Archive for TV


Historical Drama

I had a more successful movie weekend this week than I had the week before. No, I didn’t do a Lord of the Rings rewatch. I’m waiting until I can get the extended editions from the library (they were checked out). I went the historical fiction route, a miniseries that on Amazon is called The Devil’s Mistress (on IMDB it has a different title that might keep this post from being suitable for all ages, which is probably why Amazon changed it). It’s about the English Civl War, a period I’ve only recently started learning about, and is the kind of historical drama in which a fictional character manages to interact with all the major historical players (with some of the real people being altered with dramatic license).

It’s about a young woman in the court of Charles I whose life is upended by the conflict between the king and Parliament, and she ends up on just about every side in the conflict at various times, not because she’s fickle but because everyone she aligns with ends up betraying her. I was intrigued enough by the things that were going on that I started reading up on it all, and it seems like there were no real “good guys” in that war. Both sides seemed pretty obnoxious and trampled the people who might actually have been good.

It was one of those things where most of the cast were at least mildly familiar faces. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, there was some amusement to be had because Peter Capaldi played Charles I and John Simm played a mercenary who ended up fighting for Cromwell, so in a way we had another round of the Doctor vs. Master conflict (though this series was made long before Capaldi was the Doctor, but I guess around the time Simm was playing the Master).

There were a few scenes in which it verged on being the kind of romantic fantasy adventure I’ve been looking for, if only there had been even a tiny magical element. At one point in the story, the heroine has been betrayed by the side she was on at the time and has pretty much hit bottom. A wealthy man tries to rape her, she kills him, and then she puts on his clothes to be able to travel disguised as a man. She comes across the mercenary who at one time had been hired to guard her, who’s been captured by enemy soldiers, and she rescues him. The two of them end up traveling together and working as highwaymen, with much swashbuckling. The whole “woman dressed as man, avenging herself against the men who wronged her and her family at the side of a man who’s secretly in love with her” would make an excellent basis for a rollicking adventure. But it’s only one part of this story that’s more about the history and how ordinary people in this era were affected by the conflict, as well as exploring the various factions that arose in the vacuum of a king.

If you’re into costume drama, this one’s worth watching for the cast, the costumes (such lovely gowns!) and the history, but you may find yourself imagining an alternate story about the lady highwayman.


Books on TV

A conversation I had the other day made me realize how oddly TV and movies portray readers. It’s pretty rare for a person to like books or be shown reading, and a person who likes books is treated almost like an alien species.

It’s an alien species with superpowers, though, because the person who likes books knows just about everything and can often read in multiple languages. There is no middle ground. You either don’t read at all and groan when asked to help with research to stop the latest threat or you love books, know everything, and can read anything. There’s nobody who’s like, “Do I have to help with the research now? They’re about to reveal the murderer in this mystery novel I’m reading.” Pure pleasure reading seldom exists. It’s almost all highbrow reference books or classics. Only the occasional SF/F-loving nerd reads anything just for fun.

And there’s just one book-lover per group. I’ve found that in real life, people tend to hang out with other people who have things in common. Most of my friends are big readers. We may all read different stuff, but we do all read and value books. I guess on these TV shows, these groups are brought together by a common goal. They have to team up to fight evil and might not have become friends if not for that, so maybe that explains the person whose life is books hanging out with people whose attitude is “ew, books.”

That makes me want to write an evil-fighting team that’s all people who like books, but they have different areas of expertise because they read different things.

I find it interesting seeing how one of pop culture’s big book lovers, Belle from the Disney Beauty and the Beast, is portrayed. In the cartoon version, and to some extent the Broadway version, she loves to read, but I don’t think she’s necessarily meant to be a super intellectual. Her favorite book seems to be a romance novel. She is the only reader in town, apparently, which is odd because there’s a bookstore in town that lends books to Belle. I’m not sure how a shop that lends books to its one customer manages to stay in business. In the live-action version, there’s no bookstore, just a local priest who has a shelf of books he’s willing to share. Belle reads Shakespeare in addition to that romance novel, and she seems to do some research and tinkering. When they used Belle on TV’s Once Upon a Time, she became the designated Loves to Read and Therefore Knows Everything character who can translate almost any language and is the go-to person in the group for research (that show’s version of Willow, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Oddly, there’s later a character on the show who’s an author, and yet I don’t think we ever see him reading anything. I don’t know any authors who never read.

Of course, sitting and reading is hardly the stuff of exciting drama, and fighting evil does mean less time to read, but there are ways to show that someone likes to read. They may carry a book around or have books on the nightstand or coffee table at home. They might be reading at the beginning of a scene when another character shows up and interrupts them. They might be reading in the background while other characters do stuff in the foreground. They might be in a bookstore or library when they get an urgent message and have to rush off to fight evil.

I think it’s different in books, which tend to be written by book people, so the characters are more likely to also be readers, and authors weave in mentions of books. Maybe TV writers are less likely to read, so they don’t get how it works.


What Might Have Been

I’ve been rewatching the entire series of Once Upon a Time, an episode or two a week, with an online group, with discussion and analysis along the way. Last night, I rewatched the finale for the first time since it aired, and it has to be the most bizarre way to end a series that I’ve seen. Really, the last season was a mistake, and this ending felt oddly tacked on, like it was what they always wanted, and they just stuck it on the finale without any setup.

The final season jumped ahead at least ten years for most of the “flashback” bits, with the character who was an early teen (12-13 or so) at the end of the previous season all grown up and played by a different actor, and then the “present day” bits were at least 11 years after that (since he had an 11-year-old daughter). But there were still some of the adult characters who carried over, and they didn’t change at all even though, based on ages of various characters that gave us some kind of timeline, nearly 30 years had passed since the end of the previous season. And there was never any explanation given for them not aging or changing. They were treated as though they were the age they looked, generally 30-something, even though they had adult children. To complicate things further, these events were taking place in the present, with them having been sent back in time by a curse that took them from the fairytale land where they’d been living to our world (for no reason other than that the premise of this series involves fairytale characters living in modern America, and it would have been a strain on the budget to try to create the setting decades into the future). The season mostly focused on new characters rather than the returning characters, though one of the problems was that there was no clear protagonist.

When that storyline was resolved, they didn’t send these characters back to their world and their own time. They came to the original setting for the series, to live among the past versions of themselves. And then they merged all the fairytale worlds and elected the original villain to be queen of them all. That would be the future version of the original villain, who did become a good guy along the way, but still, when you’re redeeming the villain, you don’t give them their original villain goal as a happy ending. You give them what they really needed, deep down inside, which is probably the opposite of their villain goal. When someone starts the series trying to seize power and never actually gives up power in spite of turning good, except when the responsibility is inconvenient, you don’t end the series by giving her ultimate power. It was even weirder given that this character had barely played a role all season. She hadn’t done any big thing to save the day, hadn’t made a huge sacrifice, so it felt very weirdly tacked on.

That series is so frustrating because there’s so much about the concept that I love — fairy tales, magic in a modern setting, mixing up characters from different stories — and most of the characters and the casting were great, but the writing went way off the rails. I could write essays about how they messed up. There was no coherent worldbuilding, so their magic never made a lot of sense, nor did how their society dealt with magic. And their morality was so screwy. The really frustrating thing is that the premise is pretty unique, so I can’t really find a way to file the serial numbers off and do it right and have it still be those elements that I find interesting. The best I can do is take some of the things as inspiration and go off in a different direction with them.

The first season is still really lovely, fleshing out the story of Snow White in the flashbacks and dealing with a cynical modern-day Disney princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess in the present, set in a small town with a real fairytale flavor. And if I get bored, I can amuse myself by mentally rewriting the whole thing, fixing where they went wrong and imagining what might have been.


Returning to Haven

Since I was reading Stephen King’s book on writing and was planning to write a paranormal mystery set in an odd little town, I got in the mood to re-watch Haven. This was a series on SyFy starting in 2010 that was very loosely based on Stephen King’s book The Colorado Kid. A slightly different version of the events in the book is the backstory for the TV series.

I’ve described this series as “Northern Exposure meets The X-Files.” An FBI agent gets sent to a small town in Maine on a case, and once she gets there, she discovers that the town is full of secrets, including people with odd abilities, and the town may be the key to learning about her own mysterious past. It starts as more of a paranormal procedural, with a case of the week involving the strange abilities, but it gradually becomes more arc-centric, as we learn more about the history and abilities of the FBI agent and what it has to do with the town, and there are also various factions in the town.

The budget for this show was apparently the change they found in their sofa cushions (when I met one of the writers and mentioned loving the series, he apologized), but it holds up pretty well, and I think they did really well with the resources they had. The writing is rather strong, and they managed to avoid a lot of tropes. The FBI agent doesn’t come into the small town with smug superiority, and the local cops work with her rather than treating her like an outsider, unlike almost any cop show in which a fed comes to a small town. She gets along really well with the local cop who ends up becoming her partner. They have disagreements at times, but they don’t fall into the obvious dualities, like her being the believer and him being the skeptic or him being by the books and her being a loose cannon. The positions they take in each case depend on the situation they’re dealing with, so any arguments are different in each episode rather than an ongoing retread of the same old thing.

It’s never really too intense or scary for wimpy me, though it can get creepy. I’d say it’s fun scary, the sort of thing to watch with the lights out and some candles for atmosphere. There’s a nice bit of humor and gorgeous scenery. Mostly, though, I love the characters. I’ve jokingly referred to it as “Katie and Owen become small-town cops in Maine” because the two main characters are similar to mine. Audrey, the main character, is snarky, mostly level-headed, has a lot of common sense, and seems to be immune to the freaky stuff that happens in the town. Nathan, the local guy who becomes her partner, is shy and a little nerdy while also being really bright and extremely capable.

It looks like it’s streaming on Netflix. I’ve got all the DVDs, but I haven’t watched them in ages and I’m having fun with this rewatch. I’m also getting ideas for what I want to do with the small town I’m creating. I’d love to be able to create a similar character vibe.


Left Behind by Peak TV

I keep seeing articles about how we’re in a phase of “peak TV,” and it’s odd because I’m watching less than ever. There do seem to be some quality shows, but most of them require some kind of subscription. Broadcast TV has withered away to almost nothing, mostly clones of the same crime shows and a lot of reality TV, aside from the superhero lineup on the CW. Even cable service isn’t enough anymore, since a lot of the good stuff is on the various streaming services. There are shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and now Disney+, and then there’s going to be an HBO service and probably a few more. We’re back to the cable dilemma, where getting access to the one thing you want to watch will require paying for a bunch of stuff you don’t want. At least with the streamers, it’s mostly on-demand content, so you can watch it whenever, and you can start and stop the service when you want, so you can binge that one show and then cancel the service. It’s not like having to get an entire cable package to watch one program, and then you’re stuck with it for at least a year.

But there hasn’t yet been anything I would subscribe to something to watch. Most of this “peak TV” is way too dark for my taste. I have Amazon Prime because I figured that was the most cost-effective option for me. It has a huge variety of stuff to watch, so my only issue is whether I can get a particular thing. If it’s just a case of needing something in general to watch, there’s more than enough content. Plus it comes with free e-books every month, access to magazines, and a decent music streaming service. And free shipping, but I actually don’t buy much from Amazon. That’s my last resort. I’ve enjoyed Good Omens and The Tick on Prime, but both of those shows are over. There are a few other original shows on that service that I plan to watch, but I haven’t been in the mood for them yet. Most of it looks way too intense for the mood I’ve been in lately. I started The Man in the High Castle, since I read the book ages ago, but Nazis in America is way too close to real life right now and it was more than I could deal with. The same goes for the shows on other services. I see people raving about them, and I shudder.

I may eventually get Disney+ for their Star Wars shows and other Disney content, but at the moment I’m too busy to watch a lot of TV and I’m going to let them work the bugs out first (I’ve heard they’ve had some launch woes today).

I’d love to see more variety in tone in the offerings. More comedy or at least light-hearted shows. Something fun and quirky, along the lines of Good Omens. I have noticed that when creators are given free rein, they tend to veer toward darkness, possibly because that has been equated with quality, and if you’re trying to get respect and critical acclaim, that’s the way to go. Anything fun is likely to be dismissed as “popcorn” viewing and not taken seriously. The streaming services are offering creators the funding to make their dream projects, so we’re getting a lot of dark stuff. I’m okay with a bit of darkness or serious subject matter. I just want a sense of fun to go with it. Good Omens was about the possible end of the world, but it ended up being very life-affirming and joyous.

Fortunately, Prime has a lot of reruns of older things that are fun. I may need a Pushing Daisies marathon. We’re also getting close to (well, actually we’re in, but I’m ignoring that until Thanksgiving) the Christmas movie season, and a lot of the older ones I liked before Hallmark came in like a steamroller and started the blandification are available on some of the free streaming services. And I have a lot of DVDs. But mostly right now there are books and there’s the classical radio station.


Fall TV 2019

It actually kind of feels like fall today, but there’s still something missing. The fall TV season is under way, and yet there doesn’t seem to be much going on. On broadcast TV right now, I’m just watching the PBS Sunday-night lineup, and then I’m watching The Good Place on NBC on Thursday nights. I’m giving Perfect Harmony, right before it, a shot because I really should love a series about a church choir, but it has one more week to get its act together. Right now, it seems like a show about a church choir written by people who’ve not only never been in a church choir but who also have never been to an actual church. In two episodes, we haven’t seen this choir sing in a church service, which is the primary role of a church choir. They’ve gone to a competition (I’ve never heard of a competition for church choirs) and to a town festival (okay, that one does happen). But this church choir doesn’t seem to sing in church.

My lack of TV viewing isn’t just because I ditched cable. One reason I decided not to keep going with cable when the HOA dropped it as part of our membership was that so little of what I watched was on cable. There are maybe two series I’ve missed, and those are only on a few months out of the year (I’m planning to get the DVDs from the library).

I am watching The Tick on Amazon, and I’m planning to watch Carnival Row. Otherwise, I seem to be rewatching a lot of stuff online or catching stuff that I might not have seen in the first place.

I used to watch a lot of TV, a couple of shows just about every night. I spent a lot of time on TV-related message boards or newsgroups. Now, though, there’s not a lot that really catches my interest. I think that the kind of things I tend to be into have migrated to various streaming services while broadcast and even cable TV has devolved to be very generic middle-of-the-road stuff, mostly crime shows (most of which are reboots of other things) and reality shows (which I refuse to watch).

I am enjoying using the streaming services to catch up on Masterpiece Theatre type stuff I missed the first time around and digging up quirky little gems from Canada or Britain, but the down side of watching things like that is that no one else is watching them, so there’s no chance for discussion.

Otherwise, I’m spending a lot more time listening to the classical radio station and reading. I’m just a few books away from hitting my reading goal for the year, so I imagine I’ll go way over. I don’t really mind not paying as much attention to TV, but I do miss having a fictional world I look forward to visiting every week and then chatting about it. The problem with streaming is that you lose the fun of anticipation for each new episode, though it sounds like Disney+ will be doing one episode a week, which may be fun with all their Star Wars series.

Is there anything on US broadcast TV that I should be watching this fall? Any hidden gems on Amazon Prime Video?


Looking Back at Deep Space Nine

At last weekend’s convention, I got to see the documentary about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, What We Left Behind, and it reminded me of how much I loved that series. I’ve been around Star Trek my whole life (my mom said she fed me when I was an infant while watching part of the original run of the original series) and have watched all the series, but when Deep Space Nine came on, it resolved a lot of my issues with the earlier series. I’d been bothered by the fact that there were few consequences for events — something drastic and dramatic might happen in one episode, and then in the next episode it was like nothing had ever happened. Nothing changed, and no one was affected. Even before DS9 became more serialized in the storytelling, they were already doing character arcs so that we saw how the characters were affected by events. The main plot might have been a bit episodic, but there were character arcs as the characters and relationships progressed. When something big happened in an episode, the characters were affected by it in the next episode even if the main plot was something entirely different.

But looking back on it now, it’s astonishing how prescient they were about how things might develop and what things might continue to be issues. I haven’t watched the series since it went off the air, but I think I’m due a rewatch.

I do feel a bit old, seeing how the actors have changed since then, compared to how they looked when the show was on. They were all such babies! One of the things I liked about the series was the sense that these people did actually like each other, even if there were conflicts. It was a “found family” kind of cast of characters, where they were isolated from everything else and found community with each other, and the documentary makes it plain that the actors really did bond like that, and some of them are still close.

Part of the documentary involved the writers sitting around and brainstorming a hypothetical first episode for a hypothetical revival of the series — the same characters and cast, taking place the same number of years since the series ended. I’m annoyed at all the reboots of older series that have been coming up lately, but I’d be in for that one — continuing the story, not telling it all over again with a different cast.


Visiting Austen’s World

I discovered a fun miniseries this week that Jane Austen fans might enjoy: Lost in Austen. It’s a British series from a little more than ten years ago about a modern woman who ends up in the world of Pride and Prejudice. Amanda retreats into her favorite book whenever life gets to be too much for her, but then one day she discovers Lizzie Bennet in her bathroom. It seems that there’s a doorway from the attic in Longbourn that opens as the utility panel hatch in her bathroom. She can’t resist going through to at least get a look at that world — but then she can’t open the door to get back. It seems Lizzie doesn’t want to leave the modern world, so the door won’t open for Amanda. There’s just a note that gets slid under the door, from Lizzie to her father. Amanda passes herself off as a friend of Lizzie’s, saying Lizzie’s staying at her place to work on a book in solitude, and she’s come to stay with Lizzie’s family to help them out in Lizzie’s absence. It turns out that she’s arrived just at the beginning of the Pride and Prejudice story, but her being there in place of Lizzie starts to change things — like when Mr. Bingley comes to call, he’s fascinated by the stranger and doesn’t even notice Jane. Amanda has to try to keep the story playing out the way it’s supposed to so her favorite book won’t be forever ruined.

There’s a fair amount of spoofing going on, gently mocking some of the tropes and how a modern person would really react to these people and these situations. Amanda does have some advantage from knowing things about these characters that they haven’t revealed, but it turns out there are other things about them that don’t show up in the book. We get to see some of the “offstage” scenes from the story that put things in a new perspective. It’s probably a lot more entertaining if you’re really familiar with Pride and Prejudice because, although there’s some explanation about what’s supposed to happen, it’s more fun if you recognize where things are going wrong and know enough to anticipate potential problems.

The funny thing is, the cast is impressive enough that they’d have made for a pretty good serious production of Pride and Prejudice, and they all seem to be having a blast with their roles. There are a lot of familiar faces, like Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey as Mr. Bennet, Alex Kingston from Doctor Who as Mrs. Bennet, and Tom Mison from Sleepy Hollow almost unrecognizable as Mr. Bingley. I have to admit that I’m not super impressed with their Darcy, but he does grow on me.

It’s only four hour-long episodes, so it’s an easy binge. I found it streaming for free with ads on the Tubi Roku channel, but I think you can rent/purchase it from Amazon, as well.


Summer of Mystery

I seem to be immersing myself in British mysteries this summer. I think of mystery as a genre for fall. That’s when I usually read them. But PBS schedules its mystery shows for the summer. We just wrapped up a season of Endeavour, which I enjoy even though I never saw the original Inspector Morse series. That got me in the mood for that sort of thing, so I went back and watched the series from the beginning on Amazon.

A lot of what I love about it is the Oxford setting. One of my favorite vacations ever was to Oxford. I had a huge client event early in October one year, and since I worked from home and my client’s office was closer to my house than my actual office was, they had a habit of calling me over there at all hours as we prepared for the event. I decided I would go on vacation when the event was over, and I would go somewhere I couldn’t be reached (at the time, US cell phones wouldn’t work overseas unless you got a special world phone model). I saw an airfare sale and bought a ticket to London, then after doing a little research, I decided I’d stay in Oxford. It was a setting for some of my favorite books, it was close enough to London for day trips, and it was close to other things I wanted to see, plus it was a lot cheaper to get a room there than in London. The bed and breakfast where I stayed was apparently used as a location on Inspector Morse, a fact of which the landlady was very proud and made a point of telling me. I’ve looked for it on Endeavour and on Inspector Lewis, but haven’t spotted it, though a lot of the houses do have a similar look.

Anyway, it’s fun watching shows set in a place I’ve visited, and I enjoy looking for familiar locations. On this series, the cast is also wonderful, though it’s sometimes disconcerting hearing Roger Allam’s voice, as he was the original Javert in the London production of Les Miserables that I have the cast recording of, and I keep expecting him to burst into song with “Monsieur Le Mayor, you’ll wear a different chain.” It’s also interesting watching the character growth and development. The mysteries themselves are almost beside the point and are usually hopelessly convoluted.

Then my PBS station started showing episodes of The Bletchley Circle San Francisco, which was originally on the Britbox streaming service. I’d enjoyed the original series, about the women who worked as codebreakers during the war turning their skills to solving crimes, but I’m finding the spinoff rather dull, and I’m giving myself permission to stop watching it.

Next up on Masterpiece Mystery is Grantchester, which is set around Cambridge, where I went for a day trip on my England vacation the year after my Oxford trip.

Although I usually do mysteries in the fall, it is nice to try to trick myself into imagining fall weather in the middle of July, or at least cool and rainy weather, like they usually have at all times of the year on these British shows.


Good Omens

My plan to read mostly off my to-be-read pile so I can clear it out might be somewhat thwarted, since I just watched the Amazon series of Good Omens, and now I want to re-read the book (and then rewatch the series). It’s been long enough since I last read it that it wasn’t so familiar that the series clashed with my own mental images, but it’s familiar enough that I recognized certain scenes and even lines.

There were a few things that clashed enough with my mental images to bother me a little (like Anathema being American), but for the most part, it worked for me. They had to update some of it because it was written in the 90s and the world has changed a lot, but those updates made it even more relevant to our world.

Biggest unintentional laugh: Apparently, no one involved with the production has ever seen a US Air Force base. I guess none of the real ones would let them film there and they couldn’t find even a decommissioned one (I’d have thought there might be one or two of those in the UK).

But otherwise, I think it struck a nice balance between being faithful to the book and translating it to a new medium. The casting was excellent. It’s funny and makes you think. (Sometimes I think the funny things are most likely to make you think, even though people often think drama is more serious and thought-provoking.)

I think I may hold off on the re-read/re-watch. Maybe later this summer or early fall. It could be a good reward for finishing a project.

Which means I have to finish a project, I guess. Back to work!