Category Archives: TV

A djinn and a detective: two series on DVD

Given my love for the Arabian Nights, it’s not surprising that as a kid I loved SHAZZAN, Hanna-Barbera’s fantasy series about two kids and their nigh-invincible genie. Rewatching as an adult, I can see all the flaws I expected, but I still enjoyed it.

The premise is that two American kids, Chuck and Nancy (Janet Waldo, Jerry Dexter) find two halves of an ancient ring, join them together and are instantly transported back to fantasy Arabia. The genie of the ring, Shazzan (Barney Phillips), whose name is an obvious riff on “Shazam!”, tells them that to return home they must deliver his ring to the Wizard of the Seventh Mount, but he has no idea where the mage is. Until then, they have a magical flying camel, Kaboobie, and whenever they join the ring together they can summon him. Which of course they need to do as they run into a variety of wizards trying to oppress, conquer or otherwise wreak havoc (so yes, we have something of a white savior element).

The animation is more imaginative than I expected, though the stories are formulaic. A bigger problem is that Shazzan is so powerful, he usually overwhelms everyone he goes up against. As the series goes along, the kids get absurdly powerful too. At the start they have a couple of magic items (enchanted rope, cloak of invisibility) but by the end of the show they’re just pulling endless magical gadgets out of their utility belts, as it were.

Still, I had a lot of fun watching this.

THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB brought back Ian Carmichael as Peter Wimsey. The eponymous unpleasantness is that an elderly general expired in his arm chair at Wimsey’s club on Armistice Day. Nothing suspicious about it, until it turns out the exact time of death will determine the distribution of sizable inheritance. And someone worked very hard to cover up the time … This is much better than Clouds of Witness (of course, it’s a better book) though it’ll be a while before I get any more of Carmichael’s later seasons. “If you keep people young with monkey glands, they’re not going to die of heart failure.”

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Four weddings, a funeral and Supergirl: movies and TV

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994) stars Hugh Grant in his career-making role as a commitment-phobic Brit who beds Andie McDowell, a more sexually experienced American, in the aftermath of a friend’s wedding. He’s hooked, but she’s flying home; over the following three weddings and a funeral, they keep meeting, bedding and discovering reasons they can’t be together — one of the weddings is hers, for instance and not to Grant (Romantic Comedy might make a good double-bill for a couple who are similarly never available at the same time). A funny, charming rom-com with a cast that includes Rowan Atkinson as a mumble-mouthed minister and Kristin Scott-Thomas as one of Grant’s buddies. “There’s nothing more off-putting at a wedding than a priest with an enormous erection.”

I found SUPERGIRL‘s third season an exercise in frustration. The cast is great (Smallville‘s Erika Durrance didn’t add much as the new Alura) Melissa Benoist is always winning, we got a visit from the Legion of Super-Heroes. Storywise, the season’s big arc — a battle against a gen-engineered Kryptonian called Reign arriving on Earth — seemed to run out of steam well before the end. Supergirl and her team spend a lot of time worrying that more “world killers” are on the way, but when two more show up, they’re disposed of laughably quickly. The show still seems unsure what to do with Jimmy Olsen, Alex’s romance with Maggie Sawyer just flatlined and I really hope they don’t turn Lena Luthor evil — she’s much more interesting as the one good member of her clan. The one good arc involved J’Onn reuniting with, and ultimately losing his Martian father.

More generally, this is the third time we’ve had a menace tied to Krypton as the big bad, and I wish they’d stop. It feels like they’re paralyzed and unable to move beyond the Kryptonian threat of Superman II but they’ve had plenty of minor Earthborn adversaries. There’s no reason they can’t do one more formidable (just not Lena, please!). But while I’m unenthused about picking up Arrow next season, Supergirl‘s still on my list.

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Dr. Mabuse and Peter Wimsey: Movies and TV

THE TERROR OF DR. MABUSE (1962) was a remake of Testament of Dr. Mabuse and known under that title as well as Terror of the Mad Doctor; under all the names it’s a pale shadow of the original. Wolfgang Preiss returns as Mabuse #3, now frantically dictating a new Testament of his own. Could he possibly be behind the crime wave sweeping the city? His shrink (Walter Rilla) says no, but in the world of Mabuse, you know how little statements like are worth. A good example of why this is an inferior film is the sequence where a rebellious hood confronts Mabuse in his lair. Instead of facing drowning as in the original, we get a silly sequence involving a hall of mirrors (pretty to look at, but not much of a threat) and then Mabuse spares him for plot reasons. Not without its moments — Mabuse’s wry second-in-command is a hoot (“Here’s money for bus fair.”) — but a poor wannabe compared to Lang. Gert Frobe adds his usual talent in his last role in this series. “This is not a philanthropic institution — corpses are part of our business.”

DR. MABUSE VS. SCOTLAND YARD (1963) is even weaker and not even terribly continuous (the references to Mabuse burning down his lab to destroy his Testament don’t fit the end of Terror) as the devil doctor (Walter Rilla again) now resorts to mind-control rays to accomplish what the original Mabuse did with sheer personal force. Peter van Eyck returns as a rather bland secret agent, aided and abetted by his dotty mother. “It means the control of mankind — a power more effective than any atom bomb.”

When Ian Carmichael first appeared as LORD PETER WIMSEY on TV I found him way too flighty and silly-ass. Rewatching now, I realize he’s a dead-on portrayal of Wimsey in the earliest books, though I’m not sure how well he’d have worked romancing Harriet Vane (this series never got to those books, though a later BBC production did). For the first season they adapted Clouds of Witness, in which Peter tries to clear his brother of murdering their sister’s disgraced lover. It’s a poor choice for an opener as it’s a very stiff mystery, with way too much time spent on Who Was Where When; having actors deliver the lines rather than reading them on the printed page helps, but not enough. I must admit though, Carmichael and the rest of the cast are good and the visuals (like the climactic trial in the House of Lords) are nice. “I did not travel 3,000 miles to pass moral judgment on someone as charming as you.”

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Roseanne, you don’t have to tweet that bad thing tonight

Normally I don’t review a show until the season ends, but thanks to Barr’s racist tweeting, Roseanne is gone (much to the outrage of some conservatives). And Hulu’s pulled the shows that already aired. So here we go.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock (9310212ae)
Roseanne Barr and John Goodman
ABC ‘Roseanne’ TV show panel, TCA Winter Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA – 08 Jan 2018

I enjoyed the original show back in the day (though it ran out of steam too long before it ended). In the first place, it was funny. And Barr’s take on motherhood defied the usual formulas: she’s a very, very imperfect mother who isn’t infinitely patient or perfect and that’s rare. Goodman’s Dan, conversely, was a good dad, which is unusual for TV’s blue collar fathers (an article once pointed out that blue-collar dads tend to be clueless, white-collar dads have their shit together). And a solid cast.

I was not optimistic for the new series because revivals rarely work that well. But I found it worked. Not in the first episode when Jackie and Roseanne are arguing over Jill Stein vs. Donald Trump. But otherwise. While I’m dubious Archie Bunker could still work today, Roseanne in some ways works better. As more and more of the economy flows into the pockets of the upper brackets, I feel much more conscious of how much everyone else has to struggle. And I’m very well aware of how much harder things get as you get older. The family’s coping with buying meds, taking meds, having the kids and grandkids move back in, Roseanne driving for Uber and having trouble going up the stairs … it’s a lot of stuff TV usually doesn’t deal with on a regular basis. And yes, still funny.

Had it come back in the fall, I’d have watched. But I have no problem with ABC sending the show to an early grave.

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Dr. Mabuse, Sherlock Holmes and Agents of SHIELD: movies and TV

THE INVISIBLE DR. MABUSE (1962) drops off in quality from Return of Dr. Mabuse — if you’re not interested in the series, it’s at the point where finding something better to watch would be a good choice. Lex Barker returns from the previous film as FBI man Joe Como, investigating strange goings on (invisible stalkers! Disappearing agents! Killer clowns!) he’s convinced are tied to Dr. Mabuse. The German police aren’t convinced, but you can guess who’s right. At stake is Enterprise X, a scientist’s invisibility formula, plus Mabuse’s power to control the minds of men (though this Mabuse relies more on tech than his strong will). It’s certainly watchable, just not great; Karin Dor (best known as Spectre’s Number Eleven in You Only Live Twice) is good as the damsel in distress. “My fight will mean death, invisible death, until all mankind trembles before me!”

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) is an interesting but not entirely successful Holmesian experiment by Billy Wilder. Robert Stephens plays a laid-back Holmes (unfortunately he never conveys the steel that underlay Jeremy Brett’s Holmes) who agrees to help Gabrielle (Genevieve Page )investigate what’s happened to her engineer husband, despite Mycroft (Christopher Lee, the only person to play both Holmes brothers over the course of his career) warning him Stay Away. Over the course of the film, Holmes starts falling for Gabrielle and makes it clear that he does have feelings for women, they’ve just never worked out well in the past.

The core plot is great, but the opening scene — Holmes avoids an embarrassing situation by implying he and Watson (Colin Blakely) are lovers — feels tacked on and awkward. And while Watson isn’t a dummy like Nigel Bruce, he seems to be the butt of the joke in ways Bruce never was. On the plus side, this has several canon references (such as this story coming from the Charing Cross safety deposit box where Watson hid the stories he didn’t want to publish) and it tackles Holmes’ cocaine use several years before Seven Percent Solution made it the heart of the plot. Given Holmes’ complaints here that Watson’s writings completely distort his image, Without a Clue would make a good double bill. “The question is, what turned his wedding ring green, and why are there three dead canaries in his coffin?”

The first season of Agents of SHIELD I complained the cases were too mundane for a superheroic universe. Over the seasons, though, they’ve gotten increasingly fantastic yet if anything I’m less interested. This season we had them trapped in a dystopian future, desperate to return home and avert it; in the second arc, they wound up home trying to thwart the Hydra plot that brings down the doom. I’m not sure what’s missing, but I may be done with this one when it returns. “How was I to know there was an alien-invasion protocol?”

Whatever it lacked, TIMELESS has it — unfortunately it’s struggling for renewal where SHIELD has already gotten the nod. This season the villainous Rittenhouse conspiracy introduces sleeper agents into the past, ready to wait for years before the order comes to take out the target of the week; in-between missions the team, of course, has to cope with its personal dramas. The use of Lucy the historian as a kind of walking Google (if it’s a historical fact, she’ll conveniently know it) is annoying and so are some of the nexus points (Lucy improbably claims that if bluesman Robert Johnson doesn’t record his music, civil rights and all the other revolutions of the 1960s will never happen), but I’d definitely watch it if it returns. “Miss Tubman, you’re a total badass—where I come from that’s a compliment.”

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Could Archie Bunker work today?

All in the Family hit TV in 1971 with the force of Cat 5 storm.

The story of the Bunker family — bigoted, sexist blue-collar worker Archie; sweet, daffy wife Edith; college-student son-in-law Mike; and Mike’s wife Gloria — was like nothing ever seen before. Racists had showed up on TV, but they were completely evil villains. Archie was just a regular guy. Unabashedly convinced straight white men should run the world, but as Mike once put it, he’s not the kind of guy who’d burn a cross on someone’s lawn (“but if he found one burning, he’d probably toast a marshmallow.”). He’s the kind of everyday racist profiled in so many of those Trump-voter articles the media have been running since 2016.

A recent Screen Rant article offered Archie as one of the characters TV would never be able to show today. I wonder if they don’t have a point (we’ll soon see — a revival is on the way).

In many ways, Archie’s a horrifying character. Not an otherwise good guy with racist opinions. He’s often verbally abusive to Edith. Quite willing to bend the system to turn a quick buck (in one story he trades his vote for a local business discount). And it’s not just his opinions that are racist, but his actions. In one story, as foreman of the loading dock, he has to fire one of his crew — the lazy white guy, the hard-working Puerto Rican, the hard-working black guy. Suffice to say, he’s not going to fire the white guy. When I watched this as a tween, I knew that was wrong, but it didn’t strike a chord with me. Rewatching it as an adult with a job, I had a much stronger reaction and not favorable.

Now, I might be even less favorable. If Archie’s as racist as ever (he did mellow over time), will people be turned off? Roseanne is a hit, but while both the actor and character support Trump, the character isn’t and wasn’t as bigoted as Archie.

It’s quite possible lots of people didn’t watch at the time. No question it was a hit, but did African Americans enjoy the show? True, Archie the racist was the butt of most of the humor, but watching still requires listening to his bigoted crap. If I were Jewish, Latino, black, would I want to sit through it? I’ve no idea. Now, though, social media guarantees CBS (and the rest of us) will hear what people think.

Of course even if the revival tanks, it doesn’t follow it’s due to Archie’s politics rather than the changes since the days we had three networks plus PBS to watch. So who knows?

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Three heroic TV seasons: one great, one middling, one disappointing.

FLASH‘s fourth season was the good one. Rather than go with another evil speedster, this season the show-runners had the sense to try something new — Clifford DeVoe, AKA the Thinker (a Golden-Age Flash villain). With his brain energized by dark matter, DeVoe is actually closer to Marvel’s Mad Thinker, able to calculate potential outcomes to the point he’s always ten steps ahead of Team Flash. And he has a plan to save the world, but what is “Enlightenment” and how bad will it really be? I thoroughly enjoyed this season, including the introduction of Flash’s comics buddy Ralph Dibney, the Elongated Man, and the willingness to kill off likeable guest stars such as Izzy Bowen, the Fiddler. I hope next season can keep it up. “You will not defeat the big bad this year, Mr. Allen.

BLINDSPOT‘s third season was good until, like S2, it fell short at the end. Two years after Jane and Kurt tie the knot, the FBI team has to reunite when Roman gives Jane a new set of tattoos. He has an elaborate revenge scheme of his own, which goes awry when he falls in love. David Morse has a good turn as Crawford, another mastermind out to save the world against its will, and I was looking forward to the season ender. But much like S2, it couldn’t pull off the finish. Last year it seemed like they rushed to finish for fear of cancellation, this year they were clearly confident about renewal, yet they still didn’t satisfy. The trouble was, it felt like everything wrapped up fast so they could lay the groundwork for what’s coming in S4. Still, I’ll be back. “I got the gun, he got the bullets — one last transaction.”

ARROW‘s S6 made me appreciate why Screen Rant lists keep mentioning it as a Show That Needs to End. The season pits Mayor Queen and Green Arrow (Diggle’s now in the suit) against Caden James (Michael Emerson, playing an evil version of his Person of Interest superhacker) who blames Green Arrow for the death of his son. Can Ollie cope with such a cunning adversary while also being a father to the young son he didn’t know he had? And fighting off an investigation into whether the mayor is also Green Arrows? Part of the problem was that Diaz, the bad guy who replaces James midway through, is a lot less interesting, like a third-rate version of Black Lightning‘s Whale; part of it was that a lot of the character conflicts (can Diggle stay as GA despite a serious injury? Will René’s talking to the FBI tear the team apart?) felt very tired. If I have to drop a show next season, this will be the one. “Perhaps you did this to show which of you truly has a sense of honor.”

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Will the marvelous Mrs. Maisel go Overboard? Movies and TV

THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL is the only Amazon Prime series I’ve had the urge to watch so far (I don’t count Man in the High Castle as I watched that for Now and Then We Time Travel). It was worth it, though it doesn’t give me the impulse to check out their other offerings.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a Jewish 1950s housewife who seems to have a perfect life: kids, loving parents, husband Joel (Michael Zegen) is the love of her life and a good provider. His fondness for doing amateur standup comedy gives them both an excuse to hang out at Greenwich Village clubs and feel cool. Then one night Joel confesses that he’s miserable because he’s not good enough to turn pro, and that he’s been sleeping with his secretary. A drunken Midge wanders into one of the clubs they frequent and lets loose with a hysterical, profanity-laced rant on stage. Susie (Alex Borstein), the club’s booker, sees potential. Before Midge knows it, she and Joel are living apart and she’s launched on a new career as a stand-up comic.

What makes the series work is a)Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialog is just as sharp as when she did Gilmore Girls; good actors (Tony Shalhoub as Midge’s professor father among them); lots of 1950s detail; and that stand-up comedy is portrayed as a skill Midge has to learn. There’s an annoying assumption in fiction that if you don’t have enough talent to be awesome from the start, you’re not good enough. Midge runs into this when she starts doing stand-up sober and some of her sets bomb. Susie patiently (okay, Susie’s a grouch, she’s never patient) explains that everyone bombs. The comics Midge sees on TV don’t bomb because they did all their bombing years ago; it’s part of the learning process, not proof you’re a failure (Joel didn’t get that either). That’s refreshing. I look forward to seeing how Midge does in S2 (not airing yet). “I walked in on Nichols and May screwing — even their screwing is hilarious.”

OVERBOARD (1987) is one of those movies people describe as “problematic,” meaning in this case it has its charms, but it’s also unintentionally creepy (initial reviews indicate Anna Faris’s new remake isn’t any better). Goldie Hawn plays a selfish, shallow wealthy woman who refuses to pay Kurt Russell for a carpentry job, claiming it was sub-par. When she gets amnesia, her husband (Ed Hermann) decides to leave her in the hospital so he can cat around; Russell claims her and tells her she’s his wife so that he can take out the money she owes him in cleaning and cooking. Inevitably they fall in love and when Hawn gets her memory back they become a couple for real (as happened in real life during the film).

The film’s charms are the leads, both of whom are appealing and likeable actors; Hawn does really well playing horrified at the life she’s now living. I have friends who love the film for them. But the core of the comedy is Russell taking advantage of Hawn, a helpless amnesiac, and it’s kind of creepy, particularly as he doesn’t get even a little comeuppance for it. The classism also annoyed me: Russell and his buddies make the characters in My Name Is Earl look like high society.

And unfortunately the script isn’t as good as the leads. Most of the jokes and slapstick didn’t work for me at all. Despite the creepy factor, that’s probably more of a reason for not being enchanted by the film. With Katherine Helmond as Hawn’s mother; and Roddy McDowell as a butler who I wish the film had used more.   “No, they died — they never found each other and they drowned.”

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A bad baronet, a bad novel, Dr. Mabuse and Black Lightning: the rest of my week’s media

RUDDIGORE was Gilbert and Sullivan’s parody of then-stock stage melodrama elements, but it works even if you don’t know or care about the prototypes they made fun of (the orphan who looks to the Bible for guidance is here an orphan who looks for it in an etiquette book) it’s still very funny. A young farmer romances sweet orphan Rose, concealing that he’s the rightful heir of the bad baronets of Ruddigore, who are compelled to do evil every day or die in terrible agony. But when his rival in love exposes him, he must assume the accursed title … A great job as always with the Durham Savoyards, but it had some serious sound problems (one of the actors was almost inaudible and we were in the second row). “I sometimes think that if we could hit upon some word for you to use whenever I am about to relapse – some word that teems with hidden meaning like “Basingstoke” – it might recall me to my saner self.”

I like John Brunner and the text on Jeff Jones cover for BLACK IS THE COLOR promised an interesting yarn (voodoo in 1960s Swingin’ London!). Unfortunately, the story of a dissolute twentysomething who stumbles into an international conspiracy (South Africa plans to have a black militant commit a terrorist act, figuring Britain will stop condemning them for apartheid) goes with the theory voodoo is psychosomatic (it kills people because they believe it) which isn’t as interesting as real magic (and the ending reveal Maybe It’s Real is just trite). And while Brunner’s trying to avoid it, he ends up embracing the Superstitious Darkie cliche. Overall, a very talky, slow book, and any sixties spy show could have made better use of the premise.

THE RETURN OF DR. MABUSE (1961) — was the first Mabuse film not made by Fritz Lang, and it’s surprisingly good. Police inspector Gert Frobe gets pulled off vacation to investigate a US organized-crime plot to ally with a crime kingpin in Germany (US B-actor Lex Barker plays his first role in the Mabuse series here). Could it be a certain evil genius survived his previous film? As Gert Frobe digs deeper he discovers mysterious crimes, mysterious beggars and a suspicious prison before getting to the truth (which involves a mind-control drug, the series’ first shift into SF). Better than I remembered it. “The devil doesn’t pray — on the contrary, he wants to be prayed to.”

BLACK LIGHTNING was the CW’s newest superhero show, though taking place on a separate Earth from Supergirl’s or Flash’s. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is a retired superhero, happy to make the high school he runs the focus of his world-saving efforts. But when the 100 crime cartel kidnaps his daughters, Jefferson is forced to go back into the field — and of course, can’t quit once he does. Like Luke Cage this is a very black show, but it also stands out from the crop by making Jeff a family man whose two daughters are just discovering their own meta-powers; that opens up storytelling angles that Oliver’s fatherhood this season on Arrow simply can’t deliver. I could have done without Tobias Whale as the evil albino (he’s that in the comics, but albinism=evil is a stereotype), but overall a very satisfactory season. “The devil deals the cards.”

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Time travel, Lilliput and magic: TV, a movie and a book

One of the things I love about superhero comics is that they mash up everything — superpowers, super-science, the supernatural; Greek myths and extraterrestrials. The third season of Legends of Tomorrow gets that perfectly. As witness the final episode involves the Legends, an Amazon-trained Helen of Troy, and Jonah Hex battling a demon in 1800s North Dakota.

The overall arc of the season was the Legends fighting against a resurrected Damien Dahrk and his plan to create enough anachronisms to liberate the demon Mallus from a temporal prison. That led to several fun stories, such as Helen replacing Hedy Lamarr as a sex symbol in 1930s Hollywood (Timeless did a Hedy Lamarr story too; it wasn’t as good) or Julius Caesar leading an army of drunken frat boys to conquer Aruba. We also get a good addition to the cast in Ava, a Time Bureau agent whose button-down exterior hides a lot of passion. They even pulled off a time-loop story despite how often those have been done. I’m looking forward to seeing them back for S4 (it’s been confirmed). “A dirty hat. How … romantic.”

The Fleischer Brothers’ GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1939) focuses entirely on the Lilliputian section of the story: Gulliver washes up on the shore, terrifying everyone (I began imagining the movie as one of Marvel’s old school monster stories — “Gulliver is loose once more! Nothing can save us now!”) until he proves himself a friend. But with a war under way, can he resolve everything happily? The story is slight, but the art is absolutely beautiful. I was amazed at how much detail the Fleischers put into the actual work of binding Gulliver. “I owned a boat, a beauty too/Fifty times as big as … your shoe!”

MAGIC: 1400 to 1950s edited by Noel Daniel traces stage magic from the days of the “cup and ball” trick (which predates the scope of the book by a millennium and then some), through card tricks and sleight-of-hand to the bigger and more elaborate illusions of Robert-Houdin, Harry Houdini’s escapology, PT Selbit’s saw-the-lady-in-half (the text notes that sawing tricks were old hat by then, but switching from a man to a lady made it a classic) and the demands of vaudeville, music-halls, world tours, night clubs and TV and movies (the latter two, of course, ultimately pushing magic back to the bush leagues). A coffee table book, lavishly illustrated with photos and posters of various acts, this was a good read.

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