Bingeable TV: The Blacklist

The Blacklist starts with an interesting premise: a fugitive from the FBI’s most wanted list, Raymond “Red” Reddington (played by James Spader) , wanted for two decades, turns himself in to the FBI and promises them that he will help them find international criminals (“the blacklist”). But there is a catch, Reddington will only work with newly-minted FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (played by Megan Boone). It soon becomes apparent that Reddington has a connection to Keen, which Keen herself is unaware at first. As Keen and Reddington work to bring criminals from the blacklist to justice, more and more details about Reddington’s connection to Keen are revealed.

Reddington is a concierge of sorts to many of the planet’s most ruthless criminals and often pits them against each other to capture one of the blacklisters. Reddington was in Naval Intelligence before he went rogue and has knowledge of classified, even damaging national secrets.

Spader is well cast as Reddington, an erudite yet ruthless and deadly criminal with many secrets. Spader plays Reddington as an oily raconteur who doesn’t hesitate to kill enemies if it furthers his agenda; before dispatching an enemy, Reddington’s modus operandi is to regale him/her with a witty or pithy anecdote about a past deal with another criminal .

Likewise Megan Boone is well-cast as a new FBI profiler who is in over her head initially. Boone gives her character a raw physicality which makes her believable as an FBI agent. She doesn’t know whether or not to trust Reddington, he is an internationally wanted criminal after all. But she learns to work with him despite this distrust.

The Blacklist is very addictive; each episode reveals more and more of Reddington, mostly in contrast to the criminals he is bringing down. Rather than the stock villain or hero, Reddington is something of both, although mostly he is a criminal. Usually, bringing down another criminal expands his own criminal empire, ostensibly for the good of the United States.

Worth a look if you like intelligent crime thrillers with international, political implications.

Click on the following links to place holds:

The Blacklist, the complete first season

The Blacklist, the complete second season

-Steve

 

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Blindspot

MV5BMTkxNDc1MTk5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTM4MTc1OTE@._V1_Blindspot starts with an intriguing premise:  a naked woman (portrayed by Jaime Alexander), covered in tattoos, is found stuffed in a duffel bag in the middle of Times Square. It seems as though the woman has amnesia and can’t remember anything about her life prior to being found. Nicknamed “Jane Doe,” the woman is turned over to a crack FBI team headed by Kurt Weller (portrayed by Sullivan Stapleton) after the police find Weller’s name tattooed on Jane’s back.

The tattoos all have symbolic meanings which point to crimes or criminal activities. So the basis for the show is that each week the FBI team deciphers a tattoo with Jane’s help and prevents a crime (also with Jane’s help). Jane quickly demonstrates that she has had extensive training in weapons/shooting, hand-to-hand combat, lock picking, demolitions, foreign languages, etc. Weller is quick to add her to his team but it soon becomes apparent that Jane may be working against the interests of the FBI and even the US Government. As the FBI team and Jane continue to search for information about her identity, the truth is slowly revealed about Jane’s origins.

Blindspot has a lot going for it: Jaime Alexander is excellent as Jane Doe. She brings raw physicality to the role but there is also an undercurrent of vulnerability due to her character’s memory loss. Also good is actress Ashley Johnson as Patterson, a FBI techie/hacker who helps the FBI team navigate the cyber/digital world. In most shows like this, there is the temptation to put her character in glasses to make her look smart, but the writers have opted to write her smart instead; kudos to them. Finally, the action happens at breakneck speed and is fast and furious.

However there are some problems. The writing seems lazy at times: there is nothing novel and the show seems to be a mash up of The Bourne Identity, Memento, 24, The X-Files, The Blacklist, Salt, et al. It defies logic to have a 5′ 9″,  110 lb. woman throw around 6′ tall, 200+ lb. men around like rag dolls, no matter how well trained she is. It also seems that the FBI would not allow an outsider like Jane to join and FBI team, much less give her a firearm and allow her to assist at active crime scenes. To enjoy this show, suspension of disbelief is a necessity.

Worth a look if you like fast-paced action-adventure TV shows with a compelling protagonist.

Skip it if logical inconsistencies and/or lazy writing drive you nuts.

Click on the following link to place a hold:

Blindspot

-Steve

 

 

Essential TV: Better Call Saul

MV5BNjk5MjYwNjg4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzAzMzc5NzE@._V1_Better Call Saul is a spinoff from the acclaimed and wildly popular AMC television show Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul is the backstory of James “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill who was introduced in the second season of Breaking Bad as money-laundering-lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk.)

As the series starts, Saul has made good on his promise to relocate from New Mexico to Nebraska and become a manager of a Cinnabon. He is shown constantly looking over his shoulder to see if the long arm of the law is coming for him. These scenes are set are in the present and shot in black and white to contrast with the the flashback to Saul’s beginnings in Albuquerque. The black and white scenes occur after the events detailed in Breaking Bad.

In the past (now in color) and six years before the events in Breaking Bad, Saul’s origin story starts with him as James McGill, esq., a newly minted lawyer struggling to make ends meet. He works out of a cramped office/washroom in the back of a nail salon. He takes low-paying public defender jobs, defending low-lifes and other bottom-feeder criminal types. As it turns out, he is very good at his job, but it doesn’t yet make him an appreciable amount of money.

Using a flashback within a flashback trope, the series slowly reveals Saul’s beginnings as Slippin’ Jimmy, a low-level con artist and grifter in Chicago. The show effectively details Jimmy’s metamorphoses into Saul Goodman

Characters from Breaking Bad make appearances in Better Call Saul; McGill comes across Tuco (played by Raymond Cruz), the crazed, drugged out meth dealer through a scam gone wrong. Predictably, things go very bad for those who cross Tuco. Saul/McGill shows his prowess as a lawyer in talking Tuco out of executing two hapless accomplices in the scam.

The real standout is the development of McGill’s relationship with Mike “Badass Grandpa” Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks). At first they can’t stand each other, but after reluctantly working with each other, they slowly develop a grudging respect. Mike’s backstory as a dirty cop is fleshed out as well.

Worth a look if you liked the Saul Goodman character from Breaking Bad.

Skip it if you don’t like ethically-challenged lawyer shows.

Click on the following link to place a hold:

Better Call Saul

  • Steve

 

 

 

Bingeable TV: Longmire

MV5BMTgwNzUyNjUxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzgyNjE4MTE@._V1_SY1000_SX750_AL_Longmire is the story of Walt Longmire, the sheriff of fictional Absoroka County in Wyoming. As the series starts, Longmire is looking into the death of his wife which may or may not have been caused by foul play. Assisting him are Longmire’s attorney daughter, Cady (played by Cassidy Freeman) and Longmire’s best friend, Henry Standing Bear (played by Lou Diamond Phillips.)

Longmire also has to cope with re-election as one one of his deputies, Branch Connally (played by Bailey Chase) is running against him for Sheriff. Connally is the son of a local wealthy landowner, so he has money to back his bid for Sheriff.

Australian Robert Taylor is perfectly cast as Longmire, who is unflappable and charismatic, yet is still reeling from the recent death of his wife. Taylor delivers his lines in a perfect, flat Midwestern drawl; it’s hard to believe he is really from Australia.

Rounding out the cast are Katee Sackhoff as “Vic” Moretti, Adam Bartley as “The Ferg (Longmire’s deputies), and A. Martinez as Jacob Nighthorse (Longmire’s nemesis.)

Much of the series deals with issues of Native Americans living on a nearby reservation. Relations with the tribal police are strained due to Longmire’s arrest of the former police for corruption. There is palpable distrust between the whites and the Natives.

Each season is only 10 episodes, so the writing is lean, spare and only focuses only on plot development. There is no fluff to distract from the narrative. Longmire is played as a good man, but with flaws. Another nice touch is that Longmire’s love interests are played by age-appropriate actresses (Longmire is in his early 50s.)

Longmire is based on the best-selling series of mysteries by Craig Johnson.

Click on the following links to place holds:

Longmire Season 1

Longmire Season 2

Longmire Season 3

Worth a look if you like compelling police dramas with well-drawn characters.

-Steve

 

Bingeable TV: Orange is the New Black

MV5BMTUyMDA5NTY1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDExODY2OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR6,0,214,317_AL_Orange is the New Black is the story of Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), an upper middle-class WASP woman convicted of criminal conspiracy and sentenced to Federal prison for a drug-related crime committed a decade earlier. Chapman’s  girlfriend at the time, Alex, convinced her to pick up a suitcase full of drug money from an airport. This one-time bad decision came back to haunt her ten years later just before the statute of limitations ran out.

Chapman is a fish out of water: her privileged upbringing did little  to prepare her for the realities of prison: loss of freedom, loss of privacy, and loss of basic human dignity. She has nothing in common with her fellow convicts; she’s wealthier, better educated, and well traveled.

She doesn’t understand prison dynamics and on her first day she insults the cook who prepares the food. The cook starves her for a while in retribution until Piper makes amends. This illustrates Piper’s main problem: she’s spoiled, selfish, narcissistic and very good at making bad decisions.

I liked the series overall, but with two caveats: initially it was hard for me to get into. The first couple of episodes set the background, but they can only go so far, story wise, so I felt they were kind of boring. But with a little persistence, it paid off. I couldn’t stop watching and binged until the final episode.

The other caveat is that it did become a bit melodramatic. There was a story arc with Piper, Alex, her former lover, and her frustrated fiance.

One interesting point the show keeps making is that many of the women are there because of circumstance. Many are only tangentially involved in criminal activity or in the wrong place at the wrong time. It raises the question of whether the inmates “deserve” their punishment or not. Piper clearly does, she made as stupid mistake and was caught and punished, but with a relatively light sentence due to a plea bargain. For the other women, it is more ambiguous. Flashbacks show how individual characters came to be incarcerated and the circumstances which cause them to make bad decisions and ultimately incarcerated for them. We see that while the criminal justice system is black and white, the circumstances which caused each woman’s incarceration are not.

Another point the show makes is that the correctional officers and other prison officials are committing crimes just as bad, if not worse, and really deserve to be in prison. But due to the warden wanting to avoid scandal, their crimes are overlooked an/or swept under the rug.

This TV series is based on the best-selling book of the same title written by Piper Kerman.

Click on the following link to place a hold:

Orange is the New Black Season One

Worth a look for those interested in compelling look into modern day incarceration.

Skip it if melodrama is not your thing.

-Steve

 

 

TV: True Detective

MV5BMjA2NjI1Mzg2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI2MzE1MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_True Detective is an HBO original TV series starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as two Louisiana State Police Detectives trying to track down a serial killer.

Back in 1995, Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey)  is assigned to work with Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) on a particularly brutal serial killing with overtones of Satanism. As the two dig deeper in to the killing, they make connections to other seemingly unrelated deaths and missing person reports. As they investigate, they find ties to very powerful people protecting the guilty.

As the series opens, a new investigation into the serial killings has been opened and 17 years after the fact, Cohle and Hart are brought in for questioning. Initially, this is kind of confusing; we don’t know why Cohle and Hart have been brought in for questioning. But as the show progresses, we find out what transpired back in 1995 and what the connection is to the present.

Both men are tragically flawed: McConaughey plays Rustin Cohle, a brilliant police investigator, but driven to nihilism/pessimism through a personal tragedy. Harrelson plays Marty Hart, a competent policeman whose character flaws and bad decisions keep tripping him up his personal life.

The series is unrelenting bleak; Cohle’s personal tragedy has left his life in shambles. He is shown to be good at police work and especially good at getting suspects to confess. But he has insomnia and works non-stop on chasing down leads even to the point of putting himself in harm’s way to do so.

Hart is shown as competent, but makes bad choices in his personal life. These decisions adversely affect him and his family. He doesn’t know what to make of Cohle, who is obviously smarter, better educated and a better policeman.

The show hooked me from the start due to the strong first episode. While initially confusing, persistence in watching the story unfold makes for very satisfying TV viewing. The story is compelling and only gets stronger as the episodes reveal the plot.

Click on the link below to place a hold:

True Detective

Worth a look if you like well-done, gritty cop shows.

Skip it if you don’t like unrelenting bleak meditations on the nature of evil and its relation to humanity.

-Steve