The Shadow of the Tower s01e08 – The Princely Gift

I can’t say if this episode, The Princely Gift, is better than the previous episode, which was the comedy. Gift is about a Venetian navigator, played by Londoner Derek Smith with an accent you’d think was a little strong even in 1972. He’s working with these three businessmen from Bristol who want to do an exploration themselves, not for science and knowledge, but for profit. Smith is along for the ride, because he doesn’t have the experience to get support in Venice. He’s a novice navigator.

So maybe a third of the episode is Smith’s life in England, with his wife (Katharine Blake) and sons in tow. Blake wants to go back to Venice, especially if it means Smith doesn’t get to go on his voyage. She worries about him. Blake and Smith’s marriage chemistry is so good it gets past him being British and her being South African. In 1972. Ew. But they’re both amazing. Blake’s performance is (unfortunately since we’re on episode eight) easily the female performance on the show so far and maybe even the best performance overall. She’s really, really good.

Another third involves the Bristol businessmen, which is done for humor. They’re bumbling Brits. Blake mocks them openly. It’s funny. That comedy feel again, with an entirely different subject, cast, director, and writers. “Shadow of the Tower,” in two episodes, has completely refined its potential. This episode also involves light. Fake light, sure, but light. Light gives the show a rather inviting feel. Very good direction from Keith Williams. Particularly excellent use of music too, possibly by Herbert Chappell (who’s the only credited composer and for the title music).

The last third (and basically the last third of the episode too) involves King James Maxwell and Derek once the petition for a voyage gets all the way up the ladder. You’ve got this earthy, passionate Venetian and this British monarch who might be in tights and definitely has a stick up his ass, but they’re both excited about the world and about knowledge. It’s awesome. If history was actually two percent as cool as the scene, it’d be a good historical moment.

“Shadow of the Tower” really has gotten extraordinarily good all of a sudden. Because it’s still expository—it’s still basically just a history lesson—just an elegantly, artfully executed one.

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Becker s01e10 – P.C. World

There are some weird optics to P.C. World. You’ve got Ted Danson, who just six years earlier burned out due to a really bad public blackface incident and is coming back with this “Becker” show, reformed. Now, Danson’s gone on to be one of the least problematic Hollywood liberals and a damn fine actor, but in 1999… Danson getting to aha an East Coast liberal type (Robert Joy) on the radio? It was optics.

See, Joy was at Danson’s breakfast place and heard Danson yelling about how he hates rap music, making fun of Alex Désert’s blindness and possibly through in a Black jab (related to the rap music?), and saying “you people” to the Asian American guy (Phil Nee) who has just hit Danson’s bar. Now, we all know it’s okay because Danson’s not racist, he’s just an exceptional asshole. It would probably would better if writer Michael Markowitz’s rants were better or Jeff Melman’s direction was better. Markowitz also appears as the radio show host interviewing Danson and Joy. He’s more fun as an actor.

Then there’s this whole subplot about Hattie Winston being okay with Shawnee Smith selling cosmetics from the doctor’s office because Smith’s got the skin care secrets now. I’d think there’d be some kind of ethical violation, patients rights or something, especially since Smith’s doing it in one of those direct selling pyramid schemes. The subplot gives Smith one of her biggest focuses in the series so far, but it’s not a good subplot. It’s not a good focus. She’s fine, but she’s just being silly—as she becomes the make-up “dealer”—not funny or even good. It’s a waste of a subplot. Versus the waste of a main plot.

“Becker” had shown some major improvements the previous couple of episodes, but this episode learned none of their positive lessons. The misanthropy vs. bigotry thing ends up being a cop out, which is weird since the best scene in the episode is when Black man Earl Billings stops going to doctor Danson because of Danson’s bravado.

It’s like someone said, hey, maybe let’s take this seriously. And then someone else said, no, let’s have Danson stick it to the performative liberal.

Zing.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e07 – A Fly in the Ointment

“In the Shadow of the Tower” has been getting really good, but it hasn’t done anything like A Fly in the Ointment in the ointment before. When I grokked the format—different directors, different writers, maybe not everything from King James Maxwell’s perspective (though tellingly zilch so far from Queen Norma West’s perspective), I was kind of hopeful, kind of apprehensive. The show’s from 1972; it’s had almost fifty years to get discovered and rediscovered and I’d never heard of it.

Because Ointment delivers on all the potential of the concept, more than I’d ever imagined; Ointment is a comedy episode. It makes fun of British people, it makes fun of them being pompous and ignorant, it makes fun of them so stuck-up compared to Europeans, it makes fun of them being lazy rich. It’s freaking awesome. And it’s got the Major from “Fawlty Towers” (Ballard Berkeley) playing… a fifteenth century version of the Major. It’s awesome.

And it’s a lot more open than the show’s ever been before. They’re not in dreary England, the episode takes place in Rome and other sunny places. Moira Armstrong’s direction is fantastic. Julian Mitchell’s script is just the right amount sarcastic humor, right amount straight humor, right amount exposition. And because of the now anthology style of the show, you could potentially watch it separate from everything else. Maxwell shows up, but basically for a cameo. It’s all about the guest stars.

There’s John Welsh as this English nobleman who’s plotting against Maxwell, forced to collaborate with Eastern Mediterranean types with their loose morals and sexy art. He’s a rich idiot, who everyone entertains because he’s a rich idiot. In his entourage (of conspirators), there’s also Christopher Sandford as his randy lovestuck dandy nephew who’s hanging around for the old man’s money and drinking and whoring while he waits, Donald Eccles is an archdeacon who’s also an idiot and in the group, and finally there’s Peter Bowles, who starts real quiet and ends up giving the second best performance in an episode of outstanding performances.

Thanks to Ointment, no matter what else “Tower” does, it’s under-regarded. It’s amazing.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e06 – The White Hart

The episode starts with guys conspiring to overthrow Henry VII (Robert Maxwell) with the help of foreign money and a pretender king… in other words, “In the Shadow of the Tower” feels like itself again. If itself again means it feels more like the first three episodes than the two before this episode. It’s actually not a return to that original form, even if some of the same pieces are in play. For example, Queen Norma West returns, just with zilch to do. She’s scenery in Marigold Sharman’s scenes, something for Sharman to talk off.

The main story—and where the episode gets very different from anything coming before, especially the episodes with the same type of stakes—is about Sir William Stanley, who’s almost definitely a traitor of some sort. A conspiring one. Maxwell’s on to him, slowly but surely because Maxwell’s too trusting—the scene where Maxwell tears Stanley (John Franklyn-Robbins) down is fantastic. It’s just a shame Franklyn-Robbins isn’t any good. He’s very close to actively bad, hurting the many scenes he’s in this episode.

So Franklyn-Robbins is Sharman’s brother-in-law and Sharman is Maxwell’s mother and the King’s mother doesn’t want her in-law executed or even threatened with execution for treason. Maxwell doesn’t agree with her assessment of the situation, which doesn’t lead to a rift, just an oft-repeated exposition dump about Maxwell’s responsibilities as king.

It should be a great episode. If Franklyn-Robbins were any good, it’d be a great episode. Instead it’s just pretty good, with John Elliot’s script sometimes a little slow but a really good performance from Maxwell this time out. Even though the scripts aren’t giving Maxwell explicit character development, his character is developing through the performance as the series progresses. There’s definitely a “don’t question the Tudor king” attitude about the show, which is kind of weird but then the English have bought into the idea of not questioning their history just like the rest of Western civilization so maybe it’s not.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e05 – The Serpent and the Comforter

This episode is peculiar. It has a new writer, new director, same production design, same King (James Maxwell), but in this episode, Maxwell’s end credit is just as “The King,” not “King Henry VII.” Because it doesn’t matter who he is. He doesn’t need to be the king. He could just as easily be Pontius Pilate. If there is a Jesus homage, it’s more functional than anything else, like writer Hugh Whitemore wanted the framework but not too many of the details. So I guess Maxwell couldn’t just as easily be Pontius Pilate.

David Bowie is Pontius Pilate. And Maxwell is no David Bowie. And David Bowie is no James Maxwell.

Anyway.

The episode’s about Maxwell getting interested in this condemned heretic, played by Peter Jeffrey. Unbeknownst to Maxwell, one of the soldiers guarding Jeffrey also gets interested. David Ashton plays the young soldier. Ashton doesn’t understand what heresy means while Maxwell is just looking for a debate. He’s a privileged, bored White man with a wife and baby at home; of course he wants to debate some guy who’s condemned to death.

It’s been very interesting to see how Catholic the English are in the “Tower” era. Hearing Maxwell harp on about the greatness of the Catholic Church is strange, almost disconcerting. Though that reaction’s probably a combination of history major and BBC-watcher, your mileage may vary.

So Maxwell, defender of the Catholic faith, debates Jeffrey, who just wants to go back to Jesus’s teachings from the Bible and knock it off with all the corrupt Church stuff. Maxwell “wins” the debate by dismissing Jeffrey’s reliance on empirical evidence; of course it doesn’t make senes if you see it, God made it that way not to make sense so you wouldn’t try to figure it out.

But the real emotion comes with Jeffrey and Ashton. See, Ashton’s got an impressionable young mind and a good heart and he bonds with Jeffrey, which does Jeffrey some good, but also not.

There’s an unfortunate voice over sequence but it’s the early seventies so it can be forgiven. Nothing really matters since Jeffrey can act through anything. He’s phenomenal, spell-binding, whatever. You hang on every word. It’s a heck of a downer but a damned good one.

The Flash s06e01 – Into the Void

After a brief revision to last season’s finale, this episode skips ahead four months, missing the summer where everyone recovered or reacted to last season’s upheaval. So instead of seeing Barry (Grant Gustin) moping all summer, instead he’s just faking enthusiasm to mask the mope. He and Iris (Candice Patton) are still mourning the loss of adult daughter from the future Nora, who got wiped out when she changed the timeline. Only they’re not talking to anyone about it so it’s festering. It’s the only subplot in the episode with any… maturity. Even though it’s very soapy, it’s big, serious, and potentially searching… but “Flash” isn’t a show to do too serious or potentially searching. Especially not this “Flash.”

The episode plays like a “Star Trek: TOS” Season 3 episode where everyone is playing caricatures of themselves. Joe (Jesse L. Martin, who’s very active, which is good) blathering about how it’s his city too as he confronts a black hole appearing over the city. Carlos Valdes is a lot more fun as Cisco without the superpowers. Danielle Panabaker meets the season’s potential big bad (the handsome and charming Sendhil Ramamurthy) and finds out he’s a creep before dating him the whole season, so at least she’s not getting that plot again. For the third or fourth time. Gustin’s aging nicely, giving him a weathered, tired look for the character, though everyone’s chemistry is at an all-time low. Other than Hartley Sawyer, who’s got enthusiasm and bad jokes.

And, for whatever reason, it’s nice to have Danielle Nicolet hanging around the team. They need a mom.

That chemistry thing is a problem with Gustin and Patton, who—once again—seem like strangers. The show’s always done a bad job dealing with their transition from step-siblings only he had a crush on her for years to dating and then married only it’s preordained in the future—they’re way too chaste and at this point, it’s yet another liability.

The big problem, if it’s a problem, is the show plays like a live action Saturday morning cartoon of the early eighties Cary Bates comics. Only without much emphasis on the special effects spectacular. There is one really cool, albeit absurd, song accompaniment, but the action sequence itself is lackluster. Maybe it’s Gregory Smith’s direction. Maybe it’s just the show running out of steam.

It’s like the show wants to avoid anything actually difficult—like Gustin taking over leading the team, especially with the team all out of juice.

The ending tease of the upcoming Crisis crossover is a fail. If LaMonica Garrett was the best audition for the role of the Monitor, doomsayer of the multiverse, I’m curious to see who didn’t get the part. Though at least “Legends” last season had the tiniest bit of fun with him. Otherwise there’s no fun.

It’s going to be a long slog to the crossover.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e04 – The Crowning of Apes

This episode has a different director, Prudence Fitzgerald, and a different writer, Brian Rawlinson, than the first three episodes, which explains a lot of the stylistic differences. Rawlinson being a guy might also explain why Henry (James Maxwell) is cruel in a very different way than he ever has been before. It’s like Rawlinson can’t bring himself to make Henry appear kind to children twice in one episode; speaking of being kind to children, we’ve never seen Henry’s son. Not to mention the Queen not getting an appearance in this episode either.

Though it’s not a very ladylike episode; it’s all about the traitor James Laurenson going over and teaming up with—well, some other people. They’re in Ireland, they hate the Tudors. It’s War of the Roses stuff, Whites, and Reds. Like I said, I didn’t do this era of English history; I glazed over with it during “Game of Thrones” too. So Laurenson’s got this pretender king, an annoying tween, and he’s drummed up enough money for German mercenaries and the Irish are with him and they’re going to invade and take out Henry and company.

Here’s the thing. “The Shadow of the Tower”’s first episode is all about how Henry invaded and spanked Laurenson and company real bad and Henry became king. So these conspirators think they’re all of a sudden going to out medieval battle the guy who spanked them so severely a few years before. They’re idiots. History: entitled, mediocre White men have always been a problem. I mean, I’ve got four blogs, just look at me.

Anyway, once you realize—about a third of the way into the episode—how these guys are basically just dopes, it’s hard to get interested in their stupid plotting. Cobra Commander had better plans. Meanwhile, Henry and his guys are just freaking out about getting enough troops together because they’re broke. There’s some good stuff with Hugh Sullivan wanting to get to lead a company or whatever it’s called in the actual battle instead of hanging out in safety. It goes to informing Maxwell’s Henry rather well. A lot of the episode gives Maxwell solid work, actually, just not that last moment. There’s a good last section, after the battle, when Henry brings in all the traitors and assigns fates. Then it gets deep, then it gets bad. A kind of goofy, cruel bad, which doesn’t really invalidate anything but it does jar.

But, overall, a good episode. Definitely better than the previous one.

Batwoman s01e01 – Pilot

“Batwoman,” at least for the pilot, gets a “Sure, you can maybe get away with this.” It’d be nicer if someone was excited about it. No one on “Batwoman” seems very excited. Except Rachel Skarsten as the villain, Alice (like in Wonderland). Skarsten’s awesome. So good you don’t even understand how it’s happening because there’s nothing to suggest anyone was actually going to be really good in the show. The fight choreography is promising, but the direction this episode—by Marcos Siega—is terrible. And they don’t have the effects shots down. Like the matte shots. What ought to be really simple stuff.

Because right now “Batwoman” feels like the most expensive shot in Canada nineties action show ever. Somehow they’re filming some exteriors in Chicago, but it only makes the show feel more Canadian. In that nineties period. It’s not a great vibe. And it’s a really peculiar one, given its supposed to be the new flagship CW Arrowverse show. And it feels like… first season “Arrow.” Only mixed with trailer moments from Nicholas Sparks adaptations when it comes to lead Ruby Rose’s flashbacks. She’s got all sorts of heartache—in childhood, her mom and sister died after Batman didn’t hang around to make sure his batarangs held, then in military academy she got busted out because she’s gay. Worse thing—because she’s also really rich so getting busted out doesn’t matter, but it’s really bad because girlfriend Meagan Tandy stayed (renouncing or denouncing the behavior). In the show’s timeline it’d be Gulf War II era, which it never feels like. The flashbacks just have a lot of filtered lighting, no real personality.

It’s kind of a big miss. Like, they didn’t take this seriously enough and then hired someone really good to cut Rachel Maddow doing a radio talk show host talking about Batman’s return over footage of the city inhabitants rejoicing. It’s a lot better done than anything else in the pilot, which fails Rose, mostly because it sets her up for all sorts of dramatic developments and instead just reveals she never knows what’s really going on and she’s (so far) always wrong about it.

Weird place to put the hero. Only, given the way the show’s structured and the importance of dad and man who forever won’t be James Howlett Dougray Scott, Rose doesn’t feel like the protagonist. And why’s she training to be an elite private army stormtrooper up in the Arctic with what seems to be a old Native American wise man stereotype from the 1940s. It’s really weird. And starts the show on an odd foot.

And the pilot doesn’t set up the show. It’s a bad pilot.

Nicole Kang is really good as Rose’s stepsister. Elizabeth Anweis is not really good as Rose’s stepmom. She’s kind of bad. But Kang’s good.

The show’s taking itself too seriously and, rather annoyingly, never in the right places. It’s that lack of enthusiasm. It all feels perfunctory, not creative. Not even in a craven way.

Becker s01e09 – Choose Me

It hadn’t occurred to me some of “Becker”’s problem so far might have been direction. I rarely think about sitcom (the three-camera style) direction. They’re just going through the same kinds of shots over and over. But then again, maybe some of the directors are infinitely better with the format and the actors. Case in point, Choose Me is immediately divine, both in direction (Andy Ackerman) and writing (Marsha Myers). It’s funny from the start, without going in too hard on any of the characters (or even supporting cast). The show’s immediately got a better sense of itself. I wonder if Myers and Ackerman team up again; fingers crossed.

This episode’s about Terry Farrell getting hockey tickets and deciding to torture Becker (Ted Danson) and Jake (Alex Désert) over who gets to go with her. She’s finally got personality, gumption, a sense of humor. It’s a really nice, really immediate turn for the positive.

So that’s the A plot, then Danson’s got a B plot involving a disease he can’t crack no matter what he tries (including turning his hookup with fellow doc Colleen Quinn—who’s really good for someone almost no credits—into a cram session), while Farrell and Désert are contending with the return of Bob (Saverio Guerra). Guerra’s phenomenal. His absurdity brings the show a very nice sense of balance. When Danson mocks someone, it’s usually just a regular guy. Guerra’s a caricature of a caricature of a jackass. So when he’s a target, it’s just works better.

Yes, it does suggest some of the key to “Becker” is finding the right person to mob and bully, but… it’s a sitcom and Guerra’s an intentional creep (though not too much of a creeper).

Hattie Winston and Shawnee Smith are mostly just occasional support for Danson, but Winston’s got an amazing flight attendant bit. She’s always about to laugh too, but pulls it in. I wonder if Winston did it in the first take or if she lost it. It’s a great scene. She’s awesome. And Smith has a really good scene at the end.

Myers and Ackerman make all the difference.

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