Downton Abbey

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Source: wikimedia.org

Six full seasons of tea, crumpets, and snappy dialogue on the BBC/PBS television phenomenon Downton Abbey came to a close earlier this year. I was a bit late to the party, and I only started watching it this year, but Downton is a very binge-worthy show and its immersive recreations of early 20th century Britain make for some very enjoyable period drama. Downton is the most-watched PBS show ever, with its popularity surpassing even the wildest hopes of their show-runners. Anchored by strong casting, witty writing, and absolutely gorgeous sets and immersive cinematography and costume-design teams, Downton Abbey delivered on its promise of grandeur and fun, stodgy British quips.

I must say, I did not expect to be so taken by Downton Abbey. Despite my love of dialogue and enjoyment of Jane Austen novels, I expected the show to be stiff and unapproachable. I could not have been further from the truth. Though episode summaries would lead audiences to believe that very little happens over the course of these 50+ minute episodes, somehow an hour spent at a garden party and debating local gossip over tea became an engrossing and rewarding experience. The clever dialogue, written by creator Julian Fellowes, and brilliant delivery by the large and broadly talented cast makes this show surprisingly gripping despite a relative dearth of action. Maggie Smith is a scene-stealer, harrumphing and hooting her way into my heart as yet another iconic character.

The setting of Downton Abbey is spatially beautiful and chronologically interesting. Beginning in 1912, the show dealt with numerous significant world events at the beginning of the 20th Century: the Titanic, World War I, the advent of electricity, the popularization of the automobile, and even 1920s Women’s liberation. The breadth of issues covered by the show makes it an earnest attempt to highlight the important cultural changes that occurred in 20th Century British society, often expressing the social and cultural changes as much as the geopolitical ones. The tenuous position of the landholding aristocracy was a focal point of the show, and the emphasis on the servant characters also offered a careful dichotomy between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Though somehow, it felt odd, especially as an American, to become so attached to the British aristocracy. Their plight to hold onto power and position was seen as a tragedy and I felt for them, even as it represents a net gain to middle classes and improved equality throughout the Western World. It is a testament to the strength of the show’s writing that I can find myself rooting against my own self-interest and feeling nostalgic for an antiquated aristocratic society.

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Tell me the beautiful Highclere Castle (used as Downton Abbey in the show) doesn’t give you castle envy. Source: wikimedia.org

Though my endorsement of the show is strong and I recommend it highly, that does not come without caveats. I will avoid major spoilers in discussing my few (though substantive) misgivings throughout Downton Abbey‘s six season run. First, I can think of a handful of times that the show deviated from its strengths of slowly building dramatic tension and went instead for crazy, unpredictable shock value. Some plot decisions were too abrupt and felt as though they created a jarring and undesirable tonal shift in the show. This is most notable in the end of Season 3, whose reveal I can think is nothing more than a desperate grab for ratings to leave a cliffhanger for the subsequent season. Second, there were a couple of plot elements that seemed to never go away (most notably the Bates’ subplot). Those who have already seen the show will likely agree. It can come off as lazy writing to continually revisit the same plot element rather than invent new challenges for the show’s characters. It arrests their development and makes a sub-plot become more of a nagging issue. Finally, I often found Mary’s character difficult to root for. Despite the fact that Downton makes her out to be the show’s primary heroine, her snarky and selfish tendencies did, at times, seem unnecessary and the amount that other characters coddled her could be annoying.

Nevertheless, my few complaints aside, Downton Abbey is just about as captivating a period drama as you will find on television. The almost 60 hours of story fly by surprisingly fast and the clever wits and snappy writing provide a thoughtful and entertaining portrayal of a fascinating time period in British history. Any remaining history buffs, fans of period dramas, or even just well-written dialogue that have somehow yet to watch Downton should clear their schedules and dig in for a wonderful viewing experience. Rating: 8 of 10 (would be a 9 of 10 if not for that Season 3 finale that still has me hurting).

Firefly

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Source: wikimedia.org

In an attempt to further solidify my status as a science fiction nerd, I have spent a good portion of this summer working my way through some of the books and TV shows I missed while I focused on the more fantasy-driven Harry Potter and LOTR fests of my youth. Somehow, despite all of its hype and cult-fandom (including representation in shows like Community), I had never seen Firefly before. Now, I’m a fan of Joss Whedon (especially his run on Astonishing X-Men, the Avengers film, and the criminally under-appreciated Dr. Horrible special), so I was sure I’d love the show. And I certainly liked it, don’t get me wrong, but the show is a bit more flawed than I expected.

Pros:

  • Stylistic choices of making space travel and interplanetary colonies seem dirty, impoverished, and backwater. It makes for a more interesting
  • A strong cast of characters, with diverse interests and backgrounds made for a dynamic universe with lots and lots of story potential, the biggest travesty is how little of it was tapped into when the show was canceled so early.
  • Just how many story plot lines Whedon and co. developed in a short 14-episode season. Some examples of plot lines and concepts that had a lot of potential for great episodes: revealing more about Mal and Zoe in the war, the Shephard’s background and how religion worked in the universe, the Alliance’s inner workings and those evil mysterious men after River, and the political and wealth disparity between inner planets and outer colonies, just to name a few.
  • A smart commentary on injustice, income inequality, and balance of power that was only just getting going when the show was canceled.
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The CGI work was not too bad for 2002, though definitely not the primary draw of the series. Source: wikimedia.org

Cons:

  • The western twang was intermittent and not very consistent or believable; sure the wild west themes made a lot of sense, but there were a few too many cowboy scenes for my taste. Not to mention…
  • That song. Not good, sorry Joss. I’m sure you loved it, but it was too heavy on the cheese for me.
  • Some of the romantic subplots were clunky and forced. Mostly those involving the captain, as the Wash/Zoe and Kaylee/Simon dynamics were pretty solid.
  • There were occasionally misogynistic plot lines and commentaries that seemed to go against Joss Whedon’s history on Buffy, as well as the generally strong characterization of all the show’s women: Zoe, Kaylee, River, and Enara (i.e. the bounty hunter in Ep. 14 was super creepy with Kaylee; the whole prostitution ring in the Western stakeout episode)
  • Not quite enough multi-episode arc plot points. This may be more a sign of the times in 2002 than anything else, but it too often felt like the consequences of an episode’s arc were too self-contained, often making the Alliance’s memory seem a bit short.
  • I’m not sold on the Mandarin slang interspersing the dialogue. I don’t think I get it.

Really, I think it just came down to bad timing. This show had a lot of potential, but people weren’t really ready for an oddball, morally-flexible, adventure in space in 2002. Even though Star Trek: The Next Generation had found plenty of success beforehand, 2002 was the era of police procedurals and Americana, like CSI and 24, as well as reality shows like Survivor, and The Amazing Race. If Firefly were to come out now, there would be much more of an appetite for the sort of worn-around-the-edges space adventure tale that Whedon spun. The show is a lot of fun and explores some good ideas. Of course, it was also famously canceled after only 14 episodes, when it was really seeming to get up some steam. Though the show was definitely not perfect, I will gladly join the bandwagon lamenting its early demise. Rating: 7 of 10 based solely on what was actually released, but I honestly think it had 9-10 potential and I wish there were a chance to show it!

Master of None

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Image Source: Netflix.com via Screencrush.com

Aziz Ansari made his name as the stereotype-smashing Tom Haverford from the incomparable Parks and Recreation, as well as a successful stand-up career. Ansari has gone on good number of tours and has recorded a bunch of comedy specials that are currently available for your perusal on Netflix. All of his previous work indicated Ansari had a special knack for pop culture-laden comedy, and his snappy wit showed his intelligent and insightful observations of modern society. So it was only a matter of time before Ansari got his big break to write and star in his own comedy show, which launched in November of 2015 on Netflix, titled: Master of None.

Master of None has received a lot of critical acclaim and significant attention for its commentary on minority representations in Hollywood. Written by Ansari and Alan Yang, the show has a notably more diverse writing team and cast than most cable comedies. The show taps into some issues that are rarely discussed in pop culture, such as the competing factors that come from being first-generation Americans born of immigrant parents. It accomplishes these themes in a very friendly and non-preachy way, making them very accessible to even those without first-hand experiences that relate.

In my opinion, the true brilliance of the show is how genuinely in captured modern, urban, young adult culture. [Editorial disclaimer: it is important to distinguish the “modern, urban young adult” from the broader term “Millenial,” as the latter is a generational divide and should be inclusive of those living in smaller cities or in rural communities. Unfortunately, this distinction is rarely made in media portrayals of our generation, which sells short the diversity of opinion and upbringing among Millenials.] Master of None is spot on from its use of social media apps to drive plot points (the brilliant episode with Yelp! decision paralysis), to Rachel’s (Noel Wells) job as a music promoter, the show really captures a lot of the nuances of a changing social environment. The show is really in touch with the present day and is heavily steeped in the much more diverse and cosmopolitan interests of a new generation of urban young people. Ansari and Yang seem to have a real talent for blending humor with serious topics of identity and a general sense of listlessness that is so often associated with the modern job market. In a world where “career tracks” aren’t as clear and new high-tech or entertainment-focused industries are emerging, Master of None strikes a unique tone that really resonates with the overwhelming indecisiveness of youth.

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Source: Netflix.com

Though nowhere near as wildly popular, it is along the same vein as Friends and How I Met Your Mother, but for a new generation. Friends showed how young people dealt with dating, friendship, and life in NYC during the 1990s, and HIMYM was really the same thing a decade later. Now, ten years (wow) after HIMYM premiered, a Millenial audience has its own version of the classic “life in the big city” comedy in Master of None. In the show, we see a lot of those similar themes, but also highlighted by some deeper more existential and artistic questions than those previous campy sitcoms ever delved into. Dev (Ansari) and the rest of the talented cast spend a lot of the show just talking, which is actually similar in format to Friends and HIMYM, but this is the first show really set in the Information Age. The questions of texting rules and etiquette, the changing dynamics of dating apps, and the moral quandaries of chasing the perfect taco on Yelp! are all new concepts to the TV comedy and really relate to audiences.

I do have a couple of quick criticisms of the show, however, most of which revolve around finances. There is an assumption in all of these types of shows that the main characters have a lot of disposable income. Sure, there are plenty of people living in these big cities that can relate to that, but Dev eats at some fancy restaurants and has a super implausibly nice apartment in New York. Sure, it makes for prettier sets and is probably more in line with how a successful comedic actor and writer like Ansari actually lives, but it cuts into the illusion that this show is about “normal” people. The lack of financial concerns makes for a relatively tone-deaf interpretation of the Millenial experience. It also tended to seem a little too over-scripted at times, as Dev and Rachel’s relationship was so pithy and full of quips that it felt kind of empty at times. Later developments in the characters did show a surprising willingness to veer from comedy and deal with real issues, which is definitely a plus for the show, but the cracks would have been more meaningful if the foundation seemed stronger earlier.

In the end, though, Master of None is well worth your time. It’s got some laughs, some depth, and likable characters that will usher in a new generation of TV comedies. Rating: 8 of 10

Cooked: An Anthropological Look at Food

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Source: Netflix.com

Created and narrated by the famous food writer, Michael Pollan, the new Netflix original show Cooked seeks to provide an in-depth look at the anthropological and nutritious importance of cooking in human history. On the surface, it is a fascinating topic, as Pollan touches on a wide array of topics like cooking meat, fermentation, stews, and, inevitably, the commercialization of the food industry. Pollan seeks to blend science with cultural case studies as well as imbuing a clear streak of social activism into the show, which is very reminiscent of his famous writing and documentary styles. The whole series is rather short and incorporates four hour-long episodes, each of which attempts to follow the theme of one of the classic elements: fire, water, air, and earth.

The show got off to an interesting start in the “Fire” episode, cataloguing biological and anthropological evidence that homo sapiens had evolved to digest cooked food rather than raw food. Even our closely related ape relatives spend a significant portion of their day chewing and have far more extensive jaw muscles, molars, and skull infrastructure to compensate. The interesting observation Pollan made was that cooking allows humans to reduce chewing time, which really liberates us to spend our time doing other things like nurturing young, building tools, and communicating. This makes the use of fire for cooking a crucial step in our social and cultural development, as it is a catalyst for the early development of civilization. Cooked also gives details about the science behind cooking meat, like how the enzymes and fats are changed and what the flavors are caused by. There were also some case study sorts of exposés on the cultural significance of fire in Aboriginal tribes in Australia and in the American barbecue. The parallels were interesting, but Pollan sometimes condescends too much when he talks about people’s cooking choices, making these cultures seem like the last brave bastions to fight against the evil West. But that disregards his own status as a wealthy, intellectual white male from the US, making him about as Western as they come.

Even so, this show did have some serious strong points that would be very interesting for anyone interested in food culture, history, or the science of flavor. The third and fourth episodes were the best, focusing on the science behind fermentation and the crucial importance of bread in the history of humanity. Those two episodes were fascinating and enlightening, as Pollan and co. illustrated the difference between commercial and natural yeasts in bread-making, discussed the importance of air bubbles and how the glutens stretch to contain the bread bubbles, and did an in-depth analysis of various foods that require fermentation including chocolate, beer, and even some other surprising foods. The inclusion of insightful experts that explained the importance of covering chocolate for fermentation or how the baking of wheat into bread increases the caloric value of the wheat exponentially, all helped to frame the importance of each topic.

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Richard Bourdon from the Berkshire Mountain Bakery during Ep. 3: “Air” Source: thedailybeast.com via netflix.com

Unfortunately, it did also have some weaknesses. First and foremost, the theme of the “four elements” seemed a bit forced, and only Fire and Air proved to truly be about those concepts. “Earth” was a great episode and all about fermentation, but that wasn’t really about the earth at all. Also, the second episode, “Water,” was by far the weakest, as the whole discussion basically devolved into a lament of the industrialization and commercialization of food. Pollan laments the home-cooked meal and over-simplifies economic forces such as globalization and the tech boom, all while downplaying the political and social importance of women entering the workplace. At times, as I mentioned above, Pollan seems so ingrained in his elite American sense of liberal idealism that he sits on his pedestal and judges the poorer masses who are most often the victims of the ills of commercialized food. Increased fats, sugars, and obesity, coupled with decreases in time spent cooking do paint a pretty clear picture, but simply urging people to take the time to cook seems pretty hopelessly naive, and overestimates the amount of control many people have over their time. While an important issue in society, it is not reasonable to expect that food issues like sustainability and nutrition will take priority in households across the country and the world.

Nevertheless, the show is worthwhile to those interested in food history, sustainability, or any kind of documentarian look at such an important aspect of our daily lives. If you know Michael Pollan or watch these kinds of shows, you may know a lot of it already, but it’s all presented in a fun and engaging style that you’ll enjoy at least most of it. Rating: 7 of 10

 

Marvel’s Daredevil – Season 2

Marvel’s new lineup of Netflix shows stormed onto the scene last year with the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, where Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, and company delivered masterful portrayal of the iconic hero, as well as a dark and gritty look into the world superheroes at large. The violence and moral ambiguity of vigilantism and the horrible depravity of the criminal underworld led to some truly innovative scenes, pushing the superhero genre further than it had ever seen on television or in films. The frills and bombast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) keeps its heroes fun and witty, fighting more with lasers and well-timed quips than beating their enemies to a bloody pulp. This is not a criticism of the MCU, as I greatly enjoyed the vast majority of their films (see a full review here), but the tone and intended audience is quite a bit different in these Netflix shows. The mature content drives plots to more complex and distressing topics like sexual and domestic abuse, human trafficking, and other horrible things that can occur in the underbelly of a major city. This first season was incredible and highlighted a whole new world of content made available to Marvel fans like myself. A resounding applause to the whole creative team, led by Jeph Loeb.

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Source: Marvel.com

After the wildly successful and creative first season of Daredevil, Marvel followed it with another new show six months later. This time, the title character was a little-known super-powered woman named Jessica Jones, a foul-mouthed, aggressive, functional alcoholic with a dark past. Marvel’s Jessica Jones pushed mature themes even further, as Jessica served as a sort of antihero, reluctantly seeking an odd and occasionally disturbing combination of justice and revenge. Her interests were sometimes selfish, her approach can only be described as unorthodox, and her treatment of friends and lovers was not always the nicest. The depth and complexity of Jessica’s character, delivered by Kristen Ritter, was perfect. She is the most complex and dynamic character Marvel has developed to date. The whole show, anchored by opposing performances by Ritter and David Tennant as the horrifyingly evil Killgrave was an absolute thrill. These two shows set the bar so high for following seasons in Marvel’s Netflix line, that it seemed the sky was the limit.

Following another six month gap, we arrive at the present. Marvel’s Daredevil released a second season to follow its incredible inaugural performance. Anticipation had been building for months, as casting decisions for the next two entries (Luke Cage and Iron Fist) were gradually announced. Marvel confirmed a second season of Jessica Jones would be on its way as well. Marketing and trailers revealed that two of the most iconic members of Daredevil’s supporting cast would be making their small screen debuts: the Punisher and Elektra. I had March 18th marked on my calendar. I was ready!

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Daredevil (Charlie Cox) was joined by Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra (Elodie Young) in the Second Season. Source: Marvel.com

The start of the season brought the same incredible drama that had drawn me in so completely in the first season. A new, unknown force (clearly the Punisher) was taking down large swaths of the criminal underworld in a massive, execution-style take-down. Naturally, Daredevil finds himself at odds with this brutal riff on vigilantism, leading to an epic ideological struggle. This first arc lasts for about six episodes, centering on the contrasting worldviews of Matt Murdock and Frank Castle, the latter of which, played perfectly by Jon Bernthal, absolutely stole the show. The rooftop scene where Frank and Matt first debate their competing visions of justice and vigilantism is iconic. Daredevil is chained to a chimney, while the Punisher tries to convince him that he is “just one bad day away from being me.” The contrast between Castle’s callous brutality and his severe emotional damage made for an extremely compelling character. He was terrifying and yet pitiable, a murderer and a hero. I can’t say enough about the handling of the Punisher’s character and that whole first arc.

Unfortunately, the second arc of the season was not quite as well fleshed out. The introduction of Elektra (played by Elodie Young) did work pretty well, and Young brought a certain crazed energy to the character that seemed true to source material. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to Elektra and Matt’s earlier romance, which cleanly provided the background audiences needed in order to understand the present-day relationship. The show’s decision to downplay the mystical elements of Miller’s original writing was a good one. Though the mysterious “Black Sky” did leave mystical or spiritual possession on the table for an explanation of Elektra’s blood-lust. I appreciated Marvel’s willingness to show Elektra as an erratic, thrill-seeking and borderline sadistic woman, though I never understand the romantic interest in such tropes. But beyond the characterization, much of the plot of this second arc was underdeveloped. The Hand seemed to appear out of nowhere and the question of their zombie-like “raised from the dead” status was more opaque than necessary.

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My favorite scene of the entire season: two vigilantes flesh out opposing philosophies on justice. Source: Marvel.com

All of that being said, my largest problems of the whole season came during the final episode, when it felt as though the show took some shortcuts in an attempt to wrap up many story lines at once. Needless to say, this paragraph will be largely *SPOILERS*, so just skip to the next one if you have not yet watched. First, why does Karen continue to go off alone and get into danger? I think it undermines the development of her “street-smart” persona if she continues to be so careless. Castle’s house, the Colonel’s house, abduction by the Hand… is she a strong, enabled character? Or just another damsel in distress? I would prefer the former. Second, the rekindling of Matt and Elektra’s romance seemed abrupt. He resisted romantic interest for most of the show then just decided he loved her again at the end? Eh, kind of lazy. Plus, that dialogue when they were trapped on the roof was oozing cheese. And not in a good, fresh nachos way. Worst of all, though, was the very end. Reminder, this is definitely a *SPOILER*, Elektra’s death, while expected, was kind of odd. The choice to kill her seemed reasonable, but after Daredevil and Stick had seen the Hand resurrect Nobu and all of their ninjas without heartbeats, did they really think burying Elektra was a good idea? They were fighting an enemy that was able to resurrect the dead and they didn’t think to at least cremate the body? A more believable outcome would have been if the Hand carted her body off during the fight. A funeral scene, while maybe more dramatic emotionally, made our heroes look like chumps. Seemed odd.

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Fightin’ some ninjas. NBD. Source: Marvel.com

All of that being said, this show is mostly great and there are far more positive things to say than criticisms. For instance, the supporting cast was incredibly good. Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are always tremendous, and personally, I loved that the show gave Foggy more of an opportunity to show his strengths as a lawyer and to show him as a brave person, rather than relegating him to the pudgy and pathetic comic relief that the comics so often do. Elden Henson is such a perfect fit for Foggy that the real stars of this Daredevil show continue to be the casting directors. Karen’s character continues to grow, though her inability to anticipate danger and leap headfirst into ridiculously risky situations has become a bit repetitive. I think for a character who is supposed to show some investigative smarts, she sure seems surprised by danger a lot. Next season, they should have her stop being the damsel in distress so much, but Deborah Ann Woll was great, yet again, and continues to show some serious emotional range. Rosario Dawson is always fun and believable, though her part seems to serve more as the binding for Marvel/Netflix’s Defenders crossover than to further individual plots at this point. But, once again, the absolute show-stopping performance of Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin was probably the highlight of the season. Unexpected and largely forgotten by the time he showed up mid-season, he instantly reminded viewers of his cold and terrifying performance from the first season.

Overall, the second season isn’t quite as perfect as the first one was, but sequels usually have that problem. It is still a great show and I will certainly watch it again at some point. Much like with the MCU, the cohesiveness of this show’s plot is somewhat impacted by the desire to flesh out the network of characters to build into Defenders and even spin off into their own solo series (Punisher, Elektra). This is somewhat of a reflection of the growing pains of an interconnected universe, and shouldn’t be criticized too much, since the resulting web of shows is sure to continue at a high level of excellence. It has a few weak points, especially toward the end of the season, and certainly more than season one or Jessica Jones, but some tremendous acting and Jon Bernthal’s Punisher help to make this still one of the best shows out there.

Season Two Rating: 8 of 10