Category Archives: TV

Who watches the Watchmen? Not me, it turns out

So this month Hulu began streaming HBO’s WATCHMEN free; seizing the opportunity, I caught a couple of episodes. It’s not bad the way Devs was bad, but I didn’t feel the need to go past two episodes.

The film is set in the same universe as the classic Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comics series but years after those events. Rorschach has inspired the fanatical Seventh Army anarchists into a relentless war on authority, particularly cops; protagonist Angela Abar (Regina King), like other cops, has to operate masked, her identity secret. Dr. Manhattan is on Mars somewhere; Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) is an old fart who in one scene burns a man to death in a re-enactment of Dr. Manhattan’s origin.

The cast is solid and there’s quite a bit I do like. The Tulsa massacre looms large in the backstory (Angela’s ancestors lived through it) and issues of race and resentment weave through the two episodes that I caught. So why aren’t I watching?

Well for one thing it’s the perennial problem of the modern age: there’s simply too much awesome TV.  It’s not as if skipping Watchmen means I’m stuck with Gilligan’s Island or Victorious; there are dozens of excellent shows I’m also not watching. Much as I don’t get excited about coming books these days, it’s hard to feel I must catch Watchmen or anything else. Plus, of course, quality is not the only factor: keeping up with the CW-verse or rewatching the old series Square Pegs on video appeals to me more than any number of arguably superior TV series.

Then again, with Damon Linkelof in charge of this one, I don’t know that it will be superior. I thought Lindelof’s Lost was a botched mess and I don’t want to commit to the remaining episodes of Watchmen only to discover Lindelof left as many plot arcs hanging as he did the previous series.

Then there’s the connection to Watchmen itself. Moore and Gibbons have been adamant that their series was completely self-contained: no sequels, no prequels, it said all that needed to be said. And that’s how it would have been had things happened as planned, with Moore and Gibbons regaining the rights once the collected Watchmen went out of print. But it never did (deservedly. It’s a classic that earned its praise) and so they never regained the rights. So inevitably we got a prequel series, Before Watchmen and now this sequel. That makes me a little guilty about watching it (I haven’t even bothered with Before Watchmen). More significantly, the TV series just doesn’t have enough of a connection to the series. Despite the name references, this could as easily be an unrelated dystopia with the sovereign citizens militia movement committing the killings. Much like Exit Stage Left and A Study in Honor, the connection to the source material is too tangential to work for me.

And last but not least, there’s the whole masked cop thing. Just as opening with the Tulsa bombing of a century ago has added resonance in the current policing debate, so does the idea of cops going masked and hiding their identities because of fears of anti-police violence. Trouble is, it’s resonant the wrong way: we now have masked, unidentified cops on the streets and loud complaints about cops being persecuted and I simply can’t buy a world where cops concealing their identities is a good thing.

So I will stick with the original series, thank you.

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Haunted by the dead (movies and TV)

William Marshall’s Mumuwalde died at the end of Blacula but in 1973’s SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM he rises again, courtesy of an angry voodoo practitioner who hopes to use the vampire’s power to seize control of the local cult from gifted priestess Pam Grier. Needless to say, resurrecting a vampire does not work out well for the dude.This is more of a straight horror film than its predecessor; where Blacula centered on the love between Marshall’s Mumuwalde and Vonetta McGee, this one is mostly the vampire killing and turning Los Angelinos, who in turn kill more; it’s about two-thirds done before we get to the plot hook of Mumuwalde wanting Grier to exorcise his vampire side. I’ve gone back and forth over which one is better (I’ve watched these more than once) and this time out the first film gets the nod, if only for Scream wasting Grier (she has little to do but cry and shriek). “Vampires can’t be photographed — every ten-year-old knows that!”

REBECCA (1940) was the first movie in the Alfred Hitchcock/David O. Selznick collaboration and it proved a spectacular success for both men. Joan Fontaine plays the never-named heroine of Daphne DuMaurier’s bestselling novel (Selznick insisted on keeping the no-name element, believing it would make her easier to identify with) who meets and charms brooding, intense Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). When they marry and return home to his magnificent country estate, Mrs. deWinter discovers she’s living in the shadow of Maxim’s dead first wife, Rebecca — magnificent, beautiful, charming, the perfect hostess and upper-class wife; Maxim’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) never lets Fontaine forget what a pale shadow of Rebecca she is. Little does Fontaine guess the true story of her husband’s first marriage …

As film historian Leonard Leff says, the film drew on the strengths of both men. Hitchcock had a great sense of visual style and pacing; Selznick had an eye for story and for what audiences wanted, as well as what the Production Code would allow. Along with playing down Mrs. Danvers’ repressed lesbian desire for Rebecca, the film couldn’t use DuMaurier’s version of her death — that knowing she was terminally ill, Rebecca provoked Maxim into murdering her — which violated Code clauses on suicide and getting away with murder. The solution is forced (in the final confrontation Rebecca trips and dies!) but the film’s strong enough I don’t care.

The cast are excellent, including C. Aubrey Smith as a local constable, Nigel Bruce as a friend of Maxim’s and George Sanders as a cad. Fontaine, a newbie, does some remarkable work; when Maxim tells her how he really felt about Rebecca you can see the mix of emotions chasing over her face. “I love you my darling, I’ve always loved you — but I always knew Rebecca would win in the end.”

DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW started out the 2020 season with the Legends battling “echoes,” dead souls of evidoers sent up from Hell to wreak fresh havoc; behind it lies Astra, a young woman with a bitter vendetta against John Constantine (which he admits is justified). Midway through, however, things shift into higher gear as we learn Astra’s patron in Hell is Lachesis of the Fates, with a plan to recover the shattered loom with which they wove destiny and use it to revoke humanity’s free will.

As usual, there were some inspired moments this season, such as nerdy Gary adopting a dog that turns out to be the hellhound that drove Son of Sam to kill. The goofy tone works against it though, and the dystopian fate-ruled world reminded me too much of the series ender of The Librarians. I’m still watching but it doesn’t click with me the way it does with several TV critics. “I only exist because my father traveled back in time to his high-school reunion and had sex with my mom in a broom closet.”

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Doctor Who, S15: A change in tone and a little tin dog

Season 15 of DOCTOR WHO starts out with the same dark tone as the previous season. By the end, as the production team changed, we’re in lighter, more comical territory, Leela has gone (I’d remembered her being around a lot longer) and instead K9, the robot dog, has entered the TARDIS.The season kicks off with a very dark one, HORROR OF FANG ROCK (which I wrote about a while back). Instead of landing at Brighton, the TARDIS materializes near a Victorian lighthouse. A Rutan space ship has also landed nearby and is now scouting out the area to decide how easy it will be to attack and wipe out the humans. An energy-based shapeshifter, the Rutan is able to replace any member of the supporting cast — but which ones? It’s a grim, effective story in which nobody but the Doctor and Leela make it out alive. “I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead I’ve locked it in… with us!'”

THE INVISIBLE ENEMY is a good concept badly undercut by crappy effects — the boss monster is on a par with the infamous rubber snake of Kinda and the mind-controlled humans look silly too. A shame because I like the concept. An intelligent viral swarm takes over a space station with an eye to spreading and dominating all human life. With the Doctor infected the fight against the Purpose looks hopeless, but fortunately the space station scientist is able to clone the Doctor and Leela and shrink them to confront the virus on its own level.

What makes this episode really memorable is K9, the scientist’s AI robot dog (voiced to perfection by John Leeson). At the end of the episode, the Doctor winds up taking K9 along in the TARDIS. While the producers weren’t sure if they wanted to keep him around, he stayed a companion until late in S18, and has cropped up in spinoffs Sarah Jane Adventures and his own show to boot. K9 has an undeniable charm to him (and occasionally some sarcasm) but as some fans have complained, his built in ray-weapons makes it a lot easier for the Doctor to take down the bad guys. “Some of my best friends are humans. When they get together in great numbers other lifeforms sometimes suffer.” 

IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL is another grim one. The Doctor arrives near an anthropological research site where the crew are baffled by what appears to be an impossibly old human skull. The Doctor realizes the skull is the Fendahl, a monstrous entity supposedly destroyed by the Time Lords. Instead it reached Earth and has been manipulating humanity — most of what we think of as magic is the result of the Fendahl’s powers — with an eye to reconstituting itself. And it’s very close to its goal. While the gold face makeup on the Fendahl’s final form is underwhelming, this is a good one, strongly reminiscent of Quatermass and the Pit. “I have been used! My family has been used! All mankind has been used!”

THE SUN MAKERS is much more comic in tone, and not quite to my taste, though it does boast some memorable performances. The TARDIS arrives on Pluto, long after humanity has relocated there from a polluted Earth. Unfortunately the company that arranged the move and maintains the artificial suns that provide light has kept humanity in indentured servitude for generations. That, of course, is about to change … Not the series’ best satire, but not a bad one either. “I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism!”

UNDERWORLD would suffer even if it was awesome because it’s another oppressed underground planetary civilization right after the one in Sun Makers. In a riff on the legend of Jason, the TARDIS lands on a Minyan ship seeking a legendary lost colony. This is important to the Doctor because millennia earlier, the Time Lords had tried advancing Minyan technology only to watch the planet destroy itself, leading to their vow of non-intervention. So naturally, the Doctor and Leela come along with Jaxson, Herik, Orph and their crewmates. What follows never really gels, though and as the Doctor points out the enemy they ultimately face is too cliched. “You’re just a machine with delusions of grandeur — another insane object, another self-aggrandizing artifact.”

The season wraps up with the six-episode INVASION OF TIME, one where my opinion is way lower than it was on first viewing. The Doctor strikes a pact with the sinister, unseen Vardans to conquer Gallifrey, then returns and uses his authority as President (from the previous season’s The Deadly Assassin) to make it happen. Unsurprisingly it turns out the Doctor is running a scam to take down the Vardans — but then it turns out they’re just a stalking horse to get the Sontarans inside Gallifrey’s defenses.

Part of what goes wrong is that all the added areas we see in the TARDIS — corridors, swimming pool — don’t really work. For one thing it’s still a lot of time spent running through corridor;  for another everything looks like they shot it at the nearest school. The TARDIS should look more colorful than that. Another problem is that the Vardans, when we finally see them, are really, really uninteresting. And Leela’s departure is awful, leaving to marry/pair off with Andred, a Time Lord guard. While an early couple of scenes show them finding each other obnoxious and irritating (we know what that means) they hardly have any interaction after that; Leela has more chemistry with the Time Lady Rodan. It’s a hamfisted farewell and way out of character for Leela. Despite some good performances (Baker playing evil is always fun), this one’s ultimately a loser. “Where do you hide a tree? In a forest — you taught me that, Borussa.”

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A snowbound airport, a foolish king, a funny lady: movies and TV

AIRPORT (1970) is the Best Picture-nominated adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s novel, foreshadowing of the 1970s’ disaster movie cycle with its climax (a plane tearing apart from a bomb), it’s similar story structure (personal crises going on while the disaster builds) and it’s all-star cast (of course it’s also the heir to the early cycle of Doomed Flight films such as Zero Hour and The High and the Mighty). Burt Lancaster stars as the airport ops manager coping with a heavy snowfall and his deteriorating marriage to Dana Wynter; Dean Martin is an arrogant pilot married to Barbara Hale but having a love affair with Jacqueline Bissett; George Kennedy is a troubleshooter trying to clear a vital runway; Van Heflin is a mad bomber plotting to blow up the plane over the ocean so wife Maureen Stapleton can live off the insurance; and Helen Hayes copped a Supporting Actress Oscar for playing a tricky stowaway. A good job adapting the source — the only major plotline they missed was a suicidal air-traffic controller — and fun in its own right, even though it’s the Oscar nominee a lot of critics love to hate. “I don’t want to be turned over to the Italian police!”

As KING LEAR (1999) Brian Blessed appears at first as a jovial, almost fuddy-duddy monarch, willing to turn over the kingdom to his beloved daughters as soon as they tell him how much they love him — but when Cordelia refuses to mouth platitudes, Lear turns petulant and casts her out (while it was unfair of him to pressure her, I’ve got to say she could have handled it better). Of course his two older daughter turn out sharper than a serpent’s tooth, Regan being particularly vicious.  As Christopher Moore says in the afterword to Fool, the more versions of the play I watch, the more I grow to despise the king’s selfishness and folly, but Blessed still does a great job making him a tragic figure. For comparison, you can check out Ian McKellan, Orson Welles, James Earl Jones and a 1969 Soviet production. “Upon such sacrifices, the gods themselves throw incest.”

The third season of THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAIZEL (click the links for reviews of S1 and S2) is funny but ends on a note of idiot plot. This season has Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) touring as the opening act for black crooner Shy Baldwin (LeRoy McClain) while Susie (Alex Borstein) juggles managing Midge with her new client, Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch). Sophie became an enemy to Midge in the first season but she was impressed with how Susie refused to back down; she wants Susie fighting for her, specifically getting Sophie a serious dramatic role on Broadway (opposite a British actor played by Cary Elwes).

As usual the season has funny moments and some great dialog (“She said I belonged in a freak show and told me my billing would be second after the dogfaced boy!”); I particularly liked the women winding up in Miami, where they’re very much fish out of water. However the season ends by implausibly undercutting Susie and Midge’s success, presumably so they’ll still be struggling in S4. First Sophie freaks out on stage and ruins the show she’s in. Then Midge, opening for Shy at the Apollo, heeds his manager’s suggestion to tell the black audience some stories and jokes about Shy. As she knows he’s gay but closeted, she proceeds to tell lots of jokes focusing on how effeminate he is — and presto, she’s off the tour. While one review argued this shows Midge doesn’t care who she hurts as she climbs to the top, I can’t believe it didn’t occur to her that this wouldn’t be okay with Shy. Sure enough she ends up off the tour just after everything was going perfect. It doesn’t help that they pulled the exxact same trick near the end of S1 (Midge joked about some of Sophie’s secrets, getting her blackballed). It’s a frustrating end to a fun season. “More pregnant women smoke Pall Malls than any other brand of cigarettes.”

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Little baby steps feel better than crawling

Which is to say that while I haven’t brought anything to a conclusion any more than I did last week, I made enough progress I feel more satisfied.

On Oh the Places You’ll Go, for instance, switching to 1972 as the “present” works as well as I’d hoped. For the first time I feel like I’ve got a stronger plot without sacrificing the character dynamic and the McGuffin is actually something interesting. There’s still a lot of stuff to sort out on the next draft, but I’m confident the story is there.

On Undead Sexist Cliches I actually finished proofing the introduction. That’s a very small piece of the book, but it still feels like an accomplishment, as opposed to stopping somewhere mid-chapter.

I didn’t get quite as much done on Impossible Takes a Little Longer but the outline for the next draft is firming up. There’s a couple of points that have me baffled but I’m hopeful I’ll crack them by the end of the month. I’ll probably be batting out a second chapter early next week in case I’m called on to read at Tuesday’s writers’ group (I’m only one of the backups, but if anyone doesn’t show …)

While the Leaf article pipeline has been erratic, I finished several articles so I’m contributing to the family bottom line again.

I got another short story back with “we liked it but …” compliments and it’s now out again. As I said last week, it’s frustrating to come close and miss, but I’m in a good enough mood today I’m more inclined to accept the compliments.

Oh, and following up on my review of first season Star Trek, I posted about what everyone gets wrong about Kirk over at Atomic Junkshop.Still feeling a little cabin-fevery; having no meetings of any sort this week didn’t help. Neither did the drenching rain keeping us indoors Monday through Wednesday. But until I’m more comfortable going places casually (I’m still very wary), there’s not a lot of options for changing things up. All things considered though, my life is still very good.

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Alien visitors and a masquerader: a book and a TV season

THE VISITORS by Clifford Simak is a frustrating one in that there’s a lot I like about it but damn, the dialog is horrible. Even in the middle of a quasi-alien invasion everyone’s rational — nobody panics or gets excited, they just sit and discuss policy and options.

The story concerns a series of giant oblong ships/creatures descending on the United State and eating wood. Nobody knows why at first; before long it’s clear that they’re eating so they can reproduce. We can’t seem to hurt them and they don’t attack unless we strike first but still … what happens if they eat our forests? What if they don’t stop with forests? What’s their next move going to be?

This plays out at various levels: among the locals in the small Minnesota town where the first aliens arrive; in Washington DC as they figure out how to respond and whether to seek help from the rest of the world; at a Minnesota daily newspaper. Simak was a long-time newspaper guy (maybe that’s why there’s no mention of TV news) and the paper scenes feel very real — getting stories and photos in time for the next edition, figuring angles, wondering after a few weeks if the aliens are no longer compelling front-page news. Complicating everything is that we can’t find a way to communicate with the aliens so everything we learn about them is a guess.

I’m a Simak fan and I think the novel, overall, is excellent. But the dialog is not.

The second season of YOUNGER has Liza and Josh recalibrating their relationship following twentysomething Josh learning at the finish of S1 that his girlfriend is actually 14 years older than he is (I find it amusing that’s one year less than the gap between me and TYG). Josh hates lying about it to everyone else (Liza: “He’s honest — that’s one of the habits I want to break him of.”); Liza’s daughter has returned from a trip abroad and is shocked Mom’s getting it on with this hot young guy; and Liza still has to hide the truth from her coworkers.

In addition to the romantic complications, Liza’s work buddy Kelsey gets to launch her own imprint at Empirical Books targeting millennials like her and Liza which poses it’s own set of challenges; the arc dealing with one obnoxious influencer was really funny. Finally everything comes crashing down on Liza but only to prove that even though her life is built on a lie, it’s real: when she quits Empirical everyone’s miserable. It was a nice finish to the season. I do think they lost the thread of Liza’s roommate Maggie and Kelsey’s buddy Lauren hooking up, but perhaps they’ll pick it up in S3. “May I have a slice of your pain?”

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Have you heard of this show Star Trek? It’s really good!

A little over a year ago, I started Netflixing Star Trek from the beginning. Having finally finished the first season, I’ve got to say it’s a really good show. Of course I knew that already, but I’m not sure I appreciated it the same way. When the original series was in syndication, I watched it endlessly, over and over, and ever since then it’s been a part of me, much as Sherlock Holmes and comic books are. In a sense I took the show for granted. Now, though, I’m more impressed. And this is probably the first time I’ve caught the episodes in the order they aired and with no syndicated cuts.

It’s not a perfect show. Crew members in miniskirts. Offhand casual sexism. Having a black woman and an Japanese-American on the bridge was groundbreaking then, but it’s a pretty white cast now (though it pleases me that they do show crewmembers of color rather than making Uhura and Sulu the only nonwhite faces). Kirk, Spock and McCoy are sharply defined, but the other characters much less so. But as I pointed out at the link, we have Charlie X with its toxic-masculine villain and Kirk doesn’t put up with him. He doesn’t tolerate bigotry against Spock in Balance of Terror and I agree with The Mary Sue that he wouldn’t tolerate it against Uhura either.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like as a kid watching the show when it was new. I’d watch almost any show SF show on the air because there were so few of them. Here was one that was a full-on space adventure, with tons of SF concepts (transporters, ray guns, warp speed, alien life) but unlike the space operas of the 1950s, it was played seriously. Many of the episodes use classic SF tropes: This Side of Paradise resembles Invasion of the Body Snatchers while Operation: Annihilate is more like Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. The Devil in the Dark gives us a misunderstood alien; Arena reworks a Fredric Brown short story; Errand of Mercy, which introduced the Klingons, resembles John W. Campbell’s Twilight (it’s also incredibly funny. Knowing what godlike powers the Organians have, seeing Kirk and Kor treat them as helpless sheeple is hysterical). Harlan Ellison’s Hugo-winning City on the Edge of Forever is first-rate.Watching the series in order is interesting because I can see it develop. We have Spock referring to having human ancestors before they settled on a human parent. Uhura flirting with Spock. The introduction of the Romulans (Balance of Terror, which draws on WW II movie tropes) and then the Klingons. The first appearance of Roger Carmel as Harry Mudd; while he only made one more appearance, his roguish conniving has led to countless fanfic and authorized fic appearances (and plans to use him in Next Generation only to have Carmel pass away first).

And while countless people think the show’s essence is “Captain Kirk has sex with hot space chicks” (something I’ll discuss next week), the romantic/sex focus of the show this season is very much on Lost Love. McCoy meets a lost love in the first episode, Man Trap. Nurse Chapel meets hers in What Are Little Girls Made Of? Kirk encounters former lovers in Court-Martial and Shore Leave (a delightful episode written by SF master Theodore Sturgeon). Even Spock turns out to have a former not-quite-lover in This Side of Paradise.

On the downside, I can also see the tropes the show would run into the ground over the following two seasons. The alt.Earth setting (Miri). The computer-controlled culture that has to be liberated (Return of the Archons). The godlike entity that captures the cast (Squire of Gothos — though Errand of Mercy fits that category too).

Still, overall the show only had one truly wretched episode, The Alternative Factor. Didn’t like it as a kid. Hasn’t improved any. That’s a good batting average.

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Vampires, Hitchcock, Nazis and witches: movies and TV

BLACULA (1972) doesn’t have the best vampire makeup (though it must have been the first, or one of the first films to show vampires changing their face before they kill) but I still enjoy the story of how Mumuwalde (William Marshall) makes the mistake of trying to enlist Count Dracula’s support in his 1700s anti-slavery campaign, for which the arrogant count bites Mumuwalde, then leaves him chained in a coffin for 200 years. When a couple of swishy gay antique dealers (and there’s a lot of “faggot” tossed around too) buy up Dracula’s furnishings and transport them to Los Angeles, Mumuwalde (the “Blacula” name is only used once in the film) awakens, discovers Vonetta McGee is the lookalike of his long lost wife — now if he can only stop pathologist Thalmus Rasulala and McGee’s sister Denise Nicholas from realizing what he is and stopping his seduction. This is annoyingly inconsistent on the vampire rules (they rise instantly or after dying depending on what the plot calls for) but the leads are strong enough to make it work. Elisha Cook plays an ill-fated morgue attendant. “Look around this room — memorize every corner — for it will be your inglorious tomb!”

Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (1938) starts off as a quirky rom-com, with soon-to-be-married Margaret Lockwood stranded at a small European inn where she makes the acquaintance of Michael Redgrave — the most obnoxious, irritating man she’s ever met! — as well as cricket obsessed Brits Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, adulterer Cecil Parker, brilliant surgeon Paul Lukas and May Whitty as an elderly British governess. After Lockwood, Whitty and the others board the train taking them home, Whitty vanishes — but everyone in the carriage with her and Lockwood insists there never was an old woman there. A set-up that’s been reused countless times, this is an excellent mix of romance, comedy and suspense. “It has always been my contention that Hungarian Rhapsody is not their national anthem!”

When kindly Cornish squire Charles Laughton helps innocent virgin Maureen O’Hara reach her relatives at JAMAICA INN (1939), O’Hara is blithely unaware that not only is the inn the center of the local wreckers, Laughton is the secret master; before long, however, she’s working with undercover man Robert Newton (who would later play Long John Silver in Treasure Island, one of the classic pirate performances of all time) to save his life and take down the gang. This was the first of Hitchcock’s three Daphne DuMaurier adaptations, and tanked miserably, as it wasn’t at all what was now defined as a “Hitchcock film.” That said, I did enjoy watching, though it’s definitely not A-list — for Laughton to capture O’Hara at one point she basically has to walk up to him and let him tie her up. This wraps up the Hitchcock DVD set I’ve been watching, but it won’t be hard Netflixing the rest of his films. “Nature has been against you from the start — and everything else has been against you since.”

Taika Waititi’s  JOJO RABBIT (2019) is a bizarre black comedy in which a ten-year-old Hitler Youth discovers Mom Scarlett Johansson has a Jewish girl living in their attic, plunging him into an agony of uncertainty about how to deal with this demonic creature (“They have batwings and climb down chimneys to eat German children.”) — and what if his imaginary BFF Adolf Hitler finds out about it? With Sam Rockwell as a gay Nazi and Rebel Wilson as a proud Aryan Woman (“I have born 18 German babies!”) this definitely isn’t for everyone but it worked for me; I’d probably suggest John Boorman’s Hope and Glory as a double bill for another (but less off-the-wall kids’ eye view of the war. “I don’t want you to kill yourself over me, which a couple of girls have done in the past.”

The TV series MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM is set in an alternate history where witches ended the colonial-era witch hunts by offering to put their magic in the service of the military. In the present day we follow three teenage witches in basic training — general’s daughter Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams), idealistic volunteer Tally (Jessica Sutton) and rebellious draftee Raelle (Taylor Hickson). Complicating their struggle to make the grade is the Spree, a terrorist movement dedicated to ending the militaristic use of magic, and whose undercover agent Scylla (Amalia Holm) becomes Raelle’s lover.

I really liked this. It’s an overwhelmingly female cast, sex-positive and just plain good. I’d like a little more on the backstory (we know that the U.S. map is different, and that WW I was fought in 1908-11, but not much more) but the front story holds me fine. And I really like that “the work” (AKA magic) is performed by singing — it makes for a nice change from the usual “magic as psi-power” approach TV takes. I look forward to S2 with pleasure. “Once I forced her to eat part of a dead pigeon.”

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From Gotham City to Dunsinane and points in-between: this week’s viewing

BATWOMAN‘s second half-season kept up the level of the first half, which makes me sad Ruby Rose has decided one season is enough in the role of Kate Kane (there’s no official statement, but I’ve heard this credited to injuries in action scenes, the time suck of being a star in a weekly series, or her and the producers not getting along). She’s done an amazing job and plays great with her deranged sister Alice (Rachel Skarsten) and her step-sister Mary (Nicole Kang), who’s easily the best character in the show (I blogged this week about her and the show at Atomic Junkshop). In addition to the running battles with Alice and Mouse, Kate has to deal with her relationship with her closeted ex, Sophie and the discovery that Lucius Fox’s convicted killer may have been innocent, which doesn’t sit well with Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson).  Due to the pandemic the season ends, like Flash, without the final episodes, but I will say the one they did have works well as a cliffhanger. “Kate knowing what she’s doing can be worse than most people not knowing what they’re doing.”

SUPERGIRL‘s unplanned finish was much less successful, mostly because the season’s been a mess. The big challenges carrying over from the first half were Leviathan, a ruthless alien cabal plotting mass destruction and new boss Andrea’s Obsidian system bringing billions of people into a virtual fantasy world; and Lena’s (Katie McGraw) plan to cure humanity of evil with an experimental mind-control system. Adding to this, the post-Crisis reality-altering turned Lex Luthor (Jon Cryer) into a respected businessman and the head of the DEO without changing his evil agenda any; while Cryer’s good in the role this repeated last season’s twist of revealing he’s been manipulating and playing all the various villains for his own ends. It’s too repetitive (he mocks Eve Tessmacher for her foolishness much as he sneered at Red Daughter a year ago) and it doesn’t help when the villains are so unsatisfying. Leviathan’s members are powerful but not notably different from any other conqueror; the buildup with Obsidian felt pointless (despite one great episode with Alex as a VR version of Supergirl) as Andrea doesn’t have an evil agenda. Lena’s arc, finally coming back to the side of good, was the only one that really worked. So the season just fizzled out — it didn’t help that winning (though with Lex still a threat) relied on Supergirl making a very unconvincing inspirational speech. “You arranged a battle with Earth, Wind and Fire and didn’t invite us?”

I don’t think I’d heard of Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937) before watching it, or if I did I confused it with Rich and Strange. It turns out to be a good version of one of Hitch’s favorite themes, the Innocent Accused (it’s very much in the mode of The 39 Steps). When an actress turns up strangled on the shore (shortly after a private argument with her estranged husband), beachgoers spot Tisdale (Derrick de Marnay) running away from the body. He claims he was going for help but nobody believes him, including his incompetent attorney (there’s a lot of comedy in this film). Tisdale escapes and goes on the run with the help of Erica (Nova Pilbeam), a police officer’s daughter. Can they find proof that Tisdale didn’t do the deed? The leads’ love at first sight works much better than the romance in Secret Agent and the film is a good one with some clever suspense sequences, like the leads being stuck in a kid’s birthday party when they have a desperate need to be elsewhere. That said, I’m not sure the plot holds together (there’s no indication the police even tried to contact the husband) and the climax involves a nightclub band in blackface, so be warned. “You forget, it’s my petrol.”

MACBETH was a Folger Theater production streaming through the end of July. A well-executed, energetic production of the “Scottish play” but despite a striking opening (a staffer discussing trigger warnings for violence gets stabbed) it doesn’t stand out from other productions despite Penn of Penn and Teller co-directing (while some of the magic scenes are striking the play doesn’t make a huge thing of them, which is good). “Methought I heard a voice cry out ‘Sleep no more — Macbeth doth murder sleep!”

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Why do we return to the Twilight Zone?

So after blogging about Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone revival, I got to thinking about the enduring popularity of Rod Serling’s original. Why is it remembered so well? Why does it keep getting revivals?Well, it’s become a brand name so it’s no surprise CBS wants to keep reviving it. That’s a much safer bet than encouraging people to catch an all-new series — as witness I tuned in to the Peele and I’ve never made any effort to catch Black Mirror (not a reflection on that show, just on the amount of stuff that’s out there to watch). And part of the reason it’s become a brand name is that when it came out there wasn’t anything like it. TV SF was treated as kids’ stuff; TV fantasy was limited to sitcoms such as Topper or Bewitched. Twilight Zone took specfic seriously, as something adults could enjoy and that could be done well. It didn’t hurt that along with Serling, we had Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, both established and excellent writers of contemporary fantasy (among other things). Serling also cast a lot of first-rate actors including Burgess Meredith, Ross Martin, Jack Klugman, Wilfred Hyde-White and others. Running from 1959 to 1964, Serling’s work had an impact I don’t think it could possibly have today.

But not every show that made a big splash back in ye ancient times of a mere three networks has such a devoted following today. The original series holds up well.

Part of that is Serling’s interest in people and human nature, particularly his fondness for the down-and-out and the unlucky losers. The insecure cheap crook in Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room. The anguished bookie in In Praise of Pip, getting one last night with his dead son. Art Carney delivering Christmas cheer on The Night of the Meek. But while people often have crappy lives and don’t get happy endings (case in point, Burgess Meredith’s myopic bank clerk in  All The Time in the World) Serling’s not looking to to shrug and say “life isn’t fair.” He gets that unfairness is something that should be fixed. And in many stories he does, delivering a eucatastrophe, a miraculous (but plausible) happy ending.

Another factor, and I think this is a big one, is the nature of the stories. Twilight Zone had a big range: stories with no specfic element (The Silence), post-apocalypse (Two), space adventure (The Parallel) and time travel (No Time Like the Past), but the “generic” TZ story is intrusion fantasy: a contemporary setting with the supernatural or super-scientific intruding on it. And doing so, in many cases, randomly.

In a few of the episodes, there’s a clear reason for what’s happening, such as Jess-Belle where the protagonist apprentices herself to a witch, or The Trouble With Templeton in which the protagonist’s long-dead wife has arranged events for his benefit. In many more, there’s none: fate or God or Satan has decided to upend someone’s life for no reason at all. The businessman in A World of Difference suddenly finds he’s an actor and his life is the script. He doesn’t do anything to bring it about, it just happens. Ditto the woman haunted by her double in Mirror Image or the rejuvenated seniors in Kick the Can. They don’t cross any lines, tamper with anything forbidden, piss off the dark gods — they’re just shit out of luck. Sure, some of them deserve their doom or their miraculous redemption, such as Dan Duryea’s drunken gunfighter in Mr. Denton on Doomsday. Even so, there’s no reason why Fate should (literally) stop in his town and turn his life around, it just happens.

That, I think, makes it more compelling. Because if things like this can happen at random, then they can happen to us. We don’t have to be chosen ones, or profane an Egyptian tomb to be affected. Any one of us, at any time, could stumble into the impossible.

Into the Twilight Zone.

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