virtuous young printer's devil named Theo, who flees from an arrest warrant and takes refuge in the coach of a traveling mountebank named Count Las Bombas, his dwarf servant Musket, and a half-starved, sexless urchin named Mickle, who has a particular talent for throwing her voice. Together, in spite of the urgings of Theo's conscience, they set up a phony medium show where townspeople pay hand over fist to hear from their late loved ones. Inevitably, their success reaches the ears of Cabbarus, who forms a new plan to seize power around them. Hedged in on the other side by rebels who want to put to the test Theo's vow not to kill people, the gentle friends may have no choice but to take part in a brutal struggle for power.

This is a thin, quick-paced, warm-hearted example of a story shape Lloyd Alexander has written before: a road trip with tender romance, danger, intrigue, secret identities, and friendships unexpectedly growing up between straight-arrow types and people of questionable character. It features tests of courage, ethical conflicts, warring political philosophies, issues of civil rights and social justice, clear-cut villains and ambiguous heroes. It's an enjoyable book, maybe even a spiritually moving one. If it isn't, after all, much different from places Alexander has taken you before, take note: this book has a sequel. Two sequels, in fact: The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. I'm reading the former already, and I can categorically say that Westmark is worth the reading, at least to introduce you to an even bigger adventure to follow.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the fourth installment of "Alcatraz Versus," a boy who only recently traveled for the first time to the Free Kingdoms (the part of the world that isn't secretly ruled by Evil Librarians) unexpectedly becomes king, for a day or so, of an entire kingdom. Unfortunately, that kingdom is about to fall, and fall hard, unless Alcatraz Smedry can figure out a way to use the powers he is still struggling to understand, while also leading the defending forces of a city under siege.

Now, the first thing you have to understand is that the city's primary defense is a great big glass dome. All right? Next, wrap your brain around the fact that the army includes a bunch of giant, rock-throwing robot librarians. Here's a third thing: Alcatraz's mother, a devious Librarian herself, shows up just when the conflict is at its hottest. At a certain point, everyone tells Alcatraz that the Mokians must give up to survive. Only he knows a way to turn giving up into winning.

It's all part of the Smedry magic, which includes such goofy magical powers as breaking things, arriving late, getting lost and being bad at math. After only a few short months in command of his powers, Alcatraz has learned things about the Smedry talents that nobody has ever thought about before. But does he have time to learn things that his mom and dad know, either one of which could destroy the world he loves? That's the poser that keeps the pages turning, leading to what I reckon to be the most spectacular climax in the series so far. Meantime, as the fourth-wall-breaking narrator of his own story, Alcatraz continues to tease, play around, torture the reader, and guide him or her across new horizons of thought. Bonus credit goes to the reader who figures out what's up with the numbering of the chapters in this book.

Don't let the cornball comedy and light touch of youthful romance throw you off. Beneath the layers of mockery and unadulterated silliness, this book and the series it belongs to teem with legitimately brilliant fantasy conceits. I almost want to blurt out the phrase "world-building," although in a way, it takes place in part of our world. It just happens to be a previously unknown, secret, and stupendously weird part of our world. There are moments of truth and honesty in it that pop like a subcutaneous thermometer out of a store-bought turkey. (Practice food safety, folks.) For example, there's the scene in which the king of Mokia admits that grass huts aren't really more advanced than houses of wood, steel or brick. There's also a hint that, in spite of Alcatraz's continued development as a hero, there's a real chance that all will end in tragedy. Maybe that will happen in Book 5, The Dark Talent.

Do the Movies Have a Future?

Do the Movies Have a Future?
by David Denby
Recommended Ages: 13+

It seems weird to criticize a book of criticism, or review the work of a reviewer, but here goes. This slightly dated book (based on material written between the 1990s and about 2011) brings together some critical essays by a veteran New Yorker film critic who has seen a lot of movie history during his career, which (like my life) started in the early 1970s. He also studied film at a university level, which adds even more credibility to his opinion. And though there are some details on which, nevertheless, I am convinced he is full of it, his major argument comes across pretty solidly: the film business, as it has been operating during the last couple decades, is killing the movies.

That is to say, it is killing their ability to bring audiences together as a community, to communicate with them meaningfully, to create emotional experiences for them, to leave an impression on them that they will think about and talk about later, to tell stories and depict images that come to life in their imagination. The film business is doing this, he argues, by devoting all its large-scale investments to crappily made blockbuster franchise/genre flicks full of meaningless fantasy spectacle, investing only meager crumbs in a few "art-house" movies, and omitting the whole middle range of quality entertainment - including whole genres that are sadly fading away. The blockbusters bemuse the eye with movement and the ear with noise, while seldom showing anything real.

Denby reminds the reader that there are alternatives, selecting examples of his own previously published (and some unpublished) articles organized by director, genre, critics, and other issues. Yes, they're just movie reviews, and I've read a lot of them by other writers; but they're very thoughtful and thought-provoking ones. His appreciation of the film critic Pauline Kael was very personal and touching. His ditto of James Agee includes samples of super-intelligent prose, as well as a few tid-bits of awe-inspiring bitchiness. His review of a movie that I have never seen, and still may never see (I'm not sure I have the strength for it), actually made me cry. I kid you not. Also, I laughed out loud several times during this book. Did I mention it's a book of film criticism? Either there's something wrong with me, or David Denby has the stuff.

I thought he was wrong about a couple of movies. I agreed with his opinion about at least one film, but not with his reason for arriving at it. I thought his views about the work of at least one director, one film, and one whole school of film-making were half-baked. Criticism is, after all, opinion; everyone has one and is welcome to it. But in this book I also learned a lot about the history of film and how to watch them and evaluate them. Will I tell you which bits I most enjoyed learning about? No. You go ahead and read this book, or don't read it, and learn what you like. What I will say is that a writer who can express himself as well as Denby deserves some credit, a reasonable doubt at least, for having the ability to think clearly and, when he applies that ability to something worth thinking about, his opinion is worth reading. This book, for what its moment in film history is worth (and it's still recent enough to apply today, for the most part), is still out there, searching for readers who have the clarity of mind to consider Denby's opinion about the movie business - its past, present, and future. Perhaps by helping train those minds to see and understand what is and isn't happening on the silver screen, this book will affect the answer to the question opened by its title.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this third "Alcatraz vs." book, fantasy powerhouse Brandon Sanderson continues his conquest of children's literature by poking fourth-wall-breaking fun at even more writing cliches, while at the same time developing the strange fantasy world to which young Alcatraz Smedry belongs in more detail than ever. His arrival at Nalhalla, the capital of the Free Kingdoms, is heralded by an explosion that almost kills him. He finds the high king, who happens to be the father of his best friend Bastille, on the verge of signing a treaty with the nefarious Librarians and handing over the besieged, Pacific island kingdom of Mokia. To stop this disaster, he must avoid letting his first taste of being a celebrity swell his head too much. Then he has to find out what book in the Royal Archives (not a library!) the Librarians are after, and get it before they do.

He must do this in spite of the distraction of being in the same city as both his evil, Librarian mother and the father whom he just rescued from being a soulless wraith forever - and neither of them is a more affectionate parent than the other. Luckily, Alcatraz has some friends on his side, with such amazing magical powers as "being a really bad dancer." Also, he's in a city where glass-based technology allows people to disappear from one place and instantly appear on the other side of town, and where other forms of transportation include riding on a dragon who has been sentenced to community service and traveling via a giant glass pig which, embarrassingly enough, opens at the butt. This weird, hilarious adventure will end up hinging on one of the Smedry clan's prerogatives as the heirs of an abdicated royal house: you just try to guess which one. It'll make you laugh, though.

In spite of his credentials as the author of thick, serious fantasy novels, Sanderson has also proven himself many times to have a handle on all the things that make for a quirky, funny, exciting adventure for kids, laced with smart in-jokes and sass. For more examples of this side of his work, please see The Rithmatist, the Steelheart trilogy, and the series of books starting with The Alloy of Law that feature an unforgettable character named Wayne. Then grow to realize that his Alcatraz side is even present in such fantasy powerhouse novels as Elantris and Mistborn.

Supergirl, Season 2

The second season of the CW's Supergirl series stumbles almost immediately by getting rid of Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) as a regular character. It goes part of the way toward redeeming this questionable decision by introducing two entertaining new characters: hard-bitten but honorable Catco Media editor Snapper Carr (played by Ian Gomez, the real-life bridegroom of the bride in My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and galactic ne'er-do-well Mon-El of Daxam (played by Chris Wood, a veteran of three previous CW series). The former guides Kara Zor-El a.k.a. Danvers firmly onto the path of a journalist - and it's about time she decided what she was going to be when she grew up. The latter provides the romantic foil the superheroine has needed since the beginning of the series, and succeeds so well that his departure at the end of the season-long serialized plotline is really emotionally devastating. I don't mean to sound breathless about it, but Wood's portrayal of Mon-El fills in a lot of voids in the series that one felt during Season 1, and went beyond that to be perhaps the most entertaining single character in any of the three DC/CW series I have binged on recently. He brings such a delightful sense of mischief, fun, and the joy of living to a show that unfortunately, at times, seems too serious to be taken seriously.

On the downside, this season also expends a phenomenal amount of playing time on the frankly boring lesbian romance/coming out drama of Kara's human foster-sister Alex, who by very tentative degrees hooks up with a gay cop who - forgive me if I sound like Alex's dad here - doesn't seem good enough for her. Apparently this was a very big socio-political moment, with everyone in Alex's life being so gosh-darn happy for her/proud of her, as though deciding to date a chick was a big accomplishment. As the season progressed, I became increasingly convinced that the writers and producers were out of touch with the quality of the work they were producing. One tunes into a series about the adventures of a superhero, or team of superheroes, to see adventures of a superhero or team of superheroes. One therefore feels a bit cheated when 15 minutes on the hour is levied for installments in an after-school special about female gay relationships among non-superpowered people who aren't really doing anything interesting. Every time one of these scenes started up, I groaned and said aloud something like, "Aw, not this boring crap again!"

Did I complain that there wasn't enough romance in Season 1? Yes. But it was Kara who wasn't getting any. That situation did improve in Season 2; in fact, her romance with Mon-El was very romantic. But all the superpowered fun, this season, had a tendency to come to a standstill and yield the screen for minute after tedious minute to the practically irrelevant (for main plot-line purposes) family melodrama/sexual intrigue between a second-string character and a minor recurring guest, each of whom was more interesting to watch when they were participating in the main action of the series. It was like watching canonical characters playing out snippets of slash fan-fiction, only with the additional discouragement of knowing that it was apparently being forced on us for our edification. Well, I for one think the importance of these scenes' message has been vastly over-inflated and that TV history will remember them as scenes that could have been left on the cutting-room floor without detriment to the episodes they are in.

This season also gives Kara a new best friend, Lena Luthor - yes, that's Lex's sister - replacing tech magnate Maxwell Lord, who mysteriously vanished between Seasons 1 and 2. Lena's mother (played by Brenda Strong of Starship Troopers) turns out to be the leader of an anti-alien terrorist group called Cadmus, which becomes one of the two main threats to Kara, her "super-friends" and the DEO this year. The other threat is Mon-El's parents, played by Kevin Sorbo (star of TV's Hercules and Andromeda) and Teri Hatcher (the better half of Lois and Clark) - particularly mom Rhea, who refuses to take "buzz off" for an answer, tries to force Mon-El to marry Lena Luthor, and just about conquers Earth to replace their home planet, which was also wiped out when Krypton exploded. Luckily, Daxamites - though almost as super as Kryptonians - have a weakness that is cheaper to come by than kryptonite. Unluckily, it means that the season ends (sorry about the spoiler) with Kara and Mon-El no longer able to be together. Still, the closing scenes of the season finale suggest something interesting remains in store for the entertaining Mon-El.

In terms of stunt casting, this season isn't far behind Season 1. Besides the guest stars I've already mentioned are Lynda Carter (the late 1970s' Wonder Woman) as the president of the U.S., Tyler Hoechlin of TV's Teen Wolf as Kal-El/Superman, Peter Gadiot of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland as the impish Mxyzptlk, and William Mapother of Lost as the environmentalist wacko who gets taken over by a prehistoric parasite. Also fun to watch is the developing relationship between J'onn J'onzz, the last "green Martian," and a female Martian named M'gann M'orzz.

Three Things That Made It For Me: (1) Battle Superman vs. Supergirl (toward the end of the season), (2) James Olsen and Winn Schott's tandem transformation into technology-assisted crime-fighters "Guardian" and "Man in the Van," and (3) the return of Cat Grant (also toward the end of the season). If I can expand my list to five things, I would add (4) Mon-El's fun-loving outlook on life, and the fun his attitude brings to the central circle of characters; and (5) the whole conflict with Rhea of Daxam, which brings the season to its climax. But I don't think this season deserves a special dispensation to receive bonus Things That Made It For Me, because of the things that un-made it for me - most notably, the boring soap-opera scenes, relevant to second- or third-string characters with no superpowers, without which this volume of Supergirl would have been just as super, perhaps more so.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Supergirl, Season 1

My season-by-season DVD binge of CW series based on DC Comics characters continues with this part of a box-set of Seasons 1 and 2 of Supergirl that I came across recently. The show features Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Kara Danvers, a cousin of Kal-El/Clark Kent who also escaped the planet Krypton moments before it blew up. Kara, then 12 or 13 years old, was supposed to look out for baby Kal, but her pod got stuck in the Phantom Zone (where time is meaningless) and didn't make it to earth until 24 years later, by which time Kal was already Superman. So, she had to finish growing up in the care of the Danvers family, and as a young 20-something finds her way to National City (somewhere around Houston, I think) and becomes the perky, bespectacled executive assistant to "media queen" Cat Grant.

All this, so far, is explained in about the first five minutes of the pilot episode, with Kara providing a narrative voice-over supported by flashback imagery. As far as superhero origins/exposition goes, it feels pretty rushed. But this leaves us the rest of the first hour of the series to build up to the moment when Kara "comes out" as Supergirl – saving a plummeting airplane on which her foster-sister Alex is a passenger. Alex is soon revealed to be an agent of the DEO, the Department of Extranormal Operations, a covert government agency devoted to protecting the country from aliens. It turns out that Kara wasn't the only one who found a way out of the Phantom Zone 12 years ago; an alien prison named Fort Rozz came with her, crash-landing in the Nevada desert and spilling out a load of super-powered bad guys and gals. Among them are Kara's own Aunt Astra, twin sister to the Kara's mother, who put her and many of the other inmates away; Uncle Non, a next-level-up villain as evidenced by his British accent; and quite a few other weirdos who soon put Kara's developing powers to the test. By day, she runs to fetch Cat Grant's coffee; after hours, and increasingly often during unscheduled breaks during the work day, she hunts alien baddies as a DEO operative.

The cast is pretty good. Melissa Benoist is becoming a star, playing the beautiful and vivacious Kara/Supergirl. Calista Flockhart, who made the big time as "Ally McBeal," plays Cat Grant with a delicious touch of The Devil Wears Prada. There's also a tall, strapping, black Jimmy (I mean James) Olsen, moving over from Metropolis to watch over his super-bud's cousin – though, I'm sorry to say, the ongoing tease of a romance between him and Kara never comes to anything; a short, funny-looking, techie sidekick named Winn Schott, who immediately struck me as the Supergirl universe's answer to The Flash's Cisco Ramon (only with Anglo-Saxon roots and a serial killer for a dad); a certain Lucy Lane, kid sister to Lois, who at different times serves as Cat's legal counsel, as a stooge to her xenophobic general father, and as the director of the DEO; while the guy who normally plays that role is revealed to be a shape-changing, mind-reading Martian Manhunter named J'onn J'onzz (John Jones?).

One of the "Three Things That Make It For Me" in this season is the stunt casting of various guest roles, including living references to other fantasy/comic book classics. Playing the earthling couple who raised Kara after her crash-landing are Helen Slater, who played Supergirl in a 1984 movie, and Dean Cain, who played Superman in Lois and Clark. Playing semi-villainous tech mogul Maxwell Lord is Peter Facinelli, who led the Cullen clan of vampires in the Twilight movies. Jenna Dewan-Tatum, here playing Lucy Lane, has starred on American Horror Story and Witches of East End. Glenn Morshower, who plays General Lane, has made lots of guest appearances on Star Trek, appeared in X-men and Transformers movies, and is best known as the sheriff on the original CSI. There's a colonel in a few episodes played by Eddie McClintock of Warehouse 13. Playing one of Cat Grant's two sons is Levi Miller, who was Calvin in the recent A Wrinkle in Time movie. And Laura Vandervoort, who plays the villainess Indigo/Brainiac 8, played Kara Zor-El/Supergirl herself on Smallville.

The second Thing etc. is practically every line that comes out of Calista Flockhart's mouth, including (roughly quoted): "I'm a writer. It's like riding a bicycle and severe childhood trauma; you never really lose it." And then there's the time she tells a group of young adults that they look like the attractive but unthreatening, racially diverse cast of a CW series. If I didn't spew a mouthful of soda when I heard this line, it was only because I was between sips. Thing No. 3: The crossover episode with The Flash, which not only filled in something I was missing from watching the corresponding season of that show, but was also pretty darn fun.

Overall, maybe it's a sad reflection on the season's quality that a crossover episode was one of its high points. Themes of distrust vs. acceptance of aliens, saving the planet from human-driven climate change, and girl power were handled with an obviousness that sometimes crossed the boundary into shrillness. With a wealth of opportunities for superhero-vs.-supervillain action, it's a telling fact that the most dynamic character was a non-powered media executive, followed in descending order by a recurring (not regular) inventor/tech magnate, a shock jock who becomes electricity personified, a blue-skinned cyber-villain, a crazy auntie with a skunk stripe in her hair, and either of Cat Grant's sons, each of whom in his own way (depending on his age) crushes on either Supergirl or Kara.

It's a pity most of those characters weren't developed further, and that any hint of romance involving Kara didn't get past being lightly teased before she killed it for totally implausible reasons. Maybe I didn't notice it when the same thing happened in Arrow or The Flash, but this series devotes an awful lot of screen time to talky hand-wringing about whether the superhero(ine) should or shouldn't. And other than Supergirl's skirted costume looking rather fetching on Melissa Benoist, the sex-appeal quotient seems to be a bit lower than in the other ongoing DC series. I'm not saying it wasn't fun; for the reasons I mentioned above, and more, it was a gas. But what I'm saying is, it could have been a much more volatile gas.