TV Science Fiction & Fantasy


PERSON OF INTEREST “Pilot.” CBS, 22 September 2011. Jim Caviezel as John Reese, Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. Guest cast: Natalie Zea. Seriescreated by Jonathan Nolan; executive producers: Nolan, J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Greg Plageman, Denise Thé, and Chris Fisher. Director: David Semel.

   This series lasted for five years, but when it was first suggested to me that it was excellent and I really had to watch it, it was part way through the third year, and believe you me, I had no idea what was going on. Science fictional TV series like this one has a tendency to get that way, especially when the basic concept was so complicated to begin with.

   To wit: A former government contractor named Harold Finch is  the man who helped build a super computer program that… What the hell. I’m just going to quote Wikipedia:

   “…that is capable of collating all sources of information to predict terrorist acts and identify people planning them. The Machine also identifies perpetrators and victims of other premeditated deadly crimes, but, because the government considers these ‘irrelevant,’ he programs the Machine to delete this information each night. Anticipating abuse of his creation, Finch created a backdoor into the Machine. Tormented by the ‘irrelevant’ deaths that might have been prevented, he eventually decides to use his backdoor to act covertly. To escape detection, he directs the Machine to provide only a tiny fragment of data: the social security number of a ‘person of interest.’ The person may be a victim, a perpetrator, or an innocent bystander caught up in lethal events.”

   In the pilot, the social security number is that of a successful female prosecutor. What kind of problem is she having, or will she have? There are many low life characters in her life every day. Is she in danger? To help him find out, Finch recruits John Reese (Jim Caviezel) – and quoting Wikipedia again, he is “a former Green Beret and CIA agent now presumed dead.” Finch needs him as a leg man to investigate.

   It’s a great concept, and this the first episode is slickly done, with a twist or two that  brought a smile (or several smiles) to my face.. It’s no wonder the show went on to great success.

   I’m not sure, though, whether I want to invest the equivalent of five years’ worth of episodes, especially, as I said the outset, I think the show went off in directions that even those who made this pilot had no idea of that far in advance. Fringe was another series that I enjoyed for maybe two years before the plots became way way too complicated, at least for me.

   I welcome any advice you may have to offer on this.

   

TRAVELERS “Travelers” (2016). Canadian-American production. Netflix. 17 October 2016 (Season 1, Episode 1). Eric McCormack, MacKenzie Porter, Nesta Cooper, Jared Abrahamson, Reilly Dolman, Patrick Gilmore. Creator-Screenplay: Brad Wright. Director: Nick Hurran.

   It takes the full hour, but as the pilot episode for this series, it does exactly what it is supposed to do: Introduce both the players and the plot with just enough story to have we the viewer (me) anxious to see the next one.

   I can’t say that it’s a new idea (so I won’t), but you can tell me whether or not you’ve heard this one before: a group of travelers from a rather bleak future comes to our time and place to make some corrections. They do this by entering taking over their new hosts’ bodies at the time they would otherwise have died.

   I apologize if I’ve already told you more than you wanted to know. Me, I prefer going into a series totally cold and not having any idea what the whole story line is. At least I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next, what the team’s various missions are going to be, and for a very good reason: I have no idea.

   The series was on for three seasons, so at least more than few people found a reason to keep watching. This first episode was very stylishly done, with better than average acting on the part of all the participants. Each of the characters who have become hosts for the travelers is quite well drawn. In terms of the lighting and some of the locations, there are some elements of noir to the story. Not as much as in Blade Runner, say, but it’s there. Whether it continues, I do not know.

   

SPACE: 1999 “The Metamorph” ITC (UK); first run syndication (US). 04 September 1976 (Season 2, Episode 1).. Martin Landau (Commander John Koenig), Barbara Bain (Dr. Helena Russell), Tony Anholt, Nick Tate, Zienia Merton. Guest cast: Catherine Schell, Brian Blessed. Format creators: Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. Writer: Johnny Byrne. Director: Charles Crichton.

   The premise of this series was laughable at best if you were to look at scientifically: an explosion on the Moon would be sufficient to throw it out of its orbit and head it traveling at apparent light speed out into outer space. (In reality such an explosion would have the Moon come crashing down on Earth or blow it up entirely.)

   But given enough suspension of disbelief, which I could at the time, and I still can now, this mean that the 300 plus inhabitants on the Moonbase there would have the trip and adventures of their lives. The special effects were both top notch and spectacular. The stories? Not so much.

   But truth be told, I enjoyed Space: 1999 more than I did Star Trek, which I often found boring and preachy. If it hadn’t been for Spock’s ears, the show would have gone nowhere. But I digress. Suffice it to say that the stories in Space:1999 were probably not as good as those as Star Trek’s, but while people may disagree with me on this, I found them a lot more fun.

   Case in point. In “The Metamorph,” the folks on the space traveling Moon are running out of titanium (if I remember correctly), and a what they think is a barren planet looks like a promising place to find some. Not so. The ruler of the underground civilization named Mentor – the ruler, not the planet – takes a survey crew captive, and plans to do the same to the rest of the crew. The reason? To suck the energy from their brains to feed his biological computer, which he plans to use to replenish his planet.

   It’s a close call, but everyone escapes, just in the nick of time, thanks to, .. Well, I guess I won’t tell you, but as a hint, one of the members of the guest cast above turns out to become a regular member of Moonbase Alpha for the rest of the second season. (There were only the two.)

   As I say, the story is weak. If you haven’t read and seen a version of it before, you probably haven’t read or watched a lot of sci-fi. But watching this last night brought a lot of good memories. All of a sudden I was a 30-something again.

   

PHILIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS “Real Life,” Channel 4, UK, 25 October 2017 (Episode 5). Amazon Prime, US, 2018 (currently streaming as episode 1). Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Rachelle Lefevre, Lara Pulver. Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore, loosely based on .the story “Exhibit Piece” by Philip K. Dick (If, August 1954). Director: Jeffrey Reiner.

   I have not researched this at all, but it’s quite possible (a hypothesis, then) that more of Philip K/ Dick’s work have been filmed for either movies or TV than any other SF writer. (Think Blade Runner as the most well known.) Not bad for a writer who pretty much only had a small cult following when he died in 1982, just as Blade Runner was about to be released.

   Electric Dreams was a 10-part anthology of Dick’s short stories as adapted for TV. One of his favorite themes in his early fiction was the question of what is real around us, and what is not. “Real Life” takes that idea and runs with it with considerable success, I think. A lesbian cop in the future with a flying car is wracked with guilt after being the survivor of the massacre of several of her colleagues. She’s advised to take a virtual reality “vacation” from her life…

   … and ends up in the body of a black billionaire who’s not only the head of huge tech company but also a vigilante by night, being dead set on revenging the death of his wife at the hands of …

   … the same master criminal he/she’s after back in the future. Not only in the quest for revenge the same in the two worlds, but so are many of the people and locations in each. The overridng question is, which of the two worlds in the real one?

   This is one of those stories, as televised, that starts off as confusing to the viewer as it is to the primary character in it, perhaps even more so, but when eventually the viewer begins to straighten him or herself out, the problem of which world is which still remains, to both the character and the viewer. I won’t tell you, of course, and that’s even assuming that I know even now, which I don’t. I really enjoyed this one.

   

COUNTERPART. “The Crossing.” Starz, 60 minutes. 10 December 2017 (season 1, episode 1).  J. K. Simmons (in a dual role), and a large ensemble cast, both primary and recurring. Created by and screenplay: Justin Marks. Director: Morten Tyldum,

   Shown on the premium channel Starz for two 10-episode seasons, the premise is both simple and complicated. The short description is that a parallel world to our has been secretly tapped into, and while much is the same in the two Earths, the paths for each have been rapidly diverging. The long version takes up the entirety of this, the entire pilot episode, without much of a direction of where the story is going to go from there.

   I’ve listed only J. K. Simmons as the star of the series, as the roles of everyone else revolve only around him. On our side he’s a downbeaten schlub for the company he works for, without no hope for promotion and not much idea what the company he works for actually does (which is tom monitor the point at which the two wolds meet). On the other side he’s the aggressive agent who’s been sent to our side to pave the way for – what exactly, the details will come later.

   As an actor, J. K. Simmos is a revelation. Just by body language alone, you know immediately which Howard Silk he is. It is an utter delight just to see him in action. I’m not a big fan of parallel worlds story lines such as this (I stopped watching Fringe when the emphasis changed from relationships between the characters on our side to uninteresting events happening on the other), but at the moment I’m OK with watching the next in this series, just to see where it’s going from here.

   

   An eight-episode adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds was shown in France last year. The series will make its first appearance in the US next month (February 16th) on Epix.

   The show stars Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Léa Drucker, Natasha Little, Daisy Edgar Jones, Stéphane Caillard, Adel Bencherif, and Guillaume Gouix.

KAREN A. ROMANKO – Women of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television: An Encyclopedia of 400 Characters and 200 Shows, 1950-2016. McFarland, softcover, October 2019.

   Karen A. Romanko’s previous book, Television’s Female Spies and Crimefighters (McFarland, 2016) was noted here soon after it was published. As was the case for that book, the title should tell everyone at once what this one’s about, and I imagine the subject matter is of at least some interest to you all.

   As before, both the characters and the shows they were on are listed alphabetically, but interspersed one with the other. For example, the first profile entry is for Devon Adair, who appeared on the TV series Earth-2, followed by Bo Adams (of Believe), then by The Addams Family, with a lengthy overview of the series itself, which ran for two seasons on ABC, 1964-1966.

   The final two entries are for Young Blades, a series which ran for 13 episodes in 2005, and for Zaan, the blue-skinned alien priestess on Farscape.

   Following the main portion of the book is a listing of all the series which did not make the cut, but for which I for one could often make strong cases for inclusion. On the other hand, I did not write the book! An example of just one, however, is The Dead Zone, which lasted for five seasons, but since I do not recall any women in leading roles, I will concede the point.

   One character and series that is included, but which I question is Cinnamon Carter of Mission: Impossible fame. Many of team’s exploits were far-fetched, but that does not mean they were fantasy, either.

   Of special note is the historical overview at the front of book, putting into context many of the more important female heroes included in the book, beginning with Tonga and Carol Carlisle (of Space Patrol) and concluding with Peggy Carter, the starring character of her very own series, Agent Carter.

   And since the cutoff for inclusion this time around was 2016, perhaps it is not too early to ask for a revised and expanded edition in a few years or so. I’d buy it!

MY FAVORITE TV SERIES
OF THE DECADE (2010-2019)
by Michael Shonk


   It is that time of year again when everyone makes a list, be it our list to Santa or the critic’s top ten list. This list has my favorite top 20 TV series that aired during the 2010s. I have separated them by type of TV it is: broadcast network, basic cable, premium cable, and streaming/apps.

   While the change from analog to digital television began in the 2000s the decade of 2010 will be remembered as when the digital era took over. It was a time that saw the fall of broadband network TV and the rise of digital streaming services. The major entertainment companies of the 20th Century – ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox as well as all of the major movie studios but Disney were swallowed up by conglomerates from outside Hollywood such as AT&T and Comcast. As Old Hollywood fell, new players rose such as Netflix and Apple creating a gold rush to find a spot in the future digital Hollywood.

   Broadcast TV is dying. Still regulated by the FCC, the major free networks continue to play it safe and cling to ancient formats such as episodic drama, sitcoms and police procedural.

   Despite that, my favorite TV series of the decade is the underrated PERSON OF INTEREST (CBS, 2011-16). The series’ only flaw was it was from formulaic CBS, the only network that would air the Second Coming as an episodic procedural. PERSON OF INTEREST was ahead of its time. It went from a weekly standalone episodes to an intriguing series with a continuing story foretelling our society’s fall into paranoia and fear. It was a world where America was becoming a bad guy, a corrupt government empowered by the rise of AIs.

           HONORABLE MENTION

FRINGE: (FOX, 2008-2013). FRINGE began as just another X-FILES copy but it did not take long for it to become a creative quality series featuring time travel and multi-universes.

ZERO HOUR: (ABC, 2012-13). ZERO HOUR was so bad it was good. Set in modern day with flashbacks to WWII, the series featured a never ending source of wacky troupes including an evil baby, Nazis, Rosicrucians guarding a doomsday device, twelve apostles each with a clock holding a clue leading to the device, a woman kidnapped from her clock shop, and her husband who finds among other things a frozen to death Nazi who could be his twin.


   Modern-day basic cable has always been a source of original programming. Networks such as USA and SYFY may have began producing cheap cheesy network knockoffs but today both and the rest of cable are willing to take risks the major networks won’t, and basic cable has improved because of it.

   My favorite basic cable series of the decade is JUSTIFIED (FX 2010-15). Based on Elmore Leonard’s characters and short story “Fire In the Hole” JUSTIFED was a violent crime drama set in Harlan County Kentucky. Marshall Raylan Givens was forced back to where he grew up and no one was happy.

   There he dealt with a complicated love life and some of the best Elmore Leonard type bad people on TV. Each season featured a different villain and crime, but what made the series so great was the special relationship between Raylan and local killer Boyd Crowder.

           HONORABLE MENTION

ARCHER: (FX, 2009-2016; FXX, 2017- present) – This animated classic with a flexible premise began as a 60s style spy series for the first four seasons. The series kept the characters and placed them in different situations. Season Five was Archer Vice with our heroes as the World’s worse drug dealers. In Season Six the group were hired by the CIA and found them selves in the middle of a Latin American revolution.

   This was followed by a season as they started a 1970-80s style TV PI agency in Los Angeles (promo below). Next was a 1940s style film noir called Archer Dreamland. Next was Season 9 and Archer Danger Island where our group races some pre-WWII Nazis for a treasure on a small island. Then it was Archer 1999 and stories spoofing science fiction. Coming soon will be Archer’s eleventh season, reportedly with everyone back in the spy business.

RUBICON: (AMC, 2010). Unusually intelligent for TV, RUBICON was about Will Travers who worked for a small Federal based spy agency. When his mentor dies, Will begins to suspect murder and uncovers a conspiracy. A suspenseful thought provoking series with a lack of car chases RUBICON was killed in the ratings by USA’s fun bimbo spy series with car chases COVERT AFFAIRS.

SHERLOCK: (BBC/PBS/BBCA, 2010-2017) – My favorite version of Sherlock Holmes. The writing was witty and intelligent in its adapting the Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories for a modern world. The casting worked, with Benedict Cumberbatch being the best ever to portray Holmes and Martin Freeman giving Watson new life.



VENTURE BROS
(Adult Swim, 2003- present). One of the TV’s funniest strangest TV series, the cartoon VENTURE BROS began as a parody of kids cartoons – in particularly JONNY QUEST. Quickly the series took on its own universe with its own absurdities. The video below is from the end of season five (2013). Season eight is scheduled to arrive sometime in the future.

WYNONNA EARP: (SYFY, 2016-present) Wyatt Earp’s demon killing gun has been past down through the Earp’s family first born sons until it ended up in the hands of a bad ass Wynonna. This series is over the top fun from the romances to the humor to the absurd violence as the gang sends countless demons back to Hell. The video below introduces the series that has been renewed for a fourth and fifth season.


   With the decrease in films aimed for adults and an increase in demand for TV series for adults, more and more premium channels are turning to original programming. Pay TV networks HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax have been joined by premium networks (you have to pay extra to get them) Starz, Epix, IFC, BBCA and others in producing original programs of high quality and adult content. These networks are also available on apps where you can pay for the network without having to subscribe to cable.

   My favorite of this group is DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY (BBCA 2016-17). BBC had attempted to bring Dirk to the small screen in a four-part miniseries in the early part of the decade but failed to capture Douglas Adams sense of humor and bizarre world.

In 2016 BBCA and Max Landis made a second attempt with Samuel Barnett as Dirk. While never a success beyond a cult audience of which I am a member, this version got two seasons and worked because Landis for the most part ignored the books and went with Douglas Adams style and humor. Douglas Adams himself had been quoted admitted he had his least success when he worried about plot or logic.

           HONORABLE MENTION:

COUNTERPART: (STARZ, 2016-2019) – This spy series was set against a backdrop of two different but connected Universes. During the Cold War there had been an accident and the Universe doubled leaving everyone with a physical double. Oddly, except for their looks the people were different than their counter in the other Universe.

   J.K. Simmons was brilliant as Howard Silk, a meek cog in our spy agency while his double was a ruthless man and one of the other side’s top spies. Where did Howard Silk’s path separate? How did the same man become a meek failure in one Universe and a ruthless success in the other?

DOCTOR WHO: (BBCA, Modern Version 2005 – present). DOCTOR WHO is an iconic British TV series that debuted in 1963. It is about an alien with a fondness for Earth who travels with companions through time and space in a 1960s blue British Police Box. This decade was a good one for Who’s fans.

   One of the best ideas DOCTOR WHO had was regeneration. Whenever the actor playing the Doctor wanted to leave the character would regenerate into a new version of the Doctor played by a different actor. There were four Doctor’s and three different showrunners during the 2010s. I found the era of showrunner Stephen Moffat (SHERLOCK) to be my favorite since the great days of Tom Baker the fourth Doctor.

   David Tennent as the tenth Doctor remains one the series most popular Doctors. He brought emotions to the character as Ten fell in love more than once and cried when it was his turn to leave. When showrunner Russell Davies – who had successfully brought the Doctor back to life in 2005 – decided to leave, Tennent left as well.

   2011 brought showrunner Stephen Moffat, and Matt Smith became the eleventh Doctor. Smith’s Doctor was an ancient alien carrying the burden of a tragic past while hiding behind a boyish face and child-like behavior.

   In 2014 Peter Capaldi became Doctor number twelve. His Doctor was more retrospective, rude, distant and uncomfortable around humans. It was his inner struggle to decide if he was good despite his past that made this Doctor the most dramatic.

   2018 marked the arrival of thirteen and the most controversial Doctor. Jodie Whittaker became the first woman to play the Doctor. As Mommy Doctor, Whittaker was the best part of last season. New showrunner Chris Chibnall’s writing and changes were not to my taste. He had said the next season will be better. We can only hope the next decade for Doctor Who will be as entertaining and varied as the 2010 decade.

   Below is my favorite scene of the series. It stars Matt Smith my favorite Doctor since Tom Baker (#4).

PERPETULAL GRACE LTD (EPIX, 2019) was a quirky, at times totally incomprehensible, story told in a way that reminded me of old independent films. There was a sadness to the characters and their actions that was often hilarious.

   It featured a cast of doomed losers, those who would do anything to survive, those who blindly believe in others, and those who sought redemption but believed they didn’t deserve saving. The writing, acting and direction drew the viewers into the addictive story. One word of warning the series ended with a taunting cliffhanger and there is still no word of a second season.

WESTWORLD: (HBO, 2016-present). What began as a good book by Michael Crichton about an amusement part with robots serving the fantasies of the human guests has lead to two movie adaptations and one TV mini-series. This latest attempt to adapt the story is by far the best. This version of WESTWORLD added the point of view of the AIs (robots) to explore what is life. It can be too clever for its own good, but I really am looking forward to the coming third season.


   Streaming services have come a long way since NETFLIX killed Blockbuster rentals and decided to take on Hollywood. Streaming offers subscribers hundreds of more choices, return of long forgotten favorites, life to networks cancelled series, shows from all over the world and originals that before never would have ever been produced. It has freed us from the chains of TV schedules. It has given us a different way to watch TV as the impatient viewer can watch at the speed they want – one episode or as many as they are in the mood to watch or the entire season at one sitting.

   Netflix’s original RUSSIAN DOLL (2019) is my favorite streaming program of the 2010’s decade. Nadia is trying to survive her 36th birthday but she keeps dying. Characters in time loops are nothing new but RUSSIAN DOLL is surprisingly original. One of the best comedies of the decade made better by the brilliant acting by Natasha Lyonne as broken, foul mouth and sympathetic Nadia.

           HONORABLE MENTION

ACCA: 13 – TERRITORY INSPECTION DEPARTMENT (Funimation). This Japanese anime aired in 2017. Based on a light novel, ACCA is a delightful slice of life spy story that still makes me smile. ACCA is the agency that oversees all of the Kingdom of Dowa’s thirteen separate but equal states. A rumor of a possible coup in the peaceful kingdom has Chief Investigator Jean Otis investigating each of the 13 states.

BROKENWOOD MYSTERY: (New Zealand Prime TV 2014, airs on Acorn in United States). This folksy traditional mystery from New Zealand feels like THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW if ANDY had been one of those slow moving cozy traditional mysteries set in an odd small town with likable but strange characters that the British do so well.

   Detective Sergeant Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea) leads Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland) and Detective Constable Sam Breen (Nic Sampson) as they solve challenging murders. The cast has a nice chemistry, the writing is witty and the characters are the type hard to find now a days – content, likeable and peaceful.

THE EXPANSE: (SYFY, 2015-18; AMAZON PRIME, 2019). SYFY produced some better than expected TV during the 2010s. The best was THE EXPANSE. Based on the books by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) THE EXPANSE is set in a time when humans have populated the solar system – the three major groups are those from Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid belt.

   The production values and special effect were too expensive for Syfy so the show was dropped and picked up by Amazon Prime. Prime offers all four series ready to watch. The video I selected explains the appeal of the series without giving away spoilers.

QUEENS OF MYSTERY (check out my review here on this blog)

STEINS;GATE (Funimation, premiered in Japan in 2011). Based on a light novel the story begins with an over the top mad scientist but things grow more serious as he and his friends find a way to send notes through time. Below is a dub in English of the first episode.


   The decade of 2010 has offered some on the best TV series in the history of television, sadly too many of which were not seen by most of American TV viewers including me. Cinemax’s JETT most likely would have made this list if I had had the time to finish watching it. I am sure there have been TV series this decade that would have made this list if I had spent more time watching TV and less time sleeping and having a life.

   Taste and opinion guide favorite or best lists. It os important to remember the quality of the beef means nothing to a vegetarian. You might notice I have a bias against the popular mainstream entertainment and favor the different, neglected and the weird. Fortunately there is a comment section for you to correct me and name your own favorites.

REVIEWED BY MIKE TOONEY:


THE ORVILLE. TV series. Season 1. (Fox; 2017; 12 episodes, 43-45 minutes); Season 2 (Fox; 2018-19; 14 episodes, 48 minutes); Season 3 (Fox and Hulu; announced for late 2020). Regular Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage (Seasons 1 and 2), J. Lee, Mark Jackson, and Jessica Szohr (Season 2). Creator: Seth MacFarlane. Theme music: Bruce Broughton. Executive producers: Seth MacFarlane, Brannon Braga, David A. Goodman, Jason Clark, Jon Favreau, (pilot), Liz Heldens (Season 1), and Jon Cassar (Season 2). Production companies: Fuzzy Door Productions and Fox.

   Imagine that you’re a trained spaceship captain with a promising career ahead of you. Imagine that one night you date a cute space navy officer but make a mess of it; the next day you sheepishly beg her forgiveness, she gives it, and agrees to another date. (Neither of you realize it at the time, but that second date will prove to be all-important, and not just on a personal level.)

   Eventually the two of you get married, but one afternoon you come home and find her in bed with another man, leading to Divorceville and your career taking a year-long nosedive. Things are looking grim when unexpectedly the higher-ups pick you to captain a new exploratory vessel. You eagerly take command, only to discover that your new executive officer is your ex-wife …

   Not only is having to deal with his ex a challenge for Captain Ed Mercer of The Orville, but there’s also the oddball crew he’s given, among them a member of an all-male race (“It is much easier with an egg”), a five-foot-nothing security officer who can knock down reinforced steel doors with her bare hands (“I’m actually just sort of working on myself right now”), a couple of conceited bridge crewmen (“One time I almost died because I humped a statue”), a giant blob of gelatin (“I gotta say, watching your corpse drift away to this music would be so peaceful”), and an artificial life form who thinks an amputation would make a good practical joke (“The penchant for biological lifeforms to anthropomorphize inanimate objects is irrational”).

   And that’s basically the set-up in Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, a TV series that, as the saying goes, has garnered a cult following, starting first as a network product and then migrating to a subscription video on demand service, with its cult following . . . following. (How many people constitute a cult, anyhow? Never mind.)

   If you go to the movies much, you’ve innocently become enmeshed in the latest Hollywood “trend” (more like a nostalgia goldrush) in churning out sequels, prequels, “reimaginings,” and reboots. (Not all remakes, by the way, are a bad thing; John Huston’s excellent 1941 reboot of The Maltese Falcon was the third attempt at filming it, one which succeeded very nicely.)

   We view this trend as an admission that they’ve run out of steam and aren’t even trying to be creative, never mind original. Complicating an already bad situation is the unmistakable messianic zeal with which the Tinsel Town elites are willing to cram their brand of political pontificating down unsuspecting audiences’ throats, even if their projects lose them money. (Someone somewhere once observed that in Hollywood influence and ego gratification — embodied in their lay sermons, movies — are the orgasm and money the aphrodisiac, the stimulus by which they achieve satisfaction.) Indeed, until a month ago we had never heard the term “woke” applied to motion picture and television productions, but to a greater or lesser degree just about everything emerging from Tinsel Town seems to have some component of “wokeness” to it.

   But we digress. In just about all aspects of art training (and, whatever you may think of them, we can include movie and TV production as art), beginners are encouraged to emulate previous masters in their field, to copy them with an eye to developing their own unique styles later on.

   … which brings us back to The Orville. Seth MacFarlane, the executive producer, writer, director, star, and who knows what else on this TV series has taken the normal art training paradigm and junked it. Every single aspect of this show is derived from somewhere else, intentionally so. If you are familiar with S*** T*** (because the latest series producers are a prickly lot, we feel it safer to employ the asterisks), viewing any given episode of The Orville should provoke a feeling of deja vu. Situations, characters, whole plotlines, musical cues, even individual shots are lifted primarily from S*** T***, with S*** W*** and a random collection of components from a bunch of other sci-fi sources, as well.

   Everyone has a unique gift; MacFarlane’s gift is in NOT being original (his tiresome cartoon shows demonstrate that) but in being a copycat, the best copycat on the Hollywood scene at the moment. In The Orville, he has done a remarkable thing by blurring the formerly clear-cut distinction between parody and pastiche, the result being a thing unto itself, funny, serious, derivative all at once. For that alone, MacFarlane deserves some sort of Major Award.

   Is the series “woke”? Oh yeah. According to what we’ve read, MacFarlane has already received a Major Award, this one from a group of like-minded people who probably wouldn’t object if authorities prosecuted parents as child abusers for providing religious instruction to their children; since very few artists ever alter their deeply felt attitudes (indeed, they constantly draw on them for inspiration), we can expect to see the consequences of that particular frame of mind to continually play out in the series, especially with respect to The Orville‘s continuing “bad guys,” a bone-headed race of aliens whose sole motivation is to murder anyone who doesn’t conform to their religion. (Bone heads. Get it?) Like its S*** T*** predecessors, in this show any person or random cactus that entertains the faintest glimmering of spirituality is automatically a moron in desperate need of rationalist enlightenment. (A case can be made that the science fiction subgenre of literature is the primary conveyance of atheist thought today, but while that might make for a thrilling Ph.D. thesis, we just don’t have the time.)

   In spite of what you’ve just read, is it possible to like The Orville? The special effects are excellent; the plots, while totally derivative, mesh nicely with the characters; and the acting is uniformly very good (Scott Grimes’s performance in his story with a simulated woman being Major Award-worthy).

   Perhaps the best way for someone who still clings to Middle American values (any of you still left out there?) to fully enjoy The Orville would involve assuming a posture in which index finger and thumb are firmly placed against the proboscis. Everybody else will cheerfully overlook the subtexts and uncritically swallow MacFarlane’s spoonful of sugar. (You remember Mary Poppins, don’t you? “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, The medicine go down-wown …”)


       

TV IN 2019: PART TWO –
BROADCAST AND CABLE NETWORKS
by Michael Shonk


   Comparing the broadcast and cable networks to the streaming services is like comparing cassette tapes to CD. Both have entertaining content, it is just the formats are different.

   The broadcast networks are fading dinosaurs, no longer a place where mass audiences gather on a daily basis. Cable networks are doomed to be devoured by the streaming world that features original programming as well as the programs of the cable networks.

   TV has changed in so many ways. Because of devices such as Apple TV, Roku TV, and Amazon’s Firestick you can watch nearly all of cable TV without cable and even without a TV set. TV has left the living room and is following you, waiting to fetch for you whatever and whenever you want to watch. Part One of this two part survey looked at the streaming services, so now it is the broadcasting and cable networks turn.

   With the exception of some time as the top rated network in the 1970s-80s, ABC has never gotten much respect. Having been born during the radio days as a rib off NBC, ABC tends to get treated like third in line. Things have not improved since Disney bought them.

   ABC’s announced goal for the 2019-20 season is to finish first among women. One reason is they have to share most of the sports with their Disney family brother ESPN. ABC has also found success in the past with the women market and in today’s diversity culture women are in increasing demand.

   ABC shows have a real problem writing male characters that men want to watch. ABC’s best dramas tend to feature a gorgeous independent likeable female lead. The problem is few of their series characters are likable or deep enough for the audience to care. The writing focuses on emotion over plots and romance over action. Shows such as TAKE TWO and WHISKEY CAVALIER are good examples of this.

   I do have hopes for two of ABC announced new series. REEF BREAK airs this month. It stars Poppy Montgomery (UNFORGETTABLE) as an ex-thief turned trouble-shooter for a tropical island government.

   The broadcast networks new fall series I most look forward to is ABC ‘s STUMPTOWN. Based on a comic book, the story is about a gorgeous wise cracking kick ass female PI. How could I resist after watching this trailer?

   Not so long ago CBS’s future looked bright. It had defeated the evil conglomerate Viacom and had won its freedom. But there were problems. CBS’ powerful successful ruthless womanizing media mogul Les Moonves had faced down Viacom but would be crushed by a bunch of women and the rising power of the me-too movement. Only CBS stockholders were sorry to see Moonves leave, and they had to watch in horror as Viacom began to rise and turn its eyes back on them.

   CBS may continue to attract the most viewers on linear TV, but such numbers mean less and less. Those at CBS remain clueless about diversity. Diversity is not taking your ancient series format and change the white guy to a woman or minority.

   CBS made a big deal out of Alan Cummings playing a gay man in INSTINCT but didn’t bother to update its tired format. The formula has one strange unconventional male paired with an over serious all business female cop and they solve crimes together. This summer INSTINCT returns and if you like old-fashioned procedurals, it is worth a peek, if you are bored with TV from the 20th century, CBS is not for you.

   The best thing CBS has going for it is the showrunnners Michelle and Robert King who have blessed the unworthy network with THE GOOD WIFE and THE GOOD FIGHT. Ok, they also created the hideous failure BRAIN DEAD. CBS is hoping EVIL, a show about a Catholic Assessor and a non-believing profiler joining forces to fight psychopaths, is one of the King’s good shows.

   Among the cable networks owned by CBS are SHOWTIME and POP TV. POP TV is best known for SCHITT’S CREEK. The Canadian sitcom and cult TV favorite has been renewed for its sixth season. Also on the network are FLORIDA GIRLS (comedy about four girls in a Florida small town) and FLACK (comedy about public relations).

   CW has its own measurement for success rather than Nielsen’s live ratings. They are not alone. Because there is no accepted metric for digital viewing, every network and many of the media buyers (advertisers) have their own set of numbers beyond Nielsen’s. When the totals are as small as TV has gotten, how many mean less than who, what, where and devotion to content/product.

   CW was a merger of UPN (Paramount) and WB (Warner Brothers). CBS and Warner co-own CW and supply nearly all its programs. Perhaps my biggest question about CW this fall is are they going to weird out Nancy Drew like they did to Archie in RIVERDALE? The trailer is inconclusive.

   Today’s FOX is a pale version of itself when it was the number one rated TV network. Disney swallowed up most of FOX, leaving just the broadcast TV network, Fox News cable networks, and Fox sports. Fox is saving most of its original scripted series for the midseason. Meanwhile, it is mainly games shows this summer and sports this fall. Perhaps its most successful original scripted series this fall will be WWE pro wrestling. For drama fans this fall offers PRODIGAL SON (serial killer Dad wants son to join the family business), and 9-1-1 has Jennifer Love Hewitt joining the cast.

   The technology of today is able to create extremely detailed analytics and it has changed television as much as sabermetrics has changed baseball.

   Hollywood REPORTER (May 20, 2019) discussed commercial television with some media buyers, “Buyers also expressed a collective eye roll at the emphasis on total viewers…But even the so called sweet-spot of viewers 18-49 has become an antiquated benchmark.”

   So NBC winning the 18-49 means little and all the media coverage of Nielsen’s live ratings mean even less.

   Bob Greenblat who had taken NBC from a laughing stock to respected network left NBC to run part of the WarnerMedia streaming service.

   Today NBC has the best fiction among the broadcast networks. An NBC show is more interested in the heart, more interested in examining the characters than who done it.

   Supernatural cop series THE INBETWEEN currently airing is a good example. Every character has a sob story for depth. I have seen two episodes and what is the “inbetween” is still a mystery. Not that it matters, as long as you accept the concept the drama is watching the other side help Cassie stop the villain and save the victim. If you like supernatural mysteries try it out.

   AMC NETWORKS is made up of cable networks: AMC (WALKING DEAD), IFC (PORTLANDIA), WE (BRAXTON FAMILY VALUES), and Sundance (RECTIFY). AMC NETWORK co-owns BBC America (DOCTOR WHO) with BBC studios.

   It has been a busy year for AMC. Final seasons aired of martial arts action series INTO THE BADLANDS, historical drama THE SON, and (starting in August) supernatural PREACHER. Also airing in 2019 are FEAR OF THE WALKING DEAD, NOS4A2, and THE TERROR.

   BBC America and AMC both air KILLING EVE. The critically acclaimed thriller has just ended season 2 and has been renewed for a third season, coming most likely in 2020.

   BBC America is best known for DOCTOR WHO. My favorite Doctors remain Tom Baker and Matt Smith, but Jodie Whittaker as Momma Who is terrific, it was the writing and the supporting cast that made last season unwatchable for me.

   Fans of ORPHAN BLACK will be happy to learn the series is coming back in a 10 part audio series, starring Tatiana Maslany. There is a possible new TV series in development.

   Sundance Channel has a new eight-part adaption of the book NAME OF THE ROSE.

   A&E is a group owned in part by Disney and Hearst. It has A+E, History, and Lifetime. A+E is into reality programming. Lifetime is best known for its original scripted movies for women. In the past Lifetime has tried original scripted TV series such as VERONICA CLARE, ANGELA’S EYES and MARY KILLS PEOPLE, but today its schedule features reality shows such as DANCE MOMS. History Channel has a mix of reality programming (AX MEN and FORGED IN FIRE), and historical dramas (PROJECT BLUE BOOK and THE VIKINGS). THE VIKINGS are due to air its sixth and final season during the 2019-20 season. There are plans for a spin-off but not enough details to expect it soon.

   Among the better parts of FOX that Disney devoured is Fox entertainment cable networks FX and FXX. Both feature critically approved programs with unlikable characters and a premise that scream edginess.

   FX is beloved by TV critics everywhere. Some of the series to air this year are BASKETS (life of an clown), FOSSE/VERDON (Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon’s relationship), LEGION (superheroes), POSE (life in gay culture in New York during the 80s), SNOWFALL (drug dealer), and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (vampire comedy).

   FXX is a comedy offshoot of FX and a place of endless THE SIMPSON reruns. ARCHER began as an animated spoof on spies and over time has turned its attention to genres such as action, PI noir, adventure, and this year space opera. This is ARCHER tenth season and may be its last.

   Disney still has its multiple cable networks for kids and families. It also owns Freeform that has found an audience for gossipy mysteries (PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) and supernatural series. I can hardly wait to see just how fun bad is MOTHERLOAD: FORT SALEM – a series about gorgeous young witches who serve in the American army.

   Now that AT&T has bought Time Warner and dubbed it WarnerMedia there will be changes. At this time, Warner’s focus is less on cable and more on its future streaming service. HBO has been told to produce more series, quality be damn.

   There may be changes in the formats of TNT and TBS. TNT currently is for drama and TBS is for comedy. TNT has dramas such as CLAWS, and ANIMAL KINGDOM. TBS has comedy such as AMERICAN DAD, FULL FRONTAL and SEARCH PARTY.

   CHASING THE CURE is a live series to simulcast on both TNT and TBS. The series features a real person with a mystery disease and the audience from all over the world offers up possible cures.

   Will Warnermedia bring changes to cable’s best channel TCM, one of the few places left to enjoy film’s classics? Cartoon fans wonder what the future has in store for Cartoon Network (modern cartoons), Boomerang (cartoons featuring new versions of older characters such as Bugs and Scooby Doo), and popular Adult Swim (for adult fans of cartoons). This August Adult Swim favorite and one of the greatest TV cartoons ever made, the VENTURE BROTHERS return for a seventh season.

   Comcast owns NBC Universal studio and a variety of cable networks including E (Kardashians), SYFY, USA, and Bravo.

   Bravo is more a reality and lifestyle network, which is why DIRTY JOHN will air its second season on USA in 2020. DIRTY JOHN is based on a true crime podcast.

   One of the most popular cable networks, USA will say good-bye to MR ROBOT as I await BRIARPATCH, a series based on Ross Thomas book (I expect it in 2020). This summer SUITS ends and spin-off series PEARSON begins.

   SYFY has had problems only cable networks can have. THE EXPANSE is one of the TV’s greatest science fiction series, but it cost too much so SYFY cancelled it. Fortunately Amazon Prime saved it and will be showing the fourth season soon.

   WYNONNA EARP may have a small audience but it is a passionate audience advertisers love. It has been renewed for a fourth and fifth season. However IDW that produces the series ran out of money and had to stop production. EARP fans refused to let it die, even at one point buying ad space on the giant billboard in Times Square begging fans to help save the show. SYFY (and Canadian channel Space) still want the series.

   THE MAGICIANS (based on Lew Grossman’s trilogy) just finished its season 4 and has been renewed. Airing this summer will be the last season of KILLJOYS and the second of KRYPTON (Superman’s home planet).

   SYFY has an affection for bizarre creepy series that generally don’t last long. Some examples have been DEADLY CLASS, high school for assassins, and BLOOD DRIVE, a Death Race 2000 like car race but this time the cars run on blood. This year saw the second season and maybe the last of HAPPY. Christopher Meloni stars as Nick, an ex-cop with endless number of vices including the fondness of killing people, and his imaginary friend Happy. Ann-Margret joined the cast this year and…well…

   Viacom has long enjoyed collecting a variety of cable networks. A recent reorganization has made the cable networks more team players than independent networks.

   BET will continue to specialize in programs for the black audience such as AMERICAN SOUL and IN CONTEMPT. Comedy Central focus is on comedy, from live shows (DAILY SHOW) to scripted comedy (THE OTHER TWO). MTV will likely drop any future attempts at scripted TV (anyone remember scripted thriller EYE CANDY, based on R.L. Stine book) and do docu-reality shows with young adults (THE HILLS…NEW BEGINNING). Nickelodean should continue its mix of cartoons (SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS) and live action (HENRY DANGER) for kids.

   Spike network has been renamed Paramount network and is Viacom’s flagship. Its scripted original YELLOWSTONE has been renewed for a third season. Kevin Costner stars in the epic family drama and DALLAS wanna-be.

   HALLMARK MYSTERY MOVIES has its fans. If you like overly formulaic romantic mysteries this is for you. There are a seemingly endless number of different but interchangeable series. Current lineup include GOURMET DETECTIVE MYSTERY, MYSTERY 101, PICTURE PERFECT MYSTERIES, HAILEY DEAN MYSTERIES, and CROSSWORD MYSTERY.

   August will be AURORA TEAGARDEN MYSTERY month. Based on the books written by Charlaine Harris, Aurora (Candace Cameron-Bure) is a librarian who runs the Real Mystery Club. Of interest to old TV fans, Marilu Henner (TAXI) co-stars.

   Another way to watch TV is Digital TV. All it requires is a digital antenna and a TV or some are also available on cable. Among the best known of digital stations are ME-TV, ESCAPE, COZI, GRIT and ANTENNA -TV. These stations remind me of the old TV Independent stations such as the great KDOC -Los Angeles that aired little beyond old TV series reruns.

   When TV has more demand than supply, syndication has always stepped in, from the early wild uncharted days of the 1950s TV to the early days of today’s cable. Today we find original scripted series everywhere we find cable channels.

   WGN AMERICA returns to once cancelled, now revived Canadian original PURE, based on the true story of the Mennonite mob. ION carries mainly your standard syndicated reruns but also offers new original scripted series from Canada, PRIVATE EYES:

   There are small independently owned cable networks that serve a small audience and are not available on streaming. My favorite is El Rey, created by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (EL MARIACHI) for Latino males, young filmmakers, and fans of dubbed martial arts films. It reruns hard to find series such as STARHUNTER REDUX and RELIC HUNTER. It offers exposure to aspiring filmmakers. Among its original programs are MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR (Danny Trejo examines weapons), comedy CRUNCH TIME, a talk show, various animation series, and LUCHA UNDERGROUND.

   The goal of this two part look at TV in 2019 was to help you in this world of nearly 500 original scripted TV series each season, to actually find some of those series, and maybe even find some you like.

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