88 China Beach Series Podcast with Brad Dukes

88 PodcastFor episode 88 we go back to 1988 to cover the complete series of China Beach with guest Brad Dukes. We talk about the amazing time shift in season 4, Dana Delany’s character McMurphy and the pitfalls of Season 3. We also compare Nurse McMurphy to Don Draper from Mad Men.  We don’t spoil any plot points so for those of you who have never watched this show, you can listen to our pitch about why you should seek this show out.  Brad interviewed some of the executives from ABC while he was researching for his wonderful book he wrote on Twin Peaks: Reflections.

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Better Call Saul: A Quality Study

I scoffed when I heard they were doing a spin-off from Breaking Bad about the slimy lawyer Saul.  I thought just let it go.  But after I watched the pilot to Better Call Saul, I thought maybe I was wrong.  The quality in the pilot episode is astounding.  The reason it is so amazing is a simple thing called Time.  The pilot takes it’s time.  The opening 5 minutes a black and white montage with no dialogue is the perfect coda to Breaking Bad.  It is followed up by 55 minutes of pure confidence.  What I hate most about pilots is they try to tell us everything in an hour.  This show left many questions open for us.  By the end of the hour his name isn’t even Saul yet.  I like the time and patience of they took in this pilot.  Most of that comes with the knowledge that AMC would have green lit anything Vince Gilligan presented to them.  Vince Gilligan is the best working director on TV right now.  He has the prowess and gravitas of a Quentin Tarantino.  There is no doubt he has a vision.  His use of focus and blocking was amazing for television. I could have turned off the sound and just watched the pictures he shot and been happy.  I miss how TV used to be about directing in the 1990’s.  For the most part that has been replaced with quick cuts and montages.  I must admit the story for the pilot was predictable, but that is what comes with starting a show with an already known character.  If all of a sudden the rules changed, that would be bad.

My long term question is where are the female characters?  Part of what made Breaking Bad work was how every male had a female to go up against.  It was why everyone hated Skyler White and Marie Schrader.  I am hoping we get a slimy female to match our slimy Bob Odenkirk.  And as of the second episode, which aired 24 hours later, we still don’t really see one.  In fact, in the two episodes, I am fairly certain a female has not a plot moving line of dialogue, in English.  Both episodes did have mysterious women in the background (maybe the same one) as if to tell us, they are coming.  I am sure one is, but she should show herself in episode 3.

Before I move on to episode 2, let me just throw a thought out there.  The person who really has to be shaking his head with this pilot is poor Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men.  Oh, how he will long to be the golden boy of television like he was 6 years ago.  Now his Mad Men has to follow this show to finish up.  I actually laughed out loud when I saw a promo for the final episodes during Better Call Saul.  Let this be a lesson to every producer who comes back for the money season and then stays another season after that season, because it will be open season on you when you do.  (I apologize to my English teacher for that sentence, but not to Matt.  I will enjoy watching Mad Men limp off the television stage.)

24 hours after a masterfully directed episode aired, they air episode 2.  The quality just wasn’t there.  Most pilots set up a directing tone and it is followed through out the series.  In Episode 2, they went with jump cuts, just like we see on every other show, and they didn’t do any of the off focus shots that filled the pilot.  They went to straight head shots, just like we see on every other show.  They also made a mistake.  I hate mistakes in television.  And from Breaking Bad, we really don’t expect mistakes.  When Saul was at Chuck’s house he said he takes his coffee with milk.  They said this just so we could be reminded that Chuck doesn’t have a fridge.  Then they immediately followed with a 5 minute music montage, just like every other show does, showing him ordering black coffee at least 20 times.  A small detail, but we have been trained to expect that everything is in the details.  I was not happy to see something like this slip by.  Mostly because how he takes his coffee is irrelevant, so why do the set up?

I think AMC, should have let a week pass before making us compare the pilot with episode 2.  It was just television in episode 2 and I was so longing for something more, something confident.  I am wondering if this will be a bit like Twin Peaks.  The episodes that everyone loved were the ones directed by David Lynch.   You needed Lynch’s touch to truly make it Twin Peaks.  You might just need Vince to be the director to keep it going.  I truly missed Vince’s directing in episode 2 and without it, it was just a fine hour of television.  I will be glad to wait a week to let the dust settle and reserve my overall opinion of the show after a few more episodes air.  I am not scoffing, but I am not busting out the Chrystal Meth yet, if you know what I mean.

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87 Parks and Rec, Parenthood, Boyhood and more

87 Podcast

For episode 87 we discuss a bunch of shows for 5 minutes at a time. We also discuss where the quality is: Movies or Television. The movie Boyhood is compared to the series Parenthood.   We start off with the way NBC is sending off the wonderful series, Parks and Rec.  Other shows discussed are: Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Downton Abbey and Ray Donovan.  For those Twin Peaks fans, hang around till the end of the podcast when Scott and Josh talk about what their In-Laws thought of the pilot of Twin Peaks.  It is a hilarious review.

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Amazon Streaming Presents: THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

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I’d been hearing quite a bit about this P.K. Dick adaptation, produced by Ridley Scott – not all of it good, so I decided to check it out for myself last night. Now – I’ve read a small handful of Dick’s stories, and I have great admiration for the man. His concepts are often complex and difficult to follow, but the man was undoubtedly a deep thinker and obsessed with humanity as a species from a sociological, ideological, and even metaphysical perspective as well as the individual concepts of identity, destiny, and fate. That’s quite an undertaking, and his results vary wildly, and are endlessly debated among fans of his work. His book THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is not one that I have read, so I went into the episode with zero preconceptions other than those which I derived from the various internet musings that I’d perused.
TMitHC is part of Amazon.com’s Instant streaming “Pilot Season”, where they present a grab-bag of commissioned “pilots” to be evaluated as candidates for a full series. This is the first time that I’ve viewed one of their pilots, although I believe that their Pilot Season is now in its third year. Amazon’s streaming service has always been considered by most to be a pale imitator of Netflix with a greatly reduced offering of titles. While that was certainly true in the past, and the service is most certainly still treading in the footsteps of Netflix, Amazon has come some distance in distinguishing themselves as an alternative to other streaming services; and while they have yet to develop their own series that has been as successful as Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS (soon releasing its third season on the service), allowing subscribers to “vote” on their favorite(s) of thirteen pilots seems like a effective path to developing that key successful series that has thusfar eluded them.
The concept in a nutshell is this: *What if* the axis powers had actually won World War II and had conquered the United States? I say “axis powers”, but apparently Italy didn’t draw enough water to warrant a piece of the good ol’ US of A. Most of the nation is controlled by the Nazis, while the western seaboard is ruled by the Japanese. The two territories are separated by a thin vertical strip known as the “Neutral Zone” which is inhabited by blacks and other minorities cast aside by the ruling powers, as well as others who are fleeing rule under the iron fist of the axis. The series is set in the 1960s – approximately twenty or so years after the U.S. surrendered to the Nazis upon dropping the first H-bomb on Washington D.C. Most people have “gotten on” with their lives, even though people being gunned down in the streets and beaten to death during interrogations is a daily occurrence. Not all Americans have given up, and we are introduced to “The Resistance” early on in the pilot, and this presents the jumping-off point for the plot. The twist which drives the plot concerns a mysterious newsreel filmstrip from post-WWII which depicts the *defeat* of the axis powers. It is the same footage familiar to most of us that includes the famous image of the sailor kissing his girl in Times Square. But how can such footage exist? How indeed. One character, upon seeing the footage, remarks that it is “faked” and is part of a cache of propaganda created by the mysterious “Man in the High Castle”; but – as another character replies – if it is faked, why are the Nazis and Japanese so eager to destroy the footage to the point of killing anyone suspected of possessing it? As you might guess, we get no answers to these questions in this first episode, but our main protagonist sets out to the Neutral Zone in search of such answers.
I’ve read some criticism of the pilot of being too heavy-handed, and that in the novel on which it is based, characters ranging from Americans to axis collaborators to the Nazi and Japanese occupiers are painted in shades of gray. Since I’ve not read the book, I can’t really draw any direct comparisons, but I can confirm that characters so far are painted with rather broad strokes (Nazis are bad… mmmmkay?), although we are presented with two Japanese and German characters who are working secretly toward some purpose that would undermine each of their respective governments and for which they could be found guilty of treason. There is also at least one other character appearing in the pilot who appears to be sympathetic, but none of them get enough screen time or development for us to be sure. In fact, being uncertain of anyone’s motives is a major part of the tension in the show. Who is truly part of the resistance, and who is really a collaborator? I suppose that the producers can be at least partially forgiven for their lack of subtlety, considering that that have one hour on which to sell not only Amazon on the series, but Amazon’s subscribers as well. Overall, I really did enjoy this one-off one-hour episode, and I am extremely interested to see where the story goes. I am hoping that the pilot gets picked up for production, and I would expect that we will see a bit more complexity in the character development if/when that happens. For fans of P.K. Dick and heady speculative fiction, I urge you to set aside an hour to watch this pilot, and to share your opinion with Amazon at their site after viewing it.
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Downton Abbey Season 5: Episode 1

downton-abbey-season-5-premiere-dateAfter a year away, our friends at Downton Abbey are back. Season 5 is always a dangerous season in a TV show.  The best shows reinvent themselves, the ones that don’t seem to drag on.  Downton doesn’t have the ability to reinvent themselves.  The reason we love Downton is because our characters are so rigid that any change is totally noticeable.  And I did notice that the actresses are a little less interested in looking like they are just average people back in the 1920’s.  I thought all the downstairs staff are starting to over do the make-up and are looking a little too Hollywood.  Never fear, the show still has all that we love.

In an age of shock television it is difficult to find a show that doesn’t just shock for shock’s sake but also is engaging.  Downton does a great job of balancing.  I recently watched the pilot to Black Mirror and I felt that the writers were only trying to shock me.  I feel this way on HBO shows as well.  I wish writers would try to shock me with original plots and characters.  It was the writing and characters that originally made me love Downton.  Nothing new really occurred in the season premiere and that is OK.  I call this the “Cheers” effect on television.  We didn’t want Norm and Cliff to go out and get a life, we wanted them sitting at the bar making us laugh.  We don’t want Robert or Carson to understand the changes that are taking place in the world.  We don’t want the Dowager and Cousin Crowley to get along, we want them persnickety as ever.  We don’t want the Downstairs staff to grumble about their position, we want them happy to serve.  I have heard the writers of Star Trek say it was hard to write under Gene Roddenberry’s rule of no conflict between characters.  I am sure Downton struggles to stay within their set up, but they need to or the show will not work.

Problem is with no real changes in five years my affections are waning.  There was a time when I looked forward with anticipation to see what would happen next on the show, now I look forward to it with that same feeling I get when I want to wear that old college sweatshirt.  It has gone from appointment TV to comfort TV.  That is the cycle of a show like this.  I have a feeling Downton is gonna go on for many more years than it should.  The actresses will get richer and thinner and the plots will recycle.  Your gramma will still love it, but the awards and excitement will be gone.  I used to root for Mary and the guy who left the show.  (I already forgot his name, so it may not have been the best idea.)  I now don’t really root for anyone, but I smile while I watch it.

In the end, I say, continue watching Downton Abbey.  It is cute, it is comfort but as far as being innovative Television it is probably past.  Hard to blame them though because that is what the entire show is about; holding on to an idea that has gone by.

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Podcast: The Best of TV for 2014

86 Podcast

We finish 2014 with a list of the 20 best moments from television in 2014.  Our latest podcast is as current as you can get, discussing the best that TV has to offer.  We go mostly spoiler free so even if you have not watched Orphan Black yet, you can listen and we don’t ruin it.  Shows that make the list are Parks and Rec, Walking Dead, Cosmos, Louie, Hannibal and more.  Thanks for another great year and enjoy the podcast.

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News Room Season 3…So Far…Better…Kinda

I spend a good portion of my time trying to convince people to watch good TV.  I believe the best TV should do 2 things: Entertain and Engage.  I do not turn on my television set to veg out or to watch other people’s misfortunes.  This is why my favorite two television writers are David E Kelley and Aaron Sorkin.  This is why the pilot episode of Newsroom was one of my favorite watching experiences I have had in recent years.  That opening speech from Jeff Daniels about how America is NOT the greatest country in the world…but it could be, made me think The Newsroom would be one of my favorite shows ever.  Well it isn’t.  That doesn’t mean its the worst either.  Season 1 was really pretty good, Season 2 was a disaster and Season 3 is…well…it’s….you see the thing is…wow, we aren’t used to struggling over our thoughts anymore are we?  We expect to LOVE it or HATE it.  I think the Newsroom is one of those spectacular failures.  We need more of them in television.  Aaron Sorkin is trying.  I give a ton of points to someone who tries.

In the most recent episode, “Main Justice“, here are the topics they covered:

1. That our Government is using the Patriot Act to spy and bully our press.

2. That news Websites are paying the writers by the hit not the content (I would be the poorest person ever.)

3. That the richest in our society can just buy a news organization whether they are crazy or sane.

4. That Global Warming is truly going to kill us all.

5. That corporations have begun to allow their HR representatives to dictate your personal life.

Everyone of these issues is so important to our day to day life.  I could lecture you on why each one truly is but if I did that this Blog would be as boring as The Newsroom is.  I hate saying that.  I am a person who truly believes that if we let rich people buy our news, they are going to stop reporting about the disparity of wealth.  I believe if we don’t stop Global Warming, terrorism isn’t going to matter a bit.  But even I am not getting over the hump that I feel like this show is just yelling at me for an hour.  With all that, I really think you should watch it.  The concepts are important, the execution is just not right.  During this week’s episode there was one person I kept thinking about: Gene Roddenberry.

In the late 60s, Gene knew that society needed to be taught a lesson or two.  He brought Kirk, Spock and Bones into our living room.  They told us exactly what we needed to hear without us evening knowing it.  Will McAvoy, Mackenzie McHale, and Don Keefer are not these characters.  It really isn’t that the show is bad.  It just is missing what David E Kelley brought to Boston Legal during the Iraq war.  It is missing what Archie Bunker brought to the Civil Rights issue.  It is missing what Murphy Brown brought to the Reagan years.  We need a TV show that tells people that Global Warming is real.  We need a show that makes America take notice and talk about the issues at the water cooler like they discussed the Puffy Shirt from Seinfeld.  I believe Aaron Sorkin is the writer to do it.  But I just think this isn’t the show to carry it out.  It makes me disappointed, but it doesn’t make me give up on the show.  It makes me miss James T. Kirk or Denny Crane.  Basically yes, I am saying we need William Shatner back and we need him to entertain us as he says, Engage.

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