Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Tuesday Quick Reviews

It hasn't just been Assassin's Creed: Odyssey for me these past few days (though there certainly has been a lot -- a lot -- of Assassin's Creed). Jill and I have also picked up a bunch of new (or "new", for us) television. So you get ... quick reviews! (Potential mild spoilers below).

Mozart in the Jungle

It's weird to describe a show with four seasons that won a Golden Globe as "flying under the radar", but I never heard of it until a friend recommended it a few weeks ago. It's a very entertaining, very self-assured show, whose biggest strength is in its embrace of the weird, insular, sort-of-elite but sort-of-working-class New York Symphony Orchestra. We accidentally watched the first episode of season four before anything else, and it worked so well as a pilot we didn't even realize we were on the wrong episode until we went to the main menu.

The characters include the world's first (as best I can tell) depiction of a Manic Pixie Dream Boy in conductor Rodrigo de Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Other standouts include Bernadette Peters (looking amazing as she rounds 70) as the chairman of the orchestra's board, and Saffron Burrows as a lead cellist and semi-mentor figure for the female lead, an aspiring oboist played by Lola Kirke (who's fine, if not quite on the level of some of her peers). Burrows in particular deserved far more screen-time -- she shone in every scene and plot she was in. The male characters -- de Souza included, but especially emeritus conductor Malcolm McDowell -- do seem to suffer from a lack of any meaningful character growth (or in McDowell's case, jack-knifing wildly between complete pompous ass and comradely mentor figure).

One thing the show does very well with Kirke is depict the sheer amount of work that goes into, not being the best in the world, and not even being the second best in the world, but being someone who can barely scrape their way onto the very edge of an orchestra that is consistently (if mostly passingly) described as decidedly middle-tier. This isn't the story about talented wunderkinds floating through the rarefied world of the musical elite (well, except for Rodrigo). It's a story about how if you're incredibly talented, work exceptionally hard and do everything right -- well, congratulations, it's possible you'll succeed. Or you possibly won't. It's a toss-up.

Jack Ryan

It's been awhile since I've immersed myself in the world of Tom Clancy. I've read a good chunk of the books, and played Rainbow Six -- but only the original (which came out in 1998). Anyway, this show is really scratching those Homeland itches, but without any characters as annoying as either Carrie or Brodie, which is an immediate mark in the plus column. It also did one of the best -- and most bracing -- depictions of how terrifying a terrorist attack is (probably not the best call to watch it before bedtime).

I never watched The Office, so beefy John Krasinski isn't strange to me, and I find he makes a competent if not outstanding Jack Ryan. Indeed, I don't think any of the characters really standout in either good or bad ways: Wendell Pierce as Ryan's boss James Greer and Dina Shihabi as the terrorist's runaway wife are probably the best of the bunch.

The show does I think lean a little too hard into its action set pieces -- I think it might do well to slow itself down and spend time focusing on the "boring" work of spycraft rather than having every episode culminate in a series of explosions or gunfights. This also could help develop the characters more -- several critics have praised Jack Ryan for its nuanced portrayal of the terrorists' motivations, but I don't really see it. Yes, they're more complex than "I hate the West because it's the West." But there's very little moral complexity or wrestling that occurs as adults -- outside of flashbacks, they're little more than blind fanatics.

I Feel Bad

Sadly underwhelming. I had high hopes for this show, if for no other reason than the Amy Poehler stamp of approval, but it's less than the sum of its parts. Nobody on the show is particularly bad, and Brian George in particular is a treasure, but as a series it is deeply, blandly generic. There's no story here that hasn't really been told before, and what variations there are here aren't presented in an interesting way.

You know what I really want? I want the family to be Jewish. Not just because Brian George really is a Jew of Indian descent, and I doubt he's ever really gotten to play a prominent Jewish role. But because there actually are some genuinely new stories to be told about non-White Jewish families in America. Why does Sarayu Blue feel bad? Because every time she goes to synagogue, she's asked if she's the custodian. Or because everyone assumes she was the one who converted rather than her White husband, even though her family's Jewish lineage stretches back generations. Or because her righteous indignation about all of that is tempered a bit by the fact that she's far more secular than her parents and really doesn't want to go synagogue more than a few times a year.

That would be an interesting, genuinely new story that would fit well inside the show's central conceit. I'd totally watch that show.

American Ninja Warrior Junior

No surprise that this is amazing. Obviously, the kids are incredible (and I like that the producers didn't really "baby" the course for them -- it's scaled down for their size, and there are a few areas where they made it easier, but by and large these are recognizable ninja obstacles). Akbar and Matt look like they're having a blast. Laurie "The Human Emoji" Hernandez is perhaps an acquired taste as a sideline reporter, but she's definitely better than Kristine Leahy.

My main question is why this show is exiled to "Universal Kids", a network I didn't even know existed until I started seeing ads for this show. If Masterchef Junior taught us anything, it's that shows like this can be screaming smash hits on the big boy network. American Ninja Warrior itself started off out on one of NBC's minor league networks before getting promoted to the majors, and I expect ANW Jr. to follow suit shortly.

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