TV

ER

Like millions of Americans in the ‘90s, Thursday nights meant one thing to me: It was time for NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup. NBC had dominated Thursday prime-time programming from the moment Bill Cosby donned his first sweater in 1984, and classic shows like Cheers, L.A. Law, and Seinfeld only tightened the network’s hold on Thursday viewership over the next decade.

 

But even the execs at NBC had to be surprised by the immediate breakout success of two shows added to that already powerful Thursday night lineup in September of 1994: Friends and ER.

 

My mother fell in love with ER (and George Clooney, of course) from the very start, so we quickly settled into a family ritual. Every Thursday night after work, I’d drive the 20 miles to Mom’s house. We’d settle in, flip on NBC, order some pizza, switch to something else when Madman of the People came on, and then switch back in time for our weekly appointment with the doctors and nurses at Chicago’s County General hospital.

ER

We clearly were not the only ones captivated by this new drama—ER became a mainstay in the Nielsen Top 10 for the next decade, and at the height of its popularity averaged more than 35 million viewers.

 

ER finally signed off in 2009 after 15 seasons, a remarkable 331 episodes, and 124 Emmy nominations (a record for a drama). The final episode gave the series its largest rating in years, but the show seemed to disappear from the public consciousness very quickly after it left the air.

 

We live in an era of countless cable TV channels and multiple streaming platforms, yet for 10 years the only way to watch ER was on DVD. That finally changed last year, when the POP network started airing three episodes every afternoon. I soon found myself entrenched in a full show re-watch—a task that took up a Dr. Benton’s ego-sized chunk of my spare time (and about 75% of my DVR) over a six-month period.

 

Thankfully, anyone who now wants to revisit ER can do so in much simpler fashion. Earlier this year, Hulu announced it had added all 15 seasons to its streaming service. You no longer have to force yourself to watch three episodes a day just to keep pace, like I did. But that does bring up a big question: Is an ER binge really worth 331 hours of your precious screen time?

 

At the very least, I’d recommend watching the first seven or eight seasons—especially if you’re a first-time viewer. Medical dramas have always been a staple on TV, but ER was the first to expose viewers to the real blood and guts of a big-city hospital. The fast-paced, in-your-face cinematography was always a standout aspect of the show, and these early episodes look even better now that they can now be seen in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. (Note: ER episodes began airing in widescreen during Season Seven, but they were filmed in widescreen format from Day One.)

 

As impressive as ER was from a technical standpoint, it was always the characters that were the heart of the show. George Clooney may have become the breakout superstar, but every member of that stellar original cast created a character to remember. Even the smaller roles of the nurses and desk clerks seemed like people you wanted to have a beer with, and that only added to ER’s mass appeal.

 

Of course, with great success came great cast turnover. One by one, George Clooney and Juliana Margulies and Eric La Salle eventually left the show. Maura Tierney and Goran Ivanisevic came on board and helped to keep the quality (and ratings) at a high level, but the glory days of ER officially came to an end with the departure of Noah Wyle’s John Carter in 2005.

 

With no ties left to the original cast, ER lost much of what made it appealing in the first place. The storylines became more and more over-the-top (so many explosions!), but there were always just enough quality moments to keep me watching for all 15 seasons.

 

And as my re-watch reminded me, ER was never lacking in star power. Almost every episode seemed to feature someone who would go on to do bigger and better things—Lucy Liu, Kirsten Dunst, Christina Hendricks. Zac Efron, Chris Pine, and Jessica Chastain are just a small sampling of the many then-unknowns who made visits to County General over the years.

 

While I truly enjoyed my recent re-watch, it wasn’t always easy viewing. ER will forever remind me of my mother, even though we stopped watching together on a regular basis after she moved away in the late ‘90s. Mom is older now and going through some tough medical issues, and more than a few episodes hit just a little too close to home—but that was always the power of ER at its very best.

 

I’m sure that over the course of 331 episodes, you’ll shed some tears as well. And if you do manage to make it through to the very end, you’ll be rewarded with a final season that features return engagements from almost all of the show’s original stars. Even Anthony Edwards makes an appearance, despite the fact that Dr. Greene passed away way back in Season Eight.

 

ER may have been on life support over its last few seasons, but the final episodes provide a fitting end to one of TV’s longest-running—and best—dramas.

Gary Maxwell

 

All 15 seasons of ER are available on Hulu. It is also available for streaming from Amazon,
Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

Gary Maxwell lives in Dallas with his wife, three cats, 6,000 LPs, and a vintage Atari 2600.
He once attended 218 consecutive Texas Longhorn football games over a span of 17 years,
yet he seems unable to commit to a particular brand of shampoo. His all-time favorite TV
show is Star Trek, except when it’s dark on Tuesday. When someone asks Gary if he prefers
the Beatles or the Stones, his answer is “The Who.”

Review: ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’

Twin Peaks

The American television industry had nearly hit rock bottom as it entered the ’90s. Only four dramas finished the ’89-’90 season in the Nielsen Top 20—and that assumes you can actually classify Murder, She Wrote and Matlock as traditional dramas.

 

Sitcoms dominated the lineups of the four major networks. Some of the shows were classics—Cheers, The Golden Girls, The Wonder Years—but most (Chicken Soup, Grand, Dear John) have been completely forgotten by time. America’s Funniest Home Videos and Unsolved Mysteries were mainstays in the Top 10. Quality programs like L.A. Law and thirtysomething were both nominated for Outstanding Drama Series at the 1990 Emmys, but so was Quantum Leap (a decent show, but Best Drama?). The TV drama was truly becoming an endangered species.

 

That all changed on April 8, 1990—the day ABC aired the two-hour pilot of a new show entitled Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks

In a mere eight episodes, the first season of Twin Peaks completely reinvented the idea of what could happen on a network TV show. David Lynch and Mark Frost created a world that was dark, funny, deeply disturbing, and somehow both nostalgic and groundbreaking at the same time. Networks had been making movies for TV for years, but Twin Peaks was the first TV show that felt cinematic. It was, in a word, mesmerizing.

 

Of course, the network execs at ABC messed it all up when they forced Lynch and Frost to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer early in the second season. The show lost its focus, the public lost interest, and ABC cancelled Twin Peaks after only 30 episodes.

 

Fast forward 25 years. We are all now living in a Golden Age of TV drama. Viewers are all too happy to binge-watch entire series because there are just too many fantastic shows available on too many platforms. And if you ask the people who created shows like Lost and Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, a majority of them will cite Twin Peaks as one of their primary inspirations. Twin Peaks changed the rules about what you could do on TV, and today we’re all reaping the benefits of its genius.

 

Unlike many original viewers, I never lost interest in Twin Peaks during its initial run. I taped all the episodes on VHS when they eventually re-aired on Bravo, and of course I purchased the DVDs when they were finally released. Every few years, I’d watch the entire show again and re-immerse myself in Lynch’s amazing universe. I never even allowed myself to believe that Twin Peaks could return, especially since Lynch himself had often said he had no interest in revisiting the past.

 

And then an amazing thing happened: Showtime announced that Twin Peaks would return to the air in May 2017 as a limited series. Most of the original cast was scheduled to return, and Lynch himself would be directing (and co-writing) all 18 installments.

 

As a fan, it was a dream come true. I knew I’d finally get some sort of resolution to the show’s staggering cliffhanger finale, but I was equally intrigued by another question: If David Lynch had already changed the course of TV once before, what could he possibly do for an encore? How would the new Twin Peaks compare to the other great dramas of our time—shows that, in many ways, owe their very existence to Twin Peaks in the first place?

Twin Peaks

The answer to that is, like Twin Peaks itself, extremely complex. I spent every Sunday night last summer glued to Showtime as each new episode aired, and I regularly re-watched each installment at least two more times during the week. I also recently completed another binge-watch of the entire show, and I’m still not sure I’ve completely processed everything I saw.

 

There’s just so much to talk about, which is one reason I’m happy to let you know that the powers that be at The Rayva Roundtable have agreed to let me discuss the Twin Peaks revival over a series of articles. I’ll be able to break down plot points, discuss recurring themes, and attempt to tell you what I think really happened at the end (and believe me, there isn’t one simple way to describe it).

 

For today, I will simply try to answer one question: In a market saturated with quality dramatic programming, is the new Twin Peaks really worth 18 hours of your valuable viewing time? The answer is unquestionably “Yes”—although you might start to doubt that at more than a few points along the journey.

 

Anyone simply expecting a nostalgic trip to the Double R Diner for pie and damn good coffee with Special Agent Dale Cooper will certainly be in for a huge disappointment. Yes, Kyle MacLachlan is the unquestioned star of the new series, but his actual on-air screen time as our beloved FBI agent is quite limited.

 

Instead, McLachlan steals the show in two remarkably different (and Emmy-worthy) roles. The character of Mr. C will make sense to anyone who remembers the finale of the original show—he’s a Cooper doppelgänger inhabited by Black Lodge denizen Bob. McLachlan also appears as Dougie Jones, a Vegas insurance agent who is actually the real Cooper after his escape from a 25-year stay inside the Black Lodge.

 

There’s only one problem: Dougie is a virtual vegetable who seems to have very little memory of who he really is and how he got there. In other words, Agent Cooper spends a majority of the Twin Peaks reboot acting nothing like Agent Cooper. 

 

As you might imagine, this was a source of great frustration for many viewers—myself included.  But at about the halfway point of the show, it all clicked into place for me. I knew where this new version of Twin Peaks was going, and I was thrilled to be a part of the ride. I can’t wait to share my views and theories with you in future articles—but first you’ll need to watch 18 hours of some pretty amazing television. 

 

A suggestion: Watch all 18 episodes as closely together as possible. The entire series was shot from one shooting script, and therefore really does play out like one long movie. The viewing won’t always be easy. It won’t always be fun. But like the original Twin Peaks from 28 years ago, you’ll be taken to a place both wonderful and strange—and the results are literally atomic.

 

Let’s rock!

Gary Maxwell

 

Seasons 1 and 2 of Twin Peaks are available on Netflix and Hulu. Twin Peaks: The Return is available on
Showtime Anytime (subscription required) and available for digital purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

Gary Maxwell lives in Dallas with his wife, three cats, 6,000 LPs, and a vintage Atari 2600.
He once attended 218 consecutive Texas Longhorn football games over a span of 17 years,
yet he seems unable to commit to a particular brand of shampoo. His all-time favorite TV
show is Star Trek, except when it’s dark on Tuesday. When someone asks Gary if he prefers
the Beatles or the Stones, his answer is “The Who.”

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

After saying goodbye to late-night TV in 2015, David Letterman returns to the interview chair in the new Netflix original series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction . . . with David Letterman. Gone are the Top Ten lists, stupid pet tricks, and cast of cohorts. The new show is just Dave and a guest, sitting on a stage in front of a live audience.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “series” in that introduction because, for Netflix regulars, it might set up the expectation that there’s an entire season’s worth of episodes to binge on right now. After all, that is Netflix’ modus operandi with most of its original shows. Here, though, a new episode drops roughly once a month. The first one arrived on January 12 and featured a fellow by the name of Barak Obama. Since then, they’ve added interviews with George Clooney in February and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in March. Up next on April 13: Jay-Z.

 

Each episode is pre-recorded and runs about an hour. The format is an interesting hybrid. On the one hand, you’ve got the Charlie Rose/Tom Snyder approach of sitting with just one guest and getting a nice, meaty interview. Yet the decision to add a live audience gives it a warmer, livelier vibe that’s obviously better suited to Dave’s interview style.

 

Spliced in between the interview segments are video vignettes—called “curiosity-fueled excursions” in the show description—in which Dave visits various locations to explore something related to the interview. In the first episode, he takes a walk with Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and they discuss the Bloody Sunday march in 1965. You may recall the powerful images of President Obama and Lewis crossing that bridge together during the 50-year anniversary march in 2015.

 

In Episode Two, we meet Clooney’s parents and are introduced to an Iraqi refugee named Hazim Avdal, whom the family sponsors. He tells the story of his flight from persecution by ISIS.

My Next Guest

In Episode Three, Dave takes a tour of Oxford with Yousafzai and several of her fellow female students—who don’t necessarily “get” Dave and his sense of humor. (“They hate me,” he quips to the camera at one point, and he may be right.) If you don’t know Yousafzai’s story (and I did not), she is from Pakistan and has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, especially the right for girls to be educated. At the age of 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban yet survived. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, she continues her activism while living and going to school in England.

 

I think you can tell from the above descriptions that, regardless of the guest, the show aims to dig deeper into important subjects of the day. I’ve found all the interviews to be really compelling, but one unexpected highlight is how much better we’re getting to know David Letterman as a human being with each passing episode.

 

Letterman has always been extremely private, and both Obama and Clooney try to turn the tables on him during their interviews, with limited success. But, just through the choice of guests, the extended conversations, and the vignettes, you start to see a fuller picture of this man who lived to entertain others for over 30 years and now, in his “retirement,” is free to explore some the issues that matter to his heart.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at HomeTheaterReview.com. Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious is not food porn. I don’t say that to diminish the appeal of food porn, mind you. If I flip past the Food Network and catch a glimpse of The Taste, or At My Table—or really just anything with Nigella Lawson in it—I’m so totally onboard. I’m in. And with Chef’s Table, Netflix has proven itself more than capable of producing some of the best food porn known to man.

 

So, when the first episode of Ugly Delicious popped up in my recommended watchlist, I nearly dislocated my thumb scrambling for the select button. And five minutes into the first episode, I thought I had the show pretty well figured out. It comes off, at least at first, as something like a more erudite Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with a much more likable host (chef, author, and restaurateur Dave Chang, who you may remember from PBS’ The Mind of a Chef) and much less emphasis on unabashed gluttony.

 

By the end of its first 54-minute episode, I found myself drifting away from that comparison, because if anything, the tone and spirit of Ugly Delicious reminds me less of any food show I’ve ever seen, and more of some of my favorite food podcasts. A dash of The Sporkful. A sprinkling of Gastropod. A heaping helping of The Splendid Table. But even those comparisons fall short, because the truly delightful thing about Ugly Delicious is that it manages to carve out its own unique space in the landscape of culinary media.

 

And that might be because it’s really less about food and more about our relationship with food. The first episode, which focuses on pizza, really establishes the thematic undercurrent of the series brilliantly, especially in the way it grapples with the notion of authenticity versus honesty. We meet quite a few people during the course of the episode who have strong opinions on the right or wrong way to make a pizza. (In fact, after taking us to a pizzeria in Connecticut that makes a delicious-looking clam pizza, we immediately meet another pizza chef who scoffs, “You want clams? Have spaghetti and clams! That’s where clams belong—on spaghetti!”) But if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s that nothing is sacred. And yet, in a weird way, when it comes to food, everything is sacred. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such irreverential reverence.

Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious manages to get away with such contradictions because, as I said above, it’s really about humanity—and humans are nothing if not contradictory. The show also manages to work in conversations about food as culture. Food as politics. Food as identity. Food as rebellion. It grapples with issues of race and ethnicity, of geographic bigotry, of tradition, and it does it all while fueling one’s desire to eat in so many of the deliciously delightful locales spotlighted in its eight criminally brief episodes.

 

Honestly, if Ugly Delicious had even a whiff of pretention about it, it might be a little too heavy-handed to enjoy. But if anything, it’s a backlash against the pretentiousness that permeates shows of its sort. True, the delightful cast rips hard into Taco Bell in the episode on tacos (while trying to come to some consensus on what even is a taco). But Dominos and KFC aren’t anywhere near as reviled in the episodes on pizza and fried chicken.

 

Perhaps the most curious thing about Ugly Delicious is that despite its use of food as a lens through which to view ourselves, it probably captures the essence of eating better than any food show I’ve ever watched. Each episode truly feels like a meal, and I don’t mean just the eating part. I mean the conversations. The camaraderie. Indeed, the arguments.

 

So, if you’re looking for some truly delicious food erotica, give it a try. And even if you’re not into watching people eat and travel and talk about food, give it a try anyway. Because Ugly Delicious isn’t merely the best slice of gastronomic programming since 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s probably one of the best new shows of any genre to drop in the past year. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Mozart in the Jungle

Mozart in the Jungle

Originally based on the book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall, the Amazon Prime Original series, now in its fourth season, explores the personal and professional lives of members of the New York Symphony.

 

Our story begins with young, passionate, acclaimed conductor Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal) replacing seasoned veteran Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell) as conductor and musical director of the orchestra, a move that is not amiably received by Mr. Pembridge, despite outward appearances. At the same time, young oboist Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke) is navigating her way through the New York musical maze. The two worlds collide when Rodrigo hosts an open audition for a new oboist, and Hailey takes her shot.

 

If you think that a show about classical musicians sounds dull, well that’s exactly what the show’s creators want you to think going in. Season One is pretty much dedicated to dispelling the myth that, just because people can create sophisticated, exquisitely refined music, doesn’t mean they possess those qualities as human beings. As the book title promises, there’s plenty of sex, drugs, and classical music to go around. You don’t have to love classical music to enjoy the show, but fans will surely enjoy listening to this show as much as watching it—especially through a higher-quality sound system.

Mozart in the Jungle

As entertaining as the first season is, the show really finds its voice and its heart in Season Two—in part because it takes a slightly softer tone and starts to embrace its “weird.” Let’s face it, creative people are kind of weird. That weirdness drives their passion but also makes personal relationships a challenge.

 

Rodrigo is the poster child of weird, and Gael Garcia Bernal plays him with such sweetness and vulnerability that you can’t help but fall in love with him. (Both the show and Bernal earned Golden Globes for Season Two.) Each season brings its own challenges and adventures, but the show never loses sight of its primary conflict: Being true to yourself versus being what others need or want you to be.

 

Above all, Mozart in the Jungle is a love letter to the creative process—be it music, art, dance, etc. It’s about chasing dreams, finding your muse, and how to keep the passion alive above the politics. Yet, despite these weighty themes, the show never takes itself too seriously. It’s fun, whimsical, and sometimes downright silly. This weirdo absolutely loves it.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at HomeTheaterReview.com. Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

Everything Sucks!

Twenty years or so ago, enamored with movies and armed with a little bit of dangerous knowledge thanks to the burgeoning trend of audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries on DVD, I felt inspired to start writing my own movie. It was, without question, the most pop-culture referential thing that had ever existed in any form—at least until Ready Player One was published some decades later.

 

I realized something, though, after a few weeks of diligent work: These sorts of pop culture references only really work with the added benefit of nostalgia. And so, I let it die.

 

I rediscovered that forgotten screenplay a few years ago, and for a brief moment entertained the notion of starting work on it again. This time around, it died on the vine even quicker, mostly because I realized that nostalgia was the only thing it had going for it. It was all hook and no crane. A skyhook, in the parlance of philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Everything Sucks

I bring this up only because that screenplay weighed heavily in my mind as I watched Netflix’ new original series Everything Sucks!, the first episode of which is so burdened by its need to cram as many mid-90s references into 22 minutes that there really isn’t much else to talk about.

 

Mind you, one can hardly blame its creators for leaning on the crutch of nostalgia, given how well it’s worked for recent efforts like Stranger Things, another Netflix original. There’s a striking difference between the way these two series approach the decades being celebrated, though.

 

Stranger Things is an homage to the 1980s from top to bottom. It’s set in that decade because it sets out to capture the spirit of the movies ‘80s kids grew up with—in style, in substance, in tone, in subject matter. The series isn’t merely set in the 1980s–it’s a passionate and masterfully crafted love letter to that decade, aesthetically, thematically, and narratively.

 

The first episode of Everything Sucks!, on the other hand, is a hastily scribbled note that reads: “Dear 1996, I like you do you like me? Check yes or no.” Musical hits of the decade are thrown at the screen as if pulled from a Best of the 1990s compilation CD at random, in ways that often contradict the onscreen action, lyrically and thematically.

 

And not in an ironic way, either. More in a completely haphazard and careless way. The only conclusion to be drawn is that if any care went into crafting the show’s soundtrack, it was purely to make the viewer sit up and say, “I remember that song!”

 

And so it goes with everything else about the show’s setting. Everything from its soundtrack to its costumes, its winky nods to beepers and dial-up internet, serves not to reinforce some overarching theme but rather to distract from the story being told. Honestly, if Everything Sucks! were broadcast on a traditional network, it would have been canceled before the second commercial break. And I’m honestly not sure why I watched past that point. Hate-binging, perhaps? Is that a thing?

Everything Sucks

Actually, I take that back. I know exactly why I kept watching. Because for all its faults early on, Everything Sucks! has something going for it no other show—on the airwaves or streaming—has right now: Peyton Kennedy, the show’s 13-year-old female lead. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this child would elevate a pharmaceutical commercial to the level of fine art. She does more with the twitch of an eyebrow or a sidelong glance than most actors three times her age could ever do with a Shakespearean monologue. And had Everything Sucks! continued to plod along with its hollow, pointless ‘90s references for the duration of its 10-episode run, I would have continued my hate-binge just to revel in this little girl’s truly breathtaking talent.

 

A funny thing happens somewhere near the middle of Everything Sucks! brief first season, though. The show eventually starts to get good. Like, genuinely good. Rather than a cheeky vehicle for shallow nostalgia, it becomes an honest-to-goodness coming-of-age story. And it even manages at one point to truly capture the spirit of ‘90s entertainment by way of a montage that could have come straight out of a Deborah Kaplan movie. Oddly, though, the show is at its best when it forgets it’s set in the 1990s at all.

 

It strikes me as oh so very meta that a series about the awkward, gangly, fumbling search for self takes so long to find itself in such an awkward, gangly, fumbling way. That makes it sort of hard to recommend, no matter how much I liked it in the end.

 

If anything, Everything Sucks! has given me new inspiration to dust off that old screenplay again and give it another gobut this time with an eye toward capturing the real human story about what I was going through in life at the time, and what I was trying to escape by diving so heavily into cinema as I did.

 

I just wish Everything Sucks! had learned that same lesson a lot earlier in its development.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Our Favorite Underrated Stuff (Pt. 2)

underrated entertainment

A couple weeks ago, Dennis Burger kicked off this new section of The Rayva Roundtable, in which we talk about some of our favorite underrated stuff. That stuff could be movies, TV shows, bands, albums, games, gadgets—you name it.

 

I’m going to start by seconding one of Dennis’s picks. Sports Night is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, and I’m compelled to revisit it every few years. Yes, Aaron Sorkin’s writing is exceptional, but so is the acting. The show jumpstarted or reinvigorated the careers of great actors like Felicity Huffman, Peter Krause, Josh Charles, and Robert Guillaume. This one is so underrated, it never even made it to Blu-ray, but the complete series (OK, it was only two seasons) is available on DVD. Or you can watch it an episode at a time on iTunes or Amazon.

If you only think of BBC America as the channel that gave us the gorgeous Planet Earth series, you should take a closer look at some of the great content this network serves up. It’s hard to say if Orphan Black officially belongs in the underrated category—I mean, it received a lot of critical acclaim and earned lead actress Tatiana Maslany a much-deserved Emmy, yet I personally know few people who actually watched it. The show follows Sarah Manning, who discovers by a twist of fate that she is a clone and gets caught up in a suspenseful cat-and-mouse adventure that grows broader with each season. Orphan Black wrapped things up last year after five seasons, all of which are available on Blu-ray, or you can stream Seasons 1-4 through Prime Video.

This one may fall in the “too obscure” category, but I was heartbroken when AMC’s Rubicon was cancelled after just 13 episodes back in 2010. The premiere episode scored high ratings for AMC, but the audience quickly dwindled. The story—about an intelligence analyst who begins to suspect that major world events are being manipulated by some type of shadow agency—is definitely of the slow-burn suspense ilk. I guess the burn was too slow for most people, but I found it to be thoroughly addictive. The only place I can even find the show now is on Daily Motion.

underrated entertainment

Way back in 1995, I fell in love with a little independent film called Kicking & Screaming—not to be confused with the 2005 Will Ferrell soccer comedy of the same name. I was a couple years out of college and headed nowhere in particular, so this delightful comedy about a group of college graduates who are more than a bit reluctant to begin their journeys into the real world certainly spoke to me. I still quote this movie way more than I should. One of those indie talkies that were so popular in the 1990s, Kicking & Screaming was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, probably best known for his collaborations with Wes Anderson (like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox). You can find it on Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services.

 

A couple years ago, Baumbach wrote and directed another underrated film called While We’re Young, starring Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller, Adam Driver, and Amanda Seyfried. Roughly 20 years after his college tale, Baumbach now explores what it means to be middle aged, in the same quirky, funny, dialogue-driven manner that won my heart all those years ago.

    —Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at HomeTheaterReview.com. Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

Fred Armisen: Standup for Drummers

Standup for Drummers

I don’t want you to read this review.

 

Don’t get me wrong—there are some of you who would absolutely love Fred Armisen: Standup for Drummers, a new hourlong special that just dropped on Netflix. And I hope you watch it at your earliest convenience. But if a comedy special/history lesson/music-appreciation class/absurd performance-art piece written and performed exclusively for an audience of drummers sounds like the kind of thing you would dig, I want you to enjoy it without having a moment of this brilliant and ridiculous show spoiled.

 

If, on the other hand, you’re likely to nope out as soon as you see people being forced to prove their drumming skills before being allowed into the theater, Standup for Drummers is likely too esoteric for your tastes, so you might as well stop reading now. There’s nothing I could say to convince you to give this one a chance.

(Don’t watch this video.)

 

For the three of you who are still reading, though? Here’s a little amuse-bouche that hopefully prepares your palate for what’s to come: At one point during the special, Armisen leaves the stage and walks down to a series of drum kits spread throughout the audience, each of which is representative of the setup you would typically see in any given decade from the 1920s through the 2000s. At each, he stops and playfully riffs on the percussive tropes of the era, partly in homage to Karen Carpenter, partly as a cheeky sendup of those “Evolution of Dance” videos you’ve seen a hundred times on Facebook.

 

What makes it work is not only the SNL alum’s undeniable musical prowess, but also his quirky ambivalence. You’re never quite sure if Armisen is poking fun or having fun. You can never quite tell if the look on his face is awe or irreverence.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Standup for Drummers is that despite its specific audience and purpose, the show is never a shibboleth-laden, exclusive affair. In fact, Armisen goes to great lengths to take the piss out of the sorts of inside jokes that musicians typically share. My wife is a drummer. I’m not. And yet I enjoyed—and more importantly, understood—the humor every bit as much as she did. At least I think I did. Who knows?

 

If I have one regret, it’s that Armisen’s “Complicated Drumming” alter ego, Jens Hannemann, never makes an appearance. The missus and I had the chance to see Fred-as-Jens open for Joanna Newsom once, and I can safely say that it was the most entertaining hour of satirical percussion either of us has ever witnessed.

Then again, that’s the sort of thing you might expect from a Fred Armisen comedy special aimed specifically at drummers. And, if anything, the real brilliance of Standup for Drummers is in the way it subverts expectations, even if you go in expecting the unexpected.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Altered Carbon

Netflix Altered Carbon

I read Altered Carbon about five or ten years ago and was blown away by its brilliant combination of sci-fi novel and detective thriller, its post-cyberpunk future-world setting, its fast-paced hard-edged evocative writing, and its all-too-believable premise, given human nature. I thought it would make a fantastic movie, but would have to be 10 or 20 hours long, so, how?

 

Enter Netflix’ new Altered Carbon TV series.

 

Richard K. Morgan’s novel is about a world a few hundred years from now where people can store their personalities into “stacks” that can be fitted into “sleeves” (new bodies). The wealthy (the “Meths,” for Methuselah) can essentially achieve immortality while those of lesser means have to settle for whatever aging bodies and lifespans they can afford, and some people won’t re-sleeve on religious grounds. As a result, the chasm between rich and poor has never been greater, nor the rich more powerfuland decadent.

 

Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy, a military corps whose members have been trained to survive in multiple bodies and lives and through extreme combat, including real and virtual-reality torture. He’s hired by ultra-wealthy Laurens Bancroft to investigate Bancroft’s own death. Bancroft has been re-sleeved, thanks to a personality-upload backupbut has no memory of his last two days because of his 48-hour backup schedule. It looks like a suicide, but Bancroft wants to know if he was murdered and, if so, why. He hires Kovacs to find out.

Netflix Altered Carbon

Does the series live up to the book? Well, it’s an altered Altered Carbon.

 

Most of the book’s essentials are here, including the main characters: KovacsJoel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee, both utterly convincing as Kovacs in different bodies; BancroftJames Purefoy in an understatedly chilling performance; his sensuous/heartless wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman); and detective/Kovacs-antagonist/ally Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda).

 

Altered Carbon’s visuals and cinematography are stunning, richly imaginative (although the dark, dystopian Bay City owes a lot to Blade Runner), and often hallucinatory, with the lines between actual reality, virtual reality, and flashbacks blurred. The sound is also excellent, with impeccable dialogue clarity and a superb audio mix.

 

Many of the settingsthe extraterrestrial Harlan’s World, the sleeving company Psychasec, Bancroft’s above-the-clouds residence Suntouchevoke the book’s descriptions and are spectacularly realized. (Head In the Clouds almost perfectly matched what I had pictured.) There’s a dazzling array of future drugs and tech: Combat-enhancing Neurachem, sex-enhancing artificial pheromones, intelligent weapons, “needlecasting” to remote locations, and much more. The series does a fantastic job of portraying it all. There was never a moment when I thought, nah, this could never be.

 

Conversely, there are entire storylines and characters that don’t appear in the book. Part of these alterations are beneficial, including a major subplot between Kovacs andwell, I don’t want to give it away, but it and other subplots really illuminate the characters’ motivations. Other aspects just seem like change for the sake of change.

 

Yet I know books need to be adapted to the very different medium of a TV series to play well on screen, which is why, for example, I can understand changing the nature of one of the key AI characters. And Morgan was a consultant to the series, and I doubt he was put into virtual-reality torture to agree to the final product. So I guess he’s OK with it.

 

So am I. Because the series gets the feel of the book right.

Netflix Altered Carbob

The tough, gritty, unrelenting feel. The dialogue. The tension. The fact that Kovacs has had huge swaths of human emotion bred out of himbut not all. The twists and turns. The violence. The nudity. (Since bodies are just sleeves, the nudity feels like part of the series’ texture, not gratuitous.) The flashes of humor. The sex. The scenes of brutal treatment of women-as-sex-objects, which has caused some online controversythough the men aren’t exactly immune from this objectification either. It’s not all bleak, thoughthere are moments of tenderness, caring, empathy, and love. And hope.

 

Most of all, what Altered Carbon gets right is its portrayal of the rich complexity of still-humanand indeed all-too-humanemotions and motivations in a world that’s much more complicated than the one we live in and where a basic tenet of humanityeveryone diesis no longer true.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Our Favorite Underrated Stuff (Pt. 1)

underrated entertainment

I don’t care who you are, or what sorts of entertainment you consume on a regular basis, I guarantee you there’s a TV series or movie out there somewhere that broke your heart. And I don’t mean in a Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias sort of way—I mean it spoke to your unique aesthetic so thoroughly that its cancellation or box-office failure hit you on a deep level. A personal affront, if you will.

 

For me, it’s The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. The cancellation of this sci-fi-action-comedy-western, which debuted in the nascent days of the Fox broadcast network, still stings in a way matched only by Firefly.

 

But I’m not here to talk about cult classics. I’m here instead to talk about under-appreciated works of art with near-universal appeal that, for whatever reason, just never caught on. Maybe they were before their time. Maybe they were marketed poorly. Maybe humans just have crappy taste, I don’t know. Whatever the reasons may be, the lack of recognition for these gems doesn’t just offend me personally—it speaks, I think, to a fundamental fragmentation of our media-consuming culture that these massively appealing works don’t have mass appeal.

Take My So-Called Life, for instance. I know it may seem like a cheat, since this Claire Danes classic is one of the most critically acclaimed series in the history of the Internet. But have you seen it? No, be honest. Have you really sat down and watched it? MSCL broke new ground in the mid-90s by having teens, played by teens, actually act like teens. Seriously, that was shocking at the time. Of course, My So-Called Life has been so thoroughly mimicked by now that if you’re just watching it for the first time, it might not seem so fresh. Give it a shot anyway. It’s one of the best TV series ever made, and It’s available in its all-too-brief entirety on Hulu.

Before there was The West Wing, before The Newsroom or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (shut up—that show was amazing), there was Sports Night, a forgotten slice of brilliance that represents Aaron Sorkin at his Aarony Sorkinest, with all the impeccable timing, social commentary, and way-too-intelligent-for-humans-to-actually-utter dialogue that have made his followup efforts such critical darlings. I don’t care if you loathe the sports (because goodness knows, I do—GTLM motorsports being the rare exception), Sports Night is simply amazing television: Beautifully written, amazingly directed, perfectly performed, and infuriatingly unavailable for streaming on Netflix or Hulu. You can buy it an episode at a time on iTunes or Amazon, though.

I have two types of friends: Those who think Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time, and those who think Love Actually is the best Christmas movie of all time. For the record, I cast my lot with the latter camp, but I don’t think Love Actually is actually Richard Curtis’ best film. Sacrilege, I know, but that distinction actually belongs to About Time, perhaps one of the most misunderstood films I’ve ever seen. Misunderstood, because the handful of critics who saw it felt the need to pick nits with the rules governing this time-traveling rom-com’s temporal shenanigans, as if it were some sort of science-fiction flick. It’s not. Far from it. About Time is actually a modern-day fairy tale, whose violations of its own internal rules are actually kinda part of the point. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I silently judge people who’ve seen this film and didn’t love every frame of it.

Speaking of judgment—if you’re one of the millions of people who didn’t watch last summer’s Downward Dog when ABC snuck it onto the airwaves and left it hanging with no real support, I’m still angry with you. It wasn’t merely the best show of the summer—it was the best new comedy on TV in at least a decade. Think of it as a (sometimes) lighthearted, (often) cheeky, but nonetheless just-as-philosophically deep episodic riff on The Art of Racing in the Rain, but with a strong female lead (Fargo’s criminally under-appreciated Allison Tolman). Yes, it starred a talking dog with computer-animated lips, but this was one of the most human TV shows I think I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it too is missing from all the major streaming services. Episodes are available for download from iTunes and Vudu, though.

So, yeah, you likely missed all of the above in their heyday, but there’s one under-the-radar series airing right now that you still have a chance to catch while the getting’s good. Drunk History began its life as a series of Funny or Die clips online, but has since moved to full-length episodes on Comedy Central, where most people seem to be completely ignoring it. Seriously, when I pester my friends about whether or not they’ve seen the most recent episode, most of them squint or give me a pug head-tilt. How on earth a series in which inebriated narrators do their best to slur through some of history’s most interesting stories while some of the best actors in the world reenact their sloshed narratives isn’t the most highly rated thing on the boob tube is just beyond me. Do yourself a favor and set your DVR (new and repeats!) posthaste. You can thank me later.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.