TV REVIEW | Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1

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Star Trek: Discovery, the latest television entry in the 50 year old franchise, wrapped up its first season on Sunday night. That in itself is an accomplishment for a show that had a fairly messy road to the airwaves. Initially pitched and run by Bryan Fuller, the show’s crew experienced a significant shake-up during the production process which included Fuller ultimately leaving the project entirely. New showrunners took over and the episode order actually grew from 13 to 15. All that turnover resulted in a season that was sometimes rough, sometimes great and always messy.

SPOILERS FOLLOW


Bringing Star Trek back to its television roots in 2017 was a tricky task. For one thing, Trek has historically been an optimistic look at the future of humanity where conflict-free teams of people work together to fight for justice and peace and explore new worlds in hopes of adding to their knowledge and diversity. But the era of Peak TV was built on the stories of difficult men (Mad Men) and complicated conflicts (Game of Thrones) and suffering (The Walking Dead). Then you’ve got the latest era of gritty reboots (Justice League) and distrust of established institutions like our own government and justice system (the United States of America). These ideas seem rather antithetical to those of Gene Roddenberry and yet Gene always wanted to use his stories to challenge us to be better. Watching the original Star Trek series you’ll see loads of allegory about 1960’s America, race and war. JJ Abrams rebooted the movie arm of the franchise almost a decade ago and many would say he strayed too far outside the lanes (especially with Star Trek Into Darkness) with the grittiness and distrust. Would “Disco” follow suit or try to course correct a bit by attempting to be relevant while still optimistic? The answer is complicated.

The storyline of Discovery centers on Michael Burnham, a female first officer on the USS Shenzhou. They are drawn into a conflict with the Klingons and Burnham becomes convinced that they must fire first and display their strength to these warrior aliens. Her captain, Phillipa Georgiou, disagrees. Burnham is so convinced of her position that she commits mutiny in order to fire on the Klingons. In the end, Georgiou is killed by the Klingons and Burnham is court martial-ed and sent to prison. It’s a compelling start to the story.

We finally meet the USS Discovery and Captain Lorca, a brooding captain who is hellbent on winning this new war with the Klingons. He intercepts Burnham’s shuttle on its way to prison and takes her on as a sort of consultant for some reason. And we finally have our main crew set for this season. From there, things diverge and get complicated.

The writers of Discovery have so many interesting ideas for stories and basically decide to use all of them in these 15 episodes. We’ve got the Klingon war, we’ve got dangerous new technology that comes with a human cost, we’ve got Harry Mudd, we’ve got Klingon double agents and PTSD, we’ve got secret Starfleet warmongering and we’ve even got Mirror Universe shenanigans. Some of these things work better than others, but as the season winds down it all gets tangled and rushed to conclusion. They probably would have been better off trying to stay a bit more focused than to try all these different scenarios out at the same time.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some really great things in the first season. Michael Burnham is a great character. The one thing that worked really well in the season finale was closing her loop. In the end, she stands up against genocidal tactics to beat the Klingons in the war, displaying the growth she’s experienced this season. And they even wrote in some backstory about her birth-parents being murdered by Klingons while she hid in a cupboard as a child. And there was that bit about how she fell in love with a guy who turned out to be a Klingon in disguise… sort of. So her standing up to authority by advocating for a more peaceful resolution to the war with the Klingons was an on-the-nose depiction of her growth as a character.

Captain Lorca was also a very nuanced and interesting character and the reveal that he was from the Mirror Universe was pretty cool (even though a lot of people figured it out ahead of time). The Mirror stuff was definitely some of the strongest of the season and the visuals were great. I would be interested to see if we got more Lorca in Season 2, because although he perished we didn’t see his Prime Universe counterpart at all.

I also really, really liked Saru as a character. We saw lots of captains and acting-captains, but he was the best of the bunch, especially towards the end of the season. He showed firm resolve and level-headed thinking that most other characters really struggled with. Not sure why he wasn’t going to be promoted to captain in the final episode.

Of course we have to talk about Stamets, the scientist who piloted the spore drive. Much digital ink was spilled about how great it is to have a gay character and a gay couple (with Dr. Culber). And then they had Dr. Culber get killed, triggering a backlash that was swift and incredulous. I was more concerned about how Stamets basically disappeared for the final couple of episodes as his arc wrapped up early. Lots of people got killed in this season so it’s not that unfair that one of them was Dr. Culber. It’s a standard trope in TV to make the audience grow to love a character only to kill him/her off to trigger that emotional response.

Shazad Latif did a great job as Ash Tyler / Voq. His tortured character really tore up the screen a few times during the season and the way he performed the Klingon dialog was the best I’ve ever seen in the franchise. The conclusion of his arc was pretty lame though. It just doesn’t seem plausible that after everything he would go off with his Klingon torturer to attempt to unite the Klingon empire under her leadership. The writers probably weren’t quite sure what ending would make sense for him, so the threw this one against the wall. Meh.

Oh, and Tilly. Tilly was great. A sharp, funny and grounded character that was completely new to the Trek template! She had some great one-liners and her infectious smile and wide eyes were a great balance to Burnham’s constant angst.


The big theme throughout the season was “identity”. So many characters had dual identities either within themselves or thrust upon them or they came face-to-face with an inverse version of themselves.

Burnham is, like her foster brother Spock, split between her human nature and her Vulcan upbringing. She consults her Vulcan foster-father Sarek a few times throughout the season and is told to seek the logical solution to her problems. She also reckons with the fact that she’s naturally rather hot-headed and compulsive, which immediately gets her into trouble.

The Mirror Universe mini-arc gives plenty of opportunity to show us the evil twin (or good twin) versions of the characters and asks us to grapple with the idea that the propensity for evil is within everyone. Some people are able to operate very well in the hostile Terran Empire, so what does that say about them? It says that our heroes are really only a few decisions away from being villains. Captain Lorca, it’s revealed, has been living a double life ever since he and his Mirror version were swapped a few years back. He is able to function well in the Prime Universe because the Prime Universe is at war, something he’s all too familiar with. So the idea that war allows evil men to thrive when they otherwise probably wouldn’t is an interesting one.

And then there’s Tyler, who is literally inhabited by the person of Voq. When Voq finally begins to surface and torment Tyler, a real identity crisis happens. It breaks up all the relationships he had forged once he reached the Discovery from captivity – especially his romance with Burnham. In the end, he basically makes peace with the fact that he’s going to be both Tyler and Voq forever because Voq’s memories are going to be a permanent part of him.

In the end, Burnham’s speech puts a cap on the theme as she points out that “we are Starfleet” and that means something. They will not give reign to the base compulsions that rule the Klingon ideology and are latent in their own hearts and minds. They will not “drop the bomb” on Kronos. But the alternative they’re willing to allow is to install a leader who will unite the Klingon empire and potentially cause more problems for the Federation down the road. It’s a questionable decision, sure, but the alternative is catastrophic violence that that’s not an option. I wish they’d given more time to explore these wartime decisions as they are very interesting to consider and fit well with the big question of identity that faces nations today. Who are we? What are we willing to do to preserve our way of life? Is war always necessary to maintain peace? Etc. These are questions that are given some airtime in another great Trek series: Deep Space Nine.


So yes, I think the show suffered from too much story. Still, it brought Trek back to the small screen and did a pretty bang-up job of it all things considered. The show has been renewed for a 2nd season, so hopefully some stability behind the scenes goes a long way to settling things down a bit and making a good show with the remaining cast members. They kept plenty of the Trek DNA, but twisted it a bit to fit with the 21st century way of doing narrative television. Hopefully they come back with a more cohesive idea for the season.

And I know we don’t NEED so much fan service, but the final scene was really, really spectacular.

 

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SPORTS | Stray Observations from Super Bowl 52

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My hometown of Minneapolis hosted the Super Bowl this year and the city was buzzing all week. Sunday was finally the big day. Here are some stray observations about the event which featured a football game between the Patriots and Eagles along with some other stuff.

The Game

My Vikings got steamrolled by the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. No one expected that to happen, especially because the Eagles were playing with their backup QB after MVP candidate Carson Wentz tore his ACL. But Nick Foles sliced and diced the Minnesota defense, proving that head coach Doug Pederson was a QB whisperer and the Eagles were a good team. But could they be expected to hang with the Dynasty Patriots? I thought so and picked them to win the game with something like a 24-21 score. I was half right.

The game turned into the biggest offensive showing the NFL has EVER had and the Eagles walked away with a victory. Foles was the game’s MVP and Brady and the Patriots never had control of the game at any point (even when they led in the 4th quarter).

The Pats tried this trick play where Brady catches a pass, but Brady couldn’t haul in Amendola’s pass.

What’s crazy is that they Pats ran this play against the Eagles back in 2015, only the 38 year old Brady held on back then.

Then, if you needed any more proof that Coach Pederson is a madman, the Eagles tried a version of the same play near the goal line and Foles converted for a TD!

If anyone told you early in the season that Nick Foles would catch a TD in the Super Bowl, you’d have them committed. But he caught 1, threw 3 and won MVP. Insane.

The Patriots pride themselves on finding the other teams strength and taking it away from them, essentially making them play left handed. But the Eagles just are left handed by nature. They were the Pats worst nightmare matchup. They fast and loose, going for it on 4th down and just always finding a way to convert. It killed the Pats defense all night. So even though Brady kept putting points on the board, the defense couldn’t stop Foles and company at all.

Which makes you really wonder about why Bill Belichick never used Malcolm Butler on defense. Butler played on special teams, but his spot on the defense was gone. No explanations were given. It seems like either he was sick earlier this week and Belichick worried he wasn’t healthy or he did something to tick off Belichick and that was that. Either way, many are pointing to that decision as part of the reason the Pats lost the game.

It could also be that the Pats were missing one of their best offensive skill players because he was concussed in the 2nd quarter on a very hard (but legal) hit:

But the Pats also had some other uncharacteristic miscues, like some special teams errors that came back to haunt them later. A missed FG here and a questionable reverse attempt on the final kickoff of the game late in the fourth quarter that set them up for a very long field on their final drive.

The Pats had a chance late to take control of the game and that’s when the Eagles line finally got to Brady and made the biggest play of their night.

Even so, when Tom Brady got the ball again while down 8 with under 2 minutes to go, we all thought this game was headed for overtime. That’s what Brady does – works miracles in the 4th quarter. But his Hail Mary pass failed to connect and the game was over.

It’s absolutely insane to think that that Patriots had 613 yards of offense (most ever by a Super Bowl team), 505 passing yards from Brady (most in playoff history), never punted … and still lost the game. To a backup QB. Brady is now 5-3 in Super Bowls.

Does this mean the Patriots Dynasty is over too? With some turnover coming on the coaching staff, Brady’s age and some reported internal organizational strife, it could be.

The Eagles, meanwhile, have some decisions to make too. Their backup QB just won the Super Bowl MVP award. Do they keep him? Probably. As the backup? Probably. Or trade him? Likely. It will be interesting to see how they work the situation.

All in all, it was a great game! And when the Vikings aren’t playing in it, that’s about all I can ask for.

The Halftime Show

I’ll lump the National Anthem in here too. I don’t like Pink (and I refuse to spell it with a !) and when she came on screen and then pulled gum out of her mouth, I was not pleased. Then she sang an okay version of the anthem with (mercifully) not much flair. Her final note was a little sour. Later I learned that she’d been struggling with the flu all week and that was a cough drop she spit out before the song. As a singer, I’ve totally been there and it stinks. I’m giving Pink some grace on this one. There’s no good time to get the flu as a singer, but before singing on the biggest stage – ouch.

Okay, Justin Timberlake. Pretty pedestrian performance. Literally, he was walking and dancing through a Family Circus map of US Bank Stadium while singing some of his forgettable songs. That’s it. No big set pieces or anything. I think the Super Bowl could have used a little more spectacle.

And something just wasn’t right about the vocal mix. It sounded muddy to the point where I couldn’t understand what he was singing. Or maybe his lyrics are so processed and fast that no one could. I know US Bank Stadium is not the best venue for music, but the P.A. feed to TV should have been nice and clear and it wasn’t.

I really liked the University of Minnesota marching band being included. They were great.

And I totally want one of those mic stands for no good reason.

It was fully expected that he would play a Prince song. Every big act who swings through Minneapolis is seemingly required to cover our hometown hero. JT swore he wouldn’t do a hologram duet, but he ended up with a projection of Prince on a sheet anyway. Technically not a hologram, sure….

And this was cool – but totally a CGI insert.

My favorite was the kid in the crowd when JT went up there to sing. He took a selfie and then immediately got bored with what was happening and started checking his notifications or something.

Yep, cell phones and selfies were pretty much the biggest stars of the halftime show, from JT telling people to put their phones up to his final line of the show “Super Bowl selfies!”

Meh.

The Commercials

David Harbour in the Tide ads won the night in our house. His hilarious “No, Tide ad” was great. And the subversive nature of suggesting that all ads featuring clean clothes are secret Tide ads was brilliant. They even crossed the Proctor and Gamble streams a bit and got the Old Spice guy into one.

The Giants had a bad year and their division rival played against their recent Super Bowl opponent in the big game. That didn’t stop the team from putting out a series of very funny commercials for the NFL.

Another corporate behemoth crossed brands a bit when Doritos and Mountain Dew got into a rap battle with Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman. Picking the right spokespeople can make or break and ad and they knocked this one out of the park.

What I really liked were the movie trailers! Oh, and even TV had trailers now because it’s 2018! The coolest drop was the trailer for The Cloverfield Paradox, a new Clover-verse movie that Netflix scooped up when Paramount got gun shy. Netflix dropped the trailer and released the movie when the game ended. Amazing. This is truly the future. I will watch this movie.

The much-anticipated first look at the Han Solo movie also premiered during the game. There’s a LOT of speculation being thrown around about the quality of this movie and the trailer at least makes it look great. We’ll see if the cast lives up to the hype.

Seriously, some of that looks so, so cool.

The first trailer for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was sort of cool I suppose. This trailer is way, way better.

I’ve always loved the Mission: Impossible franchise and it’s increasingly crazy stunts and action set pieces. Fallout seems to keep the tradition of maiming Tom Cruise going for another day. This will be a fun film.

Logic dictated that a new Avengers: Infinity War spot should be included in the Super Bowl. And yeah, they put one out, but it didn’t have quite the wow-factor that some of these other trailers did. And it probably didn’t have to have it. We’re all going to see this movie.

HBO must believe in Westworld and they probably have to since Game of Thrones is ending next year. They splurged and aired a trailer for season 2 of the messy and weird sci-phi-losophy show during the big game. I’m in.

Hulu is trying to get into the big streaming party by putting out some quality original shows. They decided to generate hype for their mysterious show that’s some kind of mash-up of Stephen King stories. No one is really sure what this show is going to be, but Stephen King is very hot right now so they’ll definitely get some eyeballs on Castle Rock.

And finally, The Rock is in a new movie. He needs to save people again. He needs to go into a building on fire to do it. Oh, and he’s got a prosthetic leg. A PROSTHETIC LEG PEOPLE!!

SPORTS | This Feels Familiar

After The Minneapolis Miracle, the Vikings seemed to have destiny on their side going into an NFC Championship matchup against Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. There was a palpable feeling that a “home” Super Bowl seemed to be there for the taking. But on Sunday night, the Vikings’ demons emerged and added yet another scar to the franchises legacy and subtracted another year from the lives of the fans. The season may have felt different, but this feels all too familiar.

When I was a camp counselor we would lead youths in team building activities to challenge and grow them. After each activity, we would sit down and help them process what happened using three basic questions called “The What, the So What and the Now What?” Today we’ll do some processing of what happened on Sunday, what it means for the team and what’s next for my beloved Vikings.

WHAT?

By now you know that the Vikings historically great defense got their butts kicked for 60 minutes on Sunday. The stats are astounding compared to the rest of the 2017 season.

The Vikings were uncharacteristically bad across the defensive board, getting manhandled in the run game and getting continuously torched by Nick Foles and his receivers in the passing game. Everyone from Harrison Smith to Terrance Newman played poorly. Xavier Rhodes was frustrated enough to get into shoving matches late in the game when the score was already out of hand.

It seemed like the defensive scheme from Coach Zimmer was ineffective from the jump. The Eagles spread out the defense with wide sets and picked on the nickle back a bunch in the early going. As the game went on, they didn’t need to pick on any one specific player as the entire defense got shell shocked. Instead of dialing up his signature exotic blitzes in an attempt to rattle Foles, Zimmer elected to mostly let his front 4 work on getting pressure by themselves – which didn’t yield any results. Credit the Eagles O-line for their ability to keep Foles upright long enough to find his open men downfield. Foles looked like a pro-bowler out there. Of all the things that went wrong on Sunday, the implosion of the best defense in the league was the most shocking to witness.

Then again, the Vikings seem to make a habit of letting their statistical strength disappear in the biggest games. The 1998 offense couldn’t score enough in their NFC championship game and Gary Anderson’s 100% success rate also failed. In 2000, the offense was stellar again, but scored 0 against the Giants in their NFC Championship game. And in 2009, Brett Favre’s incredible regular season and Adrian Peterson’s unstoppable running got the team to the NFC Championship game before an INT and a fumble contributed to the shocking loss.

The 2017 offense wasn’t necessarily the strength of the team, but they were able to limit turnovers and use consistent WR play and solid running to capitalize on the defense’s high level of play. On their first drive, the Vikings looked like they were picking up right where they left off – with a nice drive and a TD to Rudolph. On their next drive however, everything changed.

Keenum’s pick six was so unexpected and rough that it threw the entire team into chaos. The Eagles scored the Blount TD on their next drive and suddenly it was 14-7 Eagles and they never looked back. Foles got aggressive, Keenum got tight and the position players all got nervous. And that’s when the Philly crowd started to become a real factor, whipping themselves into a frenzy and making things even more difficult for the Vikings.

As the game continued to get out of hand, the Vikings had no answers and no adjustments could be made to stop the bleeding. It was another Minneapolis Meltdown. The Eagles will play the Patriots in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

Gross.

SO WHAT?

So what does this all mean? For one thing, it means that the Vikings played their Super Bowl game a few weeks early when they beat the Saints in Minneapolis in miracle fashion. That game took something out of the Vikings and exhausted their supply of fight, it would seem. The coaching staff said they worked very hard to banish the euphoric memories of that game from their players’ minds to get them back to task on the Eagles. Still, I think the Vikings looked past the Eagles a bit by thinking that Nick Foles wasn’t going to beat them and they were headed to the Super Bowl. When Foles got off to a good start and the offense turned it over, no one was prepared for that. That’s on the coaches and also on the player leaders. When you get punched in the mouth, you’re supposed to shake it off and hit back harder. The Vikings just didn’t do that.

It means that Case Keenum is good, but he’s not great. In spite of an almost fairy tale season for Keenum, he showed that he’s not a franchise quarterback yet. Some of his throws were ill-advised and he should have been able to feel the pressure on the strip sack play. Of course some of the blame falls on the O-line for not being able to stop the pass rush of the Eagles. And injuries to the line were also a factor. But Keenum spent his capital against the Saints and went into some debt against the Eagles, raising questions about his future role with this team.

It means that the defense finally got solved a bit, probably by Drew Brees and Sean Payton. When the defense let the Saints back in the game in the Divisional Round, we should have known that something was afoot. We all attributed the comeback to Brees and his Hall of Fame talent, but the truth was there were chinks in the armor of the defense that the Saints found and exploited. The Eagles just watched the tapes and put their own spin on the blueprint. Zimmer will need to spend the next few months figuring out how that happened and how he can prevent it from ever happening again.

And it means that lots of changes are coming…

NOW WHAT?

The Vikings now set their sights a 2018 season that will look vastly different from 2017. For one thing, the offensive coordinator who used Case Keenum to get to the NFC Championship game, Pat Shurmur, is now the head coach of the New York Giants. His ability to pivot when Bradford went down before week 2 AND when Dalvin Cook when down in week 4 got all the teams interested in his acumen. So the Vikings are in the market for a new coordinator and are reportedly considering their long-time QB coach Kevin Stefanski along with outside candidates like Darrell Bevell (who coached here under Brad Childress).

Whoever the new coordinator is will also have to work with Coach Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman to decide who their QB will be in 2018. This is a big one. This year the Vikings seemed to have 3 QBs who could potentially start: Bradford, Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater. All 3 of these guys are now free agents. The Vikings need to decide if any of them are worth investing in and whether they should consider attempting to sign one of the bigger veteran names like Drew Brees, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins or even inquiring about trading for Alex Smith (whose time in KC may be up). It’s a real conundrum and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. With a defense that was otherworldly for most of the year and young talent on offense, a good QB could be the thing that gets them to the Super Bowl.

My sense is that the Vikings will have conversations with Keenum about returning, but not at the salary hit that he probably thinks he’s earned. Bradford is likely gone – who wants to deal with his injury history at this point? I could also see them being open to bringing Teddy back as a backup with incentives if he’s pressed into the starting role at some point. The Bridgewater comeback story is just too warmhearted to throw away.

But maybe Zimmer and Spielman realize that the window for the Super Bowl isn’t going to be open very long before these defensive stars need to be payed big, big money. Maybe they let all 3 of these guys walk, make a play for Kirk Cousins, keep Kyle Sloter in the organization (the upside practice squad guy they paid good money for) and draft a QB. Those moves would signal an “all in” for next year whereas retaining 2/3 of this years QB room would tell us they believe small changes are all that are needed (which I’m not convinced of).

The rest of the open questions surround the two lines. The offensive line was much improved this year, but depth was clearly an issue. Many lineman were asked to play out of position to cover the loss of another starter and that had very diminishing returns. On the defensive side, Everson Griffin played hurt for the second half of the season and had trouble producing. On the other side, Danielle Hunter didn’t make his presence felt as much as he should have. The schemes and personnel should be evaluated afresh because they NEED to have more pressure than they were getting in these last two games. They got the opposing quarterbacks very well when they were at home and they did very poorly on the road.

Oh, and we need to get better at the nickle back position. Mackenzie Alexander is decent, but was targeted far too many times because he’s been a weak spot compared to Rhodes and Waynes. I’m assuming Terrance Newman will hang it up (along with Brian Robison), so there’s room to add some fresh legs with talent for underneath coverage. And even though Andrew Sendejo was one of the most improved players this year (per Zimmer himself), there will always be talk of finding a new safety to compliment Harrison Smith (who some call the best player in the NFL).

At its core, this team is still young. Unlike the 2009 squad which featured some “last ride” type players, this team is poised to keep winning for a few more years. In fact, this will probably be the off season that Spielman will need to offer some contract extensions to these guys to keep them in the fold for future Super Bowl shots. It’s definitely going to be an intriguing off season.

As Mike Zimmer said on the radio this week:

“We keep knockin’ on the door, at some point we’re gonna kick that son of a b*tch down.” – Coach Mike Zimmer

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Thanks for a great season, Vikes. I’m mad it ended the way it did, but I’m not giving up. We didn’t make it to the top of the mountain this year, but in the end every team is back at the bottom putting a new plan together. Even the team that wins it all is back at the bottom, they’re just the team that got to walk down under their own power. One of these years, we’re gonna kick that door down and the 2017 season’s failings (joined by the myriad of historical failings) will only make that success sweeter.

I like how Brian Robison put it into perspective:

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Been trying to gather my thoughts and emotions to say what I need to say….. Well this has been one great ride this year. It still hurts very much so and it’s hard to talk about or even think about how close we were. Even though we weren’t able to accomplish our final goal there are so many good things that created memories for a lifetime this season. Number 1, I want to thank God for the opportunities, the people and the gift of eternal life that I have. Number 2, I want to thank my family, friends, and everyone else who has supported me so graciously. •••2a••• thank you to the fishing world for showing such amazing support throughout this season Number 3, I want to thank the @vikings organization for putting together such an amazing Team and the opportunity to be here for it. Thank you to my teammates for putting up with me and being an extension of my family! I’d go into “battle” with you anyway! Number 4, I want to thank the Viking fans for being in full force this year and showing us so much support. I’m sorry we didn’t get it done for y’all this year as you deserve to be called champions. Last and definitely not least, I want to thank my wife and kids. You make it easy to go fight everyday for me to go out and strive for more. Y’all are my why and my everything for being who I am and doing what I do. I love y’all No one knows what the future holds, but one thing I know is I’ll cherish this season not only for the wins and losses, but for the men and women I shared it with. #nfl #minnesota #vikings #football #family #reelemin

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SKOL

SPORTS | This Feels Different

In 2014, I made a rather ill-advised prediction: that one of Minnesota’s four major men’s sports teams would win a championship within the next 4 years. Since then we’ve seen the Minnesota Lynx win some WNBA championships and become a real dynasty (appearing in the finals 6 times and winning 4 championships since 2011!), but there had been little movement for the Vikings, Timberwolves, Twins and Wild.

But ladies and gentlemen,

“I come back to you now … at the turn of the tide.”

Yes, the past year has featured some very exciting developments for the big four Minnesota teams. With time winding down for my prediction to come true, how are we looking? Let’s take a quick run around the Minnesota sports landscape for some updates.

Minnesota Wild

For a while it looked like the Wild were our best hope for a championship. The “Skate-riots” (a play on Patriots) were a budding NHL super team that would surely deliver some deep playoff runs and maybe even an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Well, the hype-train got switched to a much slower track and the buzz surrounding this team has turned into a murmur at best. They’re in the midst of a middling season again now and it would seem that our hopes for a Cup are not going to be realized this year without a significant turnaround. And that’s the extent of my attention on this team.

Minnesota Twins

Going into the 2017 season, a rebuild was underway. The Twins got some new front office voices and shopped some of their talent while betting on the futures of some great young players. It was the right thing to do after a disastrous 2016 season. Then something peculiar happened – this iteration of the Twins turned out to be good! Despite some lingering pitching trouble, the young players like Byron Buxton ascended to incredible heights and veterans bounced back from rough 2016 seasons. They even made it to the Wild Card play-in game, where they lost to the Yankees. Still, it was a completely unexpected success story of a season, giving hope that the retooled front office had a plan that would work rather quickly. Was the season a blip on the radar or an actual first step towards relevance? Next season will help answer that question. Could the Twins win it all in 2018? The odds are definitely not in their favor, but the future is a lot brighter than it was a year ago.

Minnesota Timberwolves

I wrote last year about the furious, win-now moves that Tom Thibodeau enacted in the off season. Bringing in a super star like Jimmy Butler and some grizzled veterans like Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford signaled that Thibs wasn’t ready to concede the next few years to the Warriors and Cavs. He thought his young guys just needed some more positive peer pressure to buy into his master system. So far, the season has proved that the plan can work at least in the short term. The Wolves are sitting in the 4th spot in the tough Western Conference and it seems almost assured that their long, long playoff drought will finally end this season. That in and of itself is a huge success for this franchise. But Thibs certainly won’t be satisfied with a playoff berth and a first round exit. He believes that this team can contend for a title and soon.

Based on the season so far, it’s clear that they are still a work in progress. They’ve dropped games to lowly opponents from time to time and streaky shooting and foul trouble have hampered Wiggins and Towns. Injuries have also be a bit of a problem in this young season. Still, as the team gradually begins to see Butler as their centerpiece, they will only get better. I see them reaching the playoffs (for the first time in TWELVE YEARS!) as a 4 or 5 seed and winning their first round series. From there, the rest of the West might be too tough to break through without an injury on the other side. I’m not predicting a Finals appearance this year, but it’s certainly on the table for 2-3 seasons from now.

Which brings me to the actual best hope for nailing my prediction by the end of 2018:

Minnesota Vikings

As a Vikings fan, I’m always ready for the other shoe to drop. This franchise, for whatever reason, has a way of dangling some hope out there and then knocking the wind out of you with a lead pipe to the gut when you finally decide to reach out for it. But this season feels different.

The team opened the season with a masterful win over the Saints led by Sam Bradford, the player we acquired at great cost last season after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic, non-contact knee injury in training camp. Bradford looked ready to pick up where he left off last year with pinpoint accuracy in his passes and no mistakes. Plus, rookie running back Dalvin Cook carved up the Saints and looked like a rookie of the year candidate. But it didn’t take long for the Vikings to slowly reach for the pipe in their back pocket. Bradford’s knee became a problem and he hit the IR, leaving the team in the care of technically 3rd string QB Case Keenum. Then Dalvin Cook tore his ACL on a non-contact play in a week 4 loss to the Lions at home.

But this season just feels different!

The Vikings didn’t crumble under the weight of these problems like they did last year. Case Keenum put together the best season of his career, doing his best Bradford impression with accurate passes and few mistakes, plus mobility that Bradford only dreams of. The re-tooled offensive line played extremely well and WR Adam Thielen broke out in a big way. And then there’s the defense, which is probably the best unit front-to-back that we’ve ever seen in Minnesota. The Vikings rang up a 13-3 record and earned a first round bye in the playoffs along with the Eagles (who became very vulnerable when star QB Carson Wentz tore his ACL late in the season).

And it just so happens that the Super Bowl is in Minneapolis this year.

Something about this season just feels different!

The Vikings defense is the best in the game, from the line to the safeties. The offense is coolly efficient with a thunder/lightning RB combo, smart and athletic WRs and a QB on a hot streak. The fact that the Super Bowl is in their home stadium is just another incentive to get there and make history.

So I refuse to be the Minnesota sports fan who can’t enjoy the success because he’s bracing himself for a hit to the stomach.

These are not the 1998 Vikings (Gary Anderson missed FG at home against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2001 Vikings (41-0 loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2009 Vikings (Favre interception / 12 men penalty against Saints in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2015 Vikings (Blair Walsh missed easy FG against the Seahawks at TCF Bank Stadium in the Wild Round).

In the words of Kylo Ren:

These are the 2017 Vikings!

And they just might be headed to Valhalla.

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Top Television of 2017

EOTY 2017 TV

Television continues to be a haven for creative minds to flex their muscles and craft some very compelling narratives. It was honestly hard to rank the shows I’ve enjoyed this year and I left a few off that were quite good. But here’s my list.

10. GLOW (Netflix)

I was surprised by this show. It’s super fun, a little campy and has a lot of heart to it. It’s a great drama with some great performances from the ensemble cast. Lots of complicated characters that your really start to like and root for in the end. And Mark Maron was really, really good.

9. Game of Thrones (HBO)

Oh Game of Thrones, you vexed me this year. Last season was so, so good as the show moved beyond the storylines of the source material and capitalized on the freedom that afforded them. This year, it seemed like they might not know how to land the plane on such a short runway. There were some great visual spectacles, but some creative choices felt really contrived and implausible, like the characters forgot who they were for awhile. Don’t let us down, GoT!

8. Last Man on Earth (Fox)

This show continues to be a totally absurd joy to behold. They continue to slowly tease out some of the PTSD elements of surviving the apocalypse while also letting these insane people bounce off each other in increasingly bizarre ways. I love it.

7. Better Call Saul (AMC)

The definition of slow-burn drama, Better Call Saul paid off some of the 2-years-in-the-making stories this season in some really gripping episodes. I don’t really like courtroom dramas and this season had some scenes that had me on the edge of my seat.

6. Legion (FX)

Noah Hawley brought us the Fargo TV show on FX a few years ago and now he brought us a bonkers show about a 3rd rate X-Men character. This show had its ups and downs, but the highs were so, so good. This show can be anything: horror, action, heist, comedy, Wes-Andersonian drama, anything. Great casting and a wild villain made it a great first season. More please!

5. American Vandal (Netflix)

My wife and I watched a episode of American Vandal on a whim and we were both immediately drawn in by this crazy thing. On its face, it’s a parody of Making a Murderer, Serial and The Jinx but with phallic graffiti, yet it’s really a lot deeper than that. As the show goes on, we laugh and shake our heads at these high schoolers taking the crime so, so seriously. In the end, there’s a real heart to the show and a theme of truth and identity that is fascinating. Recommended.

4. Narcos (Netflix)

Narcos is Netflix’s not-so-secret weapon show. The fact that it’s bilingual makes it have a board appeal to audiences around the world. The fact that it’s a great show to boot is amazing. After the demise of the main character of the first two seasons, the show is forced to pivot to new foes and new heroes in season 3. As such, it turns the spotlight on some “little guys” in the drug war and makes itself really, really interesting. The drug war didn’t end with Escobar, it just transformed into something even harder to nail down.

3. Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things is back and it is still great! The characters are awesome and the new, bigger story is great. I have a few issues with the plotting (and with episode 8’s detour), but I still have so much love for this series and it’s characters. See my bigger review for more thoughts. 

2. The Good Place (NBC)

The Good Place is so, so good. If you haven’t watched season 1, I can’t recommend it enough. For a comedy with lots of visual and verbal humor, it poses a lot of philosophical questions and lets them linger. After the finale of season 1 changed everything, season 2 became a surprising examination morality and eternity. The whole cast is amazing and makes the headiness of the show extremely fun and approachable.

1. Mindhunter (Netflix)

Mindhunter was apparently made with people like me in mind. I love David Fincher’s films and Zodiac is one of my favorites. Fincher produced this series and the directors tore pages out of his directors handbook to craft it. The acting is superb and the prickly nature of the story only serves to amplify the tension as you watch. Oh, and Cameron Britton’s turn as serial killer Ed Kemper was chilling in its execution. It’s a slow, slow burn of a show that gets under your skin. And it’s a great workplace drama. There really are agents who have to live in the world of horrific murder and then go home to their families at night and try to disengage from their work. This show humanizes these people and forces us to consider the possibility that people who seek out this work may be more like their suspects and prisoners than they are willing to admit. In a way, it comes closer than any show has to filling the Mad Men shaped hole in the TV landscape. Best show of the year.


Honorable Mentions

  • Master of None (Netflix) – just missed the cut
  • Fargo (FX) – a slightly less compelling season that usual
  • Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access) – a bit messy, but interesting modern take on Trek
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 – The Return (Netflix) – some good episodes, some forgettable ones
  • Silicon Valley and Veep (HBO) – spun their creative wheels a bit this year
  • The OA (Netflix) – weird and addictive
  • The Orville (Fox) – way more enjoyable than it should be. In a lot of ways it’s the more Roddenberry-esque Star Trek show
  • The Walking Dead (AMC) – having a tough time keeping it together, maybe Rick should die soon
  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) – another good season
  • Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime) – we’re about halfway through and really enjoying this one

Fatherhood and Stranger Things

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As I finished the second season of Stranger Things on Netflix, I began processing the season as a whole. So many things set this season apart from the first season. There were more characters (probably too many more), more adversaries, more stakes and (for better or worse) more locations. As the show expanded its scope to keep the story moving, some of what made season 1 great was minimized slightly. Still, one thing that stood out to me as a man and as a father was the theme of fatherhood. It might not be the first theme that comes to mind when you think about Stranger Things, but it’s definitely a big one. The question of what makes a good father is all over the place and I started to realize that the juxtaposition of Biological Fathers vs. Father Figures was quite profound and it extended back to the first season as well. Let’s take a look at the characters and the idea of fatherhood throughout Stranger Things.

Spoilers for both seasons of Stranger Things follow!


Biological Fathers

When you start to take stock of the biological fathers in Stranger Things, you realize that almost all of them are very distant and uncaring if they are present at all.

Ted Wheeler

Ted is Mike and Nancy’s dad. He’s still married to their mom, Karen, but he’s portrayed an oblivious buffoon to all the drama and tragedy that’s affecting his family. The extent of his wading into the family affairs is to chide “Language!” when Nancy swears in frustration at the dinner table. As the family literally unravels around him, Karen sarcastically says she hopes he’s enjoying the chicken. Ted’s response?

Ted is an example of a man who’s disengaged from his family and the fact that cosmic horror is infiltrating his children and home doesn’t spur him to action. He’s only concerned with his work and his newspaper. In season two, both of his older children are gone for what seems like days and no care is given. Also in season two, there’s a scene in the final episode (that’s played for some laughs) where Karen is taking a romantic bath alone with a paperback romance novel when the doorbell rings. Ted is asleep in his easy chair and doesn’t hear it or Karen’s pleas for him to get it. She ends up coming down in a robe to find Billy with his shirt unbuttoned asking after his sister. He flirts with her and she demurely entertains it as her husband snoozes in the den. Though it’s a slightly goofy scene, it’s really another portrayal of how Ted’s laziness is a huge threat to their marriage and family.

Lonnie Byers

Lonnie is Will and Jonathan’s dad, Joyce’s ex-husband. Before the events of season 1, Joyce and Lonnie got divorced and Lonnie moved to Indianapolis. When Will goes missing, Joyce and Hopper figure he might be with Lonnie, but all their phone calls are ignored. Jonathan goes to Indianapolis to see if Will is there and Lonnie shows little care for his missing son. He eventually shows up in Hawkins when there is the possibility that money could be paid out for Will’s “death” by falling in the quarry. Lonnie is selfish, uncaring, cold and absent from his family’s life.

Neil Hargrove

Neil is Billy’s biological dad, seen in one episode of season 2. Neil is married to Max’s mom, creating a blended family that’s new to Hawkins. When we first meet Billy and Max, they are on their own with Billy in charge of Max. When the parents finally return from a trip, Neil and his wife realize that Max is not home and Billy doesn’t know or care where she is. Neil is furious with Billy and hits him, demanding he take responsibility for Max and locate her. It becomes clear that Billy’s violent and wild tendencies are a direct result of his father’s verbal and physical abuse. The few minutes that Neil is on the screen are intense and sad as we see a domineering and violent father who has created a toxic relationship with his son that is spilling out into the rest of their family and beyond.  When Billy is a “substitute father” for Max early in season 2, he reflects all these things to her and cultivates the same fear-based relationship that exists between him and his father.

So the biological fathers don’t have much screen time overall in the series. When they are part of the story, they’re depicting traits that a common flaws of fatherhood in the real world – laziness, self-absorption, neglect, abandonment and violence.


Father Figures

What about the non-biological father figures? In almost every case, the father figures of Stranger Things are much more positive characters, embodying good fatherhood traits and displaying great character.

But there’s one huge exception that we’ll look at first.

Dr. Martin Brenner

The main human villain of season 1 is Dr. Brenner. He’s the architect of the study that essentially kidnapped and abused Eleven for years. Over the course of her captivity and study, he encourages her to call him “Papa”, which she does throughout the series. He casts himself as a protector for her even as he spearheads her abuse. He doesn’t truly care about her, he cares about furthering his own agenda. He uses her. It’s another common complaint that parents in general often “use” their children for their own selfish motives in various ways. This is just a grossly exaggerated example of what that kind of perversion of fatherhood looks like.

Mr Clarke

Scott Clarke is a minor recurring character, but one who influences Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas immensely. He’s the nerdy science teacher who is basically a hero to the boys when we first meet them. He’s funny and approachable. He clearly appeals to the more nerdy personalities of these boys and has encouraged them in their interests and learning. He sparks their imaginations with his science lessons and radio equipment. When the boys need help understanding “The Upside Down”, they go to Mr. Clarke, who illustrates the theories of other dimensions to them – patiently entertaining what he believes to be a flight of fancy. He’s intelligent, resourceful, caring and friendly – traits of a great father.

Steve Harrington

In season 1, Steve is a guy that most fans of the show didn’t want Nancy to date. She was supposed to be with Jonathan, right? Steve even smashed Jonathan’s camera. Still, he grew into a part of the team and someone we rooted for. In season two, Steve grew even more. After breaking up with Nancy and getting bullied by Billy, he was a sad sack until Dustin needed his help. None of his friends were around and Dustin needed someone to contain the creature with him. Soon, Steve and Dustin were a charming and unlikely pairing that had great chemistry. Dustin lives with his mom and his dad is out of the picture. Through their interactions, Dustin begins to look up to Steve and ask him for advice. Steve eventually opens up a bit and shares with Dustin, counseling him on the finer points of wooing girls and getting his hair to look cool. He helps the kids with their big plan and takes some literal punches defending them from Billy. In the end, it’s Steve dropping Dustin off at the dance with a final pep-talk and encouragement. Steve proves to be a worthy father figure to Dustin in a myriad of ways.

Bob Newby

Bob is a new character for season 2 and is dating Joyce Byers. He’s a clerk at Radio Shack and is a vanilla goofball with a heart of gold. It’s obvious right away that he adores Joyce and is really serious about being part of the Byers family (even though he doesn’t know all the details of their ordeal from the previous year). Jonathan and Will aren’t too sure about him at first, but Bob continually reaches out to them. Soon, Will is again oppressed by the Upside Down monsters and Bob is right there with Joyce trying to help deal with it. In the end, Bob is stuck in the Hawkins Lab building with them as the monsters run wild, killing dozens. To get out, someone with technical skill needs to reach the control room and unlock the doors. Hopper volunteers, but Bob is the one with the tech skills. He frees everyone from the building and almost escapes himself when the monsters catch him and devour him. Bob is tender, loving, selfless and ultimately sacrificial for those he loves. He does a great job of embodying the traits of a good father and husband though he was technically neither.

Chief Jim Hopper

Hopper is one of the central characters of the show. His back story tells us that he was once married and had a daughter. His daughter tragically died of cancer as a child, which led to a divorce with his wife. This broken man returns to his childhood town and lives an unhealthy life of drinking, smoking and one-night stands. That’s where we find him in season 1 as Will’s disappearance forces him to sober up. His paternal instincts clearly drive him here as he throws himself into the case and the lives of these children. He fights for them, protects them and sacrifices for them throughout the whole series. When season 2 rolls around, we find that Hopper and Eleven have formed a makeshift family. He’s caring for her as a father cares for a daughter. They laugh and play together, but also butt heads when he puts her safety as a top priority even when she is stronger than he is. In the end of the season, it’s the two of them against the evil monster and we conclude with Hopper holding a birth certificate for Jane Hopper. He is her legal father and also fills the father figure role to many of the boys in the cast.


The “Daddy Issues” trope can often be overplayed in Hollywood, yet the reason it’s used so often is that it is effective. We are hardwired, created to want to know our fathers. While the role of mothers is of utmost importance as well and shouldn’t be minimized, it’s clear that children need good male role models in their lives and often suffer greatly without them.

In Stranger Things, we’re presented with many examples and invited to parse out the character traits of these men and wrestle with their roles. There are many men who embody the traits of bad fathers and many who do the opposite. The reality is that all of us fathers are prone to all of these traits at different times and in different measures. There are no perfect fathers.

But there is a perfect Father. God the Father is the perfect embodiment of all these good fatherly traits. He’s patient, approachable, intelligent, caring, defending, helpful, gives good counsel, tender, fights for us, sacrifices for us and laughs with us. He’s also never selfish, abusive, absent, uncaring, disengaged, lazy or cruel. He created us, he loves us, he gave his only Son up to death for us and he pursues us when we’re lost.

When we’re confronted with good and bad examples of father archetypes and “daddy issues” in movies and TV shows, we can how those examples up against the Bible’s descriptions of our Heavenly Father. We can rejoice at the good examples and say “Our Father in heaven is like that with his children, only way more so!” And we can mourn at the bad examples, saying “I know there are fathers like that, sometimes it’s even me, but I’m so glad that God is never, ever like that with his children.”

Where else have you seen depictions of fathers that made you think about the nature of our heavenly Father? 

Top Television of 2016

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I thought it was a great year for interesting TV shows this year. Many established shows had stand-out seasons and some new, compelling shows made their debut. As the medium evolves, limited/anthology/miniseries have become a new form that can really pull viewers in. I enjoyed quite a few of these types of series this year, so I’m splitting this list into my top 5 limited series and my top 1o-ish regular series! Here we go!


Top Five Limited / Anthology / Miniseries

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5. The X-Files (Fox)

They decided to make more episodes of one of my favorites shows ever: The X-Files. Rather than order up another 22 episode season, they made this a limited run “event series”, which was probably a good call. This set of episodes was more “miss” than “hit”, though we did get a new classic with “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”. Beyond that, it felt tired and didn’t satisfy as much as I hoped. They left the door wide open for more story later, so we’ll see what comes of it.

4. Channel Zero – Candle Cove (SyFy)

SyFy ordered a horror anthology series based on an internet genre called “creepypasta”. Their first choice was a story called “Candle Cove” about a kids TV show that causes some very scary and violet happenings in a small town. The vibe was very skin crawling and the mystery was compelling throughout. It’s hard to do suspense/horror well on TV, but they did a great job on this one.

3. The Night Manager (BBC/AMC)

John Le Carre’s spy novels have provided some rich source material for movies in the last few years. Why not a slow-burning TV miniseries? This story of a hotel manager who gets embroiled in an operation to take down a crime kingpin was intense. The fact that they got A-listers like Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie made it fantastic as both actors nailed their roles. Great, great series.

2. 11.22.63 (Hulu)

I read the Stephen King novel this year that the series was based on and I fell in love with it. I new the adaptation couldn’t live up to the greatness of the novel, so I tempered my expectations for watching it. And that was the right decision. Still, it’s a great story and they did a great job bringing it to the screen. James Franco did well with his character and Sarah Gadon was great as Sadie. If you’re interested in a story about a guy going back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, read the book first and then check out the series.

1. American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (FX)

This series got a LOT of press in the early part of the year and for good reason. Almost every cast member was amazing in their difficult roles (and they nabbed a bunch of Emmys to prove it). Culturally, the issues raised by this trial (and the writing on the series) became very relevant again this year. Race, gender roles, distrust of police, injustice in general, it’s all there. I loved this series, from the writing to the directing to the acting.


Top Ten  Eleven Television Series

11. Atlanta

Honestly, I haven’t watched all of the first season, but I’m tacking this show on here because it is pretty fantastic. It’s got a bit of a Louie vibe, which is great – meandering stories that focus on the characters as their experiences serve as social commentary. Donald Glover is just brilliant as the brains behind this show.

10. Preacher (AMC)

AMC needed another prestige drama on Sunday nights and decided to go back to the comic book well. With Preacher, they adapted a beloved book in a creative way. Basically, season one was a prequel of sorts to the book. Jesse Custer was perfectly cast and the supporting characters were a joy. You never know what this show is going to do next and that’s a very good thing.

9. Detectorists (Netflix/BBC)

I found this absolute gem of a show on Netflix this year. It’s like a melancholy Christopher Guest movie about a small town chapter treasure hunters and the people who love them. Mackenzie Crook is known for his role in the original UK version of The Office and he is the brains behind this delightful show. Gorgeously shot and scored, it’s a comfortable and enjoyable British comedy with a low cringe-factor.

8. Silicon Valley (HBO)

HBO’s lineup of Silicon Valley, Veep and Game of Thrones is one of the best in the business. I love Veep, but I loved Silicon Valley more this year. The guys keep trying to make it the biz and getting tangled up in the nitty gritty all the time. The frustration is so uncomfortable and real. And, of course, the supporting characters chemistry is amazing. More please.

7. Luke Cage (Netflix)

Marvels’ Netflix show to watch this year was Luke Cage (Daredevil S2 let me down a bit). With Luke Cage, a brand new vibe was so great to see. From the setting to the actors to the soundtrack, this show had an identity all its own. It did black culture in Harlem in a way that was organic and real. And once again, a strong supporting cast made it great.

6. Narcos (Netflix)

In season 2, Narcos upped the stakes significantly by depicting the years that Pablo Escobar was on the run, ending with his final downfall. It was violent, gritty and engrossing. The terror of his reign was on full display, but also the questionable tactics of those who wanted to stop him. It looks like the show is headed for a major reset in season 3, but I’ll be there.

5. Westworld (HBO)

HBO is trying to plan for a post-Game of Throne world. They thought Vinyl would be a net tentpole, but that show was terrible. Westworld had a long and winding road to the screen as production was stopped and started a couple of times. In the end, a challenging first season set the table for a fascinating world. With their Memento meets JJ Abrams Mystery Box approach, they gave their viewers the task of untangling the story and gained a following. Now that that’s over with, they’ll need to move the story forward. I’m in.

4. Last Man on Earth (Fox)

It’s kind of amazing to me that this show is now in it’s 3rd season! Usually Fox kills my favorite shows before they get this far! Last Man on Earth is amazing in how it uses the apocalypse to make a silly show instead of misery porn (The Walking Dead). This year, they incorporated a PTSD narrative to ground themselves a bit, but they still lean heavily on the quirks of their players and Will Forte’s juvenile foolishness. My wife and I both love this show.

3. Black Mirror (Netflix)

Black Mirror returned this year to a new home at Netflix. The new set of episodes was a little bit scatter shot, but it still had all the elements that make this show so amazing. In a year when it seemed like the real world was an episode of Black Mirror, these stories reminded us that things could be much worse. Also, with the episode “San Junipero”, they gave us a story that actually contained some hope (and great music). No other show makes you think quite like this one.

2. Game of Thrones (HBO)

This was the season that fans had been most interested in from the very beginning: the one where the show finally pushed past the books in terms of storylines. Everything from here is uncharted and unexpected. Clearly the showrunners were ready for this and the pace of the action ticked up. As they move the chess pieces into position for the final game over the next couple years, nothing is certain and that injects a new energy into a show that didn’t even need it.

1. Stranger Things (Netflix)

For me, the year belonged to Stranger Things. This completely original Netflix show from The Duffer Brothers was everything I love. Cool story, great visuals, amazing (completely amazing) cast and incredible music. It had heart, goosebumps, thrills and comedy. It had kids riding bikes at night through the woods. It was the show we didn’t know we needed until we got it. I watched the series twice I loved it so much. I can’t wait for season 2 and I have to believe that the Duffer Brothers will be in high demand for the big screen soon!


What did I miss? What was your favorite show of 2016? Any recommendations?

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond

SPOILERS ABOUND


star-trek-beyond-poster-usI wrote awhile back about my anticipation for the third film the re-booted Star Trek franchise.  At the time, the marketing of the movie was finally getting in gear after a somewhat disastrous teaser trailer that looked like it the marriage of Fast and Furious director Justin Lin and Star Trek meant shoehorning the former into the latter. As things normalized a bit with more press, it became clear that this film was, indeed, a Star Trek movie. But the question remained: was it a good Star Trek movie? And, perhaps more importantly, what makes a good Star Trek movie in 2016? Before we get into the details of this movie, we should address that question.

Star Trek was created as a TV series in the 1960’s by an optimistic futurist named Gene Roddenberry. His vision for humanity’s future was one of peace, cooperation, integration and adventure. It was idealistic. It was about spreading the best values of humanity to the infinite vastness of space. Sure, you had to punch some bad guys along the way, but the point was depicting a promising future, not a nihilistic one. Today, almost all depictions of the future are nihilistic. From our infatuation with the post-apocalyptic to the male anti-hero archetype to environmental disaster depictions, we don’t seem too hopeful about what the future holds. Even Superman, the superhero embodiment of “good and right”, is now depicted as a troubled and angst-ridden alien. So what place does Star Trek have in this cultural era anyway? The last film in the franchise, the maligned Star Trek Into Darkness, borrowed some of that dark iconography by putting forth a conspiracy story about evil war mongering within Starfleet. Oh, and they misguidedly put the biggest Kirk-era villain into the story and badly parodied the biggest cinematic moment in the franchise. The point I’m trying to make is that the powers that be seemed to think that Roddenberry’s Star Trek won’t work today. At least not in the cinema.

But there was a shift in thinking somewhere in 2014 during the pre-production work on Star Trek Beyond. The writers were fired and the script duties were assigned to Simon Pegg, the actor who plays Scotty in this series. Pegg and his writing partner Doug Jung worked hard to deliver a script that got back to the things that made Star Trek great to begin with: great characters, big ideas and good action and fun. I’m pleased to say that they actually did it.

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You see, a big part of what made the Shatner/Nimoy/etc. ensemble work so well for 30 years was their chemistry. The ensemble was just so good together. In television, the mark of a good ensemble cast is the ability to mine good story and dialog from basically any pairing of characters. It’s a writing tool that can create stories for years. NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a great example. That show had one of the best ensemble casts of all time (in my opinion) and almost every episode involved pairing off cast members in interesting combinations and watching them interact with each other. Pegg and Jung realized that this cast is extremely good and decided to split them up for a large portion of the movie to see what would happen. So at the end of Act I, the Enterprise is viciously destroyed and the crew is strewn across a barren planet. It’s Kirk/Chekov, Sulu/Uhura, Scotty/Jaylah (a cool new character in the mold of Rey and Katniss) and Spock/McCoy. Each pair has great scenes and even greater dialog (especially between McCoy and Spock). So while the action scenes are pretty cool (with Lin’s direction), the character interactions make this movie great.

So the story goes that the Enterprise is in year 3 of her 5-year mission and the crew is getting pretty sick of it. Kirk is looking for other jobs and so is Spock. They arrive at a super cool looking starbase called Yorktown for a break. But soon they get word of a ship that crashed on a planet in the middle of a dangerous nebula. They’re called on to go out to rescue the crew. Of course, things go badly as the call is more of a trap. The Enterprise is shredded in orbit and the crew abandons ship, landing on the planet. Many are taken hostage by Krall, the leader of the swarm of drones. The crew has to break out their friends, get off the planet and stop Krall from killing everyone in Yorktown with a biological weapon.

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The central ideological conflict here is about peace and unity. Krall, it turns out, was once the captain of a Starfleet ship called the Franklin. Before that, he was a very successful soldier. But the military was dismantled and spun into Starfleet, a peace-keeping organization. Krall found little fulfillment in peace-keeping, he was wired to be a soldier. When his ship crashed, he sent out distress signals, but the Federation never came to their aid. This was his proof that unity and peace are the wrong goal to strive for. Strength comes from conflict and struggle. It’s the equal and opposite view of the Federation, making this villain more compelling that many other recent Trek villians. Still, his motivation wasn’t completely unpacked and his story of conveniently finding alien tech to help him achieve his goals was thin.

Jaylah, on the other hand, was a pretty cool supporting character. She was lured to the planet and marooned there years ago and watched Krall and his thug kill her family. She’s looking for revenge, but also for belonging. She’s fighting and surviving on her own and finally finds success and redemption in the form of friends from the Enterprise. Again, the theme of “stronger together” shines through.

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The same goes for Kirk and Spock. They begin the film with their eyes set on other pursuits that take them away from their crew and “family” and into other roles. In the end, they find that they belong together exploring space. There’s a very cool moment towards the end where Spock, still maybe considering departing, opens a gift from “Spock Prime” who has passed away. It’s a picture of the Prime Universe crew from around the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. They are all advanced in age, but all together on the bridge of the Enterprise and smiling. These characters are meant to be together, and Spock is struck by what could someday be true for him as it was for his older doppelganger.

Of course, this movie also features some cool callbacks to other Star Trek series and some nifty inside jokes too. Pegg and Jung have some humor chops, obviously, and they picked their moments extremely well. Karl Urban’s McCoy steals the show time and again throughout the movie, but each actor gets their screen time in good measure.

In the end, Lin and Pegg/Jung have crafted probably the best story of the “new Trek” universe (the Kelvin Timeline). It’s refreshing to see the themes of unity and a better tomorrow in a summer blockbuster, especially in a time when these ideas rarely find a voice. It’s exactly what a 2016 Star Trek movie should be.


JJ Abrams has (crazily) already voiced his hopes for a Star Trek 4 and said that they have a cool story that would bring back Chris Hemsworth as Kirk’s father (seen briefly in the absolutely brilliant opening sequence of 2009’s Star Trek). Nothing is set in stone, apparently, but I’d love to see another outing for this crew. However, I think they seriously need to consider giving Pegg/Jung writing duties again. Those two know what makes Star Trek great.

I’d love to see Hemsworth back in the fold, but I really don’t want a time travel storyline. In fact, the original script for Beyond (written by Roberto Orci) featured a time travel element and the studio ultimately scrapped it and fired Orci. Rumor has it the script included a cameo for William Shatner, who would have met Chris Pine’s Kirk. Maybe a re-tooling of this very script is what Abrams was referring to?

My pitch to get Hemsworth into the story? Kirk and company find their way to a planet with a (classic Trek staple) “god-like alien(s)” who tap(s) into their psyches for some weird torture. James Kirk is forced to encounter and perhaps fight his father George. Maybe we get Q into the Kelvin timeline or go for the original – Trelane?

Pitch #2: parallel storylines. We cut back and forth a bit between a mission of the Kelvin and a mission of the Enterprise that are related somehow.

Just no time travel, please. We’ve seen enough of that.

The one shadow hanging over all this speculation is the tragic death of Anton Yelchin who portrayed Chekov. Abrams has wisely said that he can’t see the role being recast, so there would be a hole in the cast that would be felt deeply. Still, there are options, the best of which would be to add a female crew member to the mix (Saavik has already been suggested, which could create some interesting tension for Spock and Uhura).

In any case, 2016 is turning into a pretty cool year for Trek. With a great movie in the theaters and the January return to television with Star Trek: Discovery, the future looks promising.


 

What do you think of Star Trek, 50 years into the franchise? Did you like Beyond? Are you interested in Discovery?

TV REVIEW: Stranger Things

TV REVIEW:

Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILER FREE

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In recent years, the sprawling success of Netflix has forced them to change their company strategy. Where once they were just another upstart distribution service for older movies, they soon came to be viewed as a competitor by their suppliers (Hollywood). As movie studios gradually pulled their content out of the streaming catalog, Netflix pivoted to focusing on TV series (becoming the new syndication standard) and on original content. Like a new network, the early days were about first making a name for themselves with interesting and provocative series, but also about just getting enough programming to fill time. Netflix went to creative minds and basically gave them carte blanche to create their show how they wanted. With this model, Netflix has had some big hits (Orange is the New Black) and a few whiffs (Hemlock Grove). Still, they’ve had an impressive track record to this point with prestige-style dramas (House of Cards), pulpy comic book adaptations (Daredevil), quirky sitcoms (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), compelling docu-series (Making  a Murderer), kids shows (Voltron) and adult cartoons (Bojack Horseman). They’ve even started financing the releases of actual films too (Beasts of No Nation). In 2013, Netflix’s chief content officer famously said, “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” That quote became prophetic as HBO launched a cable-free streaming option for all their content last year.

Last year, I caught wind of a new Netflix project with the working title “Montauk”. Winona Ryder had just been cast, giving the series a headliner with a good resume and name recognition. The project was billed as a supernatural mystery series set in Montauk, NY, and was described as “a love letter to the ’80s classics that captivated a generation.” It was being helmed by The Duffer Brothers, who I’d never heard of. From there, not much was said about the project for a good long time. Only in the last couple of months were trailers released for “Stranger Things” and I realized that this was “Montauk”.

The series was released on Friday and I burned through the 8 episodes in 3 days, probably the fastest I’ve binge-watched a Netflix series. I was completely taken in by this amazing show.

Instead of taking place in Montauk, NY, the Duffer brothers reset the show in a sleepy small town in Indiana in 1983. The story revolves around the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy and the mysterious events that begin to happen after that.

What really sets this show apart is the clear influence of the films of the 80’s, specifically Spielberg and his peers. Familiar tropes from those films are joyously adapted into this fresh story. This is homage at its finest, but the Duffers don’t just copy and paste, they update the ideas of those films and view them through a 21st-century lens. Take Ryder’s character as an example. A frantic and grieving mother character may be familiar, but she dials her performance to 11 and doesn’t pull any punches. The same goes for David Harbour’s depiction of the small town sheriff. He’s a complicated and wounded man, struggling through depression with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Probably a little too real for the Amblin pillars of the 80’s.

And then there’s the central group of kids. They’re perfectly cast. Just perfect. Their chemistry is undeniable and it’s just a joy to be part of their world when it gets spun around by the scary events of the story.

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All the familiarity of this genre plays so well in this series. As someone who grew up watching those movies all the time, it feels so warm and nostalgic to see those beats hit again with such precision and skill. I had a similar feeling about JJ Abrams’ film “Super 8” a couple years back. But the series format of “Stranger Things” allows the story to breathe more and for the characters to travel further on their journeys.

And the music. Oh my goodness, the music. The Duffers were apparently granted enough cash to buy the rights to some great music from the early 80’s, which lends a lot of authenticity to the show. However, it’s the John Carpenter-evoking score that really stands out to me. As soon as the iconic title sequence begins, I get goosebumps. The dark synths are incredible (courtesy of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin band SURVIVE). Couple that with the iconic fonts and the subtle film scratch effects, this is a gorgeous sequence that perfectly sets up the vibe of the show.

I’m not going to post any spoilers regarding the storyline of the series because I highly recommend you watch it for yourself. I’ve watched lots of Netflix’s series and this one is my favorite with a bullet. It’s thrilling, funny, scary and emotional. It’s 8 episodes long and has a beginning, a middle and an end. With that said, I’d love to hear Netflix announce a renewal of this series. Watching it is like watching an up and coming band at a small club and realizing that the next time they’re in town they’ll probably be playing an arena. Watch the Duffer brothers now before they’re making awesome summer blockbusters or Marvel movies.

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BONUS

A short list of awesome films that influence “Stranger Things”:

  • Explorers
  • The Goonies
  • E.T. – The Extraterrestrial
  • Flight of the Navigator
  • D.A.R.Y.L
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • The Last Starfighter
  • Stand By Me
  • Invaders from Mars
  • Jurassic Park