Half a season is not often enough to determine whether a heavily-serialized show is worthwhile or not, but in the case of Westworld, it’s even less telling. At the very least, HBO’s latest foray into “genre” television is intriguing, placing its moral quandaries front and center and trusting audiences to put its narrative pieces together. There are loads of elements to break down and discuss, and the myriad of puzzles and mysterious references should be enough to make the show a watercooler favorite for the remainder of the season. What is a little less clear is how emotionally engaging the series can be, an important factor in the success of mega-hit Game of Thrones.
First things first: Westworld deftly presents its themes by placing them in recognizable contexts. Westworld itself is a Western-themed amusement park for the extremely wealthy, with a cast of highly-realistic robots, or “hosts” who act out storylines and engage with the guests, or “newcomers.” While nothing like this exists in the real world, the general make-up of the park is very similar to that of an open-world video game. “Hosts” are what are known in the gaming industry as “NPCs” (or Non-Player Characters), and “newcomers” are the players themselves.
Continue reading Westworld Episodes 1-5 Review
(Full disclosure: I work for E! News, a subsidiary of NBC Universal, which produces and airs The Good Place. This review is entirely my own opinion, and is not in any way reflective of NBC Universal. I do not believe that my opinion was swayed by my employment, and I have written plenty of pieces that are critical of NBC Universal content, but if you want to take my review with a grain of salt, feel free!)
It doesn’t take much to sell me on a Michael Schur series. After spending a few years writing for The Office, Schur moved on to create Parks and Recreation, a modern classic, and Brooklyn 9-9, one of the most consistently funny sitcoms currently running. So even without the presence of the terrific Kristen Bell and sitcom legend Ted Danson, or the directorial hand of the great Drew Goddard, or guidance from television auteur Damon Lindelof, The Good Place was worth my time and attention. Considering that it ALSO involves all of the above, The Good Place was at the top of my “new shows to watch” list.
Even outside of its pedigree, The Good Place deserves recognition for trying something different. Schur has shown that even when he falls back on the formats and character-types with which he’s familiar, as he did with Brooklyn 9-9, his output is levels above most of his contemporaries. But The Good Place takes on bold ideas and touchy subjects, tackling them in the form of a serialized half-hour comedy on network television. That’s not just rare, it flat-out doesn’t exist in modern television.
Continue reading The Good Place Review: Episodes 1-4
(This article contains spoilers from the first season of Vice Principals. If you want to avoid them just know that this series comes highly recommended)
One of my favorite things about Jody Hill’s Eastbound and Down is the way that each season is structured like a movie. Moreso than most serialized series, these season arcs are designed with a real beginning, middle, and end, and the characters go through significant arcs from start to finish. Vice Principals follows a similar model, making it a difficult show to judge after just a few episodes.
I was not a fan of the Vice Principals pilot. The characters it presented seemed one-dimensional and plot points flew in and out too quickly to pique my interest. Danny McBride and Walton Goggins seemed to be portraying similar characters to what they had done on the past, and the show felt like it was coasting. But I stuck with it on the strengths of Eastbound and Down, which grew by leaps and bounds over its initial season. I’m pleased to report that this was the right decision.
Continue reading Vice Principals Season 1 Review
The real strengths of HBO’s The Night Of are placed right front and center in the first episode. The hour chronicles the titular night, and we sit with future-murder-suspect Nazir Khan as his journey out to a party goes from ethereal to tragic. This episode is impeccably directed, with gradual shifts in tone emphasized by the color pallette and a softened depth of field. Director Steven Zaillian does a terrific job of drawing our attention to the little details that seem small in the moment, but will be significant down the road.
The decision to begin a criminal procedural mini-series with an episode that features practically no procedural elements is a real stroke of brilliance, and it colors our perspective of the whole show moving forward. We trust that Nazir is innocent not only because we know that his account of the night is truthful, but because he is our initial eyes and ears into the world. We have no reason to doubt him, since his perspective is our reality. Meanwhile, introducing some of the key points of contention in the first episode makes the procedural elements even more engaging. We have a real point of reference from watching the events unfold on our own.
Continue reading The Night Of Review
Of all of the Netflix Original Series so far, Stranger Things feels like the most attuned to the binge-watching model. Despite their serialized natures, series like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards are still relatively episodic, giving each hour some semblance of its own story. Stranger Things, though, feels like an 8 hour movie. The episodes give the viewer decent stopping points, but there’s never any suggestion that the show is meant to be consumed one episode at a time. The show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, mean to hook you at the start and keep you attached until the very end.
They’re quite successful, too. It’s true that Stranger Things borrows from a whole host of 80s movies, especially those written and directed by Stephen King and Steven Spielberg: ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, It, The Goonies, The Shining, and more. The influence of other filmmakers can be felt as well; the teenage storyline feels like a direct engagement with the work of John Hughes, and the creature designs are inspired by the work of John Carpenter (this connection is even directly acknowledged when a couple characters are watching The Thing on TV). But just making a series of nostalgic references doesn’t make for good TV. The most impressive aspect of Stranger Things is how engaging its individual storylines are and how perfectly it weaves them together in its later chapters.
Continue reading Stranger Things Season 1 Review