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Perfectly Acceptable But Nothing Spectacular
Seeing as how Breaking Bad is considered of the masterpiece TV dramas of all-time, returning to that exact source is always going to be a bit tricky. Will the material land the same way it did when the show originally aired? Will the characters still be as relevant? Sure, Better Call Saul has nipped at the fringes of the Breaking Bad-verse, but "El Camino" picks up right where the main show's finale leaves off. Overall, while a nice little coda to the story of Jesse Pinkman, there was also nothing spectacular or particularly memorable about it.
For a basic overview, "El Camino" is told in a sort of dual-narrative fashion. In the "present", or directly after the events of Felina (the BB finale), Jesse (Aaron Paul) initially shows up on the doorstep of Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), having just escaped the neo-Nazi cage he had been trapped in. All Jesse wants to do is start a new life for himself, but for that plan to work he needs to come up with the requisite amount of cash to pay "Ed the Vacuum Cleaner Guy" (Robert Forster) to make him disappear. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks, especially relating to Jesse's interactions with Todd (Jesse Plemons) while imprisoned.
I think the hallmark of "El Camino" is that it is the first piece of the Breaking Bad universe that gives a happy (or at least peaceful) ending to one of its characters. Walter White obviously went too far down the rabbit hole for redemption in BB, while even as likable as Slippin' Jimmy can be in BCS, viewers know what he ultimately ends up as in BB (a corrupt lawyer). Here, though, the character of Jesse Pinkman is given a redemptive arc, and that positivity is much-needed for a show known for its cruelly realistic character endings.
"El Camino" does enough things right to be enjoyable. Clearly Vince Gilligan still has the knack for creating that "BB feel", mixing dumb humor with incredible tension. Paul is an incredible actor (and it shows here), and it gives some nice call-back cameos to Mr. White (Bryan Cranston), Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), and even Jane (Krysten Ritter).
That being said, the whole exercise also felt a bit predictable. It opens with a flashback of Mike and Jesse talking about absconding to Alaska and, well, wouldn't you know, that's kind of how things end up. There's also little doubt that Jesse will not overcome the situations he is put into throughout the film. A particular fly in the ointment might be the amount of time spent on/with the Todd character. Those scenes really slowed the narrative to a halt and, with a couple of exceptions, didn't offer nearly as much good, meaty dialogue or plot as basically everything else present.
Overall, I have to say that the last 30-or-so minutes of "El Camino" really redeemed the experience for me. It seemed to take a long time to shift into gear (pardon the pun), but when it did I was transfixed. Personally, I still prefer the BCS "nip at the fringes" approach to the BB universe rather than this legitimate sequel, but there isn't anything here to completely turn me off to it, either.
Unbelievable: Episode #1.8 (2019)
One way to do a show about tricky social issues is to proselytize about it quite a bit. This includes long speeches or continued hammering-home of messages. Another way is to create a show that is about so many more things than just the overriding message at hand that it is easy for viewers to find a way in and not feel fatigued by any constant sermonizing. "Unbelievable" takes strictly that latter approach and as a result is one of the overall best miniseries I've seen in quite some time.
For a basic overview, "Unbelievable" sees young woman Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), who has already been tossed around the foster care system, become a victim of a rape. In dealing with the police investigation, Marie is basically coerced (or at least heavily "led") to put on the record that she made the attack up. Fast-forward three years later, and to a different area of the country, and odd couple Detectives pairing Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Duvall (Merrit Wever) are investigating a string of rapes with the same M.O. as what was done to Marie.
Almost without a doubt, the highlight of this show is its ability to be so many different things and succeed at all of them. It is, in turn...
-A crushing story of how rape can mentally and physically destroy a person's psyche and body -A treatise on how investigators need to be careful to avoid victim-blaming and show sensitivity rather than bluntness -An excellent police procedural, as Duvall & Rasmussen leave no stone unturned in their rape investigations -A touching look at how police work can affect one's home life
Despite biting off all these different pieces, the combination is never more than the show runners can chew. Each of the above areas are given perfect screen-time and pacing. Plus, as I mentioned in the opening, never in this show are there any "turn to the camera speeches" moments or hammy dialogue. Very much a "show, not tell" approach to dealing with all these important topics.
The acting in "Unbelievable" also lives up to its name. Dever basically has the marketed corner and down-on-their-luck teen roles at this point, and Collette is always a strong presence. In many ways, though, Wever often steals the show. Her combination of police detective style but also very much being a "normal person" off the job is truly impressive. When I think back to the best scenes of this series, she is in most of them.
While the show was solid all the way through, the last couple of episodes (especially the finale) vault it into memorable territory. All the angles come together perfectly, and even the little character moments (finding out the origins of "Max the Knife", for instance) are wonderfully executed. I felt myself caring for these characters in a deep way, and that's no feat to scoff at have been executed over just 8 episodes.
Overall, "Unbelievable" is a series that will still with me for quite some time. Perhaps this is a personal trait, but I very much prefer shows that don't get too "preachy" (or dialogue or setup) and this one found that perfect niche. It expertly comments on major social issues while still managing to be supremely entertaining in its own right.
A Decent Joker Take, But Not The One I Prefer
After seeing the credits roll on "Joker", it took me a bit to figure out my exact feelings towards it. On one hand, there is nothing inherently bad about the film, and it certainly is a new/fresh way to examine that character's backstory mythos. On the other hand, however, there is also a thought that nagged me which said that something was a bit "off" about the whole thing. The conclusion I've come to is that while "Joker" is a legitimate take on his origins, it just isn't the #1 (or even #2) take that I prefer.
For a basic overview, this film focuses on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian who works as an entertaining clown to support himself. Arthur clearly also has some some of mental illness, including the propensity for laughter when the emotional situation does not call for it. The combination of all these factors sees Fleck mistreated or put down by society at nearly every step of his Gotham-dwelling existence. After perpetuating a subway murder and then being embarrassed on live television by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the late-night talk show host he idolizes, Fleck transforms himself into the tragically comedic figure Batman fans know well.
I actually have more respect than most, I think, towards the validity of this "take" on The Joker. It is easily the most gritty and true-to-life that has ever been attempted at this point. Basically, WB and director Todd Phillips are saying "here is how a real-life Joker figure could spring up", right down to explaining the makeup and predilection towards uncontrollable laughter. In and of itself, there really isn't anything "wrong" with this take.
That being said, I still prefer Ledger's mysterious Joker of "The Dark Knight" or even Nicholson's mob-leader Joker of "Batman (1989)". Acting performances strictly aside for the moment, I just don't know about--and feel a little uncomfortable with--the Joker being a tragic figure. I prefer the comic-book approach of Nicholson falling into the vat of chemicals, or the air of mystery surrounding where exactly Ledger's Joker came from. Having this Phoenix Joker spring from a place of potential sympathy? However legitimate that take may be, I just don't like it as much.
There are also a few frustrating choices that hold back the overall story of the film: -A subplot involving Arthur's neighbor down the hall (played by Zazie Beetz) goes absolutely nowhere and ends up meaning very little. -The shoehorning of the Wayne family into the movie. Did we really need to see the Waynes murder again?! That's becoming a parody of itself at this point. Plus, scenes that feature Fleck and any member of the Wayne family feel like pandering to the Batman crowd rather. The cherry on top, of course, is the insinuation (true or false) that Fleck may actually be a Wayne family relation. Again, that's taking the "easy way out" when it comes to crafting this story.
Fortunately, "Joker" does enough things right to make it watchable. It isn't boring by any means, the music and overall production value is great, and Phoenix does give a great performance. For the tone of the character that Phillips is trying to create, Phoenix is marvelous, actually.
Overall, though, I only moderately enjoyed this take on the Joker mythos. Maybe, had this been the first attempt at doing so, I'd feel differently. But as it stands, it comes down to me liking other interpretations of the character more than this one.
A Biopic That Will Impress Even The Genre Die-Hards
When it comes to film genres, I consider the biopic to be one of my favorites. I absolutely love when a historical figure is brought to life in the present time and able to be examined in the context of history. Because of this, I've watched a lot of biopics and as a result have become rather picky/knowledgeable about the ones I like or don't like. This one is a winner through-and-through.
For a basic overview, "Judy" tells the story of Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger). It mainly focuses on her 1968 tour of London as a middle-aged woman, but also flashes back to earlier points as she prepares for the Oz role that would make her a household name and labors under the incredibly constrictive Hollywood studio system of the 1930s/40s.
Garland is such an interesting figure because she is essentially the poster-child for the "child star turned odd" tragedy trope. However, "Judy" makes the argument that its titular star was not a tragic one, but rather simply a product of her circumstances and environment. Director Rupert Goold makes a very convincing case that Garland's seeming neuroses are rooted in her mistreatment by Hollywood executives (and even those who should have been looking out for her) as a young lady (barely even a teenager). It is fascinating to watch her story play out through that lens rather than simply "she went a little crazy".
Of course, such a character-centric piece is going to need a star acting performance, and that is exactly what Zellweger gives. She has to be the favorite for the Best Leading Actress Oscar at the moment. Truly a role that could define the rest of her career.
The music in this is also tremendous, as befitting any story about Garland. Her live numbers on stage are in turn inspiring, entertaining, and often incredibly emotional.
Overall, "Judy" is about as solid of a biopic as has been made in quite some time. Not only does it nail the "fun stuff" (music, visuals, acting, etc.), but it tells a very coherent story and makes an interesting point about the life of such an enigmatic figure.
Dark: Endings and Beginnings (2019)
Does The Impossible And Continues The Utter Greatness
The first season of Dark was one of the single greatest slates of opening episodes I had ever seen in a TV show. Though I had little doubt that the show would continue to be good, I did wonder if this sophomore effort could possibly live up to the billing. Remarkably it did, proving to be every bit the equal of its predecessor.
To get into all the characters and plots of Dark S2 would require an essay-length document, so I won't take that route. It would also suppose that I have everything figure out myself, which is never a given in this complex series. What I will say, however, is that the best analogy I can draw for this season is to the similarly time-travel themed Back To The Future films. Much like BTTF2, Dark S2 doubles down on the complexity while still managing to keep it watchable (and enjoyable) for viewers at all levels. It would have been easy for this show to continue dancing around the peripheries of its fantastic mysteries, but instead it dives right in and that proves to be 100% the correct approach.
Whenever I have recommended Dark to family members or friends, I have always prefaced it with a statement that it takes incredible concentration (and maybe even outside research of family trees and names) to truly enjoy. I probably scared some people off of it in the process. One thing that S2 really hammered home for me, however, is that this is a show that can actually be enjoyed by many various interest levels. Basically, you can go as deep as you want to into it (and it holds up), or you can engage on a bit more of a surface level and still be satisfied, at the very least. You don't have to be a quantum physicist to enjoy Dark.
Another film property I liken Dark to is the film "Enemy". Both there and here, concrete answers do not abound, yet that doesn't spoil the fun in the slightest. In fact, in both cases, feeling as if you are slightly in the dark (pardon the pun) is all part of the fun. If this show wanted to truly explain everything, it would grind to a halt. Instead, it brings up incredibly interwoven time-travel plot lines and intersperses them with incredible cinematography and editing. The overall effect is an absolute sensory overload (eyes, ears, brain, etc.) with every episode.
Of course, no show is much of anything without interesting and relatable characters, and Dark has that front covered without a problem. One particular episode this season, "An Endless Cycle", is an absolute clinic in this area. Truly one of the greatest character-centric episodes of television I have ever witnessed. That episode alone somewhat elevates the entire show to an entirely new level of achievement.
Overall, Dark is now firmly entrenched on my short list of favorite television shows of all time. From music to visuals, plots to characters, Dark legitimately has it all. The confirmed third (and final) "cycle" cannot drop soon enough for this fan!
Ad Astra (2019)
Missing Far Too Much To Be Considered Great
After watching "Ad Astra" in the theater, I sat back and contemplated it as the lights came up and the credits rolled. Though I was impressed (especially in the film's final act) by the themes tackled in this space drama, I ultimately felt as if I were never really pulled into the proceedings on an emotional level. For me, this movie was just missing too many things for me to consider it a success.
For a basic plot overview, "Ad Astra" sees young NASA astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) sent on a mission to find out just what is happening with a previous deep-space exploration (at Neptune) that may be threatening life on Earth. The hook? That previous expedition was helmed by the presumed-dead legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy's father who now may be determined to be alive.
There are certainly enough things that "Ad Astra" does right to keep it from being a total failure. It touches on deep themes of family, love, and loss. The visuals are top-notch. The acting is generally good, with especially solid turns from Jones and Donald Sutherland (in a brief role).
Sadly, there are a number of glaring mistakes here that made me feel like "Ad Astra" was a film I had to take at face value, rather than emotionally experience it...
-A film can't try to play up a romantic or "longing for a stable partner" angle when that partner (in this case the character played by Liv Tyler) is hardly on screen for more than a few moments. Almost no visual connections are made between Pitt's and Tyler's character, so their relationship has to be taken "as described" rather than any shown capacity.
-A similar problem exists with the Pitt/Jones character relationship. Ostensibly, this entire film is about the young McBride working through his complicated thoughts/emotions surrounding his father. When the two actually meet and interact, however, it ends up feeling like more of a letdown than anything due to there being no context for their relationship other than the standard "fathers and sons are complicated" trope. I needed more than just "Roy resents Clifford for leaving him" told to me regarding why this was such a big issue in his life. Again, conceptually I understand, but it was only said rather than shown.
-The film seems to fall into a bit of the common space-movie trap in that it often wanders off course from its main objectives (in this case the McBride family dynamics) just to service the "we're in space so we need to do some cool stuff" vibe. Scenes like a rampaging baboon and a planetary dune-buggy race are cool in the aesthetic sense, but they ultimately serve little to no purpose in the overall proceedings. They could have easily been cut and in their stead had more context for the relationships within the film that so badly needed developing.
Overall, my experience with "Ad Astra" was a bit of a strange one (perhaps explaining my middle-of-the-road 5-star ranking here). I always get a little nervous when a film (other than Star Wars, I guess) opens with explanatory text, and that is exactly what happened here. Though I feel like I completely understand and appreciate the dynamic(s) the film was going for, I only do so in the academic sense. It never moved me to emotionally invest in any of it.
Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
Can't Pull Off The "Creed" Magic (Or Even Come Close)
During a two-year stretch in the late-2000s, Sylvester Stallone resuscitated his Rocky and Rambo characters to largely successful reviews. Upon the conclusion of "Rocky Balboa" (2006) and "Rambo" (2009), it was assumed those characters would not be seen or heard from again. But then a little project called "Creed" brought Stallone back to Rocky, and ended up propelling that character all the way back to an Oscar nomination. Likely buoyed by the success of such a character rejuvenation with Rocky, Stallone tries to do the same with John Rambo here in "Rambo: Last Blood". Unfortunately, the magic cannot be captured in the same way (or sadly even come close)
For a basic plot overview, "Last Blood" sees Rambo (Stallone) living on his family's ranch in Arizona, where he has become a sort of surrogate father to niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal). When Yvette goes to Mexico to find her birth father and gets caught up in the sex-trafficking trade, however, Rambo decides to put everything on the line to save her and bring her captors to his own sort of ruthless justice.
Perhaps the most accurate description or comparison I can give of "Last Blood" is "Home Alone meets Taken", and that's not what one wants to hear in relation to a Rambo film. In the simplest possible terms, what happened here is that the poignant messages from the original 1982 "First Blood" that started the franchise are absolutely nowhere to be found. No, this Rambo is much more a descendent of the "killing machine" that he depicted in the second and third films. This is a sad development, as "machine gun Rambo" is essentially a cardboard cutout of a character, while "Army jacket Rambo" is filled with nuance and meaning. Here, there is no whiff of the latter and instead built around the former.
Even as a gruesome death-fest, however, "Last Blood" comes off as little more than a B-movie for much of the proceedings. It feels rushed and without the usual polish that Stallone is able to give to his prestige character projects. Basically, the entire plot is nothing more than a massive mechanism for setting up the final sequence, which itself descends into violence that seems more "comic" than "visceral".
Not helping matters at all is that Stallone is the only one (and I mean literally the ONLY ONE) giving even a decent acting performance here. He gamely tries to inject some gravitas into the John Rambo character one last time, but the script is so poor and the auxiliary cast so lackluster that it more just made me feel a bit sorry for his once-great character.
Overall for me, when it comes to the Rambo franchise I will always have the most respect for First Blood (one of my favorite single films of all-time, any genre) and Rambo IV, as they are the ones that truly capture the essence of Rambo's tortured soul in relation to his Vietnam War past. Last Blood? It is building off the blood-and-guts and "action hero Rambo" of parts 2 and 3, which have never really been all that well-received to begin with. That is the main downfall of this project, and what ultimately sinks it to pretty low depths.
Mindhunter: Episode #2.9 (2019)
Mindhunter is a show that almost seems a bit out of place on Netflix. Whereas that company has a model (albeit on that may be improving) of pumping out marginal content just to have said content, Mindhunter is very much a "prestige" show that would be right at home on, say, HBO. It is expertly produced and really takes its time crafting its slates of new episodes. This second season is just as dramatic and thrilling as the first, although it does so using a very different formula.
For a very basic overview, S2 of Mindhunter sees FBI Behavior Science Unit Agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) trying to built an entire investigative department on the concept of profiling. In conjunction with fellow steward Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) and new boss A.D. Gunn (Michael Cerveris), the duo ultimately find themselves running point on the now-infamous Atlanta Child Murders of the late 70s/early 80s.
The first season of Mindhunter was really all about the interviews with famous serial killers, and for a short time it looks like S2 will follow that lead, as Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) is brought back and even Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) gets some videotape time. However, it quickly becomes clear after the first few episodes that the season will follow a much different pattern in a number of respects:
On the procedural front, we see how the BSU profiling works (and doesn't work) "in the field". While just coming up with the concept of profiling serial killers is one thing, using it on a practical level is entirely a different animal. Local cops and district attorneys are skeptical, and the agents (Ford in particular) are often frustrated when budgets and old-school police techniques seem like insurmountable barriers. I really enjoyed this change of approach (from the theoretical to the practical), and fortunately the drama or entertainment factor does not wane whatsoever.
Another strong suit of this season is how certain characters are given very interesting backstories that truly serve to enhance their characters (something that didn't always hit the mark in S1). For example, Dr. Carr is revealed to be a lesbian with a complicated relationship to new friend Kay (Lauren Glazier), a move that gets her questioning her own personality traits in very unique ways.
Agent Tench gets perhaps the biggest "push" of the season, as his son Brian (Zachary Scott Ross) is involved in a murderous incident of his own, throwing tremendous conflict upon Bill and wife Nancy (Stacey Roca). Again, this serves to have Agent Tench questioning his methods as they relate to personal & impersonal portions of life.
Behind all of this? Short little tease-clips of the BTK killer, who will obviously factor into the proceedings at some point.
Overall, I was once again highly entertained and mesmerized by Mindhunter's second campaign. They branch off into very much a new formula, yet do so in a way that doesn't lesson the tension in any way. I can't quite say this show has reached perfect storytelling levels in either season so far, but it has come darned close, hence the 9/10 rating.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Perhaps Not The Greatest Christmas Movie, But Easily The Most Nostalgic
If one watches "A Christmas Story" in its natural habitat (the holiday season), it would almost be impossible not to give it a full 10 stars. It takes full advantage of the Christmas spirit and capitalizes on baby boomer nostalgia that also filters down through their offspring.
All of that being said, "A Christmas Story" is also not a perfect film. It really is a collection of set-pieces (almost like a stage play) more than a coherent narrative, and only the quest for the iconic BB gun gives it any structure whatsoever. In this sense, I can't call it my favorite holiday movie, but it obviously is still beloved enough to procure a solid ranking.
For a basic overview, this film tells the story of young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his quest for the perfect Christmas present: the Red Ryder BB gun. Seemingly thwarted in this pursuit by a mother (Melinda Dillon) who opines "you'll shoot your eye out!" and a father (Darren McGavin) who is too busy fighting furnaces and muttering comic obscenities, Ralphie must take is plea to the big man himself--Santa Claus.
Besides that general structure, "A Christmas Story" is very much a family-centric (and friendly) film. The antics of the Parkers comprise nearly all of the comedy, drama, and nostalgia in the experience. There's a reason why the house (in Cleveland, OH) now houses an entire museum dedicated to the movie!
Upon my recent re-watch of the film, one thing I noticed was how crucially important the "Old Ralphie" (Jean Shepherd) is to the proceedings. Much like the later "Wonder Years" TV show, some of the best lines and wisecracks of the entire picture are uttered by the narrator here. Without that "looking back" perspective, this would all feel a bit hollow.
Overall, I consider "A Christmas Story" to be a solid entry in the holiday season canon. It isn't in my absolute top tier, but it comes very, very close. It almost works better, in an odd way, watching it in pieces over the now-ubiquitous 24-hour Christmas Eve marathon than just viewing it straight through.
The Movies (2019)
Good (If Not Deep) Overview Of Cinema Through The Decades
As with most of the CNN-produced mini-series in this ilk, if you are watching for deep, original revelations about the subject matter then you might be a little disappointed. That isn't the way that CNN operates. Instead, this is more like people sitting around talking about their favorite movies, completely with incredibly high production value graphics and clips.
Basically covering a decade per episode (the 1930s-50s are sort of smooshed together in one), "The Movies" looks at the trends of each ten-year span through a variety of lenses. The "big ones" are always covered, but perspectives are also given each episode on women, minority, and independent-led films. As such, it leads to a pretty well-rounded discussion for such a surface-level show.
Of course, as I said, there are really no "deep dives" here. This is meant to capture the eye of casual, all-age viewers sitting around on a Sunday night, not jump-start huge philosophical or in-depth discussions.
So, your enjoyment of "The Movies" will likely depend on what you are looking for. If you don't mind--like me--just sitting back and watches clips & brief commentary on your favorite flicks, you'll burn through this in no time! If you want more nuanced content, you may want to look elsewhere.
The Loudest Voice (2019)
Incredibly Gripping/Prescient Look At The Ailes Empire
Fox News is one of the most polarizing topics of the political landscape. Either you fall in complete lockstep with it or loathe its ultra-conservative agenda. There is absolutely no middle ground. For this primary reason, "The Loudest Voice" can (and does) succeed at the highest level of political/biopic drama.
For a basic overview, "The Loudest Voice" tells the story of Fox News through its creator Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe). From 1995 to 2016, each of the seven episodes centers on an event (channel inception, 9/11, Obama inauguration, Trump, etc.) that shaped the business. While ostensibly following Ailes and wife Beth (Sienna Miller) all the time, much play is also given to real-life figures such as Ailes' right-hand man Brian Lewis (Seth MacFarlane) and secretary/confidante Judy Laterza (Aleksa Palladino). The sexual harassment cases brought against Ailes-which were ultimately his downfall-by employees Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis) and Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts) are continuing plotlines as well.
The acting immediately stands out as spectacular in this miniseries. Crowe is every bit the equal of Christian-Bale-as-Dick-Cheney in "Vice", while Miller is unrecognizable as Mrs. Ailes. Watts and Wallis also give impassioned performances as women caught in a web of sexual power-plays and intimidation.
My guess is that "Loudest Voice" will not achieve extraordinarily high viewer ratings for the simple reason that it hews very closely to the general theme of Fox News basically being Ailes' personal playground, where he could bully women into sexual favors via threats and spew his Republican propaganda under the guise of "fair and balanced journalism". I tend to hold the same negative opinion of Fox News as an entity, and thus believe that this biopic is probably within the ballpark of the truth. I truly believe that the station and everything it stands for is one of the true evils of the modern media, and "Loudest Voice" basically supports that idea.
Fortunately, though, "Loudest Voice" takes a very serious, fact-based approach to its subject matter, lending it a legitimacy that other biopics of its kind lack. For example, a film like "Vice" mostly laughs at the ridiculousness of Cheney rising to power. Here, Ailes and Fox News are presented as truly dangerous entities that are no laughing matter to anyone involved. I tend to like this more serious, grounded approach (especially when it comes to political subject matter), so "Loudest Voice" really appealed to me.
Overall, this is an enormous achievement from the Showtime service. I watched it on the heels of HBO's "Chernobyl", and while "Loudest Voice" doesn't have quite the built-in gravitas as that type of subject matter, it is just as well-made, well-acted, and timely in its themes. Only my highest marks (all ten stars) for this series.
This television adaptation of Joe Hill's novel NOS4A2 is one of the most interesting strategies I have ever seen taken in adapting a novel to the screen. While it generally works more than it doesn't, it also sets up far more than it pays off in terms, which can make this first season seem quite strange.
For a basic overview, this show tells the story of Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), a teen who has the special ability to conjure up a magic bridge (literal and figurative) to take her places she needs to get too. This talent puts her on the radar of Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), a Wraith-driving figure who absconds with children and promises them an eternity in "Christmasland", a supposedly magical place but in which lurks an evil underbelly. With only the help of fellow psychically-talented individual Maggie (Jahkara Smith), Vic must try to stop Manx from seeing his nefarious plan to fruition.
The most interesting part of NOS4A2 is how it so uniquely chops up Hill's book, yet it still mostly "works" (or at least could/should in subsequent seasons). The narrative structure here plays out completely different from the book, yet features the same characters and themes, for the most part.
The setup (first 2-3 episodes) is especially good. The characters are all strong and well-acted, there is an air of mystery/magic afoot, and many interesting themes are introduced. Even some of the little details, like Olafur Olafsson's Bing Partridge character perfectly nailing his literary counterpart, are often spot-on.
The biggest problem here, or perhaps more of an oddity, is that I don't think I've even quite seen a show that plays so much towards future seasons. Perhaps the show runners had a commitment from AMC for multiple seasons, but usually a show has to pull out the "big guns" right away in order to even stay on the air. Here, from about the middle of the show onward, it is clear that many of the actions and character arcs are purely setup for Season Two or beyond.
-Despite teasing Christmasland basically all season long, no resolution is given in that realm. It really is only even glimpsed once, and a very short peek at that. -Manx's motivations are very interesting (is he truly a monster, or does he believe he is saving these children from abusive families?), but only paid lip-service in S1. -Even some of the big events surrounding Vic's storylines are put in place only to be paid off later down the road.
As such, NOS4A2 was both a unique and an odd viewing experience. I'm not used to such longform storytelling, so perhaps this is the type of show that can't be evaluated until its entirety has played out. Overall, though, I solidly enjoyed watching these episodes and will have no problem diving back in whenever the next season drops.
Gets Everything Right Except An Overall Point
In watching the trailers for Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, they promise an incredible period piece set in 1960s Hollywood. If that is your primary reason for watching, this film may just speak to your very soul. If you want a deeper story with more of a point to it, however, you might leave this experience feeling somewhat disappointed.
Ostensibly, this movie tells two concurrent stories that eventually overlap with each other: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aging former Western star who is struggling to get acting work and stay relevant. The same goes for his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who chauffeurs him around and is somewhat of a confidant. At the same time, young actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is experiencing a rapid climb to LA success. As I said, eventually these plotlines converge when the Manson Clan begins to factor more heavily into the story.
In terms of aesthetic, Once Upon A Time... absolutely hits it out of the park. The music of the time provides an incredible soundtrack, the cinematography is impressive (as per the usual Tarantino style), and the entire experience convincingly plops the viewer into "Old Hollywood". The actors all nail their parts (with a star-studded cast like this, how could they not?!) and during the entire 160 minute runtime there is a good mix of drama, comedy, and action/adventure. A special shout-out needs to go to Margaret Qualley, whose hippy/cult character utterly commands every scene she is in.
The main problem I had with the movie, though, was that it didn't seem to have much of a point or purpose from beginning to end. There is so much going on from scene to scene that viewers will likely not be bored, per se, but there seems to be an ephemeral approach to the overall goals of the picture. It just sort of drifts from plot to plot, with the aesthetics filling in the gaps instead of well-crafted, plot-driven writing.
In fact, I would argue it commits a rather cardinal sin of assuming the audience knows the story behind some of its true-to-life figures (such as Ms. Tate). Because director Tarantino often plays with or subverts the expectations of the history books, there is a heavy degree of assumption that audiences will know "the facts" of what actually happened to these historical figures. I did not know this information, and thus was rather confused by some of the in-film events taking place (especially the ending). Now that I've done a little post-credits research I understand better what Tarantino was trying to accomplish, but during the watching experience I often found myself lost.
Overall, I can say I was entertained by Once Upon A Time... but little more. It was fun to see such star acting power all grouped together, and Tarantino is good enough at his craft to make sure it doesn't completely fall apart, but there was a lot here that I just couldn't relate to because it assumed a modicum of knowledge that I did not possess. Maybe I'm the outlier here and others will follow along better than me, but for the under-40 set I feel like it might be a challenge without a history brush-up.
Reviewing a show like Stranger Things is a bit complicated considering it seems to be a program that almost defies reflection. It is the ultimate "binge watch" show. Whereas other series might be savored episode by episode or over the span of weeks, Stranger Things is best consumed by mashing the "watch next episode" button as soon as the credits roll on the current one. While this leads to a thrilling experience while watching (I haven't given any season lower than 8 stars), it also sort of sets up the phenomenon where the more one reflects on it, the more it kind of falls apart. You see, Stranger Things is the type of show where the plot is only used to serve the characters and nostalgia...nothing more, nothing less. The production value and just general care put into the series by the Duffer Brothers is of the level/quality that it is always entertaining, but it's rarely transcendent (I've yet to give any season 10/10 stars).
Season Three is no different from the pattern described above. I very much enjoyed watching these episodes and burned through them in the span of about 4-5 days. Some of my highlights from the season included...
-The general "growing into adolescence" theme that permeates the entire season, a theme that was almost required in a show featuring same-age actors.
-More of a roll for Billy (Dacre Montgomery), which was great to see as acting-wise he is one of the standouts of the entire show for me.
-The burgeoning friendship of El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink), which provided the most fun moments of the season.
-Steve (Joe Keery) in his sailor suit working at Scoops Ahoy in the StarCourt Mall (almost a character unto its own!). His newfound relationship with co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke) is a solid character arc all the way through.
Of course, like I mentioned, the plotting of Stranger Things is never perfect because, frankly, it doesn't seem to care enough (or perhaps just cares more about other things) to make it that way. Some missteps this season include...
-A somewhat controversial take on Hopper (David Harbour), who definitely is portrayed differently from previous seasons. Due to this treatment, the emotional gut-punch at the end of S3 may or may not hit you as hard as perhaps it could/should have.
-A Russian subplot that really doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense (or lead anywhere) other than "this is a nostalgic 80s show so we have to include Russians!"
-For those (like myself) who really enjoy the mysterious nature of the Upside Down, S3 is easily the weakest of the bunch. It begins with promise (pseudo-Billy supposedly building an "army" for some nefarious purpose), but very quickly descends into a re-hash of the Mind Flayer concept from S2.
Overall, I put this third season on par with the first. It vacillates terribly in plot coherency, but provides such great character moments and atmosphere that viewers will still be thoroughly entertained. Though perhaps in the minority here, S2 is still my favorite due to a better overall mix of plot/characters. That being said, I'd have no qualms streaking through another fourth set of episodes if/when they drop.
The X Files: My Struggle II (2016)
The X-Files is one of my favorite television dramas of all-time. For its first six seasons, it presented some incredibly intriguing/interesting stories as well as pretty much pioneering the concept of over-arching plots from season to season. For its last three seasons, it managed to still be at least watchable despite actor issues, network waffling on an end-date, and a general lack of the solid writing that had been present in its hey-day. So, when it was announced that the show would return after a 14-year absence, I was ecstatic...with a touch of panic thrown in. Would David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson be able to slip into their old roles? Could Chris Carter write himself out of the corner that the show had "ended" on back in 2002? Would the team as a whole be able to re-capture that late-90s magic and translate it across time (something a show like 24 was unable to do)?
Unfortunately, what I quickly found (right away from the first episode) was that none of those above questions were answered in the positive. Not only that, but the entire revival was nothing more than an embarrassment to a show that once feature quality drama, interesting plots, and developed characters. None of those things were even in sight this time around.
Before I get into the more specific reasons why this revival failed (and failed miserably), I think the big concept behind the failure is that the show writers didn't seem to understand what made the show so successful in the first place. To be honest, that boggles me a bit in its own right, as it was Chris Carter himself and many of the original writers that had a hand in this slop. It's almost like they made a caricature of the success of the original show, but a caricature is obviously just a crude (if sometimes funny) over-exaggeration of a person or thing's real features. That's exactly what happened here, and here are a few more specific reasons why:
-The earliest faux pas is re-opening the X-Files office in the FBI in the first episode. That stretches the bounds of credibility right off the map. This entire series could have operated outside the realm of "official FBI business" (and it would have made more sense to do so), but instead the creators took the easy/lazy way out.
-In a similar vein as above, the entire mythology was ret-conned in that first episode as well. In a show where aliens have been seen and examined from many angles, you can't just say "well, now I think it was just the government all along". Heck, the show even tried that itself back in Season Five! That's an unforgivable ret-con that spits in the face of fans who marveled at the complex alien/government mysteries of the show at its peak.
-The two episodes are supposed to be the solid "stand-alones" are easily the worst episodes of this revival..."Founder's Mutation" and "Home Again". The Band-Aid Nose Man? Again, just embarrassing.
-Yes, comedy was part of The X-Files all along, but only as a subtle counter-point to the fact that most times the show was deadly serious. So, the comedic "Were-Monster" and "Babylon" episodes fail here because there isn't any actual strong material to back them up. I mean, Mulder dancing to "Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk"? It's almost as if Carter & Co. were intentionally trying to sabotage the show at that point.
-The show consistently teases the return of Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), the Smoking Man (William B. Davis), and the Lone Gunmen, but then gives them nothing interesting to do. A terrible waste of some potentially great possibilities.
Finally, and I wanted to save this point for its own paragraph, perhaps the biggest failure of this entire revival was the complete and utter lack of chemistry between Mulder (Duchovny) and Scully (Anderson). For years and years, Chris Carter always maintained that Mulder and Scully would never get romantic because "the best relationships are the ones rooted in friendship". That worked for the show for a long, long time...until Carter ran out of really good material after Season Six. At that point, he started pushing the romantic angles even further because, frankly, he caved to the "shippers". The show was running on empty and instead of "writing his way out of the problem", he just went for the quick fix and played up the romance angle. In this revival, he tries to do the same thing, but it comes off just as stunted and stilted as it did back in the day. The over-reliance on William (the son the pair had together) despite that character never being seen is a good example of this. That was the only thing the writers could think of to bring Mulder and Scully together...a plot line ("baby William") that failed so miserably in Season Nine that it sunk the entire season.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that my take on this "Season 10" of this show can be boiled down to a single word: Embarrassing. These six episodes are a caricature of the show's former success, and a cheap knock off at that. The mythology is ret-conned, the characters are drone-ish, and the stand-alone episodes are either dull or almost obscenely stupid. The original run of The X-Files will always hold a special place in the TV-watching portion of my heart, but this effort I will try very, very hard to forget. If these are the "great new stories" that Chris Carter wanted to come back to tell, then I hope this show truly never comes back, as the creative team behind it has lost their bearings.
Teen Spirit (2018)
An Iconic Leading Performance But That's About It
I was initially drawn to Teen Spirit because of Elle Fanning, who is one of my favorite actresses and always seems to give an inspired performance in whatever I see her in. That holds true here in spades. Unfortunately, that's about the only thing I took from the film, as the rest seemed oddly rushed and emotionally stilted.
For a basic overview, Teen Spirit opens with teenaged Violet (Fanning) living in a small English town with her mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). They seem to be living in near-poverty, working multiple menial labor jobs to survive. Despite that rather drab existence, Violet loves to sing and has a talent for it. She enters the UK Teen Spirit competition (think American Idol here) and advances to the next round. The only problem? She needs a guardian signature and knows her mother will not provide it. As such, she lists the help of local drunkard (yet former opera singer) Vlad (Zlatko Buric) to become her ad hoc manager.
As I mentioned, Fanning is easily the star of the show here and nothing else even comes close. Her acting talent is a marvel, as she can play the sullen, blank-faced, hopeless type just as perfectly as the peppy, bubblegum pop star. In a film that moves far too fast or superficially to create any real emotion, her performance alone elevates the entire experience further than it even should be. Without her, this would truly be a wreck.
The main problem with Teen Spirit is that it tries to cover wayyyyyy too much ground for a film that only runs about 90 minutes. Is this a film about a struggling country girl embracing her singing talent in the face of adversity? The Violet/Vlad relationship? Losing one's self or having to make the tough decisions that fame brings? Teen Spirit tries to tackle all of those scenarios and ends up coming off as rushed, with none of the characters ever really being given room to expand or grow. There's never any time to just savor what should be strong character moments because they come so fast and furious for the entire runtime.
Overall, this is a movie that is absolutely carried by Elle Fanning's continually ascending stardom. She single-handedly made me care at all for the proceedings, and that is a tough ask for anyone, albeit one as young as she. Anyone other than her die-hard fans can easily skip this one, however.
The X Files: My Struggle IV (2018)
There was no doubt that the six episode mini-revival (Season 10) of The X-Files was a disappointment pretty much across the board, with reactions ranging from "that was pure and utter trash" to "meh...that was okay" (the latter being the absolute ceiling of approval). In coming back for 10 more episodes here (Season 11), it was clear that the show was going to "take itself more seriously" (no more Mulder line dancing in a honky-tonk bar, for instance). Unfortunately, the only point that s11 ended up proving is that the process behind this show is no longer capable of churning out stories that are even remotely interesting to modern TV viewers. By the end of it all, keen viewers will realize how big big of a money-grab the "modern X-Files" truly is, as it is creatively exhausted.
Like I said, though perhaps trying to take itself more seriously than the previous season, S11 does nothing to get the show back on the right track. The conspiracy episodes are no more than retcons upon retcons, and the focus on William is asinine from the get-go. Taking one of the most hated aspects of the show's original run and trying to shoe-horn it into becoming an emotional, major plot point? Yeah, I'm sure that'll work (predictably, it did not).
The stand-alone or "monster of the week" episodes are no better, as it becomes so very clear that shows like, say, "Black Mirror", now run laps around Chris Carter & Co. in telling stories about technology (which this season oddly focuses on quite a bit). Whereas this show was once on the cutting edge of storytelling back in the late 1990s, it has now fallen so far behind as to really not even be in the race anymore.
Truth be told, the only good episode of this entire season ("The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat") was the one penned by Darin Morgan (the show's comedy writer). The reason why it stands out? Because Morgan is the only one who seems to realize how farcical this has all become now, and his episodes are able to point that out. He's the only one who really "gets" what is happening here, and his comedy episodes are able to exploit that.
Not even the acting here is above believable standards. This problem is much clearer to articulate, as it falls into the pattern of a few other TV/cinema that let the same thing happen: On shows that are very serious and need to be played straight, you can't have the actors clearly be "in on the joke". When Adam West's Batman starts making jokes at his own expense, that series went from phenomenon to cancelled in two years time. When Spielberg & Lucas brought back Indiana Jones in "Crystal Skull", but made him the comic relief instead of the straight man, it just didn't work. The exact same thing happens here. Yes, the X-Files could be a funny and witty show if it wanted to be, but it only really works if the leads play it pretty straight. We really need to see Mulder's aching passion to find his sister and expose conspiracies, or Scully's determination to inject some rationality into Mulder's theories. If all their interactions are goofy and tongue-in-cheek, however, much of that subtext is lost.
One thing I read in another review of this season was that it has become "too much of a chore to really care one way or another anymore" about this show, and I couldn't agree more on that front. Whereas S10 had me up in arms, this time around it was so mundane as to be a bit numbing. I watched every episode, but none of them affected me in anything approaching a meaningful way. At the end of the day, this is just sad, as it has taken what was an iconic show in the history of TV drama and turned it into a punchline. Nothing can ever take the shine off the first six seasons (and to a lesser extent 7-9), but by the same token all these hollow efforts from S10 & S11 must be reckoned with as well in summing up the show.
I never like to say "never" when deciding to abandon a show, but if this brand of X-Files were to return again I think I'd have a really difficult time buying in at any level. Perhaps with new leadership and a new vision something could rise from the rubble, but as it stands the franchise is as creatively bankrupt as one can be.
The X Files: The Truth (2002)
One of the big problems of popular TV shows is when they are going to end. Unless a show is like LOST, which had the clout to forecast and negotiate a set number of seasons, many shows either are pulled off the air too soon, or stick around for a bit too long. The X-Files definitely had a problem with the latter of those two options.
The Ninth Season of the X-Files tried to go back to the formula of the very early seasons by featuring more horror or concept-driven episodes. Despite show creator Chris Carter saying he had "10 more years of stories" he could tell, the show was put in a rather awkward situation for one reason: main cast members were moving on. With David Duchovny (Mulder) only making a single appearance (in the season finale) this season, and Gillian Anderson (Scully) saying that this would be her final season, the show was turned over to Robert Patrick (Doggett) and Annabeth Gish (Reyes) playing the lead characters.
While Dogged was always an interesting and well-acted character, he had little to no chemistry with Gish's Reyes. Carter even broke his "the best relationships are rooted in friendship" guideline for the show by trying to shoe-horn in an ill-advised romance. Partially this was because they didn't know when the show would end, and partially it was because of that philosophy shift in character development. The pairing just never really worked.
The myth-arc episodes also suffered tremendously. For years, the backbone of the X-Files had been Mulder's quest to find his sister, Mulder's unearthing of government conspiracies, and the Mulder-Scully relationship. With those first two qualifications being wrapped up in earlier seasons, the only remnant of the "original" X-Files was the Mulder-Scully relationship (with baby William as the conduit)...which was never meant to be at the forefront of the show in the first place. Sure, the super-soldier myth-arc was fascinating, but without Mulder's passion it really became an entirely different show. It doesn't help that even though the producers/writers KNEW Duchovny would only be making a token appearance, the Mulder name is dropped in seemingly every other episode. They couldn't (and chose not to) move on from the departure and were worse for it.
To conclude, due to casting changes beyond the control of the writers/producers, the entire premise of the show shifted from Mulder's quests to the ensemble cast of Scully, Doggett, and Reyes. While I would not say that the show went completely into the tank, by this point it has lost nearly all of the magic that once made the X-Files the best show on the air for many years. Enjoy the season finale ("The Truth"), which does its best to try and explain what happened during the nine years of the show's extended run, but other than that it will likely be a bit of a struggle to buy in to this season.
The X Files: Existence (2001)
In the previous (seventh) season of the X-Files, the Mulder-Scully romantic relationship was cultivated by the writers/producers more than ever before. Thus, as the eighth season dawned without Mulder (David Duchovny signed a limited contract with the show), the tension between Scully (Gillian Anderson) and new agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick), a "by-the-book" skeptic, is wonderful. Let's quickly look at how that tension played into this season's episodes:
Mythology: Unlike previous seasons, this season had many more mythology episodes than ever before. As the season dawns, Scully is paired with Doggett, with their primary task being to determined the whereabouts of Mulder. Once Mulder is found (dead or alive, I will not reveal) the mythological focus shifts towards a new sort of government/alien conspiracy...enhanced human beings ("Super Soldiers") meant to pave the way for colonization. While the added number of mythology episodes was exciting, the dramatic material often seemed a bit contrived. The quandary the writers/producers found themselves in was that they did not know when the show would end. Essentially airing on a season-by-season basis at this point, the mythos of the show was conflicted between providing answers to previously-asked questions and creating new material.
Also present throughout the entire mythology of this season (and coming to a head in the two-part season finale) is Scully's mysterious pregnancy: Who is the father? Is the baby "normal"? This is quite a compelling thread, as it gives Anderson a chance to shine alone.
Stand-Alone: After some sub-par stand-alone efforts in Season Seven, the addition of Doggett really livened up the stand-alones this season. The tension between the now-believing Scully and the procedural Doggett is a great dramatic tool, as Scully must learn to not always "think like Mulder" while Doggett learns to take a few leaps of faith. Only 1-2 "clinker" stand-alone episodes exist during this season, with "Roadrunners" being an all-time classic.
To conclude, the Eighth Season of the X-Files succeeds in breathing new life into a show that began showing its age in Season Seven. Yet, as is true in most media efforts, nothing is as good as the original. The witty Mulder-Scully banter is no more, no humorous episodes appear this season, and the mythology plotlines often do not jive with previously established material. While not measuring up to previous seasons, this season still is a strong effort that contains many compelling hours of drama for X-Files fans.
The X Files: Requiem (2000)
The Seventh Season of the X-Files is when the steam finally ran out of the formula. The mythology had largely been wrapped up the season before, the "new mythology" wasn't given room to grow, and the standalones are more experimental than anything. The biggest problem, however, was the overall lackluster performance given by David Duchovny as Fox Mulder. Gillian Anderson still gives it her all as Scully, but DD had checked out by this point. He wanted out of the show so bad that he was even involved in legal wranglings. As such, he pretty much sleepwalks through most of the episodes, summoning up real emotion only when absolutely necessary.
Some of my thoughts about the season...
-The season premiere ("The Sixth Extinction") is easily the worst of all the seasons to this point. Luckily, it is somewhat redeemed by a strong third act in "Amor Fati". Clearly, the writers thought that this would surely be the final season of the show, so not as much effort was put into the over-arching stuff. A shame, considering I thought that the whole "aliens might be human progenitors" angle was fascinating. It just wasn't given a fair shake. -The episodes "Sein Und Zeit" and "Closure" bring resolution to the exact fate of Samantha Mulder. While highly criticized at the time of airing, repeated viewings have softened my view. By this point, the concept of Samantha was such a small part of the show that I felt her exact fate (I won't reveal it here) was dealt with perfectly and very emotionally. -"En Ami", where Scully takes a trip with old CGB Spender (William B. Davis) is one of the best single hours in the show's history. I sometimes wonder if "The X-Files" would have taken off nearly as hot as it did without them stumbling into Davis' incredible performances. -The episodes "Je Souhaite" (genie unrolled from a rug) and "Signs and Wonders" (religious snake-handling mania) are quality standalones that would fit in any season. "Theef" is legitimately creepy in spots, while "Orison" at least brings back a creepy nemesis. -A lot of mediocre episodes this season. "Amazing Maleeni", "Hollywood AD", "Hungry", and "Goldberg Variation" (to name a few). Also a number of God-awful hours, such as "Rush", "FPS", "Fight Club", and "X-Cops" (though I know some people like that crossover).
When all is said and done, though, this Seventh Season is mediocre because the spark has left pretty much all involved. It was coasting to the finish. Still a few fun and emotional moments, but overall the show wasn't as good in any capacity as it was in its heyday (seasons 2-5). It isn't atrocious, hence the three-star ranking, and has just enough quality moments to be watchable, but overall the acting performances and writing have fizzled.
The X Files: Biogenesis (1999)
Starting with the sweeping landscape shot of Los Angeles, the show's new home after filming five seasons in Vancouver, Canada, the Sixth Season of the X-Files epitomized the concept of change in nearly every aspect. Coming on the heels of "Fight The Future", the writers & producers were "flying by the seat of their pants" for the first time. Chris Carter always had a five-year plan for the show (he wanted to spin it off into a series of movies), but FOX likely made it too lucrative for him to walk away. As a result, this Sixth Season (especially at the very beginning) had a serious change of tone that almost rendered a different (if not altogether bad) show for quite some time.
In regards to the mythology episodes, the season starts with the aptly-titled "The Beginning", in which the "new mythology" plotline is begun, centering on the notion that perhaps mankind is itself extraterrestrial in origin. After a two-part episode ("Two Fathers" and "One Son") that wraps up the original Syndicate mythology by explaining the ultimate fate of the alien-human hybrid program, the finale ("Biogenesis") again returns to the "humans as aliens" plot, where Agent Scully makes the greatest scientific discovery in human history on the African coast. I like how they tied up the Syndicate angle this season, and I was fascinated by the "we are actually part alien" idea (I just wish Season Seven would have done something interesting with it).
Also during this season, the stand-alone episodes were of much more comedic nature, as well as focusing on the Mulder-Scully relationship more than ever. The stand-alones that really shine are "How The Ghosts Stole Christmas" (a merry romp through a haunted house), "Triangle" (a fantastic nod to the Wizard of Oz), "The Unnatural" (Mulder's love of the National Pastime is explored), and "Field Trip" (one of the best episodes, concept-wise, of the entire show). Also, "Dreamland 1 & 2" is a unique two-parter that showcases the humor, fantastical plots, and relationships of the show all at once!
This season will always have special meaning to me, as it was the season I began watching live episodes. As a rookie coming into the show, the comedy and wacky plots featured in show were just "what the show was" to me, and thus I was able to appreciate them fully. After a few re-watches, though, I am always jarred by the sudden change of tone (from serious to comic) and the intense focus on the Mulder/Scully "shippers" (something Chris Carter once said he never wanted to do). The episodes aren't bad, per se, just so different than anything preceding them.
Overall, I was impressed by the mythology episodes this season and intrigued by the inventive concepts of the standalones. While no longer my favorite season of the show, my nostalgia helps me to appreciate the wackier antics a bit more than most.
The X Files: The End (1998)
During the previous four seasons of The X-Files, a similar theme was followed in all of the show's "mythology" (or over-arching) episodes: Agent Mulder (David Duchovny) is the unshakeable believer in aliens, while Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson) is the staunch skeptic. In this Fifth Season, that formula is thrown out the window. Let's quickly examine the three types of X-Files episodes in order to see where the show deviates from that traditional pattern:
Mythology: Picking up from the shocking (yet rather anticlimatic, as you known Mulder really won't be killed off) Season Four finale, in "Redux" and "Redux II" Mulder is given a completely different interpretation about his paranormal findings at that point, perhaps debasing his entire life's work. Later this season (in "Patient X" and "The Red and the Black") Mulder remains skeptical while Scully is drawn (in a very personal way) towards a very Mulder-like paranormal explanation of certain events. Eventually, in "The End", Mulder is again convinced of the continued existence of extraterrestrial life, but that realization is ultimately too late in coming to prevent a terrible catastrophe from striking the X-Files.
Also, "Christmas Carol" and "Emily" are the first Scully-based mythology episodes on the show, in which Scully discovers more information regarding her earlier abduction. While some X-Files fans (including myself) believe that Scully has a difficult time carrying an episode that does not also heavily involve Mulder, other fans find these two episodes to pack a heavy emotional punch.
Stand-Alone: As usual, the quality of the stand-alone X-Files episodes this season is quite high. "The Post-Modern Prometheus" is my favorite stand-alone episode of the entire show, "Kitsunegari" marks the return of an old nemesis, and "Chinga" (penned by master writer Stephen King) has you on the edge of your seat. Also, "All Souls" provides a much deeper and fascinating look into Scully's religious battles than has every been provided before.
Comedic: This season, only "Bad Blood" could be considered a true X-Files comedy episode. It does not disappoint, though, as it is easily the funniest episode in the show's history.
To conclude, the Fifth Season of the X-Files throws a wrench into the seemingly established beliefs of the show's past. While the Scully plotlines are hit-or-miss depending on who you ask, the torment of Agent Mulder in trying to piece together one truth out of multiple lies will have you rooting for his cause harder than ever. The final scene of the season will leave your jaw on the floor, wondering how the show can ever be the same.
Update (12/2015) -Upon a recent re-watch of this season, it is still a five-star effort. However, the "cracks" that begin to form are because of the upcoming movie. "Fight the Future" had already been filmed before the season started, so the writers had to pull a lot of punches in order to get things to line up for the movie airing after the season concluded. The introduction of new character Jeffrey Spender (Chris Owens) doesn't end up working nearly as well as he could, but the mythology is so good at this point that it almost doesn't even matter ("The Red And The Black" is near the top of my favorite mythology episodes of all-time). Standalones are a bit hit-or-miss, but still interesting at the very least.
The X Files: Gethsemane (1997)
The Fourth Season of the X-Files continues to develop the "mythology" plot points of earlier season, while also churning out quality "stand-alone" episodes. Let's examine the three types of episode formats that the X-Files showcases:
1. Mythology: During this season, a Mars rock turns out to be something more than just terrestrial, the Russians begin experimenting with an alien virus, Max Fenig (Scott Bellis), last seen in Season 1, makes a return appearance, and Mulder (David Duchovny) again must choose what to believe surrounding the events of his sister's disappearance. Though the "Tempus Fugit"/"Max" two-part episode falls a bit flat, the other mythology episodes this season are as strong as ever. Perhaps the most important mythological development of this season, however, is Agent Scully's (Gillian Anderson) contraction of a deadly disease which may have been given to her by outside forces.
2. Stand-Alone: Despite a few clunker episodes, this season continued to produce compelling hour-long stories. "Unruhe" focuses on a genuinely terrifying pyschopath, "Home" is so scary that it almost wasn't shown at all, and "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" sheds some light on the shadowy figure's younger years.
3. Comedic: While "Never Again" is very hit-or-miss depending on who you ask, "Small Potatoes" is a hilarious romp that also serves to provide the first hints (however small) of a possible Mulder-Scully romantic relationship.
Overall, the Fourth Season of the X-Files continued to give fans what they wanted...more mythology to endlessly debate online, spooky paranormal creatures, and a few hearty laughs. Also, though I am no expert in this department, the show seemed to have been shot on better film starting this season, as the picture is more crisp and the special effects more incredible.
Update (12/2015) -Upon a recent re-watch, I now consider this to be my favorite single season of this show. Everything is "on point" here: all actors are fully engaged, the mythology is at its peak (especially towards the end of the season), and nearly all of the standalones are very enjoyable. In terms of storytelling and plot, this is the last really tight season of the show.
The X Files: Talitha Cumi (1996)
The third season of the X-Files is widely regarded as the best season of the show at seamlessly showcasing the three areas in which the X-Files came to be known for:
1. First, this season kept progressing the show's "mythology" in fascinating fashion. From the introduction of the shadowy Syndicate (of which the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis is a member) to the continued betrayal of Alex "Ratboy" Krychek (Nicholas Lea), the myth-arc episodes were some of the best in the show's history. A different interpretation of Scully's (Gillian Anderson) earlier abduction is also touched on, as well as a strange alien substance brought up from the depths of the ocean.
2. This season also continued the high-quality "stand-alone" X-File case episodes. "Revelations" probes the religous differences between Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully, "Pusher" introduces a psychologically-terrifying villain, and "Avatar" explores the personal life of A.D. Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi).
3. Finally, three comedic episodes are featured in this season, providing a much-appreciated breath of fresh air to a show that regularly delves into some very serious content. "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" pays tribute to the silent films of yesteryear, "War of the Coprophages" is full of witty Mulder-isms, and "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" is considered the ultimate comedic X-File to this day.
To conclude, the Third Season of the X-Files does a remarkable job of blending an over-arching mythology with single-hour paranormal excursions and short doses of comedy to keep things fresh.
Update (12/2015) -After a re-watch of this season, I actually felt the need to drop the star rating down from five to four. A big reason for this was because the comedy episodes aren't nearly as good in retrospect as they were closer to the live airing. "War of the Coprophages" and "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" just seem odd now instead of inventive. There are also some really strange standalones, as the writers really seemed to branch out into uncharted territory. Still a strong season overall, but I was a bit let down coming off the astounding Season Two.
The X Files: Anasazi (1995)
In the preceding (first) season of the X-Files, the show was meant to be a scary show. Based off of the old "Kolchak: Night Stalker" television show, the X-Files explored paranormal F.B.I. cases dealing with all sorts of spooky phenomena. The core of the show, however, was Agent Fox Mulder's (David Duchovny) pursuit of UFO's (as he believed aliens abducted his sister when he was young) and his pairing with the skeptical Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Yet, during that first season, there was little to no continuity within the "mythology" episodes. Deep Throat (Mulder's secret informant) was the only recurring character, while the UFO/alien plots did carry over beyond a single episode. The Second Season changed all that, providing quality drama in three distinct fashions:
1. First, the coherent "mythology" (over-arching plotlines) of the show was inadvertently created when lead actress Gillian Anderson needed some time off to have a baby. So, show creator Chris Carter had Scully be abducted by aliens (or was it the government?!) and the mythology was off and running. Over the course of this season, Mulder learns more about the mysterious Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis), comes face-to-face with his long-lost sister, and discovers a government cover-up the likes of which has never been unearthed.
2. While developing that mythology, the X-Files also continued to crank out solid "procedural" episodes. "The Host" (a toilet-dwelling monster) and "Irresistible" (featuring a serial fetishist) are two of the creepiest hours of the show ever produced.
3. Finally, with the episode "Humbug" (the investigation of a bizarre circus side-show), this season began the tradition of what are now know as "comedic" episodes. In a show where the subject matter is often quite serious and often disturbing, these comedic episodes (filled with sly humor) were a breath of fresh air.
To conclude, the Second Season of the X-Files is better than the first, as it continues to provide intense drama, while also creating a mythology for the show and introducing humorous episodes.
Update (12/2015) -After a recent re-watch, this Second Season is truly a marvel. It may be my favorite season of the show. The standalones are still original/creepy, while the mythology begins to take root in some epic episodes.