Escaping the Streaming Rat Race

We’re moving in a few weeks. In preparation for this, I did something I tried not to think about doing for a long time. I went ahead and stripped my DVD collection of its cases, and gathered them into one neat (if very large) binder.

Yeah, I know what you’re probably thinking. “Who bothers with DVDs anymore?”

It’s a good question. If Netflix or Amazon Prime (or Hulu if you prefer) don’t have what you want, you can usually rent it off Amazon or another service. But I’ve been watching the wind and I have a ominous feeling that bad times are upon consumers. Not a “forever” situation, but things can suck for a while.

I believe that Netflix has known it, but they’re working on borrowed playtime. Much of their content is still very much from other movie studios. Back then, it was cheaper for content producers to license their titles out and collect royalties from Netflix instead of constructing digital delivery services of their own. But the industry is making rapid steps to embrace the changes Netflix heralded.

And when they do, they’re going to want their stuff back. If Netflix doesn’t build enough of a brand, their platform will be barren, save for whatever they’ve made in time, and that of a few independent studios providing outside content. A report from late last year stated that users spent 80% of their time watching titles that Netflix didn’t make. The company is locked in a race to generate enough of their own stuff to escape the reaping.

It’s already coming to a head. Anyone who has been following the recent Netflix and Marvel TV series shake up knows that Disney is entering the game with Hulu and Disney+. When Warner Bros gets its services running, all those CW shows will probably be going elsewhere. By the end of the next three years, likely every major studio will have its own service instead of relying on a few, centralized providers.

I’m really not wild about hopping from service to service, paying $10 to $20 a pop. All the apps, logins, bills and so on, for only a few things I really want to see. In theory, you could purchase and own on Amazon, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they find ways to make your selections “unavailable.” I’ve read a couple of articles where the fine print on Amazon’s digital movies may result in unavailability of movies you’ve “purchased” due to sudden “content provider licensing restrictions.”

I feel that the ease and convenience of the streaming age is going to be on choppy seas for a while. Again, I don’t think this is going to be an everlasting dark age. Yet it may take another few years for studios to accept that this emerging system isn’t convenient for customers, and is already resulting in a second age of digital piracy.

Everyone just has to learn the hard way…

If you’re like me, you refuse to torrent. But you’re probably not wild about your wallet being thinned either. So maybe my arguments have swayed you to consider either buying Blu-Ray, DVDs or storing digital copies of your favorite movies. If so, I would highly suggest storing the following crowd pleasers to escape the streaming rat race:

And you don’t have to buy new. Keep an eye out at garage sales and antique stores, grab them for $3. Just buy them, and store a copy to call your own. And yes. Yes, I know that you can rip and store these DVDs. The legality of this is questionable, so I sincerely hope you do so only for your own personal use if so.

Stranger Things Season 1 Review

Stranger thingsUntil indicated, this review is spoiler free. If you’ve seen it, skip below for analysis.

No one saw it coming. No one. Like an alien invasion or a paranormal event, Stranger Things is a bolt of 80’s goodness out of the blue.

On a cold night in November of 1983, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears in his hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. As the search gradually begins, spearheaded by the haunted Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) has strange revelations as to the whereabouts of her missing son. Her antics grate and worry her eldest child Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who starts his own investigation, eventually crossing paths with Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and plain crossing her new boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery).

Meanwhile, Will’s friends Lucas, Dustin and Nancy’s brother Mike (Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and Finn Wolfhard respectively) decide to buck the rules and search for their missing chum despite the danger. Instead they find a strange girl in the worlds named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and are pulled into a far greater mystery that is part man-made, and part not…

There are absolutely no limits to the 80’s references in the show. Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer gently borrowed ideas and hints from a myriad of movies and shows, or even just used toys and games of the era. These ranged from hints of Aliens to Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T.A Nightmare on Elm Street and It (although that was released in 1990), to impressions of Yoda. Yet despite the reliance on nostalgia the show stands on its own, entertaining whether or not the audience is familiar with these titles.

AlphabetThat last point raises a critical question about whether or not the show is suitable for younger children. The show’s heroes range from adults to teenagers to kids, pulling in audience from all age groups, giving appeal for the whole family. But although most of the violence happens off screen and the gore is subdued, some of the scarier elements risks nightmares for the youngest. This is especially true during the mesmerizing finale.

That said, Stranger Things is the engine of fan conversion. The perfect blend of science fiction and horror, carefully balanced between concerned and aware adults as well as a group of lovable children. No one is immune to the charm of Lucas, Mike and especially Dustin who all flip from their goofiness to concern just as real kids do. And although Stranger Things is a quintessential homage of the best of a decade, the show is a phenomenon no one can, or should, resist.

Analysis and spoilers follow from here on. 

Continue reading

Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 1 Review

 

Voltron

For some reason, no one could nail a solid reboot of the original Voltron: Defender of the Universe.

There were attempts before, and my understanding is that they’ve been lackluster. Strange, because the original show adhered to a relatively simple premise; a group of space explorers for the Galaxy Alliance are captured by the Drule Empire and taken to Planet Doom. After escaping, they make their way to Planet Arus where Princess Allura helps them discover five legendary robotic lions. These assemble into Voltron, who defends the planet from King Zarkon.

The American version of the original series stuck to a formulaic approach. After the movie-long introduction of Voltron and the team, each episode resulted in the appearance of a huge robeast (robotic beast) who would then perish to Voltron’s sword. Occasionally the team would face a real problem, such as one of the team being injured or some espionage that prevented forming the eponymous hero. Other times actual changes to the plot would drive events, such as the introduction of Prince Lotor, or the transformation of Commander Yurak into a robeast followed shortly thereafter by his legitimate death.

But the original Voltron did have a huge impact on other media and pop culture in general. Gestalt combinations of robots were integrated into the Transformers series, and there’s no doubt where the concept of Power Rangers came from. And to this day, the phrase “And I’ll form the head!” can still invoke laughter from those in the know.

All of this is why Netflix and DreamWorks Animation’s new series, Voltron: Legendary Defender, shocked and awed by possessing a forward-thinking story, subplots, great character development and solutions that don’t always revolve around slashing kaiju in half. And as if it being green-lit for season 2 wasn’t awesome enough, we’ll be getting it January of next year.

This review will avoid spoilers, but the same cannot be said of the links. Click with caution.

Voltron TeamThe show opens with the abduction of Shiro (a re-envisioned Sven) and his research team during first contact with the alien Galra Empire. A year later, Galaxy Garrison space cadets (in both rank and metaphor) Hunk, Pidge and Lance prove themselves a crew in need of cohesion.

But just as Pidge lets on that he knows more about the events of the universe than they’re being told, the trio go to investigate an incoming distress call. The emergency proves to be an escaped Shiro, who the Garrison is about to take into custody and quarantine. With the help of academy wash-out Keith, the five escape the garrison forces. And by combining their knowledge, they are eventually led to the hiding place of the blue lion who auto-pilots them to Planet Altea. There, a desperate Princess Allura and Coran instruct them in reassembling Voltron.

If this synopsis of the first episode sounds a little rushed, that’s because it is. The first is also the longest of the series; almost 70-minutes compared to the ten 23-minute episodes that follow. The pacing relies on the viewers wanting to cut to the meat of series rather than worry about minor details, like how Princess Allura happens to speak the same language as the earthling team. Or the Galrans too for that.

GalraBut it’s the following episodes when the show really begins to shine. Unlike the original series, the Voltron force doesn’t stick around to play some ridiculously prolonged defensive campaign. The Castle of Lions is actually a modified spaceship that is grounded, and the team embarks on a guerrilla campaign to free the galaxy from Galran control.

And this is no small task. In the opening episode(s), it is revealed that the Galran Empire is a huge sum of galactic space but has yet to come into regular contact with humanity. The showrunners actually treat the empire realistically too, with infrastructural concerns like refueling stations for their fleets, production and mining facilities— economic considerations light years ahead of what Defenders of the Universe ever pondered. The ten episodes barely scratched the surface and yet they’re off to a bang-up start.

But more than the “evil empire” trope, all of this is unexplored territory for a bunch of earthlings who have never been outside human-controlled space before. Although how they overcame language barriers isn’t explained, there is plenty of culture clash. Hunk learns what the Alteans consider food the hard way , Pidge questions their concept of time and there are many alien races out there to meet. And if culture is the “little stuff,” then there are bigger discoveries out there such as the colossal Balmera, which not only add to the depth of the universe but also serve as interesting story elements themselves.

HunkGoofiness seems to be the most defining characteristic of much of the cast. Compared to his Defender of the Universe bonhomme counterpart, Coran is almost over-the-top with ridiculousness. This is strange when mixed with his otherwise traditionalist views and position as the show’s lore-keeper. The rest of the team is prone to rib-poking too, particularly at the expensive of good-natured Hunk. There’s a few times when the humor risks being ill-placed, especially in the first episode. But the series tempers itself to know when to crack a smile and when to hold off.

But unlike the original series, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery proved willing to build on both the heroes and villains, and found subtle ways to indicate a willingness to lose them as well. For the pilots, the two biggest changes have been Pidge and Shiro. The latter was given a great backstory with forward-moving motivation, while the former slowly unravels the mysteries of what happened to him during his abduction. Lance and Keith primarily provide rivalry and personalities this season, while Hunk becomes more personally involved in one mission the team undertakes. Even Voltron itself gets more of a backstory.

Then there are the villains. Except for more litheness than the past, Space Witch Haggar is relatively untouched in role and menace. Her services to Emperor (a welcome promotion from “King”) Zarkon are the same; advising and creating new technologies and robeasts. For fear of spoilers, the changes to Zarkon himself will not be addressed. Still, these alterations exemplify the ethos of the show to rarely come out and say something. Rather, Voltron: Legendary Defender prefers to show the audience the pieces and allow the mystery to reveal itself on its own time in a rather organic manner.

But it’s Princess Allura who received the most revisions. The prior series cast her initially as something of a damsel-in-distress who eventually steps up to the plate to become a lion pilot. This time, she and Coran are in charge of the ship, and she takes a commander’s role to Shiro’s captaincy. She also reveals that Alteans are not space humans and, perhaps in the biggest piece of foreshadowing, suffers a personal loss halfway through the series.

Voltron GangThis loss was of a cornerstone element of Defender of the Universe. While not really a “death,” this event may subtly indicate that DreamWorks is willingly to write permanent changes to the course of the plot. As Sven (Shiro) was killed early in the original Japanese series, it is not impossible that other deaths may follow. Time will tell how much everyone’s favorite robot show has matured.

Whether you’re a fan of 80’s nostalgia, good anime or just something family friendly, check out Voltron: Legendary Defender before the start of the second season.

Entertainment in July

Stranger ThingsRejoice. This entry is spoiler free.

On Sunday I screamed at my friends, “You have to watch Stranger ThingsRight now!”

And they did. Alec added it to the to-watch list. Andrew binged it to completion on Friday while Manuel and his wife became so absorbed, he put down working a new cover for us to stream the entire first season.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, shame on yo— I mean, the show takes place in sleepy Hawkins, Indiana in November, 1983. A stormy night preludes the disappearance of young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), setting the entire town on edge. Mike, Lucas and Dustin (Finn Wolfhand, Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo respectively) break the town’s emergency curfew to search for their abducted friend, and happen across a strange girl (Millie Bobby Brown).

Meanwhile the missing boy’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) struggles to accept her boy’s loss while Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) slowly becomes a part of the mystery herself. Toss in a police sheriff (David Harbour) with a tragic past and a mix-match of elements from The X Files and you have a phenomenal homage to all the great things from the 80’s; E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third KindStarman and a whole slew of Stephen King’s best.

Speaking of the 80’s, I’ve finally figured out what is bugging me about Halt and Catch Fire. While the second season was generally good, the problem was that it spent too much time trying to wow us with “predictions of the future.” The first season focused on a single, great idea with the invention of the laptop, with hints of query-based operating systems. But the second season just went crazy with the fortunetelling; T1 cable lines, how chat rooms were the secret to America On-Line’s success, computer security, online gaming, time-sharing data processing, made-to-order custom built PCs and first-person shooters (aka Doom).

By the end of it, the audience is left with the impression that basically all the major growth in the computer industry was foreseen by just four people who all just happened to be in Texas. Halt and Catch Fire was green lit for a third season, but I’m not certain my inability to believe what I’m seeing is going to keep me glued to the screen. 

Admittedly, my reading has somewhat slowed because of a newfound love of podcasts. Or rather, that of Jason Weiser’s Myths and Legends. Podcasts solve my problem of not getting enough fresh, non or semi-fictional material, allowing me to work out or just walk to my job while absorb new tales. Unfortunately, sometimes the episodes run over the time it takes me to get to the metro. Since I’d rather wrap up the episode, this then cuts into my reading.

Watership DownBut I am closing in on the final chapters of Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s strange how folks gape in awe when tell them I haven’t partaken in reading it before. Like there’s no respect for there being hundreds of classic books to read, and to expect even a prolific reader to have covered them all is ridiculous.

A brief synopsis goes that two rabbits, Hazel and his brother Fiver, tire of life in their warren where they are not exactly high ranking. Upon a prophetic vision from Fiver, Hazel gathers a crew to try and split off from their home without the approval of their elders. Escaping with a dozen bucks, they travel into a hostile world, facing unusual dangers and troubles until settling at a place christened Watership Down. Acknowledging that they have no does to perpetuate their warren, Hazel and company attempt to rectify the situation. This runs afoul another, more militant warren whose glory-seeking leader brokers no dissension.

Watership Down isn’t exactly something you can spoil; if you try not to explain the plot, you’re not left with much to describe it with. But it’s not about the suspense of “what happens next” but rather the journey itself, complete with cunning and tricks and the lore of El-ahrairah, a mythological trickster hero and the closest thing to lapine-religion.

Finally in games this week, I downloaded Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Firmly understanding that it’s basically the tech-demo/prequel to The Phantom Pain, I’ve nevertheless invested time and effort mastering it, trying to earn the 100% completion rate before purchasing the main game. So far, I’m over 40%, so definitely doing alright.

Ground ZeroesMy record of playing the Metal Gear series is spotty. Peacewalker and MGS4 remain to be played. But I own Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty, the latter of which feels underrated as many fans did not like the main character being someone other than Snake himself.

And then my favorite, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

The game was strange as the third of any series is rarely the best and, as if not bizarre enough, it was also a prequel. And I’m not alone in this, as many polls suggest that the third installment was other gamers’ favorite as well. It was just… so unexpected. Initially I almost snubbed the game, but instead found my expectations totally reversed. I became less interested in getting MGS4, believing the emotional power of the third game simply couldn’t… and perhaps shouldn’t, be topped.

I’ve made few secrets before how Metal Gear has been quite the inspiration for some of my writing in the past. While the gameplay remains action and stealth based, the plots have frequently proven to have very few genre limits. The term “super hero” is never used, but several characters have abilities and skills that seem nigh-super powered. The rules of politics, military and science fiction are often bent and occasionally broken.

And while the thought of nuclear deterrence is a unsettling subject matter, some of the antagonists’ schemes have proven even more nefarious, such as the Patriot’s attempts to control culture itself by “info-cleansing” the internet. Given that all modern politics revolves around controlling the narrative, this actually scares me more than nuclear weaponry.

 

Journal, December 10th

Working on a few drafts for posting later this year, non-fiction research pieces of interest.

The first is an article clarifying who Marvel’s Moon Knight is, after I finish reading the first three Essential volumes on the protagonist (I’m roughly halfway.) This is coming in reaction to rumors that MK is getting his own television series courtesy of Netflix. Speaking of, I also started etching out a review of Jessica Jones first season. I have to admit that the further away Marvel gets from the original “core four,” the better their work generally becomes.

BaphometAnother article in the pipe is a research piece on real world magic and its history, including its secular and religious branches. I honestly cannot guess how large this piece may grow and it may be delayed all the way until March of next year, as I’ve been trying to do reading outside of Wikipedia to prepare.

Magic can quickly become a fringe subject because certain topics aren’t really magic per say, or even necessarily religious. After reading Robert Lake-Thom’s Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories and Ceremonies, valid questions can be raised as to whether certain views are more philosophical over theological– if not even protoscientific, as he encouraged observation of nature for clues, hints and warnings.

On the fictional writing front, the second novella for Outliers has been dusted off and is back on track at more than 50% complete. And new, original novel is in the planning stages and will be shopped around to literary agents. The words won’t hit the paper until later next year as I’d rather front-load my research to prevent extensive refactoring against later facts. Magic being one needed subject, as well as the histories of certain European countries.

With regard to input, I’ve finished watching the aforementioned Jessica Jones as well as the latest season of The Leftovers. I won’t be doing a review of the latter, but I will say that I sincerely hope HBO agrees to produce more to enjoy the third and final season that was just (and I mean just) announced. I’ve heard the number of viewers is down, but those who do watch have become cultists for the show and the critics who are applauding this season.

the Leftovers

On the reading front, I took a break from my non-fiction to totally absorb Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Despite the power of the first four stories, the themes drifted away from their horror origins to become pure Parisian romance pieces. The cultural importance of the work cannot be denied; aside from the first season of True Detective, there are many other references to the city of Carcosa in The King in Yellow, such as in A Song of Ice and Fire and many, many other forms. It’s quite possible that reading the opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations” maybe some kind of unspoken litmus test for genre authors.

I’m honestly not sure why I decided to keep going after the fourth or fifth tale, but I felt it necessary to finish it just to ensure there wasn’t something I was missing. Other than Chambers’ love for all things French, it seems I did not. With this classic piece under my belt, I’ve decided to read Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger.

I may also take advantage of the holiday season to go ahead and wrap up several Oscar winning movies from years back. Recently I sat down to watch the rather long Once Upon a Time in the West and still need to sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odysseus. Older movies can be a little tiring because of Hollywood’s tendency to remake them. Thus the ideas are often already familiar and, sometimes, are even better than the original such as Al Pacino’s Scarface over its 1930s forefather.

Daredevil and Such

MARVEL'S DAREDEVIL

Yes. I’ve joined them. The ranks of those peculiar tele-vegetarians…

I cut cable.

And I don’t mean I’ve taken Rob Lowe’s now off-the-air advice and gotten Direct TV. I mean my television is now provided by Netflix, Hulu and, to a lesser extent, Amazon Prime. I’m not saying it’s been a perfect transition. I find myself aching to catch the final season of Mad Men, paying to see the very last three episodes of The Americans and reconsidering my choice for when Halt and Catch Fire returns.

The only guys who really monopolize their material is HBO, and even that’s primarily because of Game of Thrones. True Detective might join that list of too-good-to-give-away TV, but its anthological nature can make each season independently hit or miss. It’s going to take some serious work for Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn to pull together something of the caliber of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

I’m not saying they can’t, but nihilist Rust Cohle has some very big shoes to fill as a complex and deep character. I actually look more forward to True Detective than Game of Thrones, in that with the latter I’ll always have the books. The former? Well, there’s plenty of pulp detective fiction out there, but there’s still nothing quite like it.

Oh yes. And then there’s House of Cards season 3. I got delayed in finishing it by a few weeks, and part of me knew that something was strange when the internet wasn’t quite as abuzz about it. Without spoilers, the season just wasn’t as popping as the previous two. Maybe it was because Frank Underwood’s new position as the president put him on the defensive more, and limited the scope of what he can accomplish for himself. I was delighted that a certain character makes a return, and he adds dimension and intrigue of his own. But Frank seems to be missing his bite, and when he tries to reclaim it, circumstances go badly. The ending was somehow lackluster too. I’m sure things will improve next season but we will see.

daredevil-posterWhich brings us to the jewel of the day. Marvel’s Daredevil. Relax. I have no spoilers to give away as I’m only four episodes into it. While I’ve seen enough to raise some talking points, the 13 almost-hour installments are a lot to absorb all at once. And to my surprise (and delight), they were considerably more dark than anything I’ve seen Marvel try on the screen. But be forewarned: Someone once said that although the series is darker, it is still supposed to be family friendly.

Whoever said that lied.

Daredevil has moments of gore, a little cussing, and more strongly eludes to sex. If themes were best described in colors, then Batman: The Animated Series is black and light grey, and Dexter is red. Daredevil as a series tends to blend those colors, but also lacks Dexter Morgan’s deadpan narration to lighten the mood and Batman’s resources. In fact, Batman is an interesting comparison in that topically he and Daredevil sound similar (orphans, willingly choose to fight crime, secret identities) but in every detail the two heroes are so unrelated.

If there’s one truth about superheroes that Marvel has acknowledged very well, it’s that they are not going to always be on the same page in terms of power. A God of Thunder or a billionaire in a flying armored suit are going to handle a very different set of worldly problems. Daredevil, aka Matt Murdock, isn’t on their level. In combat, his powers are useful much more conditionally useful. Murdock struggles with street soldiers, and doesn’t always come out on top of his fights. However, Daredevil’s heightened senses make for greater story telling due to the application of his gifts for investigation. And that’s the true strength of Daredevil as a television series over yet another summer blockbuster.

I have to admire a few things about Daredevil as a character. Matt Murdock, curiously enough, is religious. Roman Catholic. It’s a strong trait of his that sets him apart from almost all the other characters in the Marvel universe. He doesn’t seem to go full The Boondock Saints on us, but it sets strong tones that make him unique. He’s also blind, which effects how people treat and react to him. And at least in the original comics, his disability was an interesting, pitying element that strongly influenced his relationships, particularly with his secretary Karen Paige.

There are two factors that bug me. Again, I’m only four episodes into the series, and I get that this is a kind of slow roast, fragmented origin story so there are still things Murdock is trying to figure out. Daredevil has a hard ass attitude to criminals, I understand. But there is truly a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to the risk he poses on their lives. In the comics, the Punisher eventually challenges his morality, and the results don’t paint a clear picture. Batman has rules, and these rules made for an incredible movie. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be a set detail for Daredevil, or if it’s an issue that Murdock is going wrestle with himself over. Scenes suggest that it is, but we’ll see.

The other problem I have is proportion. The directors could seriously cut 60 seconds of action and instead use that minute to let the emotions of some moments sink in a little bit, and the show would be perfect. Most of the series’ violence occurs via fistfights that take a while, and seem to go over some allotment of time of being interesting. It’s Marvel, so there is an expectation of pulpy violence. But a good fight on television should reveal something or change the story in some regard.

There’s quite a bit more I could discuss, particularly Vincent D’Onofrio’s incredible performance as the Kingpin. But I think it’s all something to return to later once I’ve finished the series.

The State of Television (Part I)

Before you read this, I suggest putting on The Heavy’s “Short Change Hero” as recommended listening.

Tonight is the premiere of the third season of The Americans, an amazing show about the espionage fought on U.S. soil during the Cold War. A recap of the last two seasons will be available at the bottom of this blog post if anyone is afraid of spoilers. But in the mean time, here are some shows that you should be watching.

Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23

donttrustthebI was told that ABC has a tendency to cancel genius shows all the time, and Nahnatchka Khan’s creation was unfortunately on that list after just two seasons. Despite this, its 26 episodes are comic gold.

Krysten Ritter of Breaking Bad fame plays the title-suggested Chloe (who is somewhat reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly), while Dreama Walker is June, the more angelic of the two. Toss in a plucky/perverted neighbor, Eric André as the boy next door and at work, and James Van Der Beek as… James, Van Der Beek and his assistant Luther (Ray Ford), and you got yourself great combinations of comedy material.

There’s a couple of a great points to mention about Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. First, events mattered. Something that happens, even from a comedy standpoint, would be mentioned or have an impact in future episodes. The characters grow, but never so far as to totally lose sight of the show’s premise.

Second, they almost never used running gags outside an episode. They were constantly coming up with snappy dialogue and great material that never got recycled or reused. In fact, I would say the most stand out character with the best lines came from Ray Ford, especially towards the end of the series run.

The first season is primarily spent with June trying to make rent while building a life in New York, against Chloe’s many scams and cons. In the second, June finally lands the business job she dreamed about in the private sector, while Chloe actually starts to learn about how to actually care about people, reluctantly of course. As the show came to an end, it was hinted that the third season may have focused on James Van Der Beek’s hunt to find his biological father, an element that was addressed in the last episode but not quite resolved.

In the show’s short life, you could tell that creator Khan had a knack for carefully evolving her characters without totally destroying the core premise. We’ll never know if this trend would have continued, but the approach left us with two great seasons as opposed to five to ten seasons that started great and began to decline, much like How I Met Your Mother. So if you’re looking for great laughs without a huge commitment of time, check out Don’t Trust the B on Netflix.

The League

the leagueFX’s series about a group of friends who run a fantasy football team will be coming to an end with season 7 this fall. For those who would be leery of sports comedy, the fantasy football elements are in the background, never something that overtakes the comic value of the show. Unlike Don’t Trust the B however, the show’s accumulation of running gags could fill a museum, making it somewhat difficult for the uninitiated to dive into the later seasons.

But The League is not short of acting talent by any stretch. Nick Kroll plays Ruxin, a Jewish lawyer with an uncontrollable sense of sarcasm. Mark Duplass is the smooth operator Pete. Katie Aselton plays Jenny, who is married to Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi), the league’s overly nervous commissioner and all around terrible drafter. Paul Scheer is Andre, the persistently teased chum whose success as a plastic surgeon barely makes up for his shortcomings in clothing tastes and clinginess. Jon LaJoie plays Taco… yes, that’s his name, the perpetually stoned musician and capitalist always founding a new, crazy business venture. Finally, Jason Mantzoukas plays Rafi, a hilarious sleazebag introduced as Ruxin’s brother-in-law in season 2.

There are considerable differences between how the first three seasons were executed verses the next two (I’ve seen all of season 5, and am waiting for the 6th on Netflix). The early episodes tended to have a more Seinfeld quality to them, where the jokes somehow folded into plot and contained a goes-around-comes-around quality to them. Taco also used to provide one musical piece per season that is… simply unforgettable and lyrically brilliant. You can check out one sample here, but be aware that it’s NSFW.

Seasons four and five have suffered somewhat though. While the opening and closing episodes are great, the middle of the these seasons have dried a little, with stories that don’t seem to pan out as one might hope. While incidents threaten the characters with change or growth, the circumstances often fold back on themselves and return them right where they started. On the plus side, Ruxin and Taco’s need to end each finale with incredible fanfare is a laugh fest that condones any weaknesses.

It is decided. Check out The League for great, easy laughs.

The Americans

The_Americans,_season_3So originally I was going to mention a few more shows in this blog post, such as Sherlock, Homeland and The Venture Bros, but I think I’ll save those for another time. Perhaps as part of another recap before the release of House of Cards season 3 on February 27th. I’ll flash a spoiler warning below so those who haven’t seen it know when to stop reading.

The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings. To the outside, they are a loving married couple with two teenage children and a travel agency business. But to Moscow, they are assets in the game of espionage, trying their best to steal technologies and brilliant minds from the Reagan administration. The show constantly dips into history, covering the shock waves behind the scenes of the assassination attempt against Reagan, and the ARPANET, which would one day become the internet.

The drama for the Jennings is unlimited, as their assignments vary from cultivating potential intelligence sources, to tracking and stalking to occasional high risk kidnappings. As if it wasn’t enough, their children Paige and Henry (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati) have begun to suspect something about their parents, while their neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is an FBI agent who inadvertently has been investigating them.

Spoilers to follow if you haven’t seen the last two seasons. If you haven’t seen the previous seasons, get going!

The first season was primarily a base building approach, meant to establish understanding of what and how the Jennings operate and the dynamic of their relationship. It also set the stage for Stan, who created a counter intelligence resource of his own within the Russian embassy by blackmailing Nina (Annet Mahendru). The situation eventually built itself into a circle where Stan nearly ended up capturing his own neighbors, but also shifted Nina’s loyalties there and back again after Stan killed a friend of hers from the embassy.

While the first season was very good, the second season was even better. The Jennings find themselves caught up investigating a murder that happened against another agent family, the Connors, all while pursuing a new stealth project the Americans are working. While Henry has a few acts of rebellion, it’s ultimately Paige who lashes out, wanting to join a church and growing increasingly suspicious of her parents. Nina works with the Russian embassy to turn Stan, but Moscow will either see Nina succeed, or have her punished for her earlier betrayal.

And the resolutions are chilling. An ultimatum is delivered to Stan to save Nina’s life, but Stan cannot bring himself to forsake his country. Thus, Nina is sent back to Russia for probable (though not confirmed) execution. The Jennings efforts were in vain as the stealth project was nothing more than an elaborate counter espionage operation. And if Paige’s concerns about her parents aren’t bad enough, it turns out that the murder of the Connors isn’t without comparison: The family had been executed by their son, Jared (Owen Campbell), who was being groomed as a homegrown spy for the KGB.

In the final episode, the Jenning’s handler Claudia (Margo Martindale) delivers an order and not a request. The Jennings are to begin preparing their children to become second-generation KGB agents. Because they are born in the United States, they would be eligible for secret clearance positions. The situation immediately begins to divide Phillip and Elizabeth at home as Elizabeth is unimpressed with American culture while Phillip, guilty from killing so many individuals, doesn’t want this life for his children.

The Americans airs tonight at 10 pm EST on FX.