I’ve had good luck with British dramas in recent years. I am (slightly) embarrassed to admit that Downton Abbey was one of my all-time favorite shows, even though it was little more than a soap opera set in Edwardian England.
I was therefore willing to give We Hunt Together (from BBC Studios) a try.
Despite the odd title and even odder opening theme, what you have here is a tightly plotted, richly charactered crime drama.
Two investigators (Babou Ceesay and Eve Myles) track a murderous couple (Hermione Corfield and Dipo Ola).
The acting in this series is top-notch all the way around. Kudos, especially, to Hermione Corfield for her portrayal of Frederica “Freddy” Lane, the series’ youthful femme fatale.
I am watching We Hunt Together on Showtime in the United States. Availability of the series may vary, depending on your location.
In 2013, I first read about The Americans in the television and movie review section of a magazine. The highly original premise of The Americans— deep undercover Russian spies in Reagan-era America—instantly intrigued me.
The Americans intrigued a lot of people. The Americans ran from 2013 to 2018. During that time, the Cold War period drama received high marks from reviewers and viewers alike. The series has a 96% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Google composite review score is 4.8 out of 5. That’s pretty close to unanimity, at a time when people widely disagree about almost everything.
Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine The Americans having become nothing more than a Tom Clancy-esque knock-off for cable television. Why didn’t that happen?
The Americans is, indeed, based on a highly innovative “big idea”, what movie and fiction folks like to call “high concept”. But it is in the execution that The Americans really shines: the depth and arc of the characters, the nuts and bolts of each episode.
Plenty of stories succeed in the world of books and film without being very “high concept” at all. Consider the success of Downton Abbey. There is no high concept in Downton Abbey. It is little more than a soap opera set in Edwardian England, in fact.
When I watched the first episode of Downton Abbey, I didn’t know what I was going to think of it. But I was blown away. Not because of the “big idea” (there was none), but because of the execution: characters and individual episodes. The success of Downton Abbey is all in the execution.
An example in the book world would be Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Jonathan Franzen is inconsistent as a writer. (He takes an average of about 6 years to write each book.) He is eccentric as an individual. But he scored a home run with The Corrections in 2001.
I remember getting my hands on this book over the Christmas holiday of 2001. I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, over a period of about 48 hours.
There is no high concept in The Corrections, either. A highly autobiographical novel, The Corrections is a fictionalized adaptation of people and events from the author’s life. But the world that Franzen creates in this book, while mundane, pulls you in. It pulled me in, and it pulled in millions of other readers, too.
On the opposite side of this coin are the high concept stories that fall flat because of poor execution.
We have all been bored by stories with incredibly high stakes: literally the end of humanity, in some cases. They bore us because of flaws in characterization, pacing, or depth.
This shows up in a lot of 2- and 3-three star Amazon reviews, that begin with phrases like, “I really wanted to like this book, but…”. Others outright say, “Great idea, but poor execution.”
For me, The Expanse fell into this category. This was true of both the book(s) and the Syfy series.
The premise of The Expanse did intrigue me: neither a near-future alien encounter tale, nor a space opera set in deep space, The Expanse is set a few centuries from the present, within our solar system.
But when I actually dug into the first book, it left me cold. The characters were flat, and there were too many of them. The narrative was unfocused. I had the same reaction a few years later, when I tried the Syfy series. I just couldn’t get into it.
Some of you will disagree with me, of course, but I’m not the only one who found the execution of The Expanse lacking. And I am not someone who dislikes science fiction. I loved the original version of Battlestar Galactica in the 1970s, as well as the “reimagined version” in the 2000s (though with some reservations).
Battlestar Galactica, whether in the hands of Glen A. Larson in the 1970s, or SyFy in the 00s, featured good execution.
But was Battlestar Galactica high concept? Highly original?
20th Century Fox certainly didn’t think so. In 1978, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios for allegedly ripping off Star Wars. The lawsuit claimed that Battlestar Galactica had filched more than thirty distinct ideas from Star Wars.
Whether you accept this notion or not, there is no doubt that the original BSG rode the coattails of Star Wars, which was then a monolithic phenomenon of popular culture.
And the rebooted BSG wasn’t original at all. It was based on the 1978 series, which owed much to Star Wars.
I’m therefore going to come down on the side of execution over big, original idea.
There are so many stories that we’ve all seen time and time again:
The rough-edged police detective who chafes against “the brass”, but will go to any length to catch a criminal…
The star-crossed lovers…
The ex-green beret whose daughter has been kidnapped…
Bosch is based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. The Harry Bosch novels are about a big-city homicide detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.
I don’t think that Michael Connelly would mind me saying: that’s a very old idea. Nothing original at all in the “concept”! But the Harry Bosch novels represent some of the best genre fiction out there.
Why? Because Michael Connelly’s execution of the character of Harry Bosch, of the murder cases, is so darn good.
Originality, in other words, might be overrated. To be sure, there is a place for it. (It is also a bad idea to jump on literary bandwagons; but that’s a separate topic for another day).
It is probably better to focus on the superlative execution of a “good” story idea—even if it’s been done before—versus waiting around for one superlative idea to come the writer’s way.
Yesterday I finished binge-watching Season 7 of Bosch on Amazon. The final season was nearly perfect. (And if you read some of my reviews on this site, you’ll know that I hardly ever declare anything “perfect”, or “nearly perfect”.)
I began reading the Harry Bosch novels more than 15 years ago, long before the Amazon series was even conceived. My original concept of Harry Bosch was a Baby Boomer and Vietnam vet, born around 1950.
The Harry Bosch of the Amazon series, meanwhile (portrayed by Titus Welliver), is a vaguely Gen X character. The Amazon version of Bosch would have been too young to have served in Vietnam; he served in the more recent wars of the Middle East instead.
Titus Welliver is now 59. I would imagine that Amazon’s Harry Bosch is supposed to be a few years younger than that…perhaps 54 or 55. But definitely not in his early 70s, like the Harry Bosch of the novels.
I understand why the producers of the Amazon series (which included Michael Connelly, the author of the novels) felt the need to “reimagine” Bosch as a younger character. When the first Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, came out in 1992, the fictional Harry Bosch was only 42 years old. Season 1 of the Amazon series debuted in 2015. By that time, the Harry Bosch of the novels was 65 years old, and working part-time in law enforcement on his DROP contract. It wouldn’t have made sense to have launched a new TV series with a main character who was winding up his career.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to adjust my concept of the main character when I began binge-watching the accumulated seasons of Bosch in 2019. But adjust, I did. For me, Titus Welliver’s dramatic interpretation of the character has now replaced the Harry Bosch of the novels.
Hopefully Lance Reddick, Jamie Hector, and Amy Aquino will return, too. This series was not only perfectly executed, it was perfectly cast, as well. My only complaint with Season 7 of Bosch is that there were only eight episodes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I like to listen to audiobooks while I mow the lawn. This past weekend, I started listening to a new title, The Fugitive Trail, by Zane Grey. I had about four hours worth of yard work to do, so I made my way through about half of the novel.
I’ll confess that I’ve never been a big fan of westerns. This may be partly due to generational factors. I started watching television and movies in the 1970s, just as our culture was becoming more cynical and “ironic”. The post-Vietnam cultural shift diminished the market for the big John Wayne-style western, with all-American heroes, and unambiguous lines of good and evil. Watch a cowboy movie made prior to 1968 today, and you’ll find any number of violations of political correctness.
I’ve watched Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, the films he made with Italian director Sergio Leone during the Vietnam era. I generally like Clint Eastwood, but the antiheroes he plays in these films are not endearing. The John Wayne version of the cowboy, while arguably less realistic, is far more sympathetic.
Zane Grey (1872 – 1939) lived, wrote, and died long before our culture turned against itself in the 1960s. His most popular book, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was published the year the Titanic sank…before World War I.
I’d been vaguely aware of Zane Grey for years, of course. I’ve been told that my paternal grandfather was an avid reader of Zane Grey’s novels. (He used to read them during his breaks on the night shift at Cincinnati Gas & Electric, according to my father.) But I’d never gotten around to reading any of his books myself.
Until I happened upon a discounted audiobook version of The Fugitive Trail, that is. I began the book prepared for anything—including the possibility that I might hate it. But as chance would have it, I liked the book a lot.
Zane Grey was a master of “pulp fiction”. He wrote fast-paced stories with passionate heroes and heroines, driven by universal human drives.
Speaking of modern sensibilities: The heroine of The Fugitive Trail, a young woman named Trinity Spencer, is no helpless damsel in distress. She takes the initiative in determining her own outcomes, and has no qualms about standing up to the men in her midst. Imagine that: popular fiction had strong women characters decades before anyone was “woke”.
That said, some of the language and dialogue in the book is dated, even clichéd. But that’s part of the fun.
Zane Grey probably won’t become my favorite author. This is fortunate, I suppose, since he’s been dead for 82 years and won’t be writing any more books. But The Fugitive Trail won’t be my last Zane Grey book, either. I already have my eye on the aforementioned Riders of the Purple Sage.
The music of Ozzy Osbourne has long been one of my guilty pleasures. I’m from the Ozzy generation, you might say. I hit adolescence in the early 1980s, perfect timing for Ozzy’s three breakout albums: Blizzard of Oz (1980), Diary of a Madman (1981) and Bark at the Moon (1983).
By the time I graduated from high school in 1986, Ozzy Osbourne’s musicwas already becoming somewhat predictable and repetitive. Or maybe I was just getting older?…Who knows? But anyway—if you were around in the early 1980s and into rock music, you’ll surely remember the energy of those first few albums. They were really something.
Ozzy Osbourne was always more of an entertainer than a technical musician. From the beginning of his solo career, the former Black Sabbath frontman effected this macabre persona, which was uniquely appealing to 13-year-old boys, circa 1981. Then there was the thing about him biting the head off a dove at a meeting with CBS record executives. (He was intoxicated at the time.)
By the early 2000s, Ozzy Osbourne’s style of music was long past its expiration date. The singer pivoted—to reality TV. From 2002 to 2005, MTV aired The Osbournes. Each episode of The Osbournes was basically a day-in-the-life with the singer and his family. I caught about fifteen minutes of one such episode, and immediately knew that The Osbournes wasn’t for me. I’m not a big fan of reality TV to begin with, and I found Ozzy’s two teenage children, Kelly and Jack, somewhat annoying.
I was therefore a bit skeptical when I tuned into my first episode of The Osbournes Want to Believe, which now airs on the Travel Channel. But the The Osbournes Want to Believe is actually not too bad…if you’re willing to accept it for what it is.
The Osbournes Want to Believe presents a new spin on the well-traveled paranormal investigation/ghosthunting TV genre. This show doesn’t feature parapsychologists and professional skeptics, breaking down videos of shadowy figures and independently moving objects. Here, instead, you watch and listen as three members of the Osbourne family give their take on such matters.
Son Jack serves as the host of the show. Yes, I found him annoying 18 years ago; but he’s now 35 and actually pretty good as a television host.
Ozzy Osbourne, meanwhile, is a shadow of his former self. To quote his Wikipedia entry, Ozzy “has abused alcohol and other drugs for most of his adult life.” In 1978, he unapologetically told a journalist, “I get high, I get f***ed up … what the hell’s wrong with getting f***edup? There must be something wrong with the system if so many people have to get f***ed up … I never take dope or anything before I go on stage. I’ll smoke a joint or whatever afterwards.”
The singer is now in his early seventies, and his decades of substance abuse are readily apparent. Ozzy is always likable, and at times genuinely witty; but he seems constantly on the verge of falling asleep. If not for his reputation, Ozzy could be mistaken for Joe Biden giving an unscripted press conference. (Sorry! I couldn’t resist.) No one need wonder, though, why Jack serves as the show’s moderator. Ozzy would not be up to the task.
Sharon Osbourne, of The Talk, is perfectly lucid and endlessly chirpy. Nor is she exactly unlikable. But—like the class clown of everyone’s school days— she tries too hard to turn every remark into a joke. Her humor doesn’t always miss the mark; but it rapidly wears thin because it just never stops.
The overall tone of the show is informal and conversational. The set looks like a room in one of the homes owned by Osbourne. Watching The Osbournes Want to Believe gives you the sense that you’re sitting around with this oddball family, watching these weird videos of weird happenings.
The Osbournes Want to Believe is not cutting-edge television; but it isn’t trying to be. And although I’m not an expert on such matters, it doesn’t appear to be cutting-edge in the field of paranormal research, either. Most of the commentary—however witty and occasionally funny—is purely speculative and anecdotal.
This show seems to be yet one more attempt to cash in on the Ozzy Osbourne brand. That brand was launched more than 50 years ago, when the first Black Sabbath album hit the record stores in 1970.
How long can the Ozzy brand go on and continue to make money? Probably for as long as Ozzy can be dissuaded from completely obliterating himself with drugs and alcohol.
When I first heard about Lovecraft Country, I was intrigued. The premise of the show is: a group of African Americans traveling across segregated America in the early 1950s, dodging white racists and Lovecraftian monsters.
There is a lot about this show that I liked: To begin with, it is superbly cast. Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett have a good chemistry as the two leads. The main characters are also likable. The attention to period detail (in the sets, etc.) is meticulous. As the first episode opened, I really felt like I was transported back to the early 1950s.
I enjoyed the first episode, too. But things started to fall apart midway through episode 2, and they collapsed in episode 3.
For one thing, after episode 1, the plot lines became not scary or suspenseful, but simply weird. By episode 3, the writers were moving the characters from one disjointed sex scene to another. (This is usually a sign that the writers have run out of ideas.) The plot went in random directions, without much structure at all.
Also, the Jim Crow/race angle. Racists of the Jim Crow era have long been stock villains of various movies, novels, and TV shows. The racial injustices in America during the 1950s were real and ever-present for African Americans. I get that; I’m not disputing it.
Good villains, however, should not be cartoon characters. Unfortunately, that’s what the human villains in Lovecraft Country became (very early on, I might add): the same old sputtering, dimwitted stock bigots that we’ve all seen in a hundred movies and television shows about the much-traversed topic of Race in America. It was as if the writers were afraid to give the villains any sophistication or wits at all (lest they appear sympathetic), and so they made them into caricatures.
I really wanted to enjoy Lovecraft Country. This is a brilliant premise, but it is poorly executed. The show’s producers couldn’t seem to make up their minds whether Lovecraft Country should be straight horror series, a comedy-horror production, or yet another cinematic reminder that many white Americans were really, really racist in the 1950s. The final result is a show that isn’t scary, is often confusing, and is well…somewhat boring.
I may give the series another try at a later date. But despite a few promising glimmers, the storyline and overall direction of Lovecraft Country are just too unfocused for my tastes. The writers owed Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett much better scripts.
I just finished watching the two available seasons of Hanna on Amazon Prime. Hanna is based on a 2011 film of the same name.
This is the setup: A CIA program calledUTRAX alters a group of children’s DNA, in order to transform them into super-soldiers/covert assassins. (In the series, at least, all of the UTRAX program’s subjects are young women.)
Most of the girls (who are coming of age as the series opens) are happy enough to go along with the program. They have known nothing else, after all. But one, the eponymous Hanna, rebels. She is aided by former CIA agent Erik Heller, who is a surrogate father figure to her.
I’ve been watching Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, a new Showtime series in the horror/dark fantasy genre.
In pre-WWII Los Angeles, much is going on: The LAPD is finding mutilated bodies in the dry concrete basin of the Los Angeles River. Dark entities from Mexican folklore are causing mayhem. Corrupt city officials and law enforcement officers are waging war against LA’s chicano population. The chicano population is waging war back, led by zoot-suited gangsters.
And (of course) the Nazis are maneuvering in the background, doing the sorts of violent and underhanded things that Nazis always do. But they have to compete with out-of-town gangsters. (This is the golden age of the mafia, after all.)
I noticed that this show has very mixed viewer ratings. It’s rated 6.1/10 on IMDb, and 76% favorable on Google. This would give it a grade of “C”.
Tonight I started watching the Amazon original series, Bosch.
I’m a little behind on this one, I know. (The series premiered in 2015.) But hey—I got to The Sopranos only a few years ago. I am, however, a very longtime reader of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, so I knew that I would eventually find my way to the Amazon series, too.
First things first: This isn’t the Harry Bosch of the novels. The Harry Bosch of the novels is now about 70 years old. The onscreen Harry Bosch (played by Titus Welliver) is a old Gen Xer or a young Baby Boomer. (The actor, Welliver, was born in 1962.) Continue reading “Watching ‘Bosch’ on Amazon”
Between 1976 and 1978, Black Sheep Squadron (also known as Baa Baa Black Sheep) was one of the coolest shows on television. Yours truly was then in the 3rd and 4th grade, and I never missed an episode when I could help it. This was the show that we all talked about on the playground during recess.
Black Sheep Squadron dramatized the exploits of U.S. Marine aviator Greg “Pappy” Boyington in the Pacific during WWII. The show starred Robert Conrad (who died earlier this month), but the real Greg Boyington made cameo appearances in several episodes. (See the video embedded above.)
Black Sheep Squadron was not a serious show, in the sense that it made no attempt to depict the real-life horrors of World War II combat, or combat in general. This was war as entertainment. But when you’re nine years old and a show has cool scenes involving American Vought F4U Corsairs shooting down Japanese zeroes, you can make allowances for such crimes of dramatic license.
I recently caught a few old episodes of Black Sheep Squadron on cable. Watching the show at the age of 52 (as opposed to 9), I still find it entertaining. But it’s a far cry from HBO’s The Pacific.
One rainy afternoon during the summer of 1982, I found myself out in the country in a double-wide trailer. My only real source of entertainment was an old Zenith television set that received but two or three channels. (I’ll spare you the backstory of all that.)
It was on this day that I discovered—quite by accident—that old vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows.
And yes, Dark Shadows, which originally aired from 1966 to 1971, was old even then. I was skeptical as the opening credits played. But like I said, this was a rainy summer afternoon and I had no other sources of diversion. I gave this old show a chance…
And I discovered that…Dark Shadows was pretty darn good.
Not quite a horror show, not quite a conventional drama, Dark Shadows is filled with interesting characters and intrigue. I don’t like Dark Shadows nearly as much as I like some modern series like The Americans or The Sopranos (two other serial dramas about families with secrets); but this is still quite impressive for television that was written and produced when I was a babe in diapers.
So when the audiobook of Marilyn Ross’s original Dark Shadows novel was on sale recently, I decided to give it a try.
The novel is pretty good, too. Once again, this is entertainment from another era; and you have to judge it for what it is. But here, too, the story of Victoria Winters’s interactions with the mysterious Collins family is well, oddly captivating.
If you’re in the mood for something a little different, this might be for you.
68 Whiskey, a new show on the Paramount Network, is a comedy-drama about American military personnel serving at a mobile medical outpost in a combat zone.
Sound familiar? If you think this sounds a lot like M*A*S*H (1972 – 1983), you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But 68 Whiskey is set in the present day in Afghanistan, and the overall vibe is different from that old favorite of the 1970s and early 1980s.
The tone of 68 Whiskey is a lot like The Sopranos (1999-2007), in that it injects black humor into what would ordinarily be serious subject matter. Like The Sopranos, 68 Whiskey features a moderately suspenseful, ongoing storyline, alongside deadpan deliveries of dialogue and situations that are intended to make the viewer chuckle.
How else does 68 Whiskey compare to M*A*S*H, that long-running comedy-drama about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea?
First of all, the creators of M*A*S*H had the discretion, when dealing with the touchy balancing act of satirizing war, to put some distance between the present and their subject matter. M*A*S*H debuted in 1972, just as America’s war in Vietnam was winding down. M*A*S*H definitely tapped into the pessimisticzeitgeist of the Nixon years, when many Americans were cynical about our institutions.
But M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War—then twenty years in the past. 68 Whiskey, by contrast, deals with a conflict that is still very much a present and going concern.
It was one thing to laugh at the antics Hawkeye and Trapper John when the veterans of the Korean War were all in their forties or fifties. It’s another thing to laugh at a war which still produces some American casualties, and produced quite a lot just a few short years ago.
As with M*A*S*H, 68 Whiskey presents a generally unflattering view of the military. Officers are depicted as venal and buffoonish. Personnel of the lower ranks are more concerned with scams and hedonism than with their jobs.
This is what satire is all about, of course. But the question is: How well will such satire go over? I would expect that some recent military veterans will take exception to the portrayals of them and their comrades in this show.
Also, the sex in the show is overdone. The first episode opens with a scene of two soldiers (a man and a woman) copulating atop an empty shelf in a storage room. Sex was certainly implied in M*A*S*H, but this was borderline softcore porn.
I’m now in my fifties, and there isn’t much that shocks me at this stage in life. But I know from experience that an over-reliance on sexual titillation (unless it is an actual porn film) is usually a sign of lazy screenwriting. This aspect of the show struck me as self-indulgent. Or—to put it another way: Just because you can say words like “dick” and “clit” on cable TV, that doesn’t mean that you actually should.
Despite its flaws, 68 Whiskey is entertaining. The characters (even if they aren’t complimentary representations of Americans in uniform) are distinctive and likable. The action sequences contain enough humor to keep things light, but not so much humor that you lose your ability to suspend your disbelief. I’ve finished watching the first episode, and I’m eager to see episode #2.