HBO Max’s Harley Quinn: Seasons 1 & 2 – A Few Thoughts

I subscribed to HBO Max because I am DC Comics for life and I could not resist the Zack Snyder Justice League Director’s Cut. 

Okay. There, I said it.

However, there have been some very welcome surprises since subscribing to HBO Max, and Harley Quinn is very much among them.

Let me explain. DC Comics launched a streaming service about two years ago featuring original show content such as Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol, Titans, and Harley Quinn. I heard rumors that, with the advent of HBO Max, the DC streaming service might get absorbed, at least in terms of shows. To my great advantage, that is happening even as we speak. 

Harley Quinn never struck me as a must-watch, but I’d heard good things about it, and so when it popped up on the HBO Max “just added” page, I gave it a shot.

I instantly loved it.

At just about 23 minutes apiece, this animated comedy regularly made me laugh out loud as I powered through the first two seasons. The show is cartoonishly bloody and relentlessly profane, but it is absolutely hilarious.

It features Harley Quinn played by Kaley Cuoco, Poison Ivy played by Lake Bell, Batman played by Diedrich Bader, Clayface played by Alan Tudyk, King Shark played by Ron Funches, Dr. Psycho played by Tony Hale, and Commissioner Gordon played by Christopher Meloni.

You’ve also got substantial voice appearances by J.B. Smoove, Jim Rash, Jason Alexander, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Ironside, Wanda Sykes, Rachel Dratch, Wayne Knight, Will Sasso, and Alfred Molina. These are NAMES, people!

However, I’m not sure how funny this show is to anyone not deeply steeped in nerd culture. There are a ton of inside comic book jokes, parodies, and satires squarely aimed at the last eighty or so years of DC Comics.

Furthermore, they make everyone hilarious. Clayface makes me roar every time he talks, Bane is comedy gold, and King Shark is adorable. Kite Man has become the most sympathetic character going, and Poison Ivy is cooler than anyone ever imagined possible, and also bitingly funny. Don’t even get me started on Commissioner Gordon. 

Harley Quinn is such a fresh take on these characters and so unusual that you have to watch it for the novelty alone. For anyone who says DC is too dark, I dare you to feel the same way after watching Harley Quinn. (Just don’t pay attention to the blood, the maiming, and the general anarchy.)

Best of all? HBO Max just announced that Harley Quinn: Season 3 is coming exclusively to HBO Max.

If you have HBO Max, I highly recommend that you give Harley Quinn a try.

Netflix’s Unorthodox – A Few Thoughts

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Have you heard of Netflix’s Unorthodox? I hand’t, either. One of my wife’s friends recommended it to her. Even though it didn’t look like my thing at all, I decided to give it a try with her.

Let me tell you, this show is captivating.

At just four episodes averaging about fifty minutes apiece, Unorthodox is not a huge time investment, and it helps that each episode flies by.

The story focuses upon a young woman living in an ultra-conservative Hasidic community in New York. After a year of repressed marriage, she flees to Germany. However, her community is not willing to let her go freely, and they pursue her across the world.

Based on a true story, Unorthodox is brilliant due to the incredible acting, costumes, props, and editing. Of course, its main achievement is that it offers a glimpse into something I really haven’t seen depicted on screen much–ultra-conservative Hasidic Jews. It was like entering another world.

Unorthodox bounces around in time quite a bit, and at just the right moments. This kind of editing keeps the viewer enthralled as the story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion. There are plenty of surprises, and more thrills than I ever would have guessed.

My only complaint is that while in Germany, our main character befriends a group of students that are just a touch too perfect. Each one fits a certain demographic, which results in them feeling very forced upon the viewer. Don’t get me wrong, I liked them all, but I knew they were fashioned for me to like them.

I absolutely recommend Unorthodox no matter what your taste. It will grab your interest and hold onto it until the very last second.

Picard – A Few Thoughts

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While I admit that I am first and foremost a Star Wars guy, I would be lying if I said I didn’t love Star Trek: The Next Generation. I remember watching quite a bit of TNG while in high school late at night when there was nothing else on. All of the characters were great, but no one can deny that Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard is what made that show so accessible to the mainstream audience.

When I heard that Patrick Stewart planned to return to the character in a new series written by my favorite author, Michael Chabon, I got very, very excited. But, then I read that the series would be exclusive to the streaming service called CBS All Access. Because this was not a free service, and because I’m already paying for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+, I refused to spend money on yet another service basically just for one show.

However, last week something wonderful happened. CBS All Access offered a free 30 day trial. 30 days? Even I could get a ten episode series watched in 30 days! I signed up immediately through an Amazon Prime Video/CBS All Access channel.

Last night I finished Picard, and, in my opinion … it wasn’t great.

This could be a case of me just not being Trekkie enough, but I found most of the episodes slow, uneventful, and full of far too much exposition.

Granted, our primary actor is currently 79 years old, so he’s not going to be quite as active as he once was, but that’s no excuse for the show using all of the other actors to explain things, talk about what happened in the past, and describe scientific processes. There’s an old writing adage: “show, don’t tell.” In a visual medium, you would expect this to be especially true. Picard is a lot of characters standing around talking to each other.

However, there are many, many positives. The special effects are incredible–this is Star Trek in all its glory. There are also many satisfying cameos for Star Trek fans of all stripes. The acting, overall, is very well done, too. The plot is thoughtful, complex, and could have been captivating if the creators had bad been more successful with the pacing per episode. Finally, the tenth episode was mesmerizing because it was fast and full of action, utilized interesting battles, executed quick dialogue, and simply had a certain “attitude” that the other episodes lacked. And, of course, Patrick Steward is legendary. Even at 79, he is a force to be reckoned with–his vigor at such an age is astonishing.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I recommend Picard to the casual fan. It simply moved at too slow of a pace to keep my attention attention.

 

The Mandalorian – A Few Thoughts

This is probably my favorite show of all time, so there is no excuse for just now writing about it months after it debuted.

By the way, yes, I’m a Star Wars fanatic. And, no, I’m not capable of being objective when it comes to Star Wars.

However, even with that being said, this is still a phenomenal show for the following reasons.

First of all–it’s got heart. You can tell that the creators of this show wanted it to be great. It looks great. The acting is great. The costumes are great. The story is great. The action is great. They are trying very, very hard to make a great experience for the viewer, and it shows in every way.

Secondly–they nailed the characters. The Mandalorian himself is incredible. We virtually never see his face, yet we care about him. We care about his beliefs, his motives, and his well-being. Obviously, a young character appears that depends on The Mandalorian for safety, and this is partially why we care so much about The Mandalorian himself. A bond forms between this other character and The Mandalorian, almost like that of a father and child, which causes us to see The Mandalorian in a completely different light. This child, by the way, is the element that will capture the hearts of even those who don’t count themselves among the Star Wars faithful. I know this because I saw it happen on several different occasions with people who couldn’t care less about Star Wars or science fiction in general.

Thirdly–this feels like a Star Wars story. Sure, you can absolutely watch it without knowing anything. It stands on its own as a self-contained series. However, if you know Star Wars, it feels like it belongs to the original trilogy from the Seventies and Eighties–it’s got that kind of magic.

Finally–if you are among the enlightened and enjoy Star Wars in all its forms, you will revel in the tiny references, the brief cameos, and the clever in-jokes.

Whether you’re a Star Wars fan or not, this series appeals to everyone. As we’re all stuck at home due to the outbreak, I would put this at the top of your “must-watch” list.

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Amazon’s The Boys – A Few Thoughts

I’ve been meaning to write about this crazy show for a long, long time because I actually watched it last summer. However, it says something that even after all of these months, it still stands out as one of the best series I’ve seen in quite a while.

Based on a comic book, The Boys is about a group of normal men who have decided to take revenge against a team of super heroes. However, these super heroes are anything but altruistic. In fact, most of them are scarier than any villain you could imagine.

Super hero stories are no longer unique on the screen, but The Boys is absolutely original in that there are no “good guys” in this story–not really. Everyone is selfish, or brutal, or willingly ignorant, or–worst of all–apathetic. And while that certainly sounds like a bummer, the show manages to infuse a grotesque sense of humor. Despite all of its savagery, The Boys is a captivating watch.

In fact, Amazon Studios seemed to spare no expense with The Boys. The special effects are top-notch, the actors–especially Karl Urban–are excellent, the story is very well conceived and executed, and the characters never fail to surprise you.

However, as good as Karl Urban is, it’s Antony Starr who steals the show. He plays Homelander, a twisted amalgam of Superman and Captain America. I’ve never heard of Antony Starr before The Boys, but his Homelander absolutely terrified me. Every time that character appeared on screen, I got nervous. You’ll have to watch the show to see what I’m talking about.

Yes, The Boys subverts the genre in a way that feels fresh, but it’s the wicked humor, the interesting characters, and the relentlessly violent story that won’t let you look away. Even after all these months, I’m still thinking about it. Season Two is on the way, so now would be a great time to catch up.

Be warned, though, this is not a show for children. The violence is shocking. Believe it or not, they actually had to tone the show down. Supposedly the comic book is even more hardcore.

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Carnival Row – A Review

Carnival Row is a series now available to stream on Amazon. It’s a fascinating concept that, for the most part, kept me totally enthralled.

The idea is that a major city known as the Burgue has taken in war refugees from ravaged lands that are home to such fanciful creatures as fairies, centaurs, and fauns. However, the humans in the Burgue don’t accept these creatures in need and will only tolerate them as servants, laborers, or prostitutes. Furthermore, they must know their place and live on Carnival Row, away from civilized society.

Sensing a real-world correlation?

Orlando Bloom plays a police investigator trying to solve a series of grisly murders. Cara Delevinge plays a fairy newly arrived in the Burgue. Their paths cross, and we soon learn that they have a complicated past with one another.

Carnival Row explores their mutual history, but it also ventures deeply into political intrigue, social justice, interpersonal complexities, and, at its heart, the mysterious murders.

The show looks beautiful. Each episode feels like a miniature movie, and the site of fauns and fairies mixed in with humans did not strike me as jarring at all. In fact, for the most part, the practical effects and make-up are seamless. There are moments of CGI that I would say look very good overall–much like you would see in a film. However, when the CGI is bad, it’s very bad. For example, I don’t think they ever really depicted the fairies in flight all that well.

Everything in the Burgue is grimy, time-worn, and appears to have existed for centuries. In other words, this world feels fully realized. Perhaps too realized, in fact. There are small, passing comments that makes the viewer understand that this world has so much more to offer than just what is being shown. This is brilliant in regards to guaranteeing the show’s longevity, but frustrating to those of us who want to know everything about the world this very instant.

For example, they have churches and effigies devoted to “The Martyr.” This is a figure who looks an awfully lot like Jesus Christ. However, instead of hanging from a cross, The Martyr is depicted as being hung by the neck with his hands bound. This religious icon is not explained at all. It’s just there to whet our appetite for more story.

As you can see, with Carnival Row, you are quite literally coming in right in the middle of things, and you can’t trust your own conception of reality to inform your interpretation of this world.

Shall we talk about the acting? Orlando Bloom is wonderful. Truthfully, I’m not sure I’ve ever liked him as much as I do in Carnival Row. His character is the strong, silent type, yet Bloom conveys quite a bit of emotion through his eyes. I found myself very much invested in his surprisingly complicated backstory.

Cara Delevinge, unfortunately, did not quite win me over so handily. Starring opposite Bloom, Delevinge plays her character rather flatly. I did not connect with her whatsoever. To be fair, I found her character underwritten. Her character is certainly strong and capable, but just not that interesting. We’ll see if that changes over time.

Thankfully, many of the supporting actors are fantastic. Tamzin Merchant’s initially unlikable Imogen is quite an evolution to behold. David Gyasi simmers with restraint yet steals every scene even as he has horns glued to his head.  Karla Crome’s charisma leaps off the screen what few scenes she’s in. Honestly, I could go on and on. These may not be famous names, but these are extremely talented actors.

Be warned, Carnival Row is  little bit of a slow burn. I particularly groaned at a bad special effect in the first ten minutes and almost turned it off, but it got better and better and better with each episode. In all seriousness, the final episode had me on the edge of my seat.

Interestingly enough, Carnival Row also seems to be saying something. Though it takes place in an gritty, alternate reality, I think you’ll find many of its themes both timely and resonant.

As you can probably tell, I recommend you give Carnival Row a try.  Let me know what you think of it.

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Titans: The Complete First Season – A Review

Have you heard that DC Comics started its own streaming service with original content? It’s true. Their debut show, Titans, has concluded its first season and is now available on DVD and BluRay. (Special thanks to the Normal Public Library for purchasing it after my request to do so.)

I have to tell you, I felt very excited to see this series. I had no idea what the quality of the story would be, the ability of the actors, or the caliber of the production due to the infancy of DC Universe.com. I’ve got good news. Generally speaking, I give Titans high marks for all three.

Before I explore these aspects, though, I want to make it clear that this version of Titans is not for children. Yes, it has Robin, Beast Boy, Raven, and Starfire, but these are not the iterations of the cartoon series. This is a violent depiction laden with profane language.

With that being said, though the series is very uneven, I enjoyed it. I say it’s uneven because sometimes it’s a horror show, sometimes it’s an action show, sometime’s it’s a science fiction show, and sometimes it’s a drama. It never quite figured out how to be all of those things at once.

However, the production value is very high. I couldn’t believe just how good everything looked. The only moment in the eleven shows that looked “fake” was whenever Beast Boy became a tiger. They tried their best with the CGI tiger, but it never quite looked right. Otherwise, it all looked great. Robin’s costume, Starfire’s powers, the sets, the locations, the stunt work–it all impressed.

I thought the overall story had some issues as well. For the most part, it totally engaged me. Unfortunately, near the end of the season, Raven’s father and mother become a focal point and the show lost a bit of steam there. Up until that point, though, I thought the show made a lot of really smart choices with how it slowly revealed details about each character. There are major differences between what we know about the Titans and what this show chooses to do with them, but their essence essentially remains true to their source material.

For me, the standout story line actually centered on Hawk and Dove. I found them to be the most capable actors with the most captivating arc. I also liked them the best, which is ironic because I’ve always found Hawk and Dove to be uninteresting during my forty years of comic book reading.

I also thought Anna Diop was incredibly charismatic. I won’t argue against the fact that they deviate from established Starfire lore quite a bit, but I feel they really made this character work perfectly for the show’s general tone. Another standout includes Curran Walters, who plays Jason Todd, the second Robin. Walters’ accurately captures Todd’s cockiness and charisma, his spirit and darkness. I loved it when Dick Grayson and Jason Todd shared the scene together, and I love that Titans was brave enough to go that deeply into the Batman canon.

There were two things that did not work for me at all, though. The first is the decision they made regarding Raven’s father. If you know the character at all, you understand that he is the demon Trigon. Trigon is a giant, red, muscular, multi-eyed monster. Titans took the easy way out with him, and it totally deflated the series’ ending as a result. Furthermore, though Batman’s shadow hung over the entire season, the final episode really made it all about Batman. I thought this was a serious misstep after having worked so hard to establish Dick Grayson as a fully realized character disconnected from Batman. Everyone and everything took a backseat to Batman in what should have been an episode that pulled out all the stops for the main players. We can’t be expected to take these characters seriously if the show itself would rather be focusing on Batman.

Nonetheless, I had a great time with Titans. It is extremely violent, bloody, and profane, but it’s also brave, bold, and stylish. I’ve already seen some teasers for season two and I’m very excited. It appears that Superboy, Aqualad, Ravager, and Jericho will be appearing as well. If Titans can simply settle on a consistent tone, it’s got everything it needs to be a hit.

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