TV: Better Call Saul, the Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Genius, House of Cards and SYTYCD

 

Season Finales:

Better Call Saul (AMC)

I actually like Better Call Saul better than Breaking Bad.  Saul at least has some with redeeming qualities – particularly Kim and Jimmy McGill before he becomes Saul.  This season was great as we ease closer to the world of Breaking Bad and see some of the characters making choices that will forever doom them.  But the reason I love Better Call Saul is that the characters of Kim, Chuck and Jimmy are complex, interesting and the actors are fantastic.  Michael McKean is brilliant as Chuck who we never completely have a handle on.  Is he mentally ill?  A fake?  The only person who sees through Jimmy and tries to protect the world from him?  Just a jealous brother who makes poor Jimmy’s life miserable or all the above.  Although the finale helps with answer several of these questions,, we will never know all due to the final scene of the season.

What is keeping me going now is wanting to know what happens ultimately to Kim who is not in Breaking Bad.  I can only hope that she finds happiness and moves far away from New Mexico but that would not exactly be in the DNA of a Vince Gilligan show.  Jimmy started down the path towards Saul this year although he still showed he had a heart in the last two episodes.  That will be gone soon.  Mike has made the permanent turn to crime signing on with Gus and Nacho remains an intriguing character.  A good deal of progress was made this season toward where these people are in the Breaking Bad universe so I’m not sure how much of a story is left but I’m totally in until the end.  This was a great season of a great show.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

The Handmaid’s Tale was excellent.  Elizabeth Moss was riveting as was Ann Dowd and even Alexis Bleddel had fine moments (and I’m glad she will be back for Season 2).  The TV series deviated from the book (as can be expected) particularly at the end as it has been renewed for season 2 which must go beyond the book’s story.  Next season, we will be in unchartered territory for the adapted screenplay of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel which provides for some interesting plotlines given the open-ended conclusion to the book.

Handmaid offers a look into what could be a near term world for us all.  It has eerie correlations to our current political environment to the point of being uncomfortable but it is really good and marks Hulu’s entry into well constructed original TV dramas.  Don’t be scared off by getting a Hulu subscription.  It is easy to subscribe and unsubscribe from and it is worth getting a month’s subscription to watch this show.

Fargo (FX)

This third season certainly was filled with death and destruction as only Fargo can provide.  It was good but didn’t grab me the way the first two seasons did although the addition of Carrie Coon was a really good one.  With Leftovers showing at the same time as Fargo, my Carrie Coon fix was certainly satisfied this spring.  The whole Ewen McGregor playing two brothers (Ray and Emmit Stussy) thing I found somewhat tedious but Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ray’s girlfriend was this season’s star.  She was amazing and I felt that her character was the only one that was fully developed.  None of the others seemed to have the completeness she had which made for a less than optimal viewing experience.  It also took me the entire season to realize the evil V.M. Varga was played by none other than David Thewlis who played the loveable Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter series which I have seen more times than I care to admit.  The make-up and vocal changes were excellent for this villain.

I find Fargo hard to watch week in and week out and keeping a handle on everything that is going on due to the fact there are so many other TV shows competing for my time.   I think that this might be better watched all at once to stay on top of the subtleties and nuances in the plot lines. Nonetheless, Fargo has turned out to be a very good series and hasn’t lost its excellence despite changing stories, actors, Directors etc.  each season which I assume is because the Creator, Noah Hawley, is the glue that holds it all together keeping it true to its Coen brother roots. While this was its weakest season, I would still recommend the show.

Genius (National Geographic)

I didn’t love Genius.  I felt there were too many episodes and the story dragged.  This show which premiered for the first time in the spring dedicated its first season to the story of Albert Einstein.  Einstein’s biography is interesting (although every time it discussed the Theory of Relativity in depth, I had panic attacks remembering a college physics course) as I don’t think many people know that much about his personal life.  The show spends a great deal of time on Einstein’s marriage to his first wife along with the affair that led to his divorce and second marriage to his cousin played very well by Emily Watson.  The great Geoffrey Rush plays Einstein in his later years and he was fine but I liked Johnny Flynn even better as young Einstein.

Genius had barely enough going on with action and character development to keep me going and I wish it had been about 6 or 7 episodes instead of 10.  Had it premiered earlier in the year when there was more competition, I doubt I would have stayed with it.  Next year’s “Genius” season will be about Pablo Picasso.  I don’t honestly know if I’ll tune in.

Finished Streaming:

House of Cards (Netflix)

I think I might be done with House of Cards unless all the critics next year exclaim that Season 6 is brilliant.  First of all, 13 episodes was about 3 to many for Season 5.  Most of the episodes dragged and it wasn’t until the last couple that I engaged.   It’s not just that Frank Underwood and his administration have several things in common with the current one that made the drama humdrum, it is that the same old plotlines seem to just keep remerging.  Frank does dastardly things but doesn’t seem to have competent enemies like he used to call him out; Will had potential but disappeared in an airplane meltdown; the Congressman who was going to bring him down is convinced to withdraw his opposition and no other contenders emerge (although the Patricia Clarkson character has some potential).  Then there is Doug.  Why is he back?  Same old, same old and what’s with all the guys named Tom?  Well I guess there is one less of them at the end of the season.

I found all the circuitous storylines swirling around the first 2/3s of the season to be dull and confusing at the same time.  Claire is the only truly intriguing character at this point.  The rest are just blah.  There is too much great TV out there to continue with this series.  I didn’t watch season 3 and came back in season 4 and didn’t miss a beat so maybe I’ll try that again.

Season Premiers

SYTYCD

It’s back, I love it and I’m dumping World of Dance as a result.  Once again, we have great adult dancers, a judge’s panel where at least 2 out of 3 know what they are doing and for that, I can easily ignore Mary Murphy’s screaming.  Hopefully we will once again see some of the great choreographers that provided Emmy winning performances in the early years.  The fact that Mandy Moore (La La Land) was helping out during the auditions gives me a great deal of hope.  I’ll ignore Vanessa Hudgens for the time being and hope my summer go- to -show goes back to its roots after I had to walk away from it the last two years.

 

 

TV: Mary Kills People, Catastrophe, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Genius, Feud and Bates Motel

 

Premiers:

Mary kills People (Lifetime)

I never thought I would watch a Lifetime show but this one received reasonably good reviews so I gave it a go.  After all, how much worse could a show about Assisted Suicide be after just getting through “13 Reasons Why”?  Mary is a divorced doctor who with the help of another M.D. provides terminally ill patients with a cocktail of lethal drugs to end their misery.  She and her partner get the names at the hospital they work at and believe they are providing a humanitarian service.

The first episode was a quick 45 minutes and covered a botched suicide and the back stories of the two doctors who perform the assists.  There is plenty of action as Mary’s lesbian teenage daughter discovers her hidden stash of drugs and the doctors don’t realize they are in a potential race to escape from the authorities who are on to her activities. It all moved with pace and  good performances by the lead characters and I’m looking forward to the remaining five episodes.

Catastrophe (Amazon)

Amazon dropped the third season (6 thirty-minute shows) this past Friday and I immediately sat down and watched them all.  Catastrophe is a one of the new style comedies often referred to as a “dramedy” because they delve into some pretty difficult topics (e.g. depression, alcoholism, bi-polar, and breast cancer. are just some of the plot lines in shows of this genre that I watch) and Catastrophe is not an exception.  The third season, however, is much darker than the first two.

This series is about a couple, Sharon and Rob, who had a one night stand when Rob was on a business trip to London.  Sharon gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby and Rob moves to London to give marriage and fatherhood a shot.  The second season brings another pregnancy and highlights the difficulties of keeping a family together while utilizing humor to provide relief.  The third season adds more complexity and deeper problems to this goal of family unity.

I love Catastrophe but this was a tough season.  To top it off, Carrie Fisher had a minor role in the show (Rob’s mother) that she has just finished filming when she returned by plane to the US and had her heart attack.  The last episode reminds us just how great a comedian she was.  The show isn’t for everyone but if you like this genre and have missed it, check it out.  Because each season is only 3 hours, it is easy to catch up with, (or bag along the way) with little investment of your time.

The Handmaid’s Tale (HULU)

The first three episodes of the Handmaid’s tale dropped on Hulu last week and the remainder of the 10 episodes will appear on a weekly basis.  Unfortunately for me, that means a couple of months having to subscribe to Hulu although it is very easy to switch this service on and off.  The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel which I quickly read before I began the TV series.  It takes place in the not too distant future (since it was written in 1985 think “now” for more reasons than one) when all rights have been taken away from women who are no longer able to have jobs or bank accounts.  It is a world that the women never saw coming and has an eerie correlation to the current climate.

The women are confined to roles which are defined by the color of their dress.  The red dresses are for the Handmaids, those who are assigned to upper class men to be impregnated by them only to turn over the children to the men’s spouses.  There are also the women in the green dresses, the Marthas who are infertile and comprise the servant class.  The “gender traitors” (gays and lesbians) are sentenced to death as are the Unwomen who are slaves sent to the “colonies” (nuclear wastelands) to help out until they die. Of course, like in any dystopian tale, there are armed men everywhere keeping everyone in their appropriate place.

Elizabeth Moss is excellent in the starring role of Offred (of Fred) as is Alexis Bledel as Ofglen in what is possibly the best performance of her career.  Ann Dowd is marvelous as “Aunt Lily” who “trained” Offred to be a Handmaiden.  I loved the first three episodes and am looking forward to the rest.  So far, it is a real winner.  This is one worth checking out.

Fargo (FX)

Fargo Season 3 premiered recently and after two very good seasons, I was anxious to see what creator Noah Hawley has in store for us this year. Ewan McGregor plays two brothers (Emmitt and Ray), the first a big financial success and the other one a flop.   I didn’t love McGregor but did find the supporting characters played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ray’s girlfriend) and the terrific Carrie Coon as this season’s very competent police officer most engaging.

Fargo is not for everyone and the first two episodes of this season didn’t grab me in the same way as prior seasons so I’m not sure how I’ll find the rest of the series.  Maybe I’m just tired of the endless snow and the Minnesota accents but I’ll stick with it long enough to find out.  Fargo’s first two seasons left too much good will not to give the third a full run through.  Let’s hope that it isn’t another True Detective in that regard.

Genius (National Geographic)

I was disappointed by the first episode of Genius, the story of Albert Einstein’s life played by Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn (as the young Einstein) and directed by Ron Howard.  It jumped around a great deal and the dialogue was not particularly noteworthy or up to the level of the actors speaking the lines.  I didn’t come away with a real feel for Einstein’s motives and role in either the political or scientific world he existed in.  It was almost as if the writers were just trying to provide an Emmy winning role for Rush.  Maybe I expected too much from one episode so I’ll see how the next few episodes go in hopes that the show gets better.

Finales:

Feud (FX)

I found Feud to be hugely inconsistent in its portrayal of the “feud” between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  The first few episodes put me to sleep – literally – but the last few, beginning with the Oscar show were riveting.  Feud is Ryan Murphy’s one season follow-up anthology to last year’s brilliant “The People v OJ Simpson, American Crime Story” but isn’t at the same overall level.  Next year, Murphy will be doing Charles and Diana which could be fascinating.

In Feud, Jessica Lange stars as Joan Crawford and I think she pulls off the character better than Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis although both will likely get Emmy nominations.  Crawford comes off as the more tragic figure here and the story ends with her death.  Shortly before, there is a great dream sequence where Joan dreams that she and Davis reunite and become best friends.  It provides the series with a great “What if” to contemplate.  Feud is worthwhile TV but it just doesn’t have the overall quality that O.J. did.

Bates Motel (A&E)

I’m sorry to see Bates Motel go.  This was a very good show the last two seasons and a pretty good one for the first three seasons.  How Carlton Cuse and team could eek a 5-season prequel to Psycho is quite impressive as we all knew the endgame.  Freddie Highmore reached new acting heights as he played not only Norman but Norman playing Norma and Norman playing Norma playing Norman.  This show delivered to its audience and far exceeded what meager expectations were initially set for it.

As Norman descended into his deepest insanity over the last few episodes, there were glimmers at the end that he knew what reality he existed in and that carting the decomposing corpse of his mother around would not continue to be a viable option.  When Dylan shows up to help, it becomes clear to both that the only way out for Norman is death.  Leading up to that point, Dylan and his wife (played superbly by Olivia Cooke) have several emotional moments.  Vera Farmiga was wonderful for the entire five seasons as was Nestor Carbonell.

If you missed Bates the first go around, it’s worth checking out understanding that the first couple of seasons have some fits and starts as the creators work their way through how to make this story work most effectively given where Norma and her son end up.