TV Espionage & Spies


REVIEWED BY MIKE TOONEY:

   

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE “Wheels.” CBS, 29 October 1966 (Season 1, Episode 7 (of 171)). Cast: Mark Lenard (Mora), Percy Rodriguez (police captain), Martin Landau (Rollin Hand/Miguel Cordova), Peter Lupus (Willy Armitage), Greg Morris (Barney Collier), Barbara Bain (Cinnamon Carter), Steven Hill (Dan Briggs), Perry Lopez (the priest, uncredited), Bob Johnson (voice on tape, uncredited), and Jonathan Kidd (registrar). Producers: Barry Crane, Joseph Gantman, and Bruce Geller, executive producer and series creator. Writer: Laurence Heath. Director: Tom Gries. Series available on DVD and is currently streaming on CBS All Access.

   Things are really rotten in Valeria, a small Latin American country on the verge of becoming, as the voice on the tape informs Dan Briggs, “a terrorist dictatorship” thanks to the jefe’s rigged voting machines. Briggs and his dauntless Impossible Missions Force are tasked by “the Secretary” (of State? Defense? Who knows?) with unfixing the election in a way that “will honestly reflect the vote of the people.” As always, cautions the voice, “should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, he will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Piece of cake.

   The plan Briggs comes up with is going along smoothly until their electronics expert, Barney Collier, is badly wounded in a jailbreak, creating grave doubt as to whether or not the mission can be completed. Leave it to the plucky Barney, however, to come through in the end . . . .

   The first season of any show is usually a bumpy ride and this one was no exception (e.g., Cinnamon breaking into unwarranted tears), but this episode of Mission: Impossible pretty much follows the format the series adhered to in all seven of its seasons. (The thing about “format” is that it can and often does degenerate into “formula.”)

   In this particular series the easiest way to create suspense is to have some problem arise that threatens to blow the team’s cover; here it’s Barney’s wound and the unwanted interest by the secret police that force the team members to “improvise.”

   Overcoming unexpected setbacks poses a real challenge to screenwriters and not all of them are up to it. Two writers who were very good at it were William Read Woodfield teamed with Allan Balter, the Levinson and Link of the series; together they were responsible for the most engaging stories in Mission: Impossible, but not this one.

   “Wheels” was writer Laurence Heath’s first script for Mission: Impossible; he would be responsible for twenty-three altogether.

   You’ve probably seen director Tom Gries’s name on TV or movie productions; he did good work on Breakheart Pass (1975), the film adaptation of Alistair Maclean’s novel and screenplay. This was his only Mission: Impossible story.

   Several years ago Jonathan Lewis contributed a Mystery*File article about producer/creator Bruce Geller’s directorial involvement with Harry in Your Pocket (1973), an offbeat crime film, and you can read that here.

   

TWO LEGENDS [DVE LEGENDY] “Double Standard.” Russian TV, 09 February 2014 (Season 1, Episode 1). 2 hours. Ana Popova, Artem Krylov. Directed by Vyacheslav Kirillov. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   Probably because it appeared first on Russian TV, there isn’t a lot of information about this show on Wikipedia (nothing) or IMDb. Here’s how the four-episode mini-series is described on Amazon Prime:

   “He teaches mathematics and she teaches biology. The only thing they have in common is their brilliance: they both speak several languages fluently, have a command of the latest technology, know how to use all kinds of weapons and are trained in the martial arts. These two teachers are, in fact, legendary spies.”

   She is, of course, also beautiful, once she’s out of the classroom and can let her prim everyday facade fade away. As a math teacher, he looks like, well, a math teacher, hiding behind thick-rimmed glasses, à la Clark Kent, but in his spy outfit, he looks like, well, a math teacher.

   In this first episode, they start out not aware of the other’s existence. One is following the trail of an international terrorist, the other tracking the dealing of a notorious financial swindler. When their paths cross, their first meeting is spectacularly lengthy scene of hand to hand combat, not unlike when two Marvel superheroes cross over into the same comic book and have to slug it out for a while before they discover they are on the same side after all.

   The series was a huge hit in Russia, I am told, and I can see why. The plot itself takes second place to the action, action, and more action. The hand-held camera work, even when two people are having a conversation, can make the more susceptible viewer quite dizzy, swooping here and there and back around again. It didn’t bother me, but if you decide to give this one a try, you might want to fasten your seat belts down ahead of time.

   

   

BODYGUARD. “Episode 1.” ITV/BBC One, UK, 26 August 2018. Richard Madden as PS David Budd; Keeley Hawes as The Rt. Hon. Julia Montague MP, the Home Secretary and Conservative Party Member of Parliament for Thames West: Sophie Rundle as Vicky Budd, David’s wife; plus a large ensemble cast. Director: Thomas Vincent.

   After successfully defusing a terrorist attack aboard a speeding train, PS David Budd is assigned the ask of guarding Home Secretary Julia Montague against possible attempts on her life. Unknown to host of his superiors, Budd is suffering from PTSD from his years of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but because of his moody and sometimes violent behaviors at home, he is separated from his wife and two children.

   There isn’t a lot of time to fill out an actual story in this, the first of six episodes, but it certainly does a great job of paving the way for what comes next. Budd does not care much for the policies of the woman he is guarding, thinking of her as just another politician who does not care for the men and women who must do the fighting to carry them out, and conflict between them seems inevitable. His domestic problems at home are also sure to play a role in what comes next.

   The British seem to do this kind of story much better than we seem to on this side of Atlantic. With only five more episodes to go, I’m much more likely to finish this particular example of that than some others I’ve been sampling. (I assume you’ve been following my recent investigations into streaming TV right along with me.)

   

TAKEN. “Pilot.” NBC, 27 February 2017. Clive Standen as Bryan Mills and Jennifer Beals as Christina Hart. Large ensemble cast, including guest stars, some of whom may return; others who won’t. Showrunner/screenwriter: Alexander Cary. Director: Alex Graves.

   Now as most of you already know, those of you who are well ahead of me on this, Liam Neeson played Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative whose life takes three separate and serious turns of events, each turned into a  fast action film and huge box office successes. Rather than a fourth film, what to do with the character? Go back to his beginnings and build a TV series around them.

   It lasted for two years, and believe it or not, this is the first I’ve known about it. I was scouting around on Amazon Video looking for something else to watch with Jennifer Beals in it, and there I found it.  I haven’t watched the movies either. Always meant to. Haven’t yet.

   Of course you realize that the TV series is totally generic. Take the name of the character and the title (Taken), and voila. There you have it. Name recognition from day one.

   The pilot has, unfortunately, no plot in and of itself. It’s an “origin” story all the way, nothing more. But nothing less, either. When terrorists kill Mills’ younger sister in retaliation for killing a drug lord’s son, Mills takes matters into his own hands – but not quite. He’s tracked all the way and given help (rescued) by Christina Hart’s team of operatives. She’s a Deputy Director with Special Portfolio at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. (Confession time. I had to look this up online.)

   The story ends with Mills being recruited by her. I hope I’m not giving too much away. The pilot is well enough done, but what kind of stories will follow next is not entirely clear. We are left with only our imaginations at work. I might watch the movies next, but on the other hand, since Jennifer Beals is in the series, I can’t tell you that I’m all that sure about that.

   

COUNTERSTRIKE “Dealbreaker.” USA Network., 01 July 1990 (Season 1, Episode 1). Christopher Plummer, Simon MacCorkindale, Cyrielle Clair, Stephen Shellen, Laurence Ashley-Taboulet. Guest Cast: Susan George, Chuck Shamata. Director: Mario Azzopardi.

   Counterstrike was a Canadian-French TV series that was broadcast on USA here in the US for three seasons, beginning in 1990.  Christopher Plummer was the biggest name in the cast, playing ,Alexander Addington, the wealthy leader of a group of three counter-terrorism agents. Unfortunately in this, the first show of the series, there is nothing to show how the team was assembled or their motivations, if any. The viewer is expected to pick upon things as they go.

      

   And this is a state of affairs that applies to the story itself, I’m sorry to say A little bit of stick-to-it-iveness is a handy thing to have sometimes, and eventually the overall picture becomes clearer. To wit: A former girl friend of one of the team (Simon MacCorkindale) has been kidnapped. She’s now the wife of a former CIA agent who’s gone back on a deal with some terrorists involving some bomb detonators. It’s up to Peter to get her back, along with the help from Addington  and the other two members of the team. The husband he cares about not at all.

   There’s lots of spy stuff going on, but you needn’t bother paying too much attention to the details. There’s not a lot in this one you’ve haven’t seen before, and when you did, it was probably better told. Many of the episodes are playing now on YouTube, however, and maybe once you get to know the characters better, maybe the shows improve as well.

   

THE WIDOW “Mr. Tequila.” Amazon Prime Video. 01 March 2019 (Season 1, Episode 1). Kate Beckinsale and a large ensemble cast. Created and written by Harry Williams & Jack Williams. Director: Samuel Donovan.

   As the pilot of this one season, eight-episode series, it does its job in one solid way: it sets the course for the season with a strikingly visual presentation consisting of at least three different story lines. What it does not do, and by no means is this a problem, it only tangentially brings any of them together, nor obviously are any of them concluded. This is the only episode I’ve seen.

   Kate Beckinsale plays the title character, a widow who lost her husband, a medical aid worker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who he died when his plane went down in wide swatch of jungle while on his way home. Watching a televison news report of civil unrest in that country three years later, she’s sure she sees her husband, either fighting or taking cover from the action.

   She immediately hops a plane to the Congo to investigate, where she’s met by one of two men with whom she bonded as a small survivors’ group in the airport after the crash. There appears there is more to be known about the third, known locally as “Mr. Tequila,” which is about as far as this story line goes.

   I plan to keep watching. I always enjoy watching Kate Beckinsale in action, and this is obviously a star vehicle built especially for her. She always lights up the screen whenever she appears. I don’t know exactly how she does, but she does.

   

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.

DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT “The Knitting Needle Story.” Syndicated, though largely to NBC stations. 02 June 1952. (Season 1 Episode 30). Brian Donlevy (Steve Mitchell), Jim Flavin, Jan Arvan, Steve Roberts, Fay Baker, Frances Rafferty. Writers: Writers: Eddie Forman, Adrian Gendot, Robert Ryf. Directo: Bill Karn.

   Before its one and only one season on TV, Dangerous Assignment had already been on the radio for several years, in a series also starring Brian Donlevy as a secret agent whose job took him on, well, dangerous assignments all over the world. When the series was passed upon up by all of the then current TV networks, Donlevy decided to pick up the tab himself for one season’s worth of 39 syndicated episodes.

   I did not choose to watch “The Knitting Needle Story” for any particular reason. Although the complete series is available on DVD, I just happened to come across this one on YouTube. Based on my memories of watching this when I was young, I can’t say this with certainty, but I think it’s about average for the series, better than some, but perhaps not as good as others.

   In this one Steve Mitchell is assigned to be the bodyguard of an Italian news reporter heading by plane back to his native country with a scoop about The Black Hand, important information with international implications. There are naturally those who do not wish him to make it home with the story he has to tell.

   Most of the action takes place on the plane, not that there’s a lot of action. There are several twists to the story, though, plus one huge red herring that sounds worth investigation but is dropped almost as quickly. There has to be a lot of skill involved in putting together a story as complete, complicated and still coherent as this one is, and in only 25 minutes.

   But as agent Steve Mitchell, Brian Donlevy tries his best to appear suave and debonair, but he comes off as only stolid and solid. James Bond hadn’t come on the scene yet: in book form, he was only a year later. Even if their careers had overlapped a little, Bond would still have had nothing to worry about, not in comparison with he rather dull Steve Mitchell. The latter was of an earlier time, and a different era.

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.

TV IN 2019: PART ONE – STREAMING SERVICES
by Michael Shonk


   The entertainment called television has escaped the boundaries of the TV set and now can be found almost anywhere. So where are all those shows hiding?

   During the last few years the total of original scripted TV series has approached nearly five hundred every year. With the upcoming explosion of new major media players joining the streaming wars the number of scripted original shows should increase like bunny rabbits.

   The business of television is in chaos as even the major broadcast networks are now minor players left playing a role for their business masters or they are struggling to find a way to stay relevant. But more about that in Part Two, in which broadcast networks and cable will be covered.

   Many of you have probably sampled or subscribed to at least one streaming service. The main ones have been NETFLIX, Amazon Prime and Hulu. Soon some of the world’s largest media conglomerates – Disney, AT&T (WarnerMedia), Comcast, and Apple will debut their streaming services, all with their own original programs.

   CBS has fought off media conglomerate Viacom and started its own streaming service with original programs. However due to the fall of CBS mogul Les Moonves, and Viacom slow but steady recovery, few would be surprised if Viacom and CBS rejoin together. Viacom recently bought streaming service Pluto to use to streaming all of its cable networks once it’s ready.

   Many other networks – broadcast and cable – have an online site where you can catch up on their programs you might have missed.

   A streaming service – usually for a fee – allows you to watch TV shows and movies on your computer or other devices via the Internet. There are smart TVs such as Roku, over the top box such as Apple TV and devices such as Amazon’s Fire stick that connects your TV to the streaming world.

   Netflix remains one of the most successful and powerful studios in the World. As it continues to develop original programming faster than any viewer could possible watch, Netflix has also created a film studio and plans to become a major player in movies as well as television.

   One update from the clip, BLACK MIRROR is playing on Netflix now. I would add to the list of shows worth checking out – THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY, SANTA CLARITA DIET, and DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE (coming in August).

   Netflix has also rescued two network series from recent cancellation – LUCIFER (FOX) and DESIGNATED SURVIVIOR (ABC). It has been announced LUCIFER has been renewed for another season after its current – it will be the fifth and last.

   DISNEY is now the top media giant in the business. It owns the rights to Mickey Mouse, Marvel, The Simpsons and Star Wars. It currently runs two streaming services –ESPN+ and Hulu.

   Hulu has been around for some time and was owned by Disney, Fox, Comcast and WB. Disney now has full control over Hulu and plans to continue its focus on TV series, especially network and cable TV series. Hulu is not best known for its originals but THE HANDMAID’S TALE, CHANCE and CATCH 22 are worth checking out.

   Disney+ will be the company’s third streaming service and the one that will get most of the attention. This is the one Netflix needs to fear. It will be available this year and one of its first original series will be STAR WARS MANDALORIAN

   This year will also see AT&T join in the TV streaming fun. Its recent purchase of Time Warner gave the phone company a strong presence in the cable world. Reportedly the new service will be called WarnerMedia. They are still working on what kind of service will they offer. Will it be one service uniting HBO, Cinemax and all of WarnerMedia to cost $16-$17 a month or will it be a three tier – basic, HBO and premium? WarnerMedia has announced its first original program. TOYKO VICE will star Ansel Elgort and is based on the non-fiction book by Jake Adelstein.

   Warners have not had much success in the streaming business. Warner Archive with its over priced small library of old movies and TV series was a failure. DC UNIVERSE has had two minor success with DOOM PATROL and TITANS, but the service just cancelled SWAMP THING after one episode. Boomerang is an offshoot of the cable Cartoon Network spin-off network Boomerang. It focuses on post 50s to today era of classic cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo, and 90s favorite KIDS NEXT DOOR.

   Premium channels have their own streaming service that can also be found at Apple TV and Amazon Prime (for the price of subscription). These channels also offer apps that allow you to subscribe to the streaming service and watch it without needing cable.

   WarnerMedia has the most successful of the pay networks HBO. There is a question about what HBO will replace the epic hit GAMES OF THRONES with. At the moment only one series, THE LONG NIGHT will come from the world of GAMES. However THE LONG NIGHT will take place in Westero a thousand years before the GAMES timeline. Of course HBO does have some other shows to watch.

   Cinemax has grown up from its days as a soft porn cable network. Today it does some wonderful action series such as C.B. STRIKE, RELLIK, WARRIOR and JETT.

   CBS owns premium channel SHOWTIME and streaming CBS ALL ACCESS.

   SHOWTIME has always stood in the pay TV shadow of HBO and now it has even more competition. Perhaps its highlight of 2019 will be CITY ON A HILL.

   CBS ALL ACCESS is best known for the CBS classic TV series and originals STAR TREK DISCOVERY, THE TWILIGHT ZONE (with host Jordan Peele) and THE GOOD FIGHT (sequel to THE GOOD WIFE). Currently in season three, the critic favorite GOOD FIGHT will air season one this summer on CBS.

   STARZ has increased its original programming over the last few years featuring high production values in such series as BLACK SAILS, WHITE PRINCESS and my favorite COUNTERPART (that ended recently after two seasons),

   I recently reduced my cable to just basic and had to live without my favorite network EPIX. I discovered EPIX app and for $5.99 I am again watching series such as BERLIN STATION, GET SHORTY, DEEP STATE, and PERPETUAL GRACE LTD on my Roku TV and without cable.

   COMCAST owns NBC Universal and all the cable stations that go with it. It has plans for a free ad supported streaming service this year but has fallen behind its fellow growing media giants.

   Apple TV is a box that connects your TV to streaming services. Apple TV+ debuts sometime this year as a streaming service specializing in Apple’s original programs

   Did you notice AMAZING STORIES is coming back with new stories and produced by Stephen Spielberg? Below is a promo for FOR ALL MANKIND, a TV series set in an alternative history where the Russians were first to the Moon.

   Of course I have not forgotten Amazon Prime. Prime exists to promote free shipping at a retail online store. There are many services offered to Prime members and the video streaming is just one of them and because of that it can get lost and forgotten.

   Prime, like Netflix and Hulu, has save broadcast and cable TV from cancellation. After three seasons of THE EXPANSE SyFy could no longer afford to make the series. Fortunately, Prime will air the original fourth season of TV’s best science fiction series THE EXPANSE. I recommend you watch the first three seasons now on Prime.

   There are a nice variety of original programs hiding on Prime worth watching such as BOSCH, PATROIT, GOLIATH, FLEABAG, SNEAKY PETE, and MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.

   There seems to be a streaming service for every taste, genre and need. A good place to find the small service for you is to search through Amazon Prime Channels.

   Fans of British TV should start at BRITBOX, a streaming service from the BBC and ITV. Most of the best of British TV can be found there including every classic DOCTOR WHO episode in existence. My one complaint is there is not enough 60s series, especially not enough from ITV.

   Acorn is a service that airs series from Britain, but also Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand’s BROKENWOOD MYSTERIES remains high on my favorites list. Currently Acorn has five seasons and a six is on its way.

   Small streaming services such as Acorn can offer you first glimpse of quality TV before mainstream television finds it. In Acorn’s case it was the first to show MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES in America. Since MISS FISHER ended with season 3, Acorn has the Australian sequel called MS FISHER’S MODERN MYSTERIES – Miss Fisher’s niece joins the Adventuress Club to solve mysteries in the groovy 1960s.

   If you don’t mind subtitles there is the online only streaming service MHz Choice that has some of Europe’s best TV series. There is the French version of Maigret, the Italian version of Nero Wolfe, Detective Montalbano, Irene Huss, Donna Leon’s Bronetti Mysteries, Baantjer Mysteries, and so many more.

   Anime can be found at each of the major streaming services. Netflix tends to focus on original anime. Hulu and Amazon Prime have older shows. Free service Crackle offers some great dubbed choices including TRIGUN and DEATH PARADE.

   There are also streaming services just for the animated genre such as Crunchyroll or Funimation. I have been watching a lot of anime this year and appreciate the genre’s ability to world build completely different times, places and its own realities. My favorites include ACCA: 13-TERRITORY INSPECTION DEPARTMENT, BUNGO STRAY DOGS, 18IF, BLACK LAGOON and STEINS;GATE.

   PBS MASTERPIECE has added FRANKIE DRAKE MYSTERIES. Now here is a series that illustrates how hard it is to find some of these shows. FRANKIE began at CBC (Canada) and done by the people behind MURDOCH MYSTERIES. Frankie and her fellow female PI have adventures and solve mysteries in the 1920s. It has been on Ovation under the title THE ARTFUL DETECTIVE and also on Alibi, but now on PBS streaming it finally gets a chance at a decent size audience.

   SHOUT FACTORY is more into cult TV and movies.

   There are many free streaming services most with ads. Here is a list suggesting some free sites you might sample.

   Sony’s CRACKLE is by far the best of the free streaming services with better than average network TV series, movies and anime. It also has a growing selection of original TV series include ART OF MORE, THE OATH, and START-UP.

   There are hundreds of streaming channels available from DOGTV a channel for your dogs to watch while you are away to POKERGO that offers live access to over 100 poker tournaments a year.

   More and more live TV is available through streaming. MLB.com offers you the ability to watch every major league baseball game played (subject to local blackouts) as does NHL and hockey. Amazon Prime, Hulu, Yahoo, YouTube, Playstation Vue and others let you watch live events and sports on your devices beyond your TV screen.

   Streaming offers the TV Viewer several advantages over broadcast and cable television. You can watch TV from around the world not just the US and a few imports. No longer is the TV viewer chained to the TV set, instead TV is available to watch wherever the viewer is. Streaming has no time periods or schedules, the days of scheduling your life around your favorite TV show are over, now your favorites wait for you.

   In my next post I will examine the broadcast and cable networks, their future, their search for an identity that will set them apart from the crowd and survive the current chaos that is the business of television.

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