Friday, November 17, 2017

"The Handmaid's Tale," Year One

I never read Margaret Atwood's "A Handmaid's Tale."  It was one of those books that simply fell through the cracks, one I knew was a classic and would probably appeal to me, but I just never got around to.  When the new Hulu adaptation was announced, I debated whether I should finally read it to be on the same page as everyone else, but ran out of time.  So I'm embracing the ability to go into the series totally blind with no preconceptions.

"Handmaid" presents a grim dystopia where the United States has become a radical Christian country called Gilead.  Women have been reduced to second class citizens, whose rights are severely restricted.  Fertility declines have spurred the enslavement of the few fertile women left, who are forced to be breeding stock, or "handmaids," to the ruling elite.  Our protagonist is Offred (Elizabeth Moss), the newly assigned handmaid to Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).  As Offred navigates her tightly restricted life, we learn about her past and family, how Gilead was created, and the stories of some of her fellow handmaids.

From Offred's POV we learn about her world, the camera often keeping her face in close-up, even as she's rendered all but invisible from everyone around her by the wings of a starched white bonnet.  So much of the storytelling comes down to Elizabeth Moss, her carefully guarded reactions to the horrors she witnesses, and the roiling fury of her inner monologues, often provided in sarcastic voice-over.  She carries the entire series effortlessly, and I think the series is worth a watch for her alone.  It's largely thanks to her performance that some of the show's weaker writing and pacing issues aren't as glaring as they could be.  While this is clearly a prestige project for Hulu, and they put an impressive amount of resources into it, there are some fundamental weaknesses to the first season.   

The biggest issue is that the ideological construction of this world is fairly flimsy, and it was never explained to my satisfaction how the U.S. went from relatively sane to a color-coded Puritanical nightmare so quickly.  However, the dystopia itself certainly feels genuine on a personal level, where every social interaction is governed by dehumanizing rules and rituals, with plenty of real world parallels.  Beautifully shot, with striking costuming to delineate the hierarchy of every character in every scene, "The Handmaid's Tale" looks absolutely fantastic.  The look of the handmaids in particular are instantly iconic.  The cast also boasts a bumper crop of excellent performances, that go a long way toward selling the paranoid oppressiveness and misery of Gilead's society.  Moss and Strahovski are the MVPs, but well-drawn secondary characters played by Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, and Madeline Brewer also help make the world feel more plausible and immersive.

So it's easier to forgive the occasional creative missteps, like centering two episodes on male characters in a way that makes those installments feel like filler.  Or the ironic use of pop songs to underscore some of the big emotional moments.  The show's creators get the important things right, like the infuriating little hypocrisies of the Waterfords, Offred's complicated relationships with the other handmaids, and the small but meaningful acts of resistance.  For those who might be wary of "Handmaid" because of the subject matter, the series is far from all doom and gloom.  There are plenty of intense emotional moments, and some jarring violence, but also welcome instances of humor and triumph.  Ultimately, I found the show very uplifting.
 
Also, though I understand that the first seasons covers the entirety of the source novel, "The Handmaid's Tale" feels like it could easily spawn several more seasons.  In fact, I'd have been very disappointed if the show ended after only one year, because I feel like it could significantly improve in the future.  I would love to see a spotlight episode for Ann Dowd's character, for example, and the worldbuilding gaps could be easily patched.  As alien and frightening as the world of Gilead is, the show got me to care about the characters enough that I want to follow their stories for a while.
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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Oddity of "Okja"

"Okja" is the latest from South Korea's Bong Joon-ho, more notorious for being one of Netflix's experiments in film disruptive models of film distribution than the actual content of the movie.  Bong has always been hit-or-miss for me, and I'm sad to say that this is one of the misses.  He has a fun idea here with some potential, following the adventures of a genetically engineered super-pig and his human best friend.  However, the end result is such a weird mishmash of tones and clashing cultures, I got very little enjoyment out of it.  

I think a big part of the problem is Okja himself, a lumbering CGI critter who is beloved by his caretaker Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and is targeted by the evil Mirando Corporation, who technically own him and want to turn him into a mascot for their new line of super-meats.  There's nothing particularly interesting about Okja, aside from him being the size of an elephant and resembling a hippo more than a pig.  Mija isn't much better, a brave little moppet who goes out into the great big world to rescue her friend, but frequently seems like she's just going through the motions of a typical action adventure film.

I wonder if Okja and Mija would have worked better in a different kind of project, a more stylized, more humorous, more obviously allegorical fable aimed at younger audiences.  Instead, we have a lot of familiar western actors playing villains and side characters who come off as desperately wacky instead of the larger-than-life caricatures they were probably meant to be.  For instance, there's Tilda Swinton as Mirando CEO Lucy Mirando, who has built up this big facade as a loveable corporate leader, trying to cover up her nefarious plans and massive insecurity.  Or there's Jake Gyllenhaal's celebrity zoologist Johnny Wilcox, a smarmy TV personality who has sold out to Mirando.  Paul Dano, Steve Yeun, and Lily Collins show up as vigilante animal rights activists, while Shirley Henderson and Giancarlo Esposito play terribly underutilized Mirando underlings.    

So clearly, there's no shortage of talent here.  The trouble is that none of the characters are very well developed, and the story doesn't have much going on thematically.  We're supposed to be sickened by the abuses of Okja by Mirando and the food processing system, but there's almost no emotional weight to anything that goes on because we don't really care about Okja.  Mirando tries to turn Mija into a prop for their meat-shilling event, while the animal activists want her help to expose their wrongdoing, but the stakes aren't particularly well established.  It's fun to watch Mija get into the middle of these big chase sequences, but she's such a single-minded little trooper, she never seems swayed by the arguments of either side, and there's no suspense about her ever getting hurt or being tempted away from helping Okja.  And when the big adventure ends, it doesn't feel particularly satisfying.    

The best thing I can say about the movie is that it certainly looks nice.  The character animation of Okja is great.  The art design is a lot of fun at times, and the production values are very strong.  I got a few amusing moments out of Tilda Swinton's performance because I find it difficult to dislike Tilda Swinton in anything.  However, nothing else about "Okja" worked for me.  It didn't come off as fun or whimsical, the humor completely fell flat, and it certainly didn't work as a satire or serious critical piece.  The worldbuilding, which was the saving grace of "Snowpiercer," feels incomplete.  At most, "Okja" is a bit of action-adventure fluff with some tacked-on anti-corporate messages that are unbearably stale.      

This is the film that comes the closest to Bong's "The Host," which was his breakout creature feature, but it strikes me as one of his weakest.  "Okja" likely  would have been better if it had been done smaller scale, took more time for the ideas to percolate, and didn't have so many expectations heaped on it.  Many of the little extras that the Netflix money allowed for just felt distracting - and I hope that Netflix keeps that in mind for their future projects.  As for Bong Joon-ho,  I think it may be time to take a break from fantasy and get back in touch with his darker side.


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Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Doctor Who," Year Ten (or Thirty-Six)

Minor spoilers ahead.

This is my favorite season of "Doctor Who" in a while, a nicely self-contained season with a strong story arc, good characters, and heap of good payoff to several ongoing story threads.  However, it also cemented how repetitive the series has become, with many elements that feel recycled from previous years.  It's natural that the tenth series since the show's revival should be having issues like this, and at least it does the formula very well, but I can feel my patience with the show wearing thin.  It also doesn't help that we're looking at another major format change just as the series felt like it was on steady ground for the first time in a while.

But let's talk about what works first.  Peter Capaldi continues to do great work as the Doctor, striking a good balance between otherworldly and lovable.  He wears his heart on his sleeve a bit more here, less arrogant and more vulnerable.  It helps that he's put squarely in a father-figure role to the newest companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), who is black, a lesbian, a little funny-looking, and completely lovable.  A secondary ally is Nardole (Matt Lucas), an alien who serves as a majordomo figure for the Doctor, and as frequent comic relief.  Early episodes find the Doctor and Nardole guarding a mysterious vault at the university where the Doctor has taken on a job as a lecturer.  Bill is a member of the canteen staff, who the Doctor can't resist taking under his wing and showing the universe to.

Bill is everything that Jenna Coleman's too-perfect Clara wasn't - awkward, gangly, very relatable, and definitely still sorting out her own life.  She actually reminds me the most of Rose, who was another fresh-faced youngster occasionally a few steps behind the Doctor, but who could never be accused of being slow or uninteresting.  The student/teacher dynamic with the Doctor works wonderfully, especially the way Bill questions bits of the series lore as they're introduced to her.  This run of episodes really does make for an excellent introduction to "Doctor Who" for newcomers.  And I don't think it's revealing too much to say that Michelle Gomez's Missy plays an important role this year.  Her interactions with the Doctor are some of my favorite things that they've ever done with the character.  

The majority of the episodes in this series are nicely serialized, including a run of four episodes in the middle, from "Oxygen" to "The Lie of the Land" that make up a very strong alien invasion epic.  The stand-alones are pretty standard, though the dystopian "Smile," featuring robots that communicate through emojis, is a standout.  The final two-parter, however, felt very rushed, especially for the amount of story crammed into it.  Maybe I was just unhappy to see this series end, and a set of characters I'd really become invested in so quickly dispatched to their ultimate fates.  On the other hand, it fit the pattern of a final confrontation with old enemies a little too well, and there were an awful lot of parallels to the final stand of Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor a few series ago.      

It was the little moments that I ended up appreciating the most, the bits of meta and banter, like the debate over the Doctor's real name, Nardole's relationship troubles, and the little glimpses we get into Bill's life.   Steven Moffat thankfully left his most problematic characters behind, including River and Clara, and turned in some of the better stories of his tenure as a result.  I really wish Bill and Nardole had more time to develop and grow as characters, because they're some of the better companions from the entire revival.  However, maybe that would have been tempting fate.  After all, River only turned into a problem after Moffat kept bringing her back.

And while there are significant chunks of these latest series that I haven't liked, I wouldn't have minded Moffat sticking around for another year or two if he could still write series like this one.  And I'm really going to miss the current cast.  However, that's not to be, so here's hoping that the next reboot and Mr. Chibnall find their feet quickly.    


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Thursday, November 9, 2017

My Top Ten films of 1992

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Bad Lieutenant - Harvey Keitel delivers one of the greatest screen performances of the 1990s as the title character, a New York cop with every imaginable vice. It's a soul shaking cri de couer that has him literally howling at the heavens at one point, railing against God. The prolific, provocative director Abel Ferrara built a starkly memorable film around the performance, portraying the degradation and the corruption of his characters in some pretty ugly terms. However, it's the moments of religious and spiritual transcendence that make this one so memorable.

Glengarry Glen Ross - It still feels more like a stage play than it should, but it's hard to complain with material this strong and an ensemble full of so many greats. Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, and Al Pacino all turn in work that can be counted as career highs, and David Mamet's dialogue was never better served. And it's worth reiterating that Mamet wrote the dynamite Alec Baldwin "brass balls" scene specifically for him. "Glengarry" deserves its reputation for being one of the great ensemble films, and for being a rare adaptation that leaves the stage version in the dust.

Lorenzo's Oil - I've seen so many of these "search for a cure" films that descend into feel-good treacle that it's astonishing to discover one as utterly harrowing and painful to experience as "Lorenzo's Oil." Director George Miller never lets up on the emotional devastation of the situation, and Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon wonderfully embody a desperate couple trying to endure under unimaginable stress and trauma. The film's biggest flaw, of course, is that its hopeful ending simply isn't true, but that doesn't take away from how effective and moving a piece of cinema this is.

My Cousin Vinny - Legal comedies are rare birds these days, probably because "My Cousin Vinny" raised the bar so high for the genre. Joe Pesci nails the nicest role he ever got, Fred Gwynne gets a lovely career capper as the exasperated judge, and Marisa Tomei genially steals every one of her scenes. Humor is deftly mined from clashing cultures, accents, worldviews, and even from the legal system itself. And to top it all off, all the legal procedure cited in the film is correct, making this one of the few courtroom movies that actually reflects how a real courtroom functions.

Orlando - Tilda Swinton's mysterious, intriguing title character is the centerpiece of Sally Potter's curious film about gender, identity, and the fickle tides of fate. Integrating visuals and poetry from many different eras, the film serves as an engaging tour of British history as it follows the strange life and career of Orlando through the ages. As the story functions by its own peculiar logic, so does the filmmaking, which finds ways to reference and incorporate artistic inspirations from a wide variety of sources. It's still a film that defies easy description or categorization.

Howard's End - One of the best Merchant Ivory films, those immaculately made British dramas that feature so much great talent both behind and in front of the camera. "Howard's End" delicately adapts the E.M. Forster novel with great fidelity and care. Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter are the main event here, as a pair of sisters who find themselves caught up in escalating social dilemmas involving class and privilege. It also has some of the loveliest images ever found in British cinema, particularly the bluebell sequence toward the end of the film.

Reservoir Dogs - Heralded the arrival of Quentin Tarantino to the cinema landscape. Though much imitated, the combination of visceral violence, casual dialogue, and an uncanny sense of style was something that couldn't be easily duplicated. There's no question that Tarantino borrowed elements from several other movies to make "Reservoir Dogs," but the execution is entirely original. The blackest black humor, the moments of unexpected whimsy, the irony-laced soundtrack, and casting exactly the right actors for each role were what made the film what it is.

The Story of Qiu Ju - Though better known for their heartrending melodramas and tragedies, Zhang Yimou and his greatest leading lady, Gong Li, also made this terribly pleasant, and almost sweet comedic feature. Poking very gentle fun and China's court system and endless bureaucracy, we watch the travails of a pregnant peasant woman seeking justice. Shot on location and set in the present day, with few professional actors, "Qiu Ju" captures the little idiosyncrasies and rhythms of modern Chinese life in these remote places better than anything else from that era.

Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood's most indisputable masterpiece has been called a subversion of the western genre and the western hero, particularly Eastwood's own role as the Man With No Name. Over the years I've come to appreciate its more darkly funny moments over the cold violence and brutality of the more famous shootout and confrontation sequences. And while Eastwood certainly does some of his best work here, as William Muny, it's Gene Hackman who frequently dominates the screen. Love or hate westerns, "Unforgiven" feels like the final word on the subject.

Lessons of Darkness - Werner Herzog's documentary on the aftermath of the first Gulf War is shot like a travelogue of hell. The burning oilfields become an alien landscape, which Herzog's narration marvels over for their disturbing beauty and terrifying inhumanity. I love all the little ways that Herzog finds to comment on the war without ever directly saying anything about the war, from the wryly humorous chapter titles to the musings on madness. The film is completely apolitical, but takes an unmistakably strong stance nonetheless.

Honorable Mentions

The Crying Game
Last of the Mohicans
A League of Their Own
The Long Day Closes
The Player
Malcolm X
Baraka
White Men Can't Jump
Porco Rosso
Strictly Ballroom
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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My Top Ten Episodes of "The Leftovers"

There are only twenty-eight episodes of "The Leftovers," but this has been one of the best series of its era and it definitely deserves its own Top Ten list. As always, episodes are unranked, but listed below by airdate. Moderate spoilers below.

"Pilot" - I have a special fondness for certain introductory episodes, and this one does a fantastic job of immersing the viewer in the gloomy world post-Sudden Departure. We learn about the Garveys, the Guilty Remnant, and the ins and outs of Mapleton. What really sold it for me though, was the moment Kevin is in the pool, and that Max Richter theme hits its crescendo for the first time. That's when it really hit me that the show was committed to being an emotional wrecking ball.

"Two Boats and a Helicopter" - Matt Jamison is one of my favorite "Leftovers" characters, and it's fascinating to watch him grapple with his faith throughout the series. He, like his sister Nora, appears as a minor character in earlier episodes, but this spotlight episode reveals him to be a Job-like figure who can't seem to get out of his own way as the misfortunes pile up around him. Christopher Eccleston's performance is fantastic, and I especially love when Matt loses his temper.

"Guest" - A strong contender for my favorite episode of the series is all about the sad, lonely life of Nora Durst, who lost her whole family and has chosen a career path that forces her to reckon with it every day. Carrie Coon demonstrates why she's one of the show's MVPs here, but I also love the episode for the fascinating worldbuilding that the series does. The convention shows more ways that people in this universe are dealing with the Sudden Departure, or often failing to deal with it.

"The Garveys at Their Best" - Until this episode, we didn't have a good picture of what the Garveys were like as a whole family unit before the Sudden Departure. It sheds some light on why the split happened, particularly in the case of Laurie, who I found to be a difficult character through much of the first two seasons. Narratively, it also functions as a nice calm before the inevitable storm of the finale. Wisely, the flashback device was only used this one time, unlike in Lindelof's previous show.

"Axis Mundi" - The second season premiere was particularly daring for its incorporation of a lengthy theme-setting opening sequence in the distant past with a silent native woman. However, it's the rest of the episode that really got me invested, which takes us to the very special town of Jarden, Texas, where the picture perfect Murphy family isn't nearly as perfect as it appears. None of the show's regulars plays much of a part in the hour, but it's a compelling watch nonetheless.

"No Room at the Inn" - A sequel of sorts to the previous Matt Jamison spotlight episode sees Matt struggling to find his place in the spiritually chaotic community in and around Jarden. More misfortune befalls him, but this time Matt takes a different approach to a bad situation, and ends up somewhere quite different spiritually. The ending is the first time I've seen him truly happy and at peace with himself up to this point, and it's one of my favorite moments in the show.

"International Assassin" - I'm not as enamored of Kevin Garvey's trippy journey into the unknown as some of the show's other fans, but this is an excellent episode. We not only get some very strong material for Justin Theroux, but Ann Dowd's Patti Levin gets her last punches in too. The hour is by turns humorous and intensely emotional, mirroring the show's shift from unrelenting bleakness toward a more even-handed existentialism with room for moments of bizarre hilarity.

"Don't Be Ridiculous" - The show's "Perfect Strangers" running joke turns into a full-fledged subplot, with a fantastic appearance by Mark Linn-Baker to boot. This is really a Nora episode, on another business trip that reveals her failure at coping with lingering issues, and also filling in some of the story gaps from the break between the second and third seasons. I really wish we had more Erica this season, but I'll take her trampolining to Wu-Tang with Nora as a season highlight.

"Certified" - A Laurie episode, and one that I found unexpectedly moving. Everyone around Laurie is in crisis and she does her best to help, but nobody seems to notice that she's struggling with her own personal demons. The final scenes where she finds closure with Kevin and seems to come to a decision about her life, are touching and suspenseful. This was an episode that I didn't realize I needed to see until it was over. Oh, and the ending absolutely wasn't a fake-out or a cheat.

"The Book of Nora" - One of the most satisfying endings to any show that I've seen in years, one that seems to break its own rules, but with enough ambiguity that it still follows the theme song's advice to "Let the mystery be." I was never really invested in the Kevin and Nora relationship, believing them too fundamentally screwed up from the outset for the relationship to last long. However, this episode sold it to me in the end, and I'm glad it did.

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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Disney's 2019




In 2016, Disney dominated the box office by grossing over $7 billion in one year, largely thanks to a string of hits including "Zootopia," "The Jungle Book," "Finding Dory," "Captain America: Civil War" and "Rogue: One."  They had three films earn more than a billion each.  


Now, after the recent announcements at D23 and elsewhere, we're looking another potentially massive year for the Mouse House coming in 2019.  The schedule currently looks like this:


“Captain Marvel” (3D) — Mar. 8, 2019
“Dumbo” (3D) — Mar. 29, 2019
Untitled Disneytoon Studios — April 12, 2019
Untitled “Avengers” (3D) — May 3, 2019
“Aladdin” (3D) — May 24, 2019
“Toy Story 4” — June 21, 2019
“The Lion King” (3D) — July 19, 2019
“Artermis Fowl” (3D) — Aug. 9, 2019
“Nicole” — Nov. 8, 2019
“Frozen 2” — Nov. 27, 2019
Star Wars: Episode IX” (3D) — Dec. 20, 2019



As always, the usual caveats apply.  I fully expect that either the "Aladdin" or "Avengers" films will be moved back to avoid cannibalizing each other, and we could see the newly announced "Artemis Fowl" or "Nicole" delayed to 2020.  However, we're looking at a year where there are four very good candidates for billion dollar grossers.  Even if several of the smaller titles bomb, and remember that several did in 2016, Disney's 2019 box office is likely to be another record breaker.


First off, you have two climactic endings to long-running action series.  "Star Wars: Episode IX" will finish off the new trilogy of "Star Wars" films, while the fourth "Avengers" film has recently been described as the end of the 22-film series that started with "Iron Man" in 2008.  The description is a little vague, but it does point to something climactic in the works.  Notably, at the time of writing Disney hasn't announced much in the works for these two franchises beyond 2019.  Whether it's more sequels or possible reboots, I definitely expect the momentum to start slowing down for both the MCU and "Star Wars" after that point, so Disney is going to be playing up both of these quasi-finales as much as they can.


However, potentially overshadowing both is the prospect of "Frozen 2."  The original "Frozen" was a global phenomenon, the highest grossing animated Disney film of the modern era.  "Toy Story 3" isn't that far behind it, currently the reigning box office champ for PIXAR.  I have my doubts about there being much demand for a "Toy Story 4," especially with a nine year gap since the previous installment, but I think the next sequel is bound to do plenty of business even if it doesn't break a billion.  "Frozen 2" has a much better chance, especially if the sequel improves on the original.  Personally, I don't think that will be difficult since "Frozen" always struck me as an oddly slapdash Disney film with a lot of little flaws that could have been fixed with more time and care.


There are three different "live action" adaptations of Disney classics on the 2019 slate right now.  Of those. "The Lion King" will almost certainly do the best, and has a decent shot of breaking a billion based on the popularity of the 1994 animated film.  I don't think that the prospects of "Dumbo" and "Aladdin" are very good, however.  Tim Burton is essentially constructing an original story with a lot of new human characters around the basics of the 1941 cartoon, and he hasn't had the greatest track record lately.  Meanwhile, "Aladdin" is currently in a pretty odd place on the schedule.  If any of these are going to be moved, I expect it to be "Aladdin."


Then we have "Captain Marvel," which is notable for being the next female-led superhero film after "Wonder Woman" and the MCU's first.  The character is fairly obscure, but like Black Panther the character is going to be introduced in an earlier MCU film, which should give it a boost.  This is currently a big question mark for Disney, but it doesn't have much competition and should be a decent performer.  Finally, there's the "Untitled Disneytoon Film," which is an space-themed spinoff from the "Cars" universe, in the same vein as "Planes."  It'll probably be the lowest grosser on the roster.   


I'm looking forward to some of these movies, particularly "Episode IX," but I'm worried that Disney may be pushing too hard.  I can easily see some of these franchises running out of steam, especially if they do try to put all three live-action Disney adaptations out in the same year, or keep pushing the MCU like this.  Keep in mind that there's competition coming too, in the form of more "Fast and Furious," "Transformers," Dreamworks, and DCU movies.  It feels a little like Disney is pressing their luck.    


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Friday, November 3, 2017

"The Orville" and "Star Trek: Discovery"




One of the most bizarre confluences of the year was a fall television season that saw the premieres of both the newest iteration of "Star Trek," and Seth McFarland's "Star Trek" parody series "The Orville."  It seems only fitting that I review both of them together.  I've seen five episodes of each show so far.

Now, "The Orville" is the more fascinating animal, because it's not what it looks like at first glance.  Seth McFarland plays the captain of the starship Orville, with Adrianne Palicki as his first officer/ex-wife, and a crew of various broad character types.  As you might expect, it's a mixture of 90's era "Star Trek" and McFarland's usual frat-boy humor.  However, it's the ratio of humor to sci-fi adventuring that seems to have caught everyone by surprise.  

McFarland is far more interested in the science-fiction than the funny business here, to the point that "The Orville" is more or less a "Star Trek: the Next Generation" clone played straight, with a few bits of "Family Guy" humor grafted on.  As a "Trek" fan, I find "The Orville" deeply nostalgic, as it takes pains to replicate so much of the older shows from the '90s, from the alien makeup to the brass-heavy musical cues  to the whooshing sounds that the doors make.  Several episodes feel like they simply repurposed extra "Next Generation" scripts.  My favorite characters are the alien crewmembers, Bortus (Peter Macon) and Kitan (Halston Sage), who could have easily stepped out of episodes of "Next Generation" or "Deep Space Nine."  As science-fiction, "The Orville" is deeply, deeply derivative, but pretty watchable.

As a comedy, however, it stinks.  McFarland's sophomoric humor and pop culture references clash horribly with the rest of the show.  Helmsman Malloy (Scott Grimes) and navigator LaMarr (J. Lee), along with an amorphous blob named Yaphit (Norm McDonald), are given the bulk of the crass jokes and one-liners.  McFarland also managed to work clips of media like "Real Housewives" and "Seinfeld" into three of the episodes so far, echoing the "Family Guy" cutaways.  You could completely excise these attempts at humor, and "The Orville" would work perfectly fine.  The show actually generates plenty of gentler laughs with its cheesy, out-of-date aesthetics and character interactions.  McFarland and Palicki are pretty good together as an old-school bickering romantic duo.  The more ribald stuff just comes across as clumsy and counterproductive.     

As much as I like some of the ensemble's dynamics and enjoy the familiarity of the "Orville" universe, it's not giving me any good reasons to keep watching.  Also, since the series is totally episodic, I can watch any of the better episodes that come along independent of the rest of the show.

On to "Discovery."  I want to save the bulk of my discussion of the show for a spoilery separate post once I've seen the full season - it's only nine episodes all together - but I'll get my main points down here. "Discovery" has been accused of not being "Star Trek" enough for the franchise, and I suppose this was necessary.  Since it's been over a decade since the last "Star Trek" television show went off the air, and science-fiction television has changed enormously, you do get a sense of "Discovery" reacting to some of the other big titles that have come along in the interim, and trying to play catch-up.  The most obvious influence is "Battlestar Galactica," a darker, bleaker space opera with more mature content.  So it's no surprise that "Discovery" is a more action-oriented, militaristic series set in the early days of the Federation, when humans were at war with the Klingons.

Another major change is having a serialized story, where the starship USS Discovery of the show's title doesn't even show up until the second episode.  Our POV character is Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the first officer of a Federation ship.  Due to her actions in the premiere, she winds up convicted of mutiny, stripped of her rank, and then invited to join the crew the Discovery, under Captain Garbriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs).  Michael also has strong ties to the Vulcans, as the adopted daughter of Ambassador Sarek (James Frain).  Her Vulcan education makes her emotionally remote, and along with her notorious reputation as a mutineer, leaves her with few allies among the crew.  This is the element of the show that I found the most disorienting.  Homosexual characters and profanity were new elements I expected, but a "Star Trek" show without the friendly camaraderie of a tight-knit crew in place was something I wasn't sure that I could handle.   

The series has a lot of rough patches, and there are definitely some character issues and tonal problems that need ironing out.  Unlike "The Orville," however, "Discovery" shows every sign of steadily improving as it goes along.  I admire its ambition and its willingness to try different things, even if they aren't all working.  I don't really enjoy Michael as a protagonist, for instance, but as she's been changing and growing over these past episodes, she interests me enough to want to follow, and to see who she becomes.  Other standouts include Saru (Doug Jones), an alien officer, and Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), a peppy young cadet and Michael's roommate.  The high price tag doesn't hurt either, allowing for fancier effects and visuals.    

And the "Star Trek" franchise has earned enough goodwill over the years for me to give them plenty of benefit of the doubt.

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