Category Archives: TV

TV Time Travel, invasions from the moon and death playing chess: TV and movies

Netflix’ time-travel show TRAVELERS had its merits, but didn’t quite click with me. The premise is that a team of agents from the future has come back to 2016 to avert their future by changing a key event or two. To make the leap, they land in the bodies of people on the brink of death, which saddles them with their host bodies’ various relationships, jobs, health problems, etc. Focusing on personal drama more than changing time was a smart move, but it didn’t integrate the personal with the SF elements the way Odyssey 5 managed to do, and the bleak, downbeat tone of the personal stories just lost me. I won’t be back for S2.

12 MONKEYS’ third season, by contrast, worked great. At the end of S2, Cassie discovers she and Cole are the parents of the Witness, the leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys plotting to end time and create a timeless, deathless world. Worse, Cassie wound up a prisoner of the Army, so they can see the Witness brought up to fulfill his destiny. Can Cole rescue Cassie? What will their allies do if they learn killing Cassie in say, 1990, would end the Witness’s threat? It’s a twisty entertaining season setting up for the finalé in S4. As usual Emily Hampshire steals the show as Jennifer Goines (a more entertaining version of Brad Pitt’s character in the film), particularly when she has to turn herself into a star of the Paris stage. “Nothing in either morality or causality prevents me killing you.”

RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON (1952) ain’t an A-list serial but it shows the competence with which Republic usually approached the genre (as opposed to The Undersea Kingdom). A quasisequel to King of the Rocketmen, using that film’s flying suit (the inspiration for The Rocketeer) but with a new character, Commando Cody. In the first episode, gangsters working for the first wave of a lunar invasion are disrupting American shipping with a devastating nuclear cannon; brilliantly deducing this ties in with atomic activity on the moon, Cody leads his cast to our satellite, where Retik (veteran villain Roy Barcroft) is indeed plotting Earth’s conquest. This is better all round than Undersea Kingdom, but annoyingly mundane, with a few too many car chases and shoot outs. Fun, nonetheless, but they never explain why they’re “radar men.” “Do you have an atomic bomb strong enough to start a volcanic eruption in the Mt. Alda volcanic crater?”

After reading We All Are Legends inevitably I rewatched Ingrid Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) in which a young Max von Sydow plays a knight terrified of what might await him in the next world; when Death shows up, he buys time by talking Death into a chess game. Meanwhile his squire and various l0w-comic characters intrigue and romance each other (I can see a similarity to Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night), unaware that with the Black Death at hand, Death can’t be far away. Visually impressive, dark and one of the movies that made Bergman Bergman. “You play chess, don’t you? I’ve seen it in paintings.”

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Dr. Mabuse vs. the Black Panthers, Abba vs the Librarians: Movies and TV

With THE DEATH-RAY MIRROR OF DOCTOR MABUSE (1964) the 1960s Mabuse cycle ends not with a bang but a whimper. Peter van Eyck, who was adequate as part of the ensemble in 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is miserably dull as the central character, a super-spy out to secure the title McGuffin for England while You Know Who wants it for his own ends. This is a Mabuse film done as a Bond film, with a lot of similarity to Thunderball (David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, wonders if Death-Ray Mirror could actually have influenced the later 007 adventure) but none of the flair Eon brought to the Bond films of this era. It’s also much more sexist than Bond in its treatment of the female lead, and has the least mind-control of any of the films (mostly just a vague reference to Mabuse mindwiping people at the start of the film). “The almighty took seven days to create the world, and you could destroy it in a few seconds.”

THE BLACK PANTHERS: Vanguards of the Revolution (2015) is a good documentary about how an Oakland movement to stop police abuse of blacks (which, of course, makes this depressingly relevant) broadened into providing free breakfasts and health clinics while attracting followers across the country (as much because of their apparent pride and self-confidence as their actual policies), including a large percentage of women. The film chronicles the FBI’s obsessive war against the Panthers, the party’s attempt to switch to straight politics (“After the loss, there was no plan B.”) and the gradual internal collapse, heavily influenced by the FBI’s efforts at subversion. “We didn’t get those brothers to revolutionary heaven.”

MAMMA MIA: Here We Go Again (2018) is the sequel to the 2008 stage-to-screen musical, alternating the story of Amanda Seyfried struggling to open late mom Meryl Streep’s dream hotel despite everything going wrong with her secret origin as her mother heads to Greece for a summer of love and winds up bedding three different men in rapid succession. This was pleasant enough, but doesn’t feel as well structured as the first Mamma Mia — Cher’s appearance at the end is quite gratuitous, though she does give a great rendition of Abba’s Fernando. “You have the courage of the lion, the heart of the panther and the wisdom of the flamingo.”

The third season of THE LIBRARIANS has the cast coping with an unleashed chaos demon plotting to turn the world upside-down and a new government magic-hunting agency that’s determined to put the Librarians and their assets under lock and key. This has the series’ usual quirky fun, such as a reluctant cult leader trapped by her own popularity, a reunion of evil monsters and a magician wreaking havoc as he tries to impress his (he thinks) true love. I’ll also give them points for resolving Cassandra’s cancer problems without the usual miracle cure. “He didn’t tell you the Eye of Ra requires a human sacrifice.”

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Is There a Doctor In the House? Lots!

The past week reminded me of when I’d be watching nothing but time travel material for Now and Then We Time Travel. I started subscribing to BritBox, a streaming service for British shows. The main reason was the access to Doctor Who, which is surprisingly spotty on Netflix. I’d Netflixed the first two Tom Baker serials a while back, but I started on Britbox by going back further …

THE POWER OF THE DALEKS was the first Second Doctor serial; Patrick Troughton here is so dotty and so unlike William Hartnell’s cantankerous senior that companions Ben and Polly and even the Doctor himself aren’t sure he’s really who he says he is. To make matters worse the TARDIS has dropped them on a colony planet riven by rival factions, one of which is convinced these mechanical creatures they found in a spaceship will make wonderful robot servants … Although the video was lost the soundtrack wasn’t, so the Beeb animated it as they did with Hartnell’s The Reign of Terror. Not a classic story, but a landmark for proving the show could survive the loss of its star. The emphasis that the Doctor survived through the power of the TARDIS shows they still hadn’t established regeneration as normal — even when Troughton left at the end of War Games, it was the Time Lords forcing him to change (it wouldn’t be until the Fourth Doctor that regeneration became a normal Time Lord thing). “The law of the Daleks is in effect.”

Enough of THE WHEEL IN SPACE survives that rather than use animation, the BBC used stills from the show to accompany the voice track (two episodes remain intact). The Second Doctor and Jamie land on a drifting rocket from which they wind up on the eponymous space station. Here they meet Zoey, a brilliant, petite young woman who begins to realize her life has trained her to prepare for emergencies but only carefully predicted ones. Which does not include an attack on the Wheel by the Cybermen … Zoe’s one of my favorite companions (cute, small, brainy brunette — it’s like I have a type!) and the serial is overall good, but loses steam at the finish (the purpose of all the Cyber-scheming to seize the Wheel is quite underwhelming). And it’s depressing to think of the Time Lords just wiping Zoe’s memory at the end of War Games and dropping her back on the Wheel; I do hope she found some other way to break out of the box her society put her in. “Logic, my dear Zoe, only allows one to be wrong with authority.”

Last year’s Christmas special TWICE UPON A TIME (on Amazon Prime, not BritBox) has Capaldi contemplating not regenerating when he winds up meeting the First Doctor (David Bradley) who’s contemplating doing the same thing, which would, of course unmake the entire series. Can they survive and work together long enough to stop the seemingly sinister schemes of …. Testimony? A fun concept, though a bit heavy-handed on First Doctor Sexism; the ending gives us the new female Doctor, though not for very long. “By any analysis evil should always win. Good is not a practical survival strategy.”

THE FIVE (ISH) DOCTORS REBOOT was a spoof special tied to the 50th anniversary of the show in which Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (Doctors Five Through Seven) desperately try to convince current showrunner Stephen Moffat that they’re a vital part of the history and need to make an appearance — oh, did you know McCoy was in The Hobbit, a major blockbuster theatrical release? Fluffy but very funny. “Instead of a sonic screwdriver I could have sonic beams come out my eyes!”

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A superhero, a Jew, a rom-com and spies: this week’s movies (and one TV show)

M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE (2000) stars Bruce Willis as a train-crash survivor confounded by comic-book buff Samuel L. Jackson’s insistence that he survived because just as Jackson’s bones are abnormally fragile (“They call me Mr. Glass.”), Willis’ body is indestructible. This was Shyamalan’s second movie and I like the way he plays with comic book tropes. However I don’t see why Willis would also acquire a kind of spider-sense for spotting evildoers, and no question Mr. Glass is a Cinema of Isolation cliche (particularly the isolation aspect: he apparently has no social life except his mother, and the film treats his condition as if he were unique). And I wish the ending captions had told us what happened to Willis, not just Jackson, though I gather a sequel may be in the offing (but given how much Shyamalan’s quality has fallen, I’m not optimistic). The deleted scenes here were interesting but a documentary on comics (including a number of noted creators) was disappointing: I’d be more interested in how Shyamalan applies the tropes here than a general comics discussion. “I’m going to ask you a question — it may sound a little strange.”

The only production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE I’ve ever seen was a 1970s TV movie. When I rewatched it a couple of decades back, it left me wondering whether it was just a poor production (despite a cast including Laurence Olivier) or the play itself was dull (even Shakespeare can’t bat 100 percent). After watching the 2004 version with Al Pacino as Shylock, I can say it was definitely the production. Pacino does a great job as the resentful money-lender who puts up money for Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to help his bestie/possible ex-lover Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) woo wealthy heiress Portia (Lynn Collins). But when Antonio’s bill comes due and he can’t pay, Shylock demands his right to the forfeit — a pound of fles, cut out from Antonio’s heart. Powerful though it was, the anti-Semitism is still repellent: Shylock pays a penalty for being Jewish and the Christian bigots all get happy endings (Shakespeare After All may have a point that Shylock pays for being anti-joy as much as being Jewish, but that doesn’t erase the anti-Semitism)  “You called me dog before you had a cause; since I am a dog, beware my fangs.”

SET IT UP (2018) has the stressed-out administrative assistants to demanding bosses Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu decide to make their bosses fall in love and hopefully take it easy—when you control someone’s schedule completely, how hard can it be to arrange a meet cute? As they struggle to get the couple past the inevitable obstacles (including that Diggs is quite a jerk), they also notice how cute each other is … This is a pleasant enough movie, but for the life of me I don’t see why it’s gotten so many gushing reviews online. For a double bill I’d suggest White Christmas for a variation on the same premise. “We are not Cyrano-ing, this is totally The Parent Trap.”

The fifth season of THE AMERICANS was a disappointment — not bad, but they juggled a lot of plotlines and none of them paid off strongly enough to make the season work. There’s a possible American bioweapon targeting Soviet grain, Paige’s torment at being the child of spies, Henry getting an arc of his own, follow-ups on Oleg and Martha in Moscow (Martha, a character from previous seasons, really felt shoehorned in) … the cumulative effect leads to a personal turning point, but not enough to make the season work. Still, I’ll be back for S6. “Now I have power — I can crush people for you.”

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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.

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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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