Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Powerless" and "Superior Donuts"

I've been trying to make more room for television lately, so I took a look at a couple of the midseason sitcoms that piqued my interest. I watched three episodes each of NBC's "Powerless" and CBS's "Superior Donuts," enough to decide whether or not to keep watching.

"Powerless" is the more high profile contender, a workplace comedy that happens to take place in the DC Comics universe. None of the main characters are superheroes (yet) but have to deal with all the consequences of living in a world overrun with them. Optimistic young go-getter Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) becomes the director of a dysfunctional R&D division of Wayne Enterprises. It turns out that it's being run by Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), Bruce Wayne's idiot cousin. Emily's new co-workers are a smart, but often unmotivated bunch, including Teddy (Danny Pudi), Ron (Ron Funches), and Wendy (Jennie Pierson). Jackie (Christina Kirke), Van's long-suffering personal assistant, rounds out the group.

While the premise sounds like a lot of fun, and the cast is full of talented people, "Powerless" is far from the show that it could be. The structure is messy, characters and relationships aren't well defined yet, and the superhero shenanigans don't really add much. Bigger names like Batman and Superman get namechecked frequently, but only minor DC characters like Crimson Fox actually show up. Only the biggest DC nerds are likely to get much out of the references. While the visuals are bright and colorful, they also look awfully generic, and I found myself wondering if they'd recycled some of the furnishings from "Ugly Betty." "Powerless" went through some major retooling before it hit the airwaves and it shows.

The first two episodes are, frankly, a disaster. There's way too much emphasis put on Emily being a small town girl ready to do good, and learning how to be a benevolent boss. Vanessa Hudgens is trying mightily, but she's not at the same level as some of her co-stars, and I think it's going to take a while for her to really be able to carry her weight on the show. It's only in the third episode that the ensemble starts to play off each other, and we get a few good bits of characterization. Alan Tudyk could make something special out of the terrible Van, and Ron Funches has managed to be a scene stealer in every episode so far. However, I plan to back away from the show until I hear it's made significant improvements. There's just too little time and too much to watch.

"Superior Donuts" caught my attention because it's based off of a Tracy Letts play, of all things, one much sweeter and gentler than his usual work. It's also a workplace comedy, but one that follows the much older template of shows like "Cheers" or "Taxi." It stars Judd Hirsch as Arthur, the aging Polish-American proprietor of a Chicago donut shop in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. He hires an African-American millennial named Franco (Jermaine Fowler), who wants to modernize the shop and help drum up business, which leads to some clashes. Their regulars include cops DeLuca (Katey Sagal) and Jordan (Darien Sills-Evans ), odd-jobber Tush (David Koechner), grad student Maya (Anna Baryshnikov), and Fawz (Maz Jobrani), a real estate developer who owns the dry cleaners next door.

Maybe it was because "Powerless" had such an awkward start, but everything about "Superior Donuts" felt fully realized and ready to go from the outset. The characters are easy stereotypes, but all of them are pleasantly funny and all of them fit nicely into the show's framework. The jokey patter follows familiar rhythms, but they got plenty of laughs. "Superior Donuts" feels like something from twenty years ago, and is definitely aimed at CBS's older audience members. I feel I should be a bit miffed at the constant depiction of mIllennials as trend-loving, over-idealistic nutters, but the humor of the show is so gentle and good natured, it's hard to resist its charms.

What helps, I think, is that the core talent is just right. Franco is a manic-pixie magical negro hybrid of very flimsy construction, but Jermaine Fowler is so much fun to watch, I didn't care. It's so good to see Judd Hirsch on a sitcom again, bringing some curmudgeonly heart to Arthur. And Katey Sagal is as lovely and as good with a one-liner as ever. So the show's ham-fisted social commentary and ancient bits about the generation gap go down very smooth. I suspect that this is a show that my Boomer dad would love, and he hasn't liked on anything on TV since "Becker." As for me personally, I can see myself tuning in from time to time to see how the gang at the shop is holding up, but this won't be appointment television.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Kubo" and "Miss Peregrine"

Still catching up on reviews. I decided two late summer kids' films from last year deserved some spotlighting, though I wasn't entirely pleased with either. However, both of them feature some strong efforts from talented people, and there are never enough good kids' films.

Let's start with "Kubo and the Two Strings," the latest stop-motion wonder from the animators at Laika. the studio that gave us "Coraline" and "Paranorman." The story takes place in ancient Japan, where a one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) looks after his nearly catatonic mother, who fled from Kubo's evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), when Kubo was a baby. Kubo spends his days working as a storyteller, using magic to make origami figures and animals act out stories as he tells them. At night, he and his mother never go out, so that the Moon King won't find them and take Kubo's remaining eye. However, one night Kubo breaks the rules, and has to go on a quest for a magical suit of armor, with a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) as traveling companions.

As with all Laika productions, "Kubo" is a lovely thing to look at, full of handcrafted wonders. There's a fight with a giant skeleton puppet and a voyage on an origami paper galleon among the highlights. I also enjoyed the characters, particularly Monkey and Beetle, who provide the bulk of the laughs and the fun. There are a lot of great ideas here, loads of visible effort put into the production, nobody cut any corners. However, "Kubo" has a much darker and emotionally fraught story than it appears at first glance. The other Laika films have tread into this territory before, with some great results, but "Kubo" pushes further. Grief and loss are major themes, and I'd be hard pressed to call the ending a happy one. However, director Travis Knight handles the tricky material very carefully, and orchestrates some powerful, memorable moments.

Unfortunately, as much as I appreciate all this, and as much as I wanted to like the film, it didn't win me over in the end. As good as many of the pieces are, the narrative is very uneven and oddly paced. There were multiple times when it felt like he story had skipped ahead over exposition, while other scenes ran too long. I imagine a lot of small children pestering their parents over the questionable mechanics of how certain things happened in the story. Also, I had a lot of trouble with the Japanese cultural elements, which were all handled more or less respectfully, but still felt watered down and haphazard next to something like "Kung Fu Panda." The worldbuilding wasn't as tight as it should have been, and frankly suggests a lot of willy-nilly incorporation of Japanese elements that just looked or sounded cool. The Moon King, confusingly, was given the name Raiden, the name of the Japanese god of lightning.

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" has similar problems with its worldbuilding, though much more minor. The big issue here is with how the rules of how the magic in this world operates, which wouldn't be such a stumbling block if the film didn't put so much emphasis on it. Our hero is an ordinary Florida teenager named Jake (Asa Butterfield), whose beloved grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp) dies under mysterious, violent circumstances. Learning that Abe's old stories of growing up in a children's home full of fantastical people might be true, Jake and his doubtful father (Chris O'Dowd) travel to the remote Welsh island of Cairnholm. There Jake discovers what happened to headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her brood of "Peculiar" gifted children. And he finds a new enemy in the sinister Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), and a new interest in the lovely Emma (Ella Purnell) too.

There's quite a bit more to the story, and several more important cast members too, but I think it's best to let the viewer discover these for themselves. "Miss Peregrine" is an odd film, long and meandering, with a story that takes a good while to properly get going. The trip is worth taking, though, especially if you're a Tim Burton fan. This is a return to form for him in many ways, with a lot of nods to older cinema and whimsical storybook ghoulishness. The art direction is gorgeous, and there are a lot of wonderful details, from the period designs of the various "Peculiars" to little things like the sound design during a rooftop chase sequence. Burton's style hasn't translated well into CGI before, but that's not the case here. And best of all, the film is legitimately spooky and frightful, though not too intense for most children to enjoy.

I'm not familiar with the book this was based on, but I'd be interested in how convoluted the plotting was compared to the film. Jane Goldman's scripting is pretty good, but the pacing could use some work, and she seems to get utterly tripped up by some of the more complicated elements involving time travel and time loops. The ending is also terribly brisk, especially after it took ages to get Jake to the island and to introduce most of the major characters. Still, as Tim Burton films go, especially those aimed at children, this is his most successfully executed one in a while. The "Peculiars" are similar, but distinct from similar cinematic oddballs, and there are some good performances in the mix. Asa Butterfield, I'm sorry to say, does not give one of them, too stiff to give Jake much soul. Ella Purnell, however, nearly makes up for it.

All in all, both movies get points for ambition and for getting a lot of things right. There's a lot of room for improvement though, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the next Laika and Burton films go.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My Top Ten Episodes of "The Wire"

HBO's "The Wire" remains one of the greatest television series, bar none. I've put off writing up a top ten list for it for too long, and it's time to correct that. Please note that the picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate. Clearly, the first and fourth seasons were my favorite ones. Some minor spoilers ahead.

"Old Cases" - The moment I fell in love with the series was when Bunk and McNulty visited an old crime scene and managed to expertly recreate the crime and turn up new clues, while conversing only through the utterances of the F word. This is also the episode where we get some good backstory on Lester Freamon, who was my favorite of the police characters in the series, and a peek into the McNulty's past through the contentious meeting with his ex-wife.

"The Hunt" - In the aftermath of the shooting in the previous episode is an intense one, not only because of the immediate threat to a major character, but because it suddenly accelerates the entire wiretapping operation. Also, poor Bubbles winds up caught in the middle of the situation, and put into the kind of dilemma that was all too familiar in "The Wire" - despite his attempts to stay clean, the demands of the investigation all but shove him back off the wagon.

"Sentencing" - No happy ending in this first season finale, where poltical tusseling over the case, both among the police and the dealers, result in the hammer falling hardest on the wrong people, and little real change being brought about. Watching what happens to D'Angelo is heartbreaking. This was also the first instance of the show using a season-ending montage, catching us up on everyone in the show's sprawling cast, and showing life in Baltimore going on.

"All Prologue" - Omar's court appearance is one of his most delightful, especially when he lands his biggest blow to Levy during the cross-examination. However, this is also the episode that brings this year's chapter of the Barksdale storyline to a head. The ending is one of the biggest shocks in the series, and sets up the major arc with Stringer Bell for the third season. Though well done, I found the second seaosn investigation into the docks one of the weaker parts of "The Wire."

"Reformation" - Brother Mouzone is easily the most outlandish character in "The Wire," with his speaking style and fashion choices. However, it is immeasely satisfying to watch him team up with Omar against Stringer Bell, as the feaud between stringer and Avon Barksdale reaches its inevitable, violent conclusion. And it should be notes that this was the episode that finally got the show it's first Emmy nomination, for David Simon and George Pelecanos's script.

"MIssion Accomplished" - The third season's Hamsterdam storyline and the rise of Carcetti were designed to highlight how political and governmental dysfunction contributed to Baltimore's drug problem, and the finale does a great job of hammering that home. Colvin's experiment was one everyone knew was doomed to fail, but it's fascinating to watch how the fallout helps some people climb even as it causes the downfall of others, setting up the rest of the series.

"Boys of Summer" - The fourth season starts with one of my favorite scenes, Marlo Stanfield's enforcer Snoop buying a nail gun from a home improvement store for nefarious purposes. This is before we're even introduced to the four boys who will be at the center of this year: Namond, Michael, Randy, and Dukie, whose fates will be decided by the end of the year. And we learn that Prez, our first season troublemaker, is now entering the school system as a junion high math teacher.

"Margin of Error" - The election episode is a big, exciting hour that is a big turning point fo rthe Carcetti storyline. However, it's also the episode where we see several familiar regulars start stepping into surrogate parent roles for the boys, with Prez and Dukie and Carver and Randy most prominently. Looking back, you can see all the good intentions and all the naievte, more poignant when you know most of them will end up falling through the cracks and becoming victims of the system.

"Final Grades" - The most stunning episode of the entire series watches nearly all the the plans of the well-intentioned adults fall apart, and three of the four boys we've been following this season seem lost to the street for good. What happens to Randy, and Carver's inability to intervene, are especially gutting. There is so much tragedy packed into this finale, I was sure that many of the events had happened over multiple episodes. Only the final shot seems to suggest any hope.

"30-" - I wasn't a big fan of the last season of "The Wire," feeling that the show had gotten repetitve with McNulty's fake serial killer. However, that final, epic montage checking in with so many, many familiar characters all over Baltimore, is sensational to see. It's David Simon's final word on how the cycles of crime and drug use are perpetuated, though there are moments of hope throughout. The final glimpse of Bubbles with his sister is my favorite.

Honorable mentions

"The Target," "Cleaning Up," "That's Got His Own," "Clarifications."


Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Dreamy "La La Land"

There's nothing in "La La Land" that quite lives up to its opening number, where a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway overpass erupts into a colorful dance number, full of whirling motion and a diverse array of performers. There was no better way to signal the film's intentions to be a movie where a present day romance follows the form of, and is subject to the magical realist rules of Hollywood Golden Age musicals. Directed by "Whiplash" wunderkind Damien Chazelle, with music and songs by Justin Hurwitz, "La La Land" is far more interested in being a nostalgic throwback than something original, and it's pretty good at it too, but I also found the conceit a little limiting.

Jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and actress Mia (Emma Stone) are both struggling to achieve their dreams Los Angeles. They meet by chance and fall in love, but their ambitions cause clashes threaten to break them apart. Though the characters are very modern, their problems are anything but, and the film strives for a timeless feel. There are nods and references to Hollywood's past everywhere you look. Mia's apartment is covered in old movie posters, and she works on the Warner Brothers lot, just a stone's throw from an old set of "Casablanca." The film's other preoccupation is with classical jazz music, which Sebastian is obsessed with, and "La La Land" devotes a good chunk of the second act to. The couple's passions combine beautifully in multiple musical numbers that punctuate their tumultuous romance. More than the happy MGM classics, it's more reminiscent of the French New Wave musicals like "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Young Girls of Rochefort," which were more emotionally fraught and often ended in tragedy.

The thing is, though Gosling and Stone are very well matched, are putting in a lot of effort, and do a passable imitation of the old greats, they clearly don't quite have the vocal or terpsichorean chops to live up to the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. I don't know enough about music to tell if Gosling's turns on the piano are any better, though at least on that front John Legend was recruited to help shore up the big numbers in a supporting role. So while it's fun to see Gosling and Stone dancing through the clouds in a fantasy sequence, or the big finale where they do a big dream ballet number staged like an old Broadway production, there's always a feeling that they're imitating more than inhabiting these scenes. Fortunately, the central romance does work very well, and Stone in particular turns in a performance that will certainly put her in awards contention. It's been a while since we've had a feel-good romantic film that's hit the popular consciousness quite so hard, and it's a nice thing to see.

I was very impressed by the music and production design. The songs are endlessly hummable, particularly the opener, "Another Day in the Sun" and the main theme, "City of Stars." The jazz pieces are eclectic, evocative, and a lot of fun. The film is so inviting to look at too, presenting a dream city free of smog and refuse that could only exist in the movies. Many Los Angeles landmarks are gorgeously brought to screen in sumptuous technicolor, and Emma Stone is dressed in a succession of eye-poppingly colorful dresses. If nothing else, the spectacle is worth the price of admission. However, as lovely as it all is, I'm afraid that "La La Land" ultimately isn't to my taste. I'd have much rather seen a film that was more in line with the opening number, something that explored Los Angeles and its inhabitants as they are here and how, with all the rougher edges intact.

For what it is, "La La Land" is executed almost perfectly, and should be a good time for most musical lovers. This has all the earmarks of a passion project for everyone involved. And there's plenty for non-musical fans to enjoy between Stone and Gosling's performances and all the cinematic eye-candy. I don't begrudge anyone for falling for its charms, and honestly remain a little disappointed that the same spell simply didn't work on me.


Friday, February 10, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2000

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

Songs From the Second Floor - There's never been an apocalypse film quite like this one, a collection of scenes of ordinary, mundane people caught in darkly funny situations on the brink of the void. The camera barely moves, and only cuts when we are ready to move from one perfectly composed tableaux of horrors to the next. The characters are pale, despondent, and might as well be dead already. Humanity never appeared more deserving of such a bleak fate.

Dancer in the Dark - Lars von Trier's subverts Hollywood musicals by staging his own around the tragic life of a factory worker. With the singular singer Bjork in the lead, and DOGME 95 inspired visuals, what unfolds is a tremendously stirring, upsetting, and absorbing tale of injustice and self-delusion. Whatever von Trier's aims, the film works wonderfully as both a musical film, with several memorable numbers, and as one of his better tales of feminine martyrdom.

Almost Famous - Every last member of the sprawling ensemble is allowed to shine in Cameron Crowe's nostalgic paean to life as a rock 'n' roll groupie in the 1970s. This is the film that best encapsulates Crowe's particular brand of cinematic joy, full of bright music, youthful hopes, and beautiful people in crisis. The story isn't a happy one, ultimately, but being able to hang out with this crowd of scruffy dreamers in the moment is an experience I'm glad that I got to have.

Requiem for a Dream - Darren Aronofsky established himself as a major talent with his sophomore film, which follows four people caught in the downward spirals of addiction. Moving from the opening shots of lyrical beauty to a nightmarish finale of quick-cut brutality, the movie is a tour de force of filmmaking. It may also be one of the darkest, most harrowing films American films ever made, transcending the genre of drug addiciton memoirs that it tends to be pigeonholed into.

Werckmeister Harmonies - Though I've never really been able to penetrate the story, the filmmaking is so powerful and so involving, it doesn't matter in the slightest. Bela Tarr's mesmerizing visuals provoke deep emotional responses and the score is absolutely exquisite. The long shot of the attack on the hospital is one of my favorites in all of cinema, a short film in and of itself. I've had difficulties connecting to Tarr's other films, but this one is impossible to forget.

American Psycho - Patrick Bateman is a monster created by his environment, the soulless corporate world of the 1980s. And thanks to Christian Bale and Mary Harron, his turn on the big screen is everything we could hope for: exhilaratingly violent, gleefully funny, frightening, tragic, and completely mad. "American Psycho" is extravagantly over the top, but the social satire at its core has some real bite. As sick as Bateman is, his universe proves even sicker in the end.

In the Mood for Love - Wong Kar-Wai's most achingly lovely romance is all about the longing, the colors, and the beautiful patterning of repeated images. Anchored by its two stars, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, the film sells the straitlaced characters' passion even though we see little of it explicitly onscreen. Instead, as the title suggests, it's all about the mood, the little interactions and the brief meetings between them creating a delicate, precious bond.

Memento - Described by some as a cinematic parlor trick that doesn't work twice, but that's overlooking the excellent character study at the film's heart. "Memento" demands multiple viewings to really appreciate Guy Pearce's complex performance and the careful construction of the plot by the Nolan brothers. Nothing else made with this kind of non-linear storytelling has every come close to achieving the same dramatic impact - even the Nolans' subsequent projects.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? - One of the Coens brothers' most crowd pleasing comedies follows a trio of chain gang escapees on a Depression era Southern Gothic odyssey. I love the use of bluegrass music here, particularly the rousing "Man of Constant Sorrow." I love the ridiculous wordplay, the classical references, the pomade, the cinematography, and especially George Clooney appearing in his first of several magnicently silly collaborations with the Coens.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Wuxia reached the mainstream at last with Ang Lee's period adventure film. Zhang Ziyi's performance still thrills me, especially the multiple fantastic action scenes that she features in. However, it's China that's the star of the picture. The variety of gorgeous landscapes captured by Peter Pau really enhance the sweeping epic scope of the film, while the production design rivals any other costume drama ever made.

Honorable Mentions

Billy Elliot
Shadow of the Vampire
Yi Yi
In Vanda's Room
The Gleaners and I
Amores Perros
Sexy Beast
High Fidelity


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My Favorite Spike Lee Joint

I spent a significant amount of time thinking of ways to justify writing about "The 25th Hour," before realizing that it was futile. I was going to spend more time explaining why I wasn't writing about "Do the Right Thing" than I was actually writing about "The 25th Hour." So I might as well just write about "Do the Right Thing," one of the most provocative, controversial, and exciting films of the 1980s. It has long been hailed as the magnum opus of Spike Lee, the first mainstream black auteur, and still one of the only major black directors with a list of credits extensive enough for me to write a "Great Directors" post for. Some of his films can be a challenge to watch, because they're so eager to tackle thorny concepts and confront social issues that nobody else talks about. At least, not in the fearless, impassioned way that Spike Lee talks about them.

So let's go back to Brooklyn in 1989, where a boiling hot summer day heats up the tensions among the predominantly African-American inhabitants of a multiethnic neighborhood. Spike Lee stars as Mookie, who works as a pizza delivery man for Sal's Pizzeria. Throughout the day he watches the tense interactions of Sal, with various figures in the neighborhood of different ethnicities. The day ends in a riot, where a man dies and the pizza shop is burned down. Race clearly plays a large part in why the violence occurs, but the film invites you to puzzle out who, if anyone, was really at fault. Was it Radio Raheem, for blasting his boombox at Sal in a deliberate act of defiance? Was it Sal for losing his temper and crossing a line? And when Mookie throws that trash can through the window, what are his intentions? Spike Lee has said that only white viewers ask him whether Mookie did "the right thing." Black viewers already know.

Well, as a viewer who doesn't fall into either category, my understanding is that nobody does the right thing. This is a story about identities, egos, and various forms of self-expression. Everyone is trying to express pride in who they are and where they came from, but some of those means of expression are misunderstood, clash, or aren't socially acceptable. There's Radio Raheem, whose boombox is an extension of his identity. There's Sal, with his wall full of photos. And then there's Buggin' Out, picking a fight with Sal over perceived disrespect, which boils down to Buggin' Out trying to assert his pride in his own culture. And what Spike Lee does that is so great is that none of his characters are bad people or wrong to want what they want. Sal is obtuse to this sensitivities of his customers, but genuinely likes being part of the neighborhood. Radio Raheem is driven to protest injustice, but his monologue reveals he is hopeful about the future. You're meant to empathize with everyone to some degree.

All of these characters loom larger than life, and are frequently in each other's faces. Spike Lee's cinematography puts them in the audience's faces too, especially in the famous montage of insults and epithets shouted directly into the camera. The tension and energy of the interactions are emphasized by the filmmaking, with its use of canted angles, bright colors, and a very mobile camera. Images are often slightly stylized, to capture the feel of Brooklyn and the too-hot summer atmosphere. The film opens with Rosie Perez dancing and shadowboxing ferociously to "Fight the Power," which sets the tone for a film where frustrations boil over and violent events can unfold at a breathtakingly fast pace. In the riot scenes, the camera is in the thick of the action, so close to the actors that it feels invigorating one moment, and suffocating the next. Watching the ending play out still makes me feel sick to my stomach.

But to really get an idea of what makes "Do the Right Thing" so iconic, you have to examine it in context, as most of Spike Lee's films demand. He was actively engaging with the social climate of the time, trying to get conversations started about the uncomfortable subject of racial violence, but some thought he went too far. Major reviewers wondered if the film might heighten tensions in black communities and spark riots. Spike Lee was labeled a dangerous Angry Black Man, a director who recklessly courted controversy, and was aiming to start trouble. Those reactions seem absurd, decades later, when the film has become a cultural touchstone and a classic of American independent cinema.

It's depressing to acknowledge that there's so little else in the cinema landscape that deals with race in such powerful, honest, and surprisingly evenhanded terms. And in the age of Black Lives Matter, these are films that we are necessary. While Spike Lee's career has had its ups and downs, I'm happy to find him still working. And more importantly, he's no longer the only major black auteur that most cinephiles can name. It'll take a while for Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen and the rest to fill out their filmographies, but in the not too distant future, I'm looking forward to writing about their contributions to cinema too.

What I've Seen - Spike Lee

She's Gotta Have It (1986)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Malcolm X (1992)
Crooklyn (1994)
4 Little Girls (1997)
Bamboozled (2000)
25th Hour (2002)
Inside Man (2006)
Red Hook Summer (2012)
Oldboy (2013)
Chi-Raq (2015)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Sherlock," Year Four

Minor spoilers ahead.

The long-awaited fourth series of "Sherlock" has landed at last, with one very good installment, and two decent-to-middling ones with rather botched endings. I'm used to "Sherlock" having had dud episodes since the beginning, and series four is overall a marked improvement over the goofier series three. Still, this run of episodes felt like they'd been made in an awful hurry, with a lot of corner cutting and sloppy writing. The last episode in particular seems to have key scenes missing and some of the plotting just plain doesn't make sense when you consider it in hindsight. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss still have a wealth of good ideas, but their execution of them has become terribly hit or miss.

So, when last we left "Sherlock," John Watson and his wife Mary were happily expecting a baby girl, and Sherlock Holmes had gotten an obnoxious notification from the deceased Moriarty that he was coming back for more criminal hijinks. However, Moriarty doesn't really play a big role in the first two installments - like in previous series we have to build up to him. Instead, there are other villains and figures of interest, including those played by Lindsay Duncan, Sian Brooke, and Marcia Warren. The most successful of the newcomers is Toby Jones as Culverton Smith, a beloved philanthropist who may also be a serial killer. He's the main antagonist of the second episode, which is by far the most successful and entertaining. Also, all of the old gang is back, including Lestrade, Mycroft, Molly Hooper, and a very welcome Mrs. Hudson, who gets all the best laugh lines.

A common criticism of the later series of "Sherlock" is that the mysteries have become too personal, and many of the developments too outlandishly melodramatic. Both of the weaker episodes end up revolving around people with close personal ties to Watson or Holmes, and their friendship is in jeopardy again, of course. However, I don't particularly have any issue with the direction that the writers decided to take the show, just the rushed nature of the storytelling. A kinder, gentler, and more emotional Sherlock with more personal attachments works just as well as the antisocial version, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch's performance, and I like watching Watson's personal life progress more rapidly. However, Mary Watson ends up assuming an unfortunate type of role too common for women in genre fiction, and a big shocker ending in one of the episodes is just handled very badly. In a show full of super geniuses, super spies, and criminal masterminds, sometimes the characters can be real idiots.

"Sherlock" has also doubled down on its breakneck pacing and use of gobs of fancy visuals. You have to really watch closely to follow the plots, many of which are rather haphazardly constructed this time out. There's a sequence in the second episode where Sherlock's frame of mind shifts about half a dozen times in less than a minute. I admire the show's continued ambition, and it certainly keeps the series very watchable, but I know deep down that it's also a tactic to cover up and distract from the weaker parts of the writing. When "Sherlock" works, though, it's still a real treat to watch. The second episode, "The Lying Detective," is up there with my favorite episodes of the series. However, it's immediately followed by "The Final Problem," which is a pretty unforgiveable mess despite a few good moments. There are very strong indications that this is the final episode of "Sherlock" for the foreseeable future, and at this point I'm not too sad to see it go.

If it does come back, after another multi-year hiatus, I think the series is due for some shaking up. New writers would be helpful, and maybe chucking some of the regulars. Culverton Smith and last year's Magnussen prove that the series works perfectly well with big villains other than Moriarty. And good grief, the show really needs to stop teasing us about Irene Adler if it's not going to deliver.

As far as I'm concerned, "Sherlock" still owes us the proper ending of "Scandal in Belgravia."