Reviews

Review: 'La Révolution'

Written by 16 October, 2020

At its best, television is a reflection of the culture that created it. It's not always an accurate representation, but it's a window into the mythology and stories that culture thinks are important. It's why I love watching television made outside of the United States. It's not just the enjoyment I get from seeing the work of people unfamiliar to me. It's the joy of seeing a familiar story through the lens of a different culture. 

That unfamiliar approach to storytelling is just one of the reasons to recommend La Révolution, a new original series from creator Aurélien Molas and Netflix France. 

The series is set in 1787 France, in a town about 60 miles from Paris. Two years before the start of the French Revolution, local doctor Joseph Guillotin uncovers a series of mysterious murders. Young peasant women are disappearing and it appears that there may be some serial killer at work. It's not clear why the murders are taking place, but as Guillotin continues to dig, he discovers an unknown virus which turns the victim's blood blue. It also gives them extraordinary strength along with some unsettling urges.

Joseph Guillotin was a real person. In fact, he is best known for his work to convince the French government to execute criminals by guillotine - a method he argued was more humane than the traditional axe or "breaking wheel." He didn't actually invent the guillotine, but it was named after him because of his work. 

But while the Joseph Guillotin in La Révolution bears the same name as France's leading proponent of the guillotine, their stories have very little in common. And that is the case with much of the storyline in La Révolution. It's very loosely based on the real events that led to the French Revolution, but I don't think there is any historical evidence that France blueblood aristocracy literally had blue blood. Instead the story is a "reimagining" of history, drawing on the inequities of French society to frame more traditional tale of monsters - both human and not-so-human.

There are a number of strong performances in La Révolution, including Marilou Aussilloux, who takes an impressive turn as the haunted Elise de Montargis. Elise is the daughter of the local nobility and argues that the population is overtaxed and abused. But she has little sway in a society where women are seen primarily as vessels for giving birth to the next generation of nobility. Her story is one of the over-arching arcs of the season as viewers learn more about how she has been treated and all of the things that have been taken away from her in the past. Amir El Kacem is also extremely effective as Joseph Guillotin, a man who desperately wants to overthrow the current political system. But also somehow believes that change can happen without violence and death. 

It's difficult to say too much about the main storylines of La Révolution without spoiling things. But Molas and the cast do a spectacular job at framing an unlikely premise in a way that seems as if it's the way the French Revolution *could* have happened. And the story also feels contemporary in some very unsettling ways.

I don't know enough about the current political and cultural climate in France to hazard a guess about how La Révolution will feel to French viewers. But as an American, the show's themes of a dismissive and corrupt upper class, a lack of upward mobility and a deck stacked against the working class seems painfully contemporary. While there aren't a lot of factual similarities between pre-Revolution France and the United States in 2020, the feel and emotional weariness of fighting what seems to be a hopeless battle against the powerful resonates deep into me.

La Révolution  was a treat to watch and it's perfect suggestion for viewers wanting something that is entertaining, unexpected and often thought-provoking.

La Révolution premieres globally Friday, October 16th, 2020 on Netflix.


Last modified on Tuesday, 20 October 2020 07:36

Review: 'Soulmates'

Written by 05 October, 2020

Nothing about love is guaranteed. But what if it was?

That's the bare bones outline for the AMC anthology series Soulmates, which premieres tonight. The series is set 15 years in the future and scientists have discovered the "soul particle" and as a result can match humans to their soulmate with 100% accuracy. You take the test and if your soulmate is in the database you meet. If they are not, then you have to wait for them to take the test. It's kind of the Minority Report of love. So know what is going to happen before you even meet. Or do you?

While scientifically finding your soulmate sounds wonderful on the face of it, it doesn't take long to see a lot of potential complications. What if your soulmate is dead? Or if they (or you) are already married? Do you spend your entire life waiting for a match that might never come? And what does a soulmate mean, exactly? Does it mean you'll be compatible in every way?

Season one explores some of the consequences of living in a world where everyone expects true love. Because the term soulmate is a bit squishy and challenging. Someone might be your soulmate, but you find you're not attracted to them. Or they are a white nationalist. Or detest donuts (Okay, that might be one of my fears). What do you do when that perfect match comes with some baggage you might not be able to live with? 

But there are even worse scenarios. Imagine you're happily married to someone who feels like your soulmate. They're smart, funny, kind and gentle. And the sex is amazing. Do you take the soul particle test? Does the science matter more than your heart?

And that was the complication of this idea that I was glad to see explored. Most of us have had more than one person in our life that we could have at the time described as our "soulmate." Is finding your soulmate really the thing that will make you happy? 

Like all good "what if" shows, Soulmates creators William Bridges and Brett Goldsteinrs allow the open-ended premise to lead the viewer in all sorts of unexpected directions. The episodes were all over the place thematically, some of them deathly serious and some veering almost into madcap rom-com territory. But in their own ways, each episode explored the complexities of love and relationships in a world where science has convinced most people there is only one love for them.

Soulmates' six episodes explore a lot of those themes and questions and when it's all over, you may find yourself thinking that finding your soulmate might be overrated. As it turns out, maybe Match.com isn't all that bad.

Soulmates premieres Monday, October 5th, 2020 at 10 p.m. ET/9c on AMC.

Last modified on Monday, 05 October 2020 15:40

Review: 'Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous'

Written by 18 September, 2020

I'll let you in a little secret about TV critics. There are times when we dread watching an upcoming show. Sometimes it's because you expect it to be dull or because you don't especially enjoy the work of someone associated with the series. But it can also be because you really enjoyed someone's previous work and you really, really don't want this project to fail to live up to their talents. In the end, what separates the professionals from the casual writers is the ability to look beyond your prejudices and fears. The ability to review what's on the screen, not what you are expecting a show to be.

I enjoyed the movie Jurassic World well enough. It was a fun romp and a distracting way to spend a couple of hours. But I wasn't exactly hoping to see an animated series set in that world. So when I first received the episodes of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous for review, I had an open mind but a sinking feeling that I might be disappointed. But going into the episodes, what gave me hope was the presence of Zack Stentz, who is attached to the show as a consulting producer. While Stentz is probably best known for this work on the screenplays for the movies Thor and X-Men: First Class, he also has a solid background writing and producing on some great television shows, including The Flash, Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. He also wrote and was executive producer on the Netflix original movie Rim Of The World, a wonderfully energetic teen scifi/adventure movie that was one of my favorite films from last year. Stentz knows how to successfully assemble an action series and I was hoping I would see some of that magic in Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous.

Honestly, I don't know why I was worried.

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is an impressively ambitious animated series that follows the story of six teenagers sent to to the far side of Isla Nublar to try out a brand-new state-of-the-art adventure camp set to open soon to the public. And while the first couple of episodes focus primarily on introducing the teens and chronicling their attempts to explore the camp and see some dinosaurs, their story kicks into high gear when the rest of Jurassic World has a meltdown after the escape of some mysterious experimental dinosaurs gone rogue. Left on their own as the island's infrastructure begin to melt down, the campers dodge one danger after another as they attempt to make their way across the island to the safety of the evacuation boats.



The teens are the expected range of backgrounds and talents. Darius is the dinosaur obsessed kid who is there because he beat a videogame. Ben is the frail, nervous kid sent there by his parents to toughen him up a bit. There's a track star, a social media queen and a kid who's there primarily because his rich parents got him a VIP invite,

Like Rim Of The WorldJurassic World: Camp Cretaceous has a nice sense of what it feels like to be a young teen. You're that mixture of cynical know-it-all and scared little kid. It's an emotional balancing act that is difficult to get right on the screen. But the six campers all have individual personalities that are distinct without being stereotypes. You pretty quickly find yourself rooting for this kids to get past all of the unexpected dangers they face on their journey.

One of the most impressive things about this first season of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is the level of action, especially in the final few episodes. Animated action sequences can sometimes feel divorced from reality and not based enough in facts to provide a genuine sense of the stakes involved for the characters. A lot of the action sequences almost felt as if they were animated renderings of a live-action movie and it's easy to get caught up in the rhythm of the danger. There are some sequences in the show that are as entertaining and memorable as anything you saw in the mothership Jurassic World feature film.

All of that being said, there are a couple of things that in retrospect feel a bit clunky. Without giving anything away, there is a secret involving one of the campers that ends up being a great deal of build-up for not so much of a payoff. It plays out in a way that almost seems as if the secret was less important than the fact that revealing it had a huge impact on the other campers. And the character of Ben basically doesn't contribute anything but some whining for most of the season, although when that does change, it changes in a very big and surprising way.

But those quibbles are minor ones. I saw down to watch Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous thinking I would set away after a couple of episodes. Instead, I eagerly blasted through the entire season in a couple of sessions. Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous is a blast to watch and you'll find yourself sucked into the story whether or not you're a Jurassic World fan. 

Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous premieres Friday, September 18th, 2020 on Netflix.


Last modified on Friday, 18 September 2020 05:18

Review: 'Beyond The Block'

Written by 02 September, 2020

There are a lot of househunting shows and the gold standard in the genre are the programs you'll see on HGTV. That network has been cranking out variations of the "let's help you find a house" series for a couple of decades. So it's difficult to watch a new show that tries to do the same thing without comparing it to the industry leader.

By that metric, the Tastemade/Realtor.com series Beyond The Block compares very well. Hosted by Andrew Tyree, each of the first season's four episodes has Tyree visiting a new town. He's trying to help a budding homeowner (or homeowners) find the right balance between cost, community and convenience. The premise of the show doesn't sound all that different than 50 other similar shows you've probably seen in the past.

But there are a couple of subtle breaks with the norm and the changes serve the show well. Firstly, Andrew Tyree does a really solid job with hosting. He's informative without being smarmy, friendly without being insincere. The structure of the show requires a host who is comfortable in a variety of settings and Tyree navigates the shifts of location seamlessly. 

The second part of the show that works well is that while a fair amount of time is spent on the potential houses themselves, Beyond The Block is as much about the community and the lifestyle as the houses. Buying a house - particularly if you're a first-time homebuyer - is less about the number of bedrooms or whether it's an open-concept kitchen. It's about whether or not you feel at home in the community. Is it close to amenities you enjoy? Your favorite restaurants or clubs? All of those factors matter, especially for younger homeowners.



And the focus on the community is what makes the show more than just a cold real estate showcase. Episode one is set in San Antonio, where Tyree and the potential homeowners spend as much time exploring the neighborhoods as examining the homes. Tyree introduces them to several local business owners, take them for Kayak ride down the San Antonio Riverwalk and for lunch at a neighborhood food festival. He helps the couple discover what area feels like "home" to them and it's a helpful process in the end.

Realtor.com is the "brand" in this show and any time a sponsor is helping to pay for the production, there's a fear the finished product won't feel authentic. In the case of Beyond The Block, the brand integration isn't hidden, but it's not intrusive either. There are two times in the premiere episode where the Realtor.com web site is mentioned and in both cases the mentions are woven into the natural progression of the show. In one case, it's using the web site to search just for homes in their target areas. In another, it's taking of advantage of a Realtor.com feature that allows you to see which areas in the city are the loudest. You do notice the integration, but it's no worse that the Wayfair integration HGTV uses in some of its shows.

One quick note about COVID-19's impact on the show. The first episode was shot pre-pandemic, but the producers wisely had Tyree check in remotely with the homeowners and business owners featured in the episode to see how they were doing now. It was a nice idea, especially since it's difficult to watch a show like this and not wonder how everyone was impacted by the pandemic.

Beyond The Block premieres Thursday, September 3rd on the Tastemade Streaming Network. Upcoming cities highlighted in the show include Los Angeles, Raleigh, NC and Fort Collins, Colorado.


Last modified on Wednesday, 02 September 2020 16:36

Review: 'Being The Queen'

Written by 31 August, 2020

I will be to admit that I am likely not the optimal target audience for a television special that has any connection to the British Royal Family. It's not that I have any passionate dislike of them, I am just not especially interested in hearing about the Monarchy. I'll hear a news report about one of it's members and afterwards, all I'll recall is the phrase "Today, Prince Andrew said.." and then the next thing you know I'll wake up from the best 45 minutes sleep I've had in months.

So I approached the new NatGeo special Being The Queen the same way I approach all royalty-related programming: with a mixture of dread and anticipation for enjoying some much-needed sleep.

But watching Being The Queen reminded me that while Queen Elizabeth II is frozen in our collective minds as this stoic, elderly matron, she is intertwined with the history of post-WWII Britain. Utilizing lots of archival footage and interviews with former staff and confidants, the one-hour special puts together a fascinating portrait of Elizabeth the person, not the Queen. Or, at least as much of an intimate portrait as you are likely to get about someone who has believed all of her life that duty comes before everything.

The first 2/3 of the special focus on the earlier years of her life and her reign and that was the most interesting part of her story for me. The daughter of a man who wasn't supposed to be King, her father's sudden death propelled her to the role of Queen at a time when both England and the monarchy were in flux. Serving as Queen brings a lot of challenging responsibilities and requires personal sacrifices most people couldn't accept. And Being The Queen doesn't shy away from the personal prices she paid. She was extremely hands-off with her children and as Queen she was forced to step in several times with her younger sister Margaret. Most notably in the early 1950s when Princess Margaret was considering a marriage to Peter Townsend, an older, divorced man. 

The archival footage from that period is really wonderful and it allows the special's producers to really flesh out those early stories of Elizabeth's reign. But 2/3 of the way through the special, it jumps somewhat jarringly to the life and death of Princess Diana. Which I understand from a programming point of view. But that part of the story has been told a thousand times before and despite some valiant efforts, this part of the special is a lot less compelling. Honestly, I would have been happier if the special had spent that 20 minutes fleshing out more of Queen Elizabeth II's earlier reign. And the jump to focusing on Diana also makes for some unfortunate editorial choices. For instance, while the special devotes some time to Elizabeth's marriage and the challenges they faced once she became Queen, he basically disappear's from her story after the mid-1950s.

The good news is that Being The Queen is much better than the average special devoted to a member of the Royal Family. It's more of historical take on the life of Queen Elizabeth II than you might expect and that aspect makes it a fascinating special.

The bad news is that I still need a nap.


Review: 'Alice In Paris'

Written by 18 August, 2020

Streaming services such as Netflix rightfully receive a lot of credit for having realized that it you want to truly be a global media company, you need to have some studios located outside the United States. You also need to have relationships and production deals with bright young local talent who can provide the international point of view that can help set your content apart.

But digital brands such as Tastemade also have a global audience and global production assets. And while they haven't always been quick to take advantage of them when it comes to scripted programming, there are some indications that is changing. 

Alice In Paris is Tastemade's first long-form scripted series and while I've only seen the first episode of season three, that episode is as well-made and charming as any series that might come from a more traditional streaming video service. The series began about four years ago as short episodic videos that ran less than two minutes. Alice (played by show co-creator Alysse Hallali) was a college student who loved food and always found a reason to end up in some cute little Parisian shop or restaurant. The short videos didn't leave much time for a storyline or even a pause. But Hallali was charming and for lack of a better description, Alice came off as the type of college student most people outside of France picture when they think of Paris. She's passionate, a bit obsessed with food and proud of her city in a way that almost veers into arrogance.

Season two premiered about two years ago and the length of the episodes doubled to between 3 and 4 minutes. That increased length (and what appears to be an increase in budget) allowed the show to have some real storylines and also to introduce some new characters. Including Alice's sister (played by Alex Bénézech), who returns for season three. While the season two episodes often felt a bit short, watching them gives you a sense of why Tastemade execs thought the show merited full-length episodes. "Alice Loves Paris" is a love letter to the city but it's also an entertaining glimpse into the life of a young twentysomething culinary fan in the world's most intense city for foodies.



In season three's premiere episode, Alice gets into trouble when she impulsively steals a microphone at a big culinary festival and provides her own narration for the event. She's surprised when the rest of the local culinary scene doesn't appreciate her spontaneity and perfect sense of taste. To save her reputation, she embarks on a madcap adventure that includes trying to save a restaurant's Michelin Star by recreating a missing chef's prized creation. The episode is charming, witty and entertaining in a very French way. 

Hallali was in college herself when she and her boyfriend created the series and it's impossible to imagine the show being produced anywhere but Paris. Every scene of the series is a love letter to Paris and even if you've ever been there, you'll start to imagine what it would like to live in the world's most romantic city.

Season three of Alice In Paris premieres today (August 18th) on Tastemade's streaming network. Seasons one and two are available on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 August 2020 15:42

Review: 'The Osbournes Want To Believe'

I am enough of a capitalist that I believe anyone should be given the opportunity to make a living. But I also believe that I am under no obligation to help them do it. Particularly if helping them means watching a TV series that is the soul-sucking psychic equivalent of having your body completely drained of blood, then whacked with hammers until your pray for the sweet release of death.

As you might be able to discern from the first paragraph, I am not a big fan of the new Travel Channel reality series "The Osbournes Want To Believe." Truthfully, I watched the series premiere episode two weeks ago and loathed it so much that I decided not to write my review just then. I thought that perhaps I was just in a bad mood or maybe just the stress of an ongoing pandemic and being locked up with my teenage son 24/7 for months has finally broken my spirit. I opted to give it a rest and then revisit the show down the road. "Surely, it can't be this horrifying," I told myself optimistically. "Think about puppy dogs and cotton candy for awhile and give it another chance."

I will not make that mistake again.

The idea for the show - and I use the word "idea" in a very loose sense - is that Jack Osbourne wants to convince his parents that things such as UFOs and the paranormal really exist. So he's turned his parent's basement screening room into a makeshift pandemic-era studio. He shows them "spooky" YouTube videos and viral clips of weird crap. Then encourages them to share their thoughts.

Now Ozzy Osbourne is probably a delightful fellow in real life. But his grasp on the nuances of anything - much less the paranormal - is tenuous. So asking him to provide articulate and thoughtful takes on the existence of ghosts based on some videos is not unlike asking your four-year-old to give you some insight into the career of the Beatles after listening to the Ringo Starr hit "The No-No Song." 

And then there is Sharon Osbourne, who for some reason struck me as a fairly articulate and thoughtful person when she was on the CBS daytime series "The Talk." But in this show, sitting in matching theater seats next to her dazed husband Ozzy, she gives off the impression that she just woke up from a Nyquil-induced dream and can't remember where she parked the car.

I cannot properly convey how terrible "The Osbournes Want To Believe" is and how little effort any of the Osbournes seem to be putting into the show while on camera. There are times when you can see Ozzy just mentally counting down the moments until he's killed enough airtime to earn another paycheck. And I don't think a bank of talented psychics could discern what Sharon Osbourne is thinking in this context. It's just a train-wreck of a show and while I'm happy that the Osbournes have convinced another network to fork over the money for a program, I feel as if watching it is only encouraging a crime against humanity.

"The Osbournes Want To Believe" airs Sunday nights on the Travel Channel.

Last modified on Monday, 17 August 2020 00:10

Review: 'Selena + Chef'

Written by 16 August, 2020

It's not that I am overly cynical, but generally speaking, I am not impressed with the fact that someone may be a celebrity. I can appreciate someone's talent and creative works. I can be intimidated by their accomplishments. But I don't know that I "stan" anyone. Part of this stems from the fact that I have close friends from my stand-up career who are now well-known stars. Spending time with them, meeting their industry friends and hearing their off-the-record stories, it's clear that for the most part the men and women who are stars are not that different than the average civilian on a personal level. Yes, they may have a posse of hangers-on who get paid to hang out with their "best friend." But celebrity tends to magnify a person's core values more than change them. The nice people are usually still nice (most of the time) and the jerks are just going to be jerks to people who are too afraid to push back.

All of this was in my mind as I approached  the first three episodes of the HBO Max reality series "Selena + Chef," which premiered on the streaming service Thursday, August 13th. The premise of the pandemic-inspired series is not that dissimilar to the Food Network's "Amy Schumer Learns To Cook." In both cases, it's a star trying to learn more about cooking. But while Schumer receives her tips from her live-in husband, Gomez is cooking along with a celebrity chef who walks her through the recipe via a video call. 

I honestly didn't know what to expect going into "Selena + Chef." I'm not foolish enough to think that you are really going to get an unvarnished glimpse of a celebrity through a television show, especially one that they are producing themselves. But my measure of success for this type of show is whether or not it feels overly stage-managed. Are there some moments that are unscripted or unexpected? Do you get a clear sense of the celebrity's personality, even if it only the public part of their lives? Is this a show that feels natural and fun?

For the most part, the first three episodes of "Selena + Chef" are a success. Gomez has a long history of being on camera, so she's comfortable with the process and knows what works best for her personality. But more importantly, there are a few moments that come off as organic and she has a slightly cutting sense of humor that comes off on camera as mildly sarcastic instead of mean. For all of her comments about not being comfortable in the kitchen, she displays some decent skills and is even willing to tackle vaguely unpleasant tasks such as breaking down, preparing and cooking an octopus. She cracks jokes about the process, complains in passing that it's hard to find a decent boyfriend and shares stories about her experiences in the kitchen when she was growing up. On a lot of levels, "Selena + Chef" is exactly the show you want it to be, whether or not your're a fan of hers.



No show is perfect and there are certainly a couple of things I'd tweak if I could. The first episode (with Chef Ludo Lefebvre) is noticeably looser than the episodes that follow and Gomez is dressed more casual and seems a bit more thrown by the process of putting together a finished dish. It's also the best episode because that looseness plays to Gomez's strengths. Given the chance, she can be funny and smart in a way that is truly charming. The later episodes seem to be consciously a bit more structured and that structure wrings a bit of the fun out of the process.

Gomez also seems to have a few different people quarantining with her. Episode one features one set of Grandparents along with someone she introduces as a friend. Episode two introduces another friend to the mix. All of which is fine and it's not a criticism. It all just made me wonder how many people are living with her at the moment. Not because I care per se, it's more that the question is one of those things that might be of interest to viewers. If Gomez isn't cooking, then who is? What's a typical meal like in the Gomez compound? 

Weird and minor quibbling aside, I really enjoyed what I've seen of "Selena + Chef." It delivers on the food part of the premise and Gomez is more than charming enough to carry any show. I'm not sure that the fact that it's one of my favorite HBO Max original shows is a great thing for the streaming service. But watching the series will leave you with a smile on your face and maybe a new recipe or two to try out during your quarantine at home.

Episodes 4-6 of "Selena + Chef" will premiere on Thursday, August 20th and episodes 7-10 will be available Thursday, August 27th, 2020.


Last modified on Sunday, 16 August 2020 19:59

Review: 'Sharks Of Ghost Island'

Written by 15 August, 2020

There are a few different types of "Shark Week" specials and one of them can best be described as "kinda interesting shark stuff but we're afraid not interesting enough so we're going to hype the hell out of the danger." The one-hour special "Sharks Of Ghost Island" fits firmly into that category, since it includes both an actual shark-related task (find a number of shark species near an island) with a bunch of random facts & comments designed to make it seem much more dangerous a task to "Shark Week" viewers.

The "Ghost Island" part of the show's title comes from the nickname of The Great Isaac Cay, a Bahaman island located 40 miles east of Miami, Florida on the western edge of the Bermuda Triangle. The intro to the show mentions that it has long been the scene of sightings of large sharks. And besides being in the Bermuda Triangle, it's been abandoned since 1969, after two lighthouse caretakers mysteriously disappeared without a trace. But the mystery part is pretty quickly pushed aside and is really only mentioned to explain why a team of scientists are there. Since there haven't people near the island for decades, the waters surrounding it have become a popular area for creatures of all sizes. And there is a theory that the island has become a popular area for large sharks. But to prove that theory, scientists must discover at least ten species of sharks swimming in the waters near "Ghost Island."

Why ten species? We don't know. If scientists only discover evidence of nine, does that mean the migration theory is incorrect? We don't know. But the "we must find ten species of sharks" sets up a very weird metric for success and leads to a baffling tracking board on the deck of the scientist's ship. The number on the board begins at 0 and is updated baseball game score-style as more sharks are discovered. It just seems a bit contrived and awkward, although the actual looking for sharks footage is often fun to watch.

Like nearly all Shark Week programs, "Sharks Of Ghost Island" tends to treat all species of sharks as potentially dangerous to humans. Even though that clearly isn't always the case. But the real downside of the special is that it doesn't delve more into the mysteries of the island itself, which is rumored to have actual ghosts haunting it.

There's the creepy "Grey Lady," who reportedly haunts the beaches of the island, searching for her son who was the only survivor of a horrific ship disaster. Or the ghost of a young boy who survived being thrown clear of another sinking ship, only to be torn apart by a group of large sharks. And there are those missing caretakers, which is a truly creepy real-life mystery.

Overall, there's nothing wrong with "Sharks Of Ghost Island." There's some interesting footage of sharks and you'll be curious to learn if the scientists do indeed discover ten species of sharks in the area. But the special ultimately feels like a bit of a time filler. Which is useful but maybe not all that entertaining.

"Sharks Of Ghost Island" premiered Saturday, August 15th, 2020 on Discovery.


Review: 'Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef'

Written by 09 August, 2020

Complaining that a Shark Week special was promoted in a misleading way is somewhat like being unhappy when drinking beer doesn't make you more attractive. Hype is hype and while there's nothing wrong with it, you shouldn't be surprised if you're misled a bit while you're being entertained.

Based on the promos for the Discovery Shark Week special Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef, you might have thought you were going to see an hour-long battle of the brawn between one of the world's most-recognizable boxers and a massive killer shark. The advertising made for some fun viral moments but all of it has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the actual special. In fact, a more accurate title might have been "Mike Tyson Really Doesn't Like Being In Water." The special in the end is entertaining, albeit in a way that leaves you with the sinking feeling you're been misled.

The special begins with a bunch of hype from someone at the UFC and a boxing match-style introduction that promises a battle for all ages. Which makes it even more jarring when we hear from Mike Tyson. He admits that he doesn't much like water or amphibious creatures and while he won't quite admit to being scared by the prospect of meeting some sharks face-to-face, he's definitely extremely concerned. The plan is for shark experts to take the boxer through three tasks, each with increasing "danger." First, a dive in which Tyson comes face-to-face with some sharks while safely inside a protective shark cage. Then it's a dive to hang with some sharks without a cage, with the final task being surrounded by sharks and then stroking one on the nose until it's put to sleep, a procedure which is called "tonic immobility."

The upside of the special is that Tyson does seem legitimately unnerved by being around sharks. That makes for an entertaining hour of television, even if the closest Tyson gets to "battling" a shark is stroking one on the stout until its immobilized.

It's probably not helpful to wonder just how dangerous these tasks might be in real life. Cynics might suspect that Discovery is not going to take a chance on some shark taking a hunk out of Mike Tyson. And as it turns out, the Caribbean and lemon sharks Tyson interacts with aren't especially dangerous. In fact, these are the types of sharks that are often used in human/shark interaction events. This isn't to say that there was zero danger. But none of this was likely to end up in a "brawl to end all brawls."

Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef is pretty much what you expect from a Shark Week celebrity special. It's entertaining, not especially scientifically accurate, and guaranteed to be the topic of conversation at the office tomorrow if any of us were still going to the office.

How you feel about the special also probably hinges on how you feel about Tyson and his past criminal history. In 1992, he was sentenced to six years in jail after being convicted of raping an 18-year-old woman (he served three). He has also admitted to physically abusing wife Robin Givens during their stormy marriage. In a joint interview with Tyson on 20/20 in September 1988, Givens told Barbara Walters that life with him was "torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine." By all accounts, Tyson has his anger under control now. But whether you're willing to give him a second chance will have a lot to say about whether or not you want to see him cavorting with sharks.

Tyson Vs. Jaws: Rumble On The Reef premieres on Sunday, August 9th, 2020 as part of the kick-off night of Discovery's Shark Week 2020.

Review: 'Maxxx'

Written by 27 July, 2020
Last modified on Saturday, 15 August 2020 00:58

Review: 'SNL's Best Of John Belushi'

Written by

I have to admit that I have a strong prejudice towards John Belushi. Besides being talented, he was hell of a nice guy. At least, he was always nice to me.

When I first moved to Chicago, I used to hang out down by Second City, and this was just the time when Belushi and company were in town filming The Blues Brothers movie. And he and the crew set up an informal and semi-private private club across the street. So most nights, you could find him in there, partying away until the early morning. And my first sight of him was when I walked in the door the first time, as he was pulling his head out of a giant container of ice, attempting to keep himself going.

The trouble with my memories, and most of my other thoughts about him is that they don't matter much anymore. He's been gone for more than a decade, and the public's memories fade. WTBS has aired The Blues Brothers and Animal House to death, but it's hard for people to appreciate his talent past that. And their remembrances of his Saturday Night Live work are colored by Chris Farley, who professed his love for the man by cranking out a number of sketches and movies that screamed, "Hey! I'm a fat guy!"

Which is why it's good to see SNL airing this special, because it's a reminder to everyone how subtle Belushi's acting could be.

The 90-minute special kicked off with his first appearance on the show, a sketch with the late Michael O'Donohue in which he played a foreign-speaking immigrant going through language lessons that seemed to involve a lot of talk weasels and wolverines.

And it also included the segments that you would expect: The Blues Brothers, Belushi's impression of Joe Cocker, his marvelous turn as Captain Kirk in the final mission of the Enterprise.

But as you watch the clips, you recognize the difference between John and someone like Chris Farley. Farley was massive, throwing himself on the set, using his bulk as a comedic weapon to bludgeon everyone into submission.

Belushi had a light comedic touch when he needed it, and his facial expressions were wry and incredibly effective. Watching his eyes dance during the Samarai Deli clip, and the way he paced the scenes of his Mozart impressions, you get a sense of how effective an actor he could be. And his ability to talk effectively and precisely made his segments on the news set with Jane Curtin a beautiful dance to watch.

The show ended with a scene that's easily the most ironic thing ever filmed on SNL. A "Schiller's Reel" piece in which an elderly Belushi went to visit the graves of all of the other cast members. He was the last survivor, he said, because he was a "dancer."

You were much more than that, John. And we miss you.

 

Review: The 1000th Episode Of 'The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno'

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Jay Leno celebrated an anniversary last night, and it's characteristic of him that he didn't make a big deal about it. September 24th marked the 1000th episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno and while he didn't formally toast the event, the show that he did do illustrated everything that's right and wrong with the program.

The show opened with a sight gag, Leno walking across the stage as a counter clicked from 999 to 1000. But the monologue that followed was as mundane as his usual effort. Sometimes when you watch him work, longtime fans must wonder where his comedic inner clock has disappeared to. As a stand-up comedian, Leno was always able to find the perfect punchline for a joke. He was well known for honing and honing material until it was flawless-with not a spare word in the sentence.

But as a talk show host, much of that inner sense of humor has seemed to evaporate into the ether. Even on his 1000th episode-on what should be a special occasion-Leno only got three jokes into his monologue before he hit a wall, commenting, "Geez, you think I would have learned more in 1000 shows." Part of the problem is that he simply does too many jokes up front. No matter how talented your writing staff, you can't crank out 9 or 10 minutes worth of material a night. That sort of pressure leads to a mind-numbing procession of inane punchlines and mugging that would have mortified a younger Leno.

They have tried to work around the problem by inserting a number of brief pre-taped bits into his monologue. So the audience is treated to quick visual jokes of a Clinton look-alike puffing on a bong to the caption, "Got Pot?". On this, like on most, the quick bits get the biggest laughs, but even those are unfocused and only hitting 50% of the time.

After the monologue, he did a bit called, "What I have Learned", which involved Leno introducing taped pieces that are supposed to illustrate the many things he's learned over the course of 1000 shows. This was not his finest moment, especially when you consider that the funniest line involved Jason Alexander picking a huge wad of lint out of his navel. What has Jay learned? Apparently, not enough.

It's when Leno brings out his guests that he really shows what he's learned. Leno is by no means a flawless interviewer. But over the 1000 shows he's learned much about what it takes to bring the best out of a guest. And he's able to smoothly nudge the interview in the direction he needs it to go.

The guests were Michael Jordan and Elizabeth Hurley and in both cases he did what he was supposed to do. He allowed them to promote their current project and still kept the program from teetering into an informercial. Unlike David Letterman, who oftentimes is anti-social to the extremes, Leno seems to genuinely like most people and that comfort translates into a gently entertaining program.

Watching the Tonight Show on a regular basis can be a frustrating experience. Watching Leno work is like watching Pete Rose play baseball in his last troubled season. Everyone loves him, and you still see the flashes of greatness. But all too often, he's just coasting on memories.

 

Review: 'Oh, Baby!'

Written by 18 August, 1998

One of the frustrating things about being a TV critic is that every so often, you see someone that *should* be a star. But they end up buried in thankless roles in hapless programs. And you find yourself secretly hoping that someday they'll finally get their chance to shine.

I've always felt that way about Cynthia Stevenson. She's suffered through a procession of roles that only hinted at her talents. She first popped up in a recurring role as Norm Peterson's obsessive secretary on Cheers, but it was all downhill from there. She had a stint as "Trisha," Bob Newhart's daughter on the quickly canceled sitcom, Bob; a starring role on Hope And Gloria; she even played the budding talk show host in the syndicated series My Talk Show. But the programs never lasted, and she was always left being the actress who should have been a contender.

Oh, Baby! is the type of sitcom that the broadcast network weasels would never green-light. While the broadcast executives have no problem airing a series with a lot of sex or violence, pitching a show where the lead is artificially inseminated would have heads exploding all over the executive suite.

It's their loss.

Stevenson plays Tracy, a woman in her 30's with a biological clock ticking like a bomb at a South African Planet Hollywood. She'd love to settle down, and hopes to get married someday. Unfortunately, her boyfriend Grant is not exactly the domestic type.

Tracy takes us through the scenes that led up to her decision to be artificially inseminated, beginning with her three-year anniversary celebration with the moron de jour Grant, who pulls out a black jewelry box over dinner and proceeds to give her...a turquoise ring. As she tells him, that's not exactly an engagement ring..."unless you're an Aztec."

Things don't get much better at work, as it seems like every woman in the office is pregnant but her. And she doesn't exactly have a great bunch of people to use as a support group. Her best friend Charlotte (Joanna Gleason)is the office psychiatrist and after two divorces she's turned into the world of romance's dark princess. Tracy's mother (Jessica Walter) is incapable of having any conversation without the word "I" in it, and her brother Ernie (Matt Champagne) is living a life of quiet desperation, stuck in middle management and in the midst of an unhappy marriage when all he really wants to do is go to Europe and paint.

I couldn't be farther away from the target market for this series, but I really enjoyed it. Stevenson is delightful, the insemination seems logical and not at all a plot device, and I was left wanting more.

Which, now that I think about it, is the same feeling that has gripped Tracy. Geez, maybe that *is* my biological clock ticking away...

Oh, Baby! premieres Tuesday, August 18th, 1998 on Lifetime.

Last modified on Friday, 21 August 2020 22:31