Category Archives: review of television

Sequel + Mania = Sequelania

I hate to spring another portmanteau word on you so soon after the atrocity that was “Hypocrasisyphus”, but I have been seriously putting things together that do not belong together.  For example, I have been binge-watching two Netflix series; Stranger Things 2 and The Punisher.   Stranger Things 2 is the sequel to the Duffer Brothers’ hit last year, Stranger Things, and The Punisher is the return of a surprise breakout role for Jon Bernthal as the violent vigilante anti-hero, Punisher, from Daredevil, Season 2.   ST2-Final_poster

I love the 80’s monster movie thing that is called Stranger Things mostly because of the kids.  I mean, the most important protagonists in the story are the gang of Dragon’s Lair-playing kids that are so like the gang of kids I taught and played games with in the 80’s.  They have the same cohesion and feel as the kids gangs in Steven Spielberg movies like the Goonies and E.T.   They are the real heroes of the story who actually do the most to defeat the monsters they face from a looming evil dimension on the verge of taking over our world after taking over the body and soul of my relative, Will Byers, one of the gang.

 

I won’t spend much more effort describing that one, since I wrote about Stranger Things 2 in a previous post.  Instead, I want to connect it to my most recent binge, The Punisher.  As I said before, these two series have absolutely no relationship to each other beyond one nutty retired school teacher bingeing on and loving them both.

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The Punisher is about war, violence, the trauma that those things create, and putting the shattered pieces of lives, families, and psyches back together again in a way that resembles making scrambled eggs from Humpty Dumpty.

The main character, Frank Castle, has been a special forces soldier with a talent for violence and a reasonable code of honor developed to combat unreasonable malevolence.

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He has come home from war after having been a part of a covert, CIA assassination squad that has done terrible things, in fact, things more terrible than even the soldiers themselves realize.

The result being, somewhere along the way, a toxic secret has gotten out.  Castle’s wife and two children are targeted and killed while Castle himself survives.  He seeks to put himself back together like the King’s men attempt to do with Humpty Dumpty, through revenge, and killing the people who killed his family, and the people who were part of the plot behind it.  Through two series he murders, assassinates, and otherwise exterminates bad guys, drug dealers, rogue agents, and others who have betrayed him in multiple ways.

But as mind-numbing and stomach-turning as the violence is, the story is about family.  The family that Castle lost.  And the family of the Edward Snowden-like character, Micro, who are still alive, but only because the NSA spook Micro is thought to be dead when he actually is alive and working against the same villains who killed Castle’s family.

And there are just enough scenes with family and guitar-playing moments of insight to convince us that Castle would’ve been a pretty great dad, if only he had been given the chance, thus amplifying the tragedy a hundred fold.  Aha!  There’s the unlikely link.  The two things are both about the struggle to raise kids in a dark and dangerous world.  I knew if I just twisted the puzzle pieces hard enough, I could make them fit together.

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Stranger Things Too

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I admit it.  I binge-watched Stranger Things 2 this weekend, just like everyone else who fell in love with the original.

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The monster is bigger and scarier this time.  It uses new versions of last year’s monster for minions.  The characters are growing and changing and falling in love.  If anything, I love the characters as people even more than last time.

The whole thing is very seriously set in 1984.  You know, the year of Ghostbusters as a summer blockbuster.  References to D & D, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and visual homages to Speilberg movies, gritty urban dramas like The Warriors, and the video game Dragon’s Lair  don’t merely set the scene, they are cultural references artfully used to weave the story together and move the plot, providing short-hand explications of science-fiction-y ideas and Steven King tropes.  There is story-telling mastery to be marveled at here.

And my favorite thing of all here is the satisfying collection of resolutions to ongoing issues.  Eleven re-connects with her past and separates herself from it again.  She finds a place for herself and someone to love her, in more ways than one.  Jonathan and Nancy and Steve work on their love triangle.  And Joyce and Hopper move closer together in spite of the tragedy that tears Joyce’s world apart.  (I can’t talk about Bob.  I identify with Bob. He is just like me in so many ways.  And what happens to Bob?  Ack!  There have to be horrors in horror movies.  And the best ones rattle the foundations that you live on.)

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I am the Uncritical Critic.  I only tell you about the things I love when it comes to movies, TV, books, and music.  And I definitely love this.

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The Iron Fist

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Comic books are not real life.  They are better than real life.  They allow you to go forward in your own story with the myth of the super power to bolster your courage.  You can face your daily devils and demons secure in the knowledge that, while no one is perfect, we can all at least imagine holding firm to an ideal in spite of the trials we face…  being true to a power and a goodness beyond ourselves… being a hero.

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I have followed Iron Fist’s adventures since the 1970’s.  It is true that I haven’t been as devoted to him and his heroics as I have been to Spiderman and the Avengers.  But I love the idea of a good guy in white standing up to the bad guys in black and beating the poop out of them with a good heart and a bare fist, not resorting to guns and bombs and gratuitous killings.  Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, has always been such a character to me.  Noble because he does not intentionally kill the enemy, like Batman, Superman, Captain America and so many other favorite super heroes.

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I admit it, this love-gush of a post is only happening because I finished binge-watching the new Iron Fist series on Netflix.    I depend on Netflix now to deliver to me effortlessly what I used to endlessly hunt and scrabble for in the way of idea fuel and motivational electricity.  And even though I am a notoriously uncritical critic, I have to say, it was not as heart-thumpingly good as either Daredevil or Luke Cage.  But it brought an old friend to life in a way that I never before believed could happen.  And I love the way it fit this puzzle piece into the overall jigsaw of the Marvel superhero stories on Netflix.  It used characters like the ER nurse Claire and the villainous Madam Gao to connect plotlines in Daredevil and Luke Cage, and the evil but helpful lawyer character from Jessica Jones.  Will I watch it again?  Definitely.  Will I need to draw Iron Fist for myself?  Probably.  But this is a hard experience to either explain or recapture.  Television using comic book heroes, sometimes, at its best, makes life better than it really is.

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A Pair of Pertwees

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When I was a teenager in high school, PBS began running episodes of the BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who.  And back then, the show had already gone through two doctors before I ever saw it.  So the first Dr. Who Doctor for me was Jon Pertwee.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the whole idea of Doctor Who, a time-travelling fixer of plot holes in history who goes about appropriating young women as companions and travelling through time and space and other dimensions by using a T.A.R.D.I.S. that manipulates “timey-wimey stuff”, I am afraid there is no hope for you here.  I am a Whovian and am not inclined to be a chief explainer  of all things Whovian to basically non-Whovians, and especially not never-will-be-Whovians.

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I was in college already by the time Jon Pertwee was no longer Dr. Who.  And though I also loved Tom Baker as the Doctor, I was forever caught by the heart with the first Doctor I watched and will forever hold in my heart the notion that Pertwee is the real Doctor.

And he was a gifted comedic actor that had a long career stretching back to Vaudeville and would also come to be identified with British comedies like Worzel Gummidge.

He had a prehensile face, capable of many comic contortions, and an ability with voices and characterizations that made you think “multiple personality disorder”.

Jon left us in 1996, but he has had a new life for me through his son, Sean Pertwee.  His little boy is practically a clone, though as far as I can tell, a very serious clone.  The comic DNA was apparently forgotten on the laboratory shelf.

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Sean Pertwee is now playing the ninja butler in the pre-Batman show on Fox called Gotham.  He has stepped into the role of Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler, and it’s like having my first Doctor back again.

Now, I admit that this post is mostly just fan-gush about people and characters that are mostly forgotten now.  But Jon Pertwee lives on in me.  I saw him play the Doctor back when some things in life could still be absolutely perfect just as they were.

 

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Who Do You Listen To?

There was a time when you could turn on the TV news and listen to what you were fairly confident was actually news.  Walter Cronkite on CBS always seemed to really “Tell it like it is.”  He never seemed to put a spin on anything.  No one doubted anything he said when he reported space missions from NASA or the assassination of JFK.  You never had to wonder, “What is Cronkite’s real agenda?”   His agenda was always to tell me the news of the day.

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The question of politics and ideas was always one of, “Which flavor tastes best in my own personal opinion?”  Because I was weirdly and excessively smart as a kid, I often listened to some of the smartest people accessible to a black-and-white RCA television set.

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William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were both identifiably smarter than me.  I loved to listen to them argue.  They were equally matched.  They respected each other’s intellect, but they hated each other with a passion.  Buckley was a Fascist-leaning conservative ball of hatred with a giant ego.  Vidal was a self-contradictory Commie-pinko bastard child of liberal chaos  with  an equally giant ego.  I never agreed with either of them on anything, but their debates taught me so much about life and politics that I became a dyed-in-the-wool moderate because of them.  They were the key evidence backing up the theory that you needed two sides in the political argument to hammer out good ideas of solid worth.  And, though I didn’t trust either side of the argument fully, I always trusted that both were basing their ideas on facts.

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When I was young I identified as a Republican like my father, and thought George Will was a reasonable opinion-leader.  After all, a man who loves baseball can’t be a bad guy.

Then along came Richard Nixon and the faith-shaking lies of Watergate.  The media began to be cast as the villain as they continued to show the violence and horrors of Vietnam on TV and tell us about campus unrest and the terrible outcomes of things like the Kent State Massacre.  The President suggested routinely that the media was not using facts as much as it was using opinions to turn people away from the Nixon administration’s answer to the problems of life in the USA.  I tried to continue believing in the Republican president right up until he resigned and flew away in that helicopter with his metaphorical tail between his legs (I am trying to suggest he was a cowardly dog, not that I want to make a lewd joke about poor Dick Nixon… or is that Little Dick Nixon, the man who let me down?)

And then along comes Ronald Reagan, the man acting as a “Great President” because he was a veteran actor and knew how to play the part.  And with him came Fox News.

Roger Ailes, a former adviser to Nixon, got together with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, a man who would commit any crime necessary to sell more newspapers, and created a news channel that would pump out conservative-leaning propaganda that would leave Joseph Goebbels envious.  I make it a rule to only listen to them and their views on anything when I feel the need to get one-foot-hopping, fire-spitting mad about something.  So, since, I am a relatively happy person in spite of a long, hard life, you can understand why I almost never watch Fox News.  They are truly skilled at making me mad and unhappy.  And I suspect they do the same for everyone.  They deal in outrage more than well-thought-out ideas.

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News media came under a cloud that obscured the border between facts and partisan opinions.  And conservatives seemed to have a monopoly on the shouty-pouty angry news.  So, I began to wonder where to turn for a well-reasoned and possibly more liberal discussion of what was politically and ethically real.  I found it in the most surprising of places.

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I turned to the “Excuse me, this is the news” crews on Comedy Central where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were busy remaking news reporting as a form of comedy entertainment.  It is hard work to take real news and turn it into go-for-the-chuckles statements of fact that make you go, “Hmm, that’s right, isn’t it?”  Stewart and Colbert consistently examine how other news organizations  hurl, vomit forth, and spin the news, and by so doing, they help you examine the sources, get at the truth, and find the dissonance in the songs everyone else is singing.  And these are very smart men.  As I said, the intellectual work they do is very difficult, harder than merely telling it like it is.  I know because I have tried to do the same myself.  And is it really “fake news”?  It seems to me like it is carefully filtered news, with the poisons of propaganda either surgically removed, or neutralized with antidotes of reason and understanding.

So, Mickey listens to comedians to get his news.  Is that where you expected this article to end up?  If not, where do you get your news?

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Penny Dreadful (Thoughts from the Uncritical Critic)

 

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I confess to binge-watching the show Penny Dreadful, all three seasons on Netflix.   Good God!  What was I thinking?  It is everything that I cringe about in movies.  Blood and gore.  Gratuitous sex and debauchery.  I almost gave up and stopped watching when the Creature came bursting through the chest of Dr. Frankenstein’s latest creation.  And yet for a monster to be introduced to the series in such a way, and then to become the one character that strives hardest for redemption… I was hooked.

Sin and redemption is the major theme of the whole series.  And each character strives so painfully for redemption that you cannot help but love them… even though they are monsters.

You see, I, like all other people, am aware that one day, sooner than I would like, I will die and live no more.  And life, though filled with heartache and suffering and regret, is a priceless treasure to be guarded for as long as I can hold onto it.  There is poetry in that condition.  The greatest beauty that can be beheld is soon to pass away into ugliness.  The candle flame lights the darkness briefly and then is gone.

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The story is built from Victorian era literature and includes Mary Shelly’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a couple of werewolves, numerous witches, demons, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, and a character named Lord Malcom Murray who is obviously based on the African explorer Allan Quartermain from King Solomon’s Mines by H.Rider Haggard.

The characters all do a lot of suffering and striving.  Friendships are formed and made blood-and-family deep by shared adventures and brushes with pure evil and death.  The main character, Vanessa Ives, is variously possessed by a demon, courted by Lucifer, hunted by witches, and then seduced by Dracula.  She uses her deep faith in God, which wavers continually, to defeat every enemy but the last.  She is also aided by a cowboy werewolf and sharp-shooter who is her destined lover, protector, and killer.  It all swiftly becomes ridiculous-sounding when you try to summarize the convoluted Gothic-style plot.  But as it slowly unfolds and reveals new terrors with every episode, it mesmerizes.  The sets, the cinematography, the costumes, and the horrifyingly sweet-sad orchestral background music puts a spell on you that, when you awaken from it, you realize you want more than is available.  Three seasons was simply not enough.

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As I believe I indicated previously, the character that almost made me give up on the series, Frankenstein’s Creature, became the most compelling character of all to me.  He began as such a violent, repellent, selfish thing… and in the end became the most self-sacrificing and tragic character in the entire drama.  He took the name of the English poet John Clare for himself, and became a tragically beautiful person.

Do I recommend that you watch this thing?  This poetic and sometimes deeply disturbing depiction of what it means to be human and be alive?  I cannot.  It was a moving personal experience for me, one that made me weep for beauty and horror at almost every episode.  No one can find that sort of thing through a mere recommendation.  It is entirely between you and your God.

 

 

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There Are No Stranger Things Than Kids

I am planning to re-watch all eight hours of Netflix’s Stranger Things.  I can’t help it.  I really seriously love that show.  And the reason is the kids in the series.  Yes, it was set in the 80’s, a decade I long to return to, but I wasn’t a kid myself in the 80’s.  That was my first decade as a teacher.  The thing is… I taught each and every one of the kids in that series.  I admit, they had different names and lived in different bodies, but they were the same faces, the same personalities.

And it is not so much the characters the kids inhabit in the show, though they were obviously cast as themselves.  It is the real-life screwiness that Jimmy Fallon brings out with the silly string that I recognize.

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Finn Wolfhard’s character, Michael, is basically me.  The dreamer determined to make the fantastic become true.  And when they played Dungeons and Dragons in the basement, he was the Dungeon Master.  That was me.  The teller of the stories, the maker of the meaning.  He’s the one that creates the Demogorgon adventure that eerily comes to life.  He is also the one that finds and befriends the mysterious Eleven.  He is the driving that leads them all to the inevitable conclusion of the adventure.

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And while I never met anyone quite like the mysterious Eleven, Millie Bobby Brown is definitely no stranger to me.  She is bubbly, outgoing, and utterly charming.  She can channel Nikki Minaj.  I must’ve taught at least five different versions of Millie in three different schools when I was a teacher.

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She makes the weird and otherworldly character of Eleven become believable through the sheer force of a natural talent for empathy and understanding.  She is a highly intelligent girl with a knack for making things work.

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I have also taught about four different incarnations of the Dustin character’s actor, Gaten Matarazzo.  The goofy but courageous kid with a broad sense of humor and a focus on food is a very common type of junior high kid.  And while he isn’t usually a leader in the classroom, he’s the one you turn to when you need help getting the group to choose the right path.

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I swear to you, I know all these kids, even though I have never met them.  You see, when you are a teacher for long enough, everyone in the world comes in through your door.  You have to get to know them and learn to at least like them if not love them.  You do the thing for long enough, and you learn that there are a limited number of different faces and personalities that God distributes over time and circumstance to many different people.  It is possible to get to know nearly all of them.  And there are no Stranger Things than kids.

 

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