The Walking Dead

I haven’t made it all the way through The Walking Dead (six episodes left in the seventh season), but I’m confident I’ve seen enough of it to offer an accurate assessment. With the release of the eighth season exactly a month away, why not spend some time talking about everyone’s favorite zombie apocalypse show? (Note: I have no affiliation to the comic series, so my opinions will not take those into account. A TV show should be able to stand on its own regardless of the source material.)

Most people seem to have this love-hate relationship with the show and I absolutely agree with them. Starting with the love, the prosthetic makeup work is outstanding. The artists working on The Walking Dead never tip their hand when it comes to distinguishing between extras and actual undead humans. It’s definitely gross, but it also makes you appreciate the time and effort put into a basic cable TV show.

The Walking Dead can also claim to be one of the shining examples of diversity on television. In a zombie apocalypse, it would make sense for individuals of all backgrounds to band together and the casting department wisely follows through on this logic. From strong female characters like Michonne and Rosita to a non-stereotypical Asian in Glenn, almost any viewer can find someone relatable. It’s still predominantly a white cast, but the lesser-represented characters play significant roles in the action.

However, I can totally see where the hate for this show originates. For one, they frequently sacrifice pace for hypothetical “character development” by devoting an entire episode to just one or two main characters. In the TV world, this is known as a “bottle episode,” often used when a show operates on a lower budget or needs a script on short notice. A great example is Breaking Bad and the episode “Fly” in the third season. Walter and Jesse spend the entire episode in the meth lab, exploring their past actions and regrets. This technique is only used once over the course of the entire show; The Walking Dead clearly doesn’t follow suit and decides to include bottle episodes seemingly every season. The worst one might be “Still” in the fourth season, which only features Daryl and Beth; only the former even comes close to a compelling character. By the end, you’re left wondering, “What’s the point?” Sure, we saw two characters grow closer together, but it didn’t progress the story in any way.

In my opinion, The Walking Dead is more effective when it juggles multiple plotlines in one episode (similar to Game of Thrones). You would never see my favorite show attempt to spend an entire hour with Arya and the Hound because everyone would get bored before long. Yet this show commits the crime over and over; other bottle episodes focus on Morgan, Tara, and The Governor to name a few. All they do is make me wait anxiously for the end so we can hopefully get to some interesting content. What makes this problem worse is never knowing when the bottle episodes are coming because every main cast member is always listed in the opening credits. There are moments of brilliance, but too many low points for this show to be considered one of the best.

Some of these issues could be solved if the show didn’t feel the need to constantly bring in new characters. I understand why the writers feel the urge to spend time with them individually, but if you want to keep the ship from sinking, why not take a step back and just focus on a select few? Combine that with getting rid of the endless walking scenes and the story can proceed in a brisk yet focused manner. I’m guessing the only reason people have continued to watch The Walking Dead even as it nears 100 episodes is because they’re holding out hope for something exciting: a shocking death, a surprise reveal, anything. When Carol’s daughter Sophia was revealed to be locked up in Hershel’s barn the whole time (after the group had spent several episodes searching for her), that was a well-earned and emotional moment. But those come few and far between, leaving most viewers angry and upset that a single show has wasted so much of their time. While I wholeheartedly sympathize with them, I would still recommend watching the show if only for the small number of excellent characters (like the diverse cast listed above) and the engaging antagonists (Shane, Merle, Negan). Just be prepared for long stretches of go-nowhere dialogue and painfully slow camera movements that only drag out the runtime. It feels like Game of Thrones with its tendency to kill off main characters at a high rate, but with less emotional attachment, so…take that however you like.

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The Defenders

Five seasons of superhero shows have led to one glorious team-up with The Discount Avengers…sorry, The Defenders. That’s not a critique; I’m just acknowledging what we all thought when we heard the news. I loved both seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the first half of Luke Cage, but ever since they killed off Mahershala Ali, things haven’t quite been the same for the once-untouchable Netflix Marvel universe. I was still hopeful for the latest installment because I felt like some of the solo characters (Iron Fist) would work better as part of a group. They also cast freaking Sigourney Weaver! Thankfully, I can say that The Defenders gets us back on the right track, albeit with a few bumps in the road, by excelling with the team dynamic and fight choreography aspects.

For all its greatness, The Defenders does start with a choppy and dimly lit Iron Fist fight sequence. Yeah, some people have already tuned out, but stay with me. I silently uttered an “oh no” when I realized how the show ultimately decided to reintroduce us to the world. The rest of the first episode painfully drags as various pieces are shuffled around (that “coffee” scene between Claire and Luke Cage: totally unnecessary) that don’t give you anything rewarding to hold onto. Not until the third episode with Netflix’s classic hallway fight scene does this show really begin to pick up.

In his own review of the show, Chris Stuckmann perfectly summed up why The Defenders works. Rather than try to come up with something better, I’ll just paraphrase what he said. The four heroes don’t just decide to come together and fight bad guys on a whim. They’re established as completely different and damaged people whose responsibilities happen to converge on the same location. It’s not going to be jokes and quips every minute like the Avengers either; each Defender wants to approach fighting the Hand differently and it leads to some interesting conversations between them (as well as some disagreement and infighting).

Part of that rift is caused by Sigourney Weaver’s character Alexandra, who’s revealed to be the leader of the Hand. Her villainous turn is one of the better entries in all of Marvel due to her composed and well-spoken manner. She doesn’t seem evil at first (in her first scene, the doctors inform her that she’s dying) and her motivations for using the Hand to search for immortality don’t seem so terrifying. I especially appreciated her reasoning of a war only working if both sides think they’re the good guys. The best antagonists don’t try to be outlandish or openly evil; Alexandra’s ability to work behind the scenes to manipulate the Defenders shined in every episode. I’m just a little sad they didn’t use a legend like Weaver more.

Aside from the horrendous editing in the first fight, The Defenders (with the same creative minds behind Daredevil) corrects course and gives us not only the hallway fight scene, but also a glorious 360-degree shot in the finale. Finn Jones finally looks competent enough to not require 5-6 cuts for a single punch. There’s probably less overall action than a show like this would preferably have, but considering that some of these characters would rather choose not to fight, it’ll do.

However, even with the Ant-Man syndrome confirmed, Iron Fist is still the weakest link in The Defenders. His back-and-forth with Luke Cage is promising, but he retains the brooding and annoying persona that sunk his standalone show. It doesn’t help that most of the conflict solely revolves around his character with the Hand searching for him to complete their mission. This leads to A LOT of screen time for Danny Rand, so if you already hated him, you might lose patience very quickly. It does lead to more interactions with Colleen, the actual best character from Iron Fist, so that’s a plus. Speaking of side characters, many of them are largely pointless; the only ones that matter are probably the aforementioned Colleen, Claire, and Misty Knight. The rest are just there for familiarity purposes; remember Karen and Foggy? Yeah, they’re still…alive. The show would’ve benefited from spending less time with them and more with the main four.

In summary, The Defenders successfully washes the bad taste of recent misfires out of our mouths. All the characters you love are back, with Jessica Jones and her deadpan humor standing out to me. It excels at a realistic portrayal of teamwork and its struggles. The fight scenes could’ve used better lighting, but I enjoyed most of them. Expectations should be lowered somewhat, but it was fun hanging out with these characters again (think Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 quality).

Master of None

I’m probably coming into this review with a completely different mindset because I’m not familiar with Aziz Ansari’s work. I always just assumed he was funny from other people’s opinions and the fact that Parks and Rec was an incredibly popular show. Somehow, I managed to avoid everything he made (including that pizza delivery movie he made with Jesse Eisenberg or something). But after hearing about Master of None and its unanimous 100% rating for both seasons on Netflix, I decided to check it out one night with my roommate. Boy, was that an uncomfortable experience due to the opening sex scene. I wasn’t fully sure how I felt after watching the first episode (I mean, there were a few funny parts, but nothing really stood out), so I decided to put it aside for a while. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I revisited the show that I began to discover the genuine human story behind Master of None.

The structure of the show is quite unique. It is comprised of episodic vignettes centered around Ansari’s character Dev and his friends hanging out in New York. For some, this might be a bit disorienting; most people like their TV shows to tell a complete linear story from beginning to end. I was similarly skeptical after watching an episode that had no ties to the previous one. But at the same time, I recognized it as an ingenious technique; for most Americans, this is how life operates on a day-to-day basis. We experience random events that don’t depend on prior knowledge but rather instantaneous feeling. Sure, Master of None carries through several storylines that you would expect from television like the romantic subplot, but it largely allows the audience to walk alongside Dev and discover new things with him. I don’t think we get enough of that in this day and age.

If the show had just focused on Dev, I doubt it would be as strong. Thankfully, our energetic protagonist is joined by some memorable sidekicks like his awkward white friend Arnold, the non-stereotypical Asian friend Brian, and the lesbian black friend Denise (who’s probably the funniest of them all). This is an excellent case study where I don’t think they’re stunt-casting diversity. It really seems like Ansari, who I’m sure borrowed a lot from personal experience, would actually have friends like them and you can tell by their onscreen chemistry that all the actors work well together. Also included are Dev’s parents (played wonderfully by Ansari’s real mom and dad) and what I consider a breakout role from Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). It’s hard not to like any of the characters, making the show infinitely easier to watch.

But what makes Master of None truly worthy of that perfect Rotten Tomatoes score is its commentary on real-life issues. The obvious ones include relationships and racism, but others cover coming out to your parents, equal representation in media, family religion, and having kids. I may not necessarily agree or identify with everything this show decides to discuss, but it paints a realistic portrait of everyday Americans (and to a greater extent, human beings in general). Some of these are issues that people of a different skin color or sexual orientation have to struggle with and they often get pushed under the rug in favor of less controversial storylines. Master of None boldly explores those topics without forcing you to accept their worldview. Especially concerning shows with heightened versions of reality, honesty is an absolute necessity and it provides that in spades.

Still, I can find flaws with the show, particularly regarding some of the jokes. A surprising number of them just didn’t land with me for some reason, many of them from Arnold. While an endearing character, it seemed like the writers were desperately trying to make him look cool by delivering quirky lines that no one else would say. Sure, there may actually be people who act just like him, but it didn’t work all the time for me. Maybe the bar was set way too high (it’s pretty rare for anything mainstream to receive a perfect rating), subconsciously making me believe that every joke landed right on the money. Nevertheless, Master of None balances it out with exchanges like this one that perfectly line up with my experience:

Arnold: Dude, I’m hungry too. Let’s eat. I’m good with whatever.

Dev: Why do people always say that? That’s no help at all. “I’m good with whatever” basically means “I’m bad at helping decide things.”

I’m sure if you were a big Aziz Ansari fan before Master of None, you will absolutely love a show that perfectly fits his beaming personality and showcases his skills as a jack of all trades (actor, writer, director). But for me, this also served as a great introduction to his comedic genius. The guy just gets humor and delivers it well, elevating everyone around him. The production value is top-notch for a Netflix original series; I was impressed by the smooth camerawork and the use of music playing over dialogue-free scenes. The celebrity cameos are also nicely woven into the show without fanfare (my favorites are Claire Danes and Angela Bassett). You can jump in with any episode and have a good time. If this seems like too much praise, it’s well-deserved. Master of None may not be a 100% in my book, but it sure comes close. Now I should go back and watch Parks and Rec.

Friends

Guest writer #3 is Matt Khor, my most recent roommate and the one who first suggested I watch Friends (thank goodness he did). We served many years together on worship team, so I know he also loves movies and TV (even though, as of this writing, he’s never seen Jurassic Park). Enjoy his thoughts on Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross!

People who know me know that I love Friends. It is both my most recommended and most watched TV show to date, but despite my love for the show, it has always been hard for me to articulate exactly why I enjoy watching it so much – and no, it’s not just because Jennifer Aniston plays Rachel. This is an enigma known to many people: we become attached, enamored even, to things of relative inconsequence like TV shows, movies, or books. Such objects hold our attention so successfully that we can recite lines from them as easily as (and in some cases, more easily than) the required readings from our textbooks or work manuals.

By my own admittance, my love for Friends could be placed into the aforementioned category. I have forgotten whole courses worth of material in lieu of Joey’s correction of “moot point” into “moo point.” There have been days where watching Ross cook without oven mitts or Chandler make gargling noises for the umpteenth time was more important to me than any of my other more useful pursuits. I’ve noticed as I watch these episodes time after time that what I love most about many of them has changed drastically over time. What I first cherished was the witty humor of the writing and the great chemistry between the actors. Over time, however, I’ve grown to notice a new love of the show: not of the content per se, but of the fun that I can have without the risks that accompany real life. With my real-life friends, any number of errant jokes may hurt someone’s feelings and a situation that may be treated with brevity onscreen, such as forced time off work for Ross, can have dire consequences for a real-life friend. With my TV “Friends,” all I have to do is sit back and enjoy the banter – no risk involved because I know it isn’t real and the stories I see will be wrapped up neatly and nicely. In a way, this is what all modern entertainment offers us today: a window to laughter and adrenaline, without any of the troublesome risk or effort on our part.

However, as anyone who has ever loved a TV show knows, the fun must end eventually. The panning shot over Monica’s empty apartment eventually turns up onscreen, and we must come to terms with the end of the world we’ve spent so much time immersing ourselves in. I submit that our reaction should not be to simply dive into that world again, as I have been so guilty of doing. Instead, it’s to realize that even the best fiction is inspired by the world we live in right now. The great feelings we feel when we watch our favorite shows are, in some way or another, drawn from the real-world experiences of writers, directors, and actors. There is no Sherlock without real investigations, no Suite Life without real childhoods, no Friends without real friends. Even the most ridiculous notions of high fantasy and science fiction come from imaginations drawing upon the real world.

The realization of this real-world inspiration should result in not burying ourselves within the facsimile once more, but going out and experiencing the real thing. When someone describes a great experience, the usual response is not to ask for a repetition of the description, but rather a desire to experience for ourselves. Likewise, the TV shows and movies we watch should inspire us to explore the world which inspires the great high fantasy epics, to create and discover the technology of science fiction. We will find that our enjoyment of these passions will grow larger than our enjoyment of shows that inspired them. I can say from personal experience that although my love for Friends is great, it is merely a shadow of the love I have for my own friends.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

What is up with that Inhumans trailer? Who thought giving another show to Scott Buck, the “creative mind” behind Iron Fist, was a good idea? I ask this because Agents of SHIELD has already proven successful at handling Inhumans while simultaneously differentiating them from the other superheroes of this world. Sure, there were a few early bumps in the road, but the first official MCU TV show has found its stride and erased the need for another one that focuses on enhanced individuals. But we’re getting it anyway because Hollywood doesn’t know how to leave well enough alone.

For most basic cable TV shows, I think they traditionally need a few episodes to gain traction. Agents of SHIELD fits that mold because the pilot leaves you wondering, “Why should I care about any of these characters?” You recognize Agent Coulson from The Avengers, but his reintroduction only raises more questions due to his apparent death at the hands of Loki. Thankfully, it doesn’t take too long for the team to display some endearing qualities; once we see them put aside their differences to defeat a common enemy in the second episode, we understand why we should care about agents like Melinda May and FitzSimmons (so adorable). I think that any show with a central team needs to do a similar thing to engage the audience; when you put the characters in peril and then show them working together, you feel invested in the outcome rather than just plain bored. Honestly, it’s hard to explain why you latch on to certain TV characters and not others, but the Agents of SHIELD team quickly becomes one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the performances by all involved or their seemingly effortless ability to bounce ideas off each other. Nevertheless, they quickly recover from a rocky beginning.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a long tradition of including post-credits scenes in their movies and it clearly carried over to the television world. However, I think it works more effectively for the latter because you know you’re getting a new episode every week, so you don’t have to wait several months to find out what Nick Fury was talking about. In Agents of SHIELD, there are several jaw-dropping final moments that successfully whet your appetite without making you sit through 10 minutes of credits. The first major surprise has to be supposed good guy Grant Ward revealing his allegiance to HYDRA, killing a high-ranking SHIELD agent, and joining forces with the Clairvoyant (RIP Bill Paxton). From there, the stakes are significantly raised, resulting in some quality television for multiple seasons.

One area where Agents of SHIELD will continue to suffer is the constant references to other MCU properties. I understand that there needs to be some sort of continuity and it’s often used for comedic effect, but it definitely gets annoying knowing we will never see RDJ or Chris Evans actually make an appearance. After introducing the Inhumans and now Ghost Rider (thankfully not played by Nicolas Cage), I think the show can stand on its own without having to rely on stealthy tie-ins to keep viewers engaged. The only exception is the ripple effect from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. With the revelation that HYDRA had secretly operated within SHIELD for decades, the show takes a turn into darker territory that propels an up-to-this-point lackluster story into an action-packed thriller.

The latest fourth season (now available on Netflix) also introduces some important real-world concepts like artificial intelligence. After the disastrous results with Ultron, Agents of SHIELD takes that initial idea and expands on it with AIDA and her quest to take over the Framework. It paints a scary but realistic portrait of technology that incorporates everything from virtual reality to alternate timelines. Not anything we haven’t seen before, but a logical next step for a show whose premise could ultimately end up repetitive. There is also a subtle commentary on the current presidential administration with the presence of a terrorist group hunting down Inhumans simply because they aren’t like us. Movies like The Dark Knight proved that the superhero genre can serve a greater purpose and Agents of SHIELD strives to do the same. I’ve heard some people say they stopped watching after the first few episodes, but if you can manage to get past that, I think you will be rewarded with some actual thought-provoking content.

In summary, Agents of SHIELD is a definite recommend for anyone who professes to be a Marvel fan. It expands the lore of the universe and introduces compelling new characters who may one day cross over into the movie side. It employs the traditional Marvel brand of humor, but it’s not afraid to explore deeper themes when given the opportunity. While it’s certainly cool to see the big superheroes, Agents of SHIELD reminds us that there are still ordinary people on the ground fighting to survive and, in some cases, support those same heroes. I think there is something for everyone here, but you should find out for yourselves.

ALF

Got another Throwback Thursday TV show for you and it’s one that premiered all the way back in 1986. I was first introduced to ALF by my good friend in middle school Ian Bateman; this was also the guy who convinced me that The Princess Bride (now my favorite movie ever) was not a “chick flick.” I’ll admit I was skeptical; after all, what kind of family sitcom adds an alien life form and expects to succeed? Well, to my surprise, ALF combines heart and humor into a weird but glorious package. Thanks again Ian!

It’s hard to sum up the entire show succinctly because of all the adventures ALF goes on, but they range from the predictable to the truly insane. From camping with the Tanner family to dealing with the dreaded Melmacian hiccups, the alien never fails to deliver the laughs for the studio audience. I realize that I’m probably not making any sense right now, but if you look up clips on YouTube, you’ll see what I mean. Clearly, this was a different time for television, so the quality may not hold up to today’s standards, but I often found myself replaying several episodes for the entertainment value. They even had several guest stars that I didn’t realize were famous until much later (like Ben Stiller’s mom Anne Meara and a teenage Carla Gugino).

There is one infuriating thing about ALF that may make viewers shy away and that’s a cliffhanger ending. I’m not talking about a recurring theme though; the show literally ends with (SPOILER) ALF surrounded by the Alien Task Force, the organization that has been trying to capture him from the beginning. We get the classic “to be continued” text and then…nothing. NBC decided to cancel the show after the last episode was broadcast, leaving its audience in a state of shock and uncertainty (apparently the cliffhanger was resolved in a TV movie, but I never saw it). I certainly can’t blame you for thinking this would ruin your viewing experience.

I also discovered much later that production of ALF was very grueling on the actors and crew. The people playing the Tanners were upset that ALF kept getting all the good lines of dialogue while having to navigate complex sets with trapdoors everywhere. From what I read, it sounded like everyone involved was incredibly relieved when the show finally ended. This broke my heart a little because for those middle school years, I genuinely enjoyed watching all four seasons (favorite episode: the cockroach one if you need somewhere to start). To learn that it wasn’t as fun on the other side diminished the quality ever so slightly.

So will you like ALF? It’s hard to say; the visuals leave a lot to be desired (although I will applaud them for making the alien look realistic), but the constant shenanigans are guaranteed comedy. I own all the DVDs, so if you ever want to borrow them and see for yourself, be my guest. Just don’t bring your cat.

House of Cards

To celebrate the release of the fifth season, this post will cover House of Cards. But I won’t be the one writing about it. I’m proud to introduce the second guest writer for Differing Opinions (and first since last July): Patrizia Man! We go way back…to 2014 when we were part of the same college fellowship and served together on worship team. She is an avid fan of the show, probably more than me, so I have tasked her with describing her overall experience with Frank Underwood and company. Enjoy!

Antiheroes are all the rage these days. And I do think that when the character is done right, villains can be way more complex and interesting than the heroes. In celebration of the new season, I was invited to write about House of Cards which features a villainous POTUS who people love to root for. This post involves important plot points from Seasons 1-4 though, so read at your own risk if you’re not caught up with the show yet.

I came across the DVD box set of the first season and it only took the first episode to get me hooked; I didn’t even know what Netflix was back then. Needless to say, I finished the whole first season in a couple of days and four seasons later, it remains one of my favorite shows (after Sherlock and Breaking Bad). One of the biggest draws of this show is definitely David Fincher, who serves as one of the executive producers and directed the first two episodes of the first season. He’s one of my favorite directors and his distinctive style definitely got me even more interested in the show. Fincher’s involvement also led to a perfect cast for the show; I can’t imagine anyone other than Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright playing Frank and Claire Underwood respectively.

In general, the main storyline of each season can be summarized in one simple sentence Season 1: Frank’s revenge plot and attempt to become the VP; Season 2: Frank’s plot to get rid of the then-POTUS (who’s a bit of a moron); Season 3: Frank doing random stuff with the Russian president; Season 4: Frank trying to win the election to stay in power. The show works best when Frank has a clear singular goal to achieve, which is why Season 3 was so boring when Frank didn’t have that (even when Lars Mikkelsen plays a terrific Russian president). The show also succeeds when Frank and Claire work together as a single entity. In my opinion, they are one of the best power couples ever, which is also why Season3 and the first half of Season 4 didn’t work as well for me when the writers pitted the two characters against each other.

So I guess by now you know which season is my least favorite. Fourth-wall breaking is an important element in the show, as it humanizes Frank Underwood and connects the audience to his inner thoughts. When Frank basically stopped doing it in Season 3 and the first half of Season 4, you got the impression that Frank didn’t care about his audience anymore. But it also made the second half of Season 4 so much more delightful when he turned to the camera once again and told the audience that he’s back after a nearly-fatal attempt on his life. And I literally flipped out when Claire joined him at the very end of Season 4 and the two of them stared dead straight into the camera. It was the best ending scene of any season ever. My favorite episode, though, has to go to the first episode of Season 2. It quite literally started the season off with a WHAM! and delivered one of the most shocking plot twists in the show.

All things considered, House of Cards is as binge-worthy as everybody else is saying and you should definitely watch it if you haven’t yet!