What’s wrong with Better Call Saul?

Back in March 2015, my review of Better Call Saul in its first season was full of excitement. There was a character and actress to fawn over (Betsy Kettleman) and…

Back in March 2015, my review of Better Call Saul in its first season was full of excitement. There was a character and actress to fawn over (Betsy Kettleman) and the editing had the same visual interest of this prequel’s predecessor: Breaking Bad. I was also correct that there would be many seasons, but now that’s something I worry about.

What are we feeling now in the fourth season? As Jimmy gets closer and closer to the moment when Saul is born, it seems the show is happy to let him stay Jimmy for as long as possible. In some ways, that delayed gratification can be very satisfying, but there are some big things bothering me about it right now.

We’re getting backstory and the motivation for Jimmy’s eventual turn, but we’re also seeing those stories draw out longer than the writing supports. The show is leaning heavily on its Breaking Bad parentage for any kind of steam at all. In other words: They know we’re going to watch because they know we have to know what happens, so they are milking as many seasons out of it as possible.

And what doesn’t have steam at all? Jimmy’s relationship with Kim Wexler. Even though I believe we are meant to see them as mismatched, the moments between them have felt cold and false for so long, that I really can’t wait until she’s written away. That’s an unusual and unfortunate way to feel about a character who is central to the current narrative.

The writing team seems to love the performances from Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, but they haven’t struck me as powerful in any of the moments where they really should have. The cold, uptight personality certainly contrasts with Jimmy, but the opposites attract idiom isn’t working on this relationship.

Expiration Date

The timeline for the show is already set – we know approximately when the Breaking Bad timeline starts up. Then we’ll find out how much they want Better Call Saul to overlap with Breaking Bad (if at all) and if they’ll continue the future, bun-making Saul’s story beyond the black and white. Will we meet someone from Jimmy’s past in Saul’s future?

I like how those questions are in my mind. At the moment, the ideas I come up with are more entertaining than watching the show itself. I enjoy the antics, but at times they seem barely held together by dramatic sequences with the Salamanca cousins and Nacho.

The people (or network executives) behind the show may be thinking that we really only enjoy the parts that include Breaking Bad characters. So they dole them out slowly and dramatically (so far over four seasons) and spend so much camera time on a sideways glance that should have meaning, but doesn’t (yet).

I’m one of those viewers who is hanging on to see Jimmy transform into Saul, for Kim to go away in some undoubtedly underwhelming fashion, for as much Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) as humanly possible, and to see if future Saul survives to serve another cinnamon bun.

I think it’s possible for many elements of these first four seasons to be brilliant in hindsight, but they need to get somewhere soon or it will all feel like schadenfreude.

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Stranger Things

Suddenly my social network feeds were filled with people turning their names into a red outline, 1980s-style movie poster. Considering how often a photo or meme goes viral on Facebook,…

Suddenly my social network feeds were filled with people turning their names into a red outline, 1980s-style movie poster. Considering how often a photo or meme goes viral on Facebook, I didn’t think much of it until Netflix sent me an email about a new show they thought I might like.

Stranger Things didn’t immediately catch my attention for more than the obvious ’80s nostalgia. The Goldbergs may have been closest to the renewed interest in recreating the era of Rubik’s Cubes and Sci-Fi, but when I started watching, I really had no clue what it was going to be about. I didn’t even know the genre.

Dungeons and Dragons! I never played as a kid, but I recognized the references in one of the opening scenes between four young boys. Soon enough, I realized that this show was going to be more along the lines of the horror genre than I like. Most of my favorite shows have an element of humor. That may have been what kept me watching: simply the ability to spot ’80s stuff I remember and laugh at the references.

That said, I finished watching this entire first series in two nights. “Okay, so it must be great, right?” It’s great if you’re a fan of The X-Files, Under the Dome, The Goldbergs, and a host of other mystery-filled thrillers, and there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s fun to be reminded of other shows and movies that we loved before.

It’s not a ground-breaking, television-direction-changing program. And that’s okay!

A lot of viewers are constantly on the lookout for a show they can be obsessively re-watch and create a new fandom around, but most often, that’s not the case. What Stranger Things does well is present interesting, sometimes clichéd, but fun characters. I know more than a few people who plan to dress up as a character from the show for Halloween this year.

The setting of the show is fictional Hawkins, Indiana, and it’s the real-life Jackson, Georgia that served as the filming location. Any Indiana native can attest that the trees and shrubberies are sometimes noticeably “not quite Indiana.” There really isn’t an attempt to bring much Indiana into the show. It just really serves as a very “middle of nowhere” location that makes it a little spookier.

jim-hopperMy award for Best Series Character goes to Jim Hopper, played by David Harbour. He’s the kind of gruff, Indiana Jones type that really makes this series true to the 1980s.

In summary, I think you should watch it (unless you just can’t stand anything slightly creepy). It seems the first season wrapped up quickly but left room for a continuation that should give you something to look forward to!

three-half-stars

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Billions

At this time (January 2016), there isn’t massive hype around Showtime’s new show, “Billions”…but there almost certainly will be. It’s already been picked up for a second season and it…

At this time (January 2016), there isn’t massive hype around Showtime’s new show, “Billions”…but there almost certainly will be. It’s already been picked up for a second season and it hasn’t even hit the water cooler conversations yet.

The timing is right for this drama. For Americans who feel wealth is out of reach except for those who pull the strings, this show pokes at the money beast that runs our modern economy and reveals that the good guys are playing games too.

Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, and Maggie Siff are excellent so far. The pace is quick and the barbs are meaty. Metaphors and entanglements create an electric tension without resorting to (a large amount) of intentional exposition.

It’s early, but I have a good feeling about this one. We’ll see how they handle the primary storylines in season one without losing steam. If you were a fan of the “The Big Short” you’ll likely enjoy this series. It is definitely only for adults who aren’t shocked by nudity and language, so keep that in mind.

Let me know what you think – I’d love to hear some opinions: Is this the next big show for Showtime?

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Master of None

I’m going to make an unusual suggestion: Watch episode 2 of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s “Master of None” first. That’s right, watch the second episode first. It’s titled Parents…

I’m going to make an unusual suggestion: Watch episode 2 of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s “Master of None” first. That’s right, watch the second episode first. It’s titled Parents and I think it gives a better first impression than the season opener. After you watch the second episode, immediately go back to the first episode so you can be sure to get any potential arcs.

Don’t get me wrong, I like what I’ve seen so far and I started with the first episode. But I think the strength really comes in when you see Aziz Ansari’s actual parents play his character’s parents. It’s a rare show that almost made me cry while almost making me laugh. I say almost because I’m a tough critic and I’m excited to see Aziz stretch into a character beyond Tom Haverford.

master-of-noneNext, this proves that I love the casting work by Allison Jones because the chemistry is good from the very beginning. Aziz also has the opportunity to act out some of the themes from his book “Modern Romance” about the role that technology plays in relationships of all kinds.

When a comedy can manage to address social issues, it stretches beyond laughs. This show manages to pull in topics like racism without feeling like a lesson or an attack. That’s genius writing and the credit goes all to Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang according to the credits.

Sure, if your idea of comedy is laugh track and “shut the front door!” language, you might have to bleep a few words here and there, but it’s not excessive and the themes are important enough to ignore any of that. And if you’re in it for a little bit of that Tom Haverford feel, you’ll get it here and there.

Will it become a classic?

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Alpha House

I recently splurged on a new television – a so-called 4K resolution television, to be exact. Without getting into all the specifics about what that means, why it’s not really…

I recently splurged on a new television – a so-called 4K resolution television, to be exact. Without getting into all the specifics about what that means, why it’s not really 4K, and so on…I’ll just launch into the review.

It’s relevant because I am not accustomed to seeing the fine details of an actor’s face and wardrobe. More now than ever, I appreciate the detail that is invested into the scenery, props, costumes, makeup, and all the extremely important members of the TV-making family.

Seeing deeply into the face grooves of John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy, and Mark Consuelos in the highest of high definition was a treat because these are some excellent actors. These four gentlemen are the central characters in Alpha House, an Amazon original.

Oh and did I mention I can use an application on my Wifi-enabled TV to watch this and other Amazon shows?! Sorry…I really can’t get over how much the technology has improved. And these fake senators encounter the realities of modern life, too.

John Goodman plays Gil John Biggs from North Carolina. His past as a basketball coach pokes fun at certain aspects of the semi-celebrity senator and even alludes to a notoriously-angry basketball coach from another Republican state. Can you guess? What if I simply say, “chair?”

gil-john-biggs

My favorite character is Louis Laffer, played expertly by Matt Malloy. He’s the Mormon senator from Nevada who owns the house where each of the characters live for their work in the capital city. He and his wife Louise (Amy Sedaris) are furthest right on the political spectrum and their antics as a couple are increasingly hilarious.

louis-laffer

Technology and communications play a role in this show as well. It’s clear how television influences and directs the characters in their advertising efforts, latest news about their other politician friends, and even a couple of hovering drones.

The show is smart – very smart, actually. But that’s what you might expect after discovering that the creator and writing lead is Garry Trudeau of the Doonesbury comic strip.

If you don’t want to watch for smarty pants reasons, then maybe you’ll tune in just to see Mark Consuelos as Andy Guzman representing the fine state of Florida. He’s the charmer of the bunch and is definitely meant to remind us of 2016 candidate, Marco Rubio. The jokes write themselves…but look at that smile!

andy-guzman

Clark Johnson (you may know him from The Wire) is Robert Bettencourt from Pennsylvania. He seems to hold the group together, but faces the toughest re-election campaign. I was hooked on his character after the fire. See now you have to watch just to find out what I’m talking about.

Robert-Bettencourt

There is an undercurrent of hypocrisy and clear jabs at the ridiculousness of politics, but you end up bonding with the characters and enjoying the many cameos. As of this writing, it’s unclear whether the show will go into a third season, but it’s definitely time for political humor as we get into the 2016 Presidential election.

Vote for Alpha House!

Four Stars

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The Goldbergs

The best thing about The Goldbergs is its foundation in reality, the 80s music, the technology cameos…well, that’s a few things and I could continue. Showrunner Adam F. Goldberg opened…

The best thing about The Goldbergs is its foundation in reality, the 80s music, the technology cameos…well, that’s a few things and I could continue. Showrunner Adam F. Goldberg opened up his own history to create a family-centered show set in the wonderfully weird 1980s.

The show is Adam’s story, narrated by Patton Oswalt. He’s the nerdy youngest child who captures family moments on video (just like the real Adam did). He has an older brother and sister all raised by the 80s version of a helicopter parent, their Mom Beverly. Dad Murray is a delightful couch potato with a secret soft side.

projection-tv
It’s exciting to start each episode wondering if there will be another long-forgotten electronic featured. Want to see a ridiculous 80s projection TV fit seamlessly into a storyline? This is the show for you!

Even though it might seem like a show only those old enough to remember the 80s would enjoy, it is perfect for the young as well. The themes are familiar: the embarrassments of growing up, arguing with family, and acquiring the latest cool things. (Except the cool things then are hilarious now.)

Perhaps the best reason to watch the show is to be reminded of another era. The shows end with a little learning moment, but only with pure charm (and an appropriate 80s song).

Four Stars

A light comedy that will put you in a great mood!

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The Jinx

I was not expecting much from The Jinx when I started it up one Sunday morning. My brother-in-law recommended it after I lamented about already breezing through everything I thought…

I was not expecting much from The Jinx when I started it up one Sunday morning. My brother-in-law recommended it after I lamented about already breezing through everything I thought I wanted to watch on HBO.

“The Jinx” is centered on Robert Durst. He is a millionaire heir of a real estate family in New York. His past has always been in question since the disappearance of his wife Kathie McCormack in 1982.

The six-part documentary series slowly takes us through the stories with interviews provided by Mr. Durst himself. When you first start watching, you definitely get a distinct feeling that something is a little off. You may even begin to doubt your first impressions as you get further into the series.

By the final episode, your opinion should be firmly set and it will be clear that there is more to come on this story. It’s one of the few things that has made me gasp audibly while watching. In fact, I feel I need to watch it again just to pick up on things I missed the first time.

Because of the nature of this story, it’s really for adults only. Even then, if you are sensitive about real-life crime, then I wouldn’t recommend watching it unless you feel comfortable. I definitely have nothing but praise for Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling who brought this to us and went above and beyond to get the story.

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The End of Mad Men

Be sure to stop reading this article if you haven’t seen the final episode of Mad Men and you’d like to remain in the dark. For a more general view…

Be sure to stop reading this article if you haven’t seen the final episode of Mad Men and you’d like to remain in the dark. For a more general view of the show, visit my first article.


If you have been watching Mad Men since 2007, you probably have deeper feelings about the ending of the show. The characters have been in your life for a significant amount of time and losing the continuation of their stories is an emotional experience. Catching up with the show by watching it within a single year or two is no less enthralling, but may not lead to tears as easily.

If you haven’t seen the series and you’re just curious what all the fuss is about, I hope this explanation will lead you to watch someday when you’re ready for new complex characters in your life.

I never expected Don Draper’s story to wrap in an obvious way. The series often fed us subtle clues about its direction that are only clear on a second viewing (or a very sharp memory). As an example, in a scene between Sally Draper and an acquaintance, Sally lights a cigarette and the boy tells her, “smoking causes cancer.”

sally-betty-smokingSally is young enough to avoid starting a smoking habit, but not Betty Draper or the millions of other smokers of her generation. When we discovered Betty’s diagnosis in the penultimate episode, we were not as surprised as sad. Not only because we feel for the character, but because we all have people in our lives who didn’t hear the same warnings.

Some viewers made very big predictions about Don’s fate. They wanted to see him fall from a building to mimic the title sequence, or hijack a plane to make him a famous character from history. Neither of those endings would be true to the character even as dramatic as it would be for television.

I also never expected Don Draper to kill himself even though he was so often surrounded by characters who thought it was the only way out. In a meeting, Don pitched an ad for a Hawaiian hotel with a business suit on the sand and footsteps toward the sea. The clients saw it as a suicide, but Don saw it as opportunity. Don is not a man who escapes problems by accepting defeat. He always ran from the truth and expressed himself silently through his work.

In an early season, we see a flashback of Don as a child where a woman fed him soup when he was sick. She was a prostitute, but filled a motherly role that was missing from his life. Then we see the advertisement he created with the same imagery and a tagline suggesting moms always know what their kids need. Don is the epitome of someone who can create a story that people believe because it comes from his personal life.

This leads to one perspective on the finale. The last scene was the narrative equivalent of the recent gold/white or blue/black dress debate. Some people saw that dress photo as what was visible in the image, “How does this appear to me in the photo?” and others as “What are the actual colors; I don’t care how it appears in the image.”

The last scene presented us with Don Draper along the ocean, attempting meditation on top of a cliff. He develops a smile as he is surrounded by ohms. Then we see an actual television commercial – an iconic one from Coca-Cola, created by real advertising professionals in 1971.

We do not see a scene where Don Draper creates this commercial, nor do we see him share the idea with anyone else. We are left to decide: Did Don Draper return to his work and help create this commercial or is it meant as a less literal message?

There are two realities present, but we have access to the writer. Matthew Weiner could answer our question immediately, but would it really matter? (Added May 20, 2015: Matthew Weiner explains the finale) If you believe that Don Draper left advertising for a world of enlightenment, that his hug with a stranger changed his life, will you see it differently when the truth is presented?

His smile moment on the cliff could be his acceptance of the past or just an idea for an ad. Which do you see in his face? The answer could reveal your own understanding of self. The evidence suggests another truth – that Don Draper did exactly what he’s always done. He went away without explanation, had an experience, and then returned to distill it into messaging for a client.

Other characters were given storyline wrap-ups that might have felt rushed or unlikely to last. The interpretation reveals your own optimism or pessimism. Do you believe that Pete Campbell grew up and will make a better father and husband in their new Wichita home? Do you believe that Peggy and Stan will last as a romantic pair with a foundation of friendship?

joan-finaleJoan represented women who enjoy their work and don’t want to let a romantic partner prevent them from pursuing something exciting. We see her without makeup, having an honest conversation about what she wants and then starting her own business.

Throughout the series, we saw many characters change and take on new challenges, so the wrap-ups aren’t endings, they are really just the next steps for those characters. The ending we saw for Don could really just be the end of his private torment and a step toward embracing his skills as a storyteller.

A brilliant exploration of character that goes beyond the historical setting.

A brilliant exploration of character that goes beyond the historical setting.

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Why It’s Easy To Love Chopped

It might be hard to imagine creating an hour-long show about cooking that could be more engaging than Chopped. This Food Network show premiered in January 2009 with host Ted…

It might be hard to imagine creating an hour-long show about cooking that could be more engaging than Chopped. This Food Network show premiered in January 2009 with host Ted Allen and a short-list of culinary greats as regular judges.

Alex Guarnaschelli, Geoffrey Zakarian, Marc Murphy, Amanda Freitag, Aarón Sanchez, Chris Santos, and Scott Conant led the way and are still viewer favorite judges. Chopped was even added to the Culinary Hall of Fame in 2012 for its contribution to cuisine.

chopped-judges

Like so many other non-fiction shows, Chopped eventually wins you over with its predictable unpredictability. The format makes it easy to put yourself in the contestants’ shoes and shout your own ideas at the television. It’s similar to the thrill that viewers of House Hunters have when criticizing the methods others use for purchasing a new home. “No! Don’t pick house number three! It’s the worst location!” Similarly, regular Chopped viewers begin to learn the methods that lead to winning dishes.

Chopped is a fairly simple game – a basket is presented with four mystery ingredients for three rounds. Each of the ingredients must be present in the course, but doesn’t always mean immediate elimination if one is forgotten! The first round of four contestants is an appetizer course that must be completed in 20 minutes. It’s also the first opportunity to see how each chef is going to perform under the pressure. After the first few minutes, it’s hard to resist making predictions about who might win not only the round, but the entire meal.

Reasons to watch certainly include the brilliant culinary experimentation displayed by the contestants. Seeing a chef create a main course in 30 minutes using things like gummy bears, leftover lasagna, and mysterious meat is endlessly entertaining.

But it’s also really fun to participate as a viewer by making predictions and dreaming up your own ideas. Many viewers feel they have learned many cooking lessons by watching the show. Certainly there are some crazy ingredients and general cooking techniques are often discussed and criticized.

When it’s down to two final contestants, they have 30 minutes to prepare dessert using undoubtedly bizarre ingredients. The judges use all three rounds to select the Chopped champion and give a brief explanation for their choice.

Perhaps the best reason to watch Chopped is for the practical application. It is possible to develop a better understanding of how foods pair to create unique flavors. When scrounging around your own kitchen, you may find yourself better able to understand when to use an acid to balance sugary foods, and when a crunchy element can make a meal come together!

You’ll also probably really wish you had your own ice cream machine, but until then, just keep living vicariously through the Chopped kitchen.

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Grace and Frankie

If there is a theme for television in the second decade of the 21st century, it might be “coming out aged.” It is appropriate given that new shows and movies…

If there is a theme for television in the second decade of the 21st century, it might be “coming out aged.” It is appropriate given that new shows and movies are handling the once avoided subjects of aging, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Netflix is making a name for itself as a producer of quality entertainment – not simply a library. Grace and Frankie seems to be the Netflix version of Hulu’s Transparent. In Transparent, Jeffrey Tambor portrays Maura Pfefferman, a man who comes out as transgender late in life and must deal with the family aftermath.

Although Grace and Frankie doesn’t deal with transgender revelation, the story revolves around the secret relationship between Sol Bergstein and Robert Hanson (Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen). They reveal themselves as homosexual to their wives Grace and Frankie (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) in the first scene.

The comedy is driven by each family’s reaction to this news that the long-time law partners are now partnered in love as well. Grace and Frankie are as different as Oscar and Felix, which makes their process of healing both entertaining and full of difficult moments. We watch them slowly bond over shared problems and decades of living in the dark.

It would be unfair to say this is a comedy for all ages. To do so would ignore the very real and mature subject matter that is handled so delicately for a comedy. This series requires empathy that can only be obtained with time and experience. The younger range of the audience may benefit most from punchlines that highlight the struggles of aging.

Jane and Lily, born 1937 and 1939 respectively, perform beautifully together alongside Martin and Sam who were both born in 1940. Officially, this makes the actors members of the “Silent Generation” defined as those born between 1925 and 1942 – too young for World War II and not as numerous since their parents’ generation lived through severe financial insecurity and war. Samantha Raphelson described this generation as having “conformist tendencies and belief that following the rules was a sure ticket to success.”

You don’t have to belong to the Silent Generation to appreciate this comedy. Find it on Netflix the next time you need something to cheer you up and give you some perspective.

Four Stars

Four Stars so far with room to grow!

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