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Binge Watching During the Pandemic

For a lot of folks, it has been a crazy time to say the least. Fortunately, my family able to work at home in our house (or go to school online) and we’ve been healthy to boot. At the end of days largely spent sitting at a desk, it’s amazing how fatigued one can feel. There’s certainly something deep inside many of us that rebels at being forced to stay in one place for such a long period of time. How does one deal with this need to get out and do something? This Common Man has binge watched three distinctly different shows and provided me the opportunity to discuss those shows amongst friends here. I was able to watch Ozark, Star Trek Picard, and HBO’s The Leftovers.

Ozark (Netflix)

Jason Bateman is on my wife’s laminated list. If you don’t know what that means, it’s a list of five celebrities that one can sleep with without any repercussions, regardless of your own personal relationship. This concept comes from an episode of Friends, titled “The One with Frank, Jr.” which is the fifth episode of the third season. Feel free to check it out, it’s a fantastic episode.

Back to Jason Bateman (otherwise known as my wife’s non-secret celebrity boyfriend), we first watched him in the first two seasons of Ozark, then watched his HBO show the Outsider (which spoiler alert, doesn’t feature a lot of Jason Bateman), and naturally we were excited for season three of Ozark. Though admittedly, I had to be less excited than my wife.

The key to this series is the believability of the familial relationship between the darn near Mr. Spock-like Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) and his disconnected from life and a career after having kids, wife Wendy (Laura Linney) along with their two kids Charlotte (Sophia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner). This family has a lot of the tension and arguments that normal families have. They also have a boatload of arguments that families never have (more on that later). Through all of it, it’s clear that they love each other. While that love frays a bit at the edges, it really shows no true danger of tearing – at least until the cliffhanger of season three. And at the risk of motivating a screenwriter, I'm still skeptical that this fact will change.

The story begins with Marty becoming a money launderer for a Mexican drug lord. Over the course of three seasons, he and his wife attempt to leave their home in Chicago, are forced to money launder for the drug cartel after moving to their new home in the Ozarks, and try to start a riverboat casino to make it possible to launder more money with greater ease. The journey takes us through Marty and Wendy overcoming her infidelity by his distancing himself from her as he secretly laundered money in Chicago. Marty’s ability to wall himself off emotionally from his wife was a huge contributor to her infidelity in the first place. As the show progresses you see a man who is completely able to divorce his illegal activities and their effects on others from every other part of his life. At the same time, Marty demonstrates compassion for his family and turns enemies into friends by granting mercy rather than seeking vengeance. It’s easy to see how he drives his family crazy. As the show progresses, Marty is revealed to be a genius at money laundering and strategic thinking to the point that even a Mexican drug lord isn’t willing to kill Marty when push comes to shove. As noted above, having the family laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel does lead to some pretty amazing arguments that most families don’t have.

The biggest issue that faces the Byrde family in Ozark is the same problem that faced the Underwoods in House of Cards (another Netflix series). Both families get themselves into situations that are so multi-layered and teeming with danger that it’s almost impossible to see a way out. Both shows tend to array more than one antagonist against their leads and at times, it’s really hard to believe that anyone could extricate themselves from the situations these two families get into. It makes for some fantastically fun television, but admittedly, you have to be a bit forgiving on the believability of either the plot or of the abilities of Marty and Wendy. Once you get beyond that, this is a heck of a show and a really enjoyable watch.

Grade: B+

Star Trek Picard (CBS All Access)

Before I launch into a discussion of Picard, I need to at least let everyone know of my own personal bias. I am a huge science fiction fan. I am a massive consumer of Dune, Star Trek, and Star Wars franchise content. I own every season of Star Trek ever shown on television. I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies (even the bad ones) multiple times. It’s embarrassing but I’ve read countless paperback novels of both Star Trek and Star Wars. I’ve read the original Dune Series at least five times, along with reading all of the newer Dune books written by Frank Herbert’s son. I loved the Dune mini-series on the Sci-Fi channel. The only thing I really didn't like of these fictional universes was David Lynch's Dune movie. Ultimately, I am the definition of a sci-fi geek.

It was fantastic to see Patrick Stewart back in the saddle as Jean Luc Picard. Anyone who was a Star Trek Next Generation fan at the time, a fan of the Next Gen movies, or someone who was introduced to Next Gen in the age of Netflix would be hard pressed to not have been moved by seeing Picard back on the screen. Stewart was his normal self, throwing everything he has into the role and making Picard come alive. This is an older Picard, a man who’s life did not work out the way he had envisioned it would. The Federation hasn’t lived up to the ideals that Picard attributed to it. Starfleet let him down in a truly spectacular fashion. He has retreated to his family’s estate in shame and anger nearly 20 years ago. And now, he’s found a cause to champion and struggle that is worth his reengaging with the rest of the galaxy that exists outside of his estate.

The highlight of the show for me were the scenes with Brent Spiner (Commander Data) and Picard. Their interplay and conversation were excellent. Watching the two of them together was comfortable and rewarding. In a way, their scenes together were similar to stumbling upon a shirt that you used to wear in the past and discovering to your surprise it still fits and it still looks good, regardless of number the years since you last wore it. In many ways, Picard and Data were the Kirk and Spock for the generation of the late 80s through the mid 90s. I grew up with Kirk and Spock on television in the form of afternoon reruns in the early 70s. I can imagine Picard and Data attracting a similar group of fans as the android gets to learn about the human condition through his Captain who evolves into a mentor and a friend. If you don’t watch the entire season, the final scenes with Data in the final episode are classic. They are well written, the actors are immersed in their characters and the bond between the two characters (and actors) is as real as one can get.

Like Star Trek Discovery, Star Trek Picard took a few episodes to really get rolling and some of the episodes didn’t tie in to the story as tightly as one would like in the modern era of serial television. The days of episodic television, of which Star Trek and the Next Generation were so good, has largely been eclipsed by tightly plotted 8 to 13 episode seasons in this binge era. I would’ve liked the story to be less meandering, though the season was saved by the fact that when Patrick Stewart is involved, he can make a story that isn’t as intricately connected to the overall season plot still be entertaining. There are benefits to having a great actor who commands attention at the center of a series.

My biggest issue with the season was the way the galaxy has seemed to step backwards since we last saw our Next Generation friends. And of course, I shouldn’t forget to mention both Star Trek Voyager and Star Trek Deep Space 9. Both series took place with a slight overlap or directly after the Next Gen series in the Trek timeline. Deep Space 9 certainly showed a seedier side of the galaxy than we had previously seen in the Trek universe. Picard took that a step further. A big step furher. While I’m not saying that a world where chasing money for personal gain is ever going to be our future, based on Picard’s words in Next Gen, that was the way things were. Folks were free from chasing money for personal gain - just 30 years prior to this series. Hope is the four letter word that Trek elicits in my mind and it seemed like some of that hope had been replaced by a grittier and more profit oriented populace. Even the lofty goals of the Federation have shrunk to fit newer galactic realities. Starfleet wasn’t untouched either. In this age, Starfleet is more about politics than what is right. I found that deflating.

The other issue that I had was purely a “geek out” issue. If you’re going to have the Romulans be able to “cobble together” a fleet of 200 starships almost overnight - despite their much more weakened status post the destruction of their home world. And, if you’re going to have this Romulan fleet somehow led by an individual who just days ago inhabited a high level position Starfleet’s security organization – then spend some money on more than one or two ship designs and let’s see multiple ship designs up close and personal.

To make matters worse, when the Federation comes in to save the day, we only see a couple of different ship models. It’s only been 30 years, so I’d expect many of the old standards to still be in use along with a few newer and more powerful ship designs we’ve never seen to date. Instead we didn’t get to “see” much of anything. The special effect on this show were very good up until this scene when apparently, they had no money left so they went to “cut and paste” CGI that did not allow even one or two close up shots that really provided Star Trek geeks like me to see our Federation ships in close detail. C’mon guys.

This show is tough to rate. The canon heavy Star Trek fans will not be satisfied with some of the contradictions that this series presents (most won't even realize it's happening) and the non-Trek fans might not understand a lot of the historical background that Trek comes loaded with when you consider multiple shows and multiple seasons of history to support. I think next season might allow the writing team to pull it all together now that everyone has been connected to Picard and are part of his new team.

Grade: B

The Leftovers (HBO)

This show is a one of the most perplexing shows I’ve ever watched. I honestly don’t know how I feel about the show. This column will be my therapy to work this out in my head, right here on paper. Lucky for you folks.

The actors are fantastic. Justin Theroux as lead character Kevin Garvey, Jr. is excellent. He is an intense actor reminiscent of a Pacino. His co-lead (at least in my book) is Carrie Coon playing his love interest Nora Durst. These two have excellent chemistry. You buy in totally to the fact that they love each other. Yet, due to their circumstances and their own personality flaws, they will drive each other nuts at the same time. The rest of the cast is really strong. Even smaller characters have talented actors to portray them. Regina King of Watchmen and Big Bang Theory fame is excellent. Margaret Qualley of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has a very strong performance here, as well. There’s nothing wrong with the acting.

The premise of the show is unique. One day, three years prior to the show’s first season, 2% of the world’s population disappears. Just gone. Imagine if someone’s driving a car and if they’re one of the folks that disappear, you’d better hope you’re not in front of that driverless car. This isn’t Star Trek’s Omega Glory episode where Kirk finds a starship full of uniforms with nothing but salt in them to represent the victims of a bizarre disease. On the Leftovers, they just aren’t there anymore. No clothing, no nothing. To the credit of the show’s writers, they never really try to tell us what happened or why. That’s a good thing. Inevitably, the answer cannot be as good as not knowing and imagining the cause for yourself (a strategy that Hollywood needs to adapt, again).

The first season is set in Garvey’s home town in New York, the next season takes place in Texas, and the final season ends up having the majority of the action take place in Australia. They do a good job of shaking up the characters, the locales, and even the relationships between the characters – but the overwhelming sense of negativity was somewhat off-putting. It’s a weird place to be when I like the actors, I found the plot entertaining enough to keep me watching, but when it was all said and done, the show wasn’t as satisfying as the pieces together should have been. I’m thinking of the reverse of synergy.

As I tried to put my finger on what the issue was that kept me from loving this very highly rated show (look it up, I’m not lying). The characters are flawed but beyond “normal” flawed. Normal flawed, I don’t mind. These characters have come through some unbelievable circumstances to get where they are in the series and that would take its toll on anyone. Where I got frustrated is that they were often really crappy friends to those around them when the chips were down. You want characters (or at least one of them) to rise above the shallowness. This didn’t happen on this show. As an example, in an argument between Kevin (who has mental stability issues – either that or he might be impossible to kill) and Nora (who had three family members disappear) illustrated this to me. When each was under extreme stress - as they had their own subplots going to put them both through the ringer - they inevitably got into an argument. That’s normal, we have all been there. Where the characters become unlikeable for me is they then repeatedly revert to using literally the most hurtful attacks one could possibly choose to hurl at someone you know so well. The characters would regularly escalate arguments from a normal argument to an argument that makes you ask yourself why would I ever want to be in a relationship of any kind with this person. The characters in the show did that a lot. If you’re down in The Leftovers, better keep your arms in front of your face because someone is going to aim a kick right there.

As I age, I guess I’m looking for a few more characters with more redeeming qualities. Maybe have at least one character I’d like to be friends with somewhere on the show. I don’t drink much, but there are a few characters that might’ve driven me start drinking if I had to deal with them in my daily life. In the end, that’s why I didn’t enjoy the show as much. For a sizable chunk of the time, the characters were jackasses, but admittedly, the show was put together with amazing skill and the writing was excellent.

One final note, the show had two other notables that I feel compelled to talk about. Kevin Garvey had some amazing dreams, or maybe they were reality? We weren't really told. Maybe it was a trip or two to Purgatory? We’ll never know, but when he was the role of the assassin, that was pure gold. What amazing television those episodes were. Don’t miss them. In fact, Theroux could easily play a Bourne, Bond, or Mission Impossible Ethan Hunt-like spy. I’m shocked that someone in Hollywood hasn’t found a franchise to build around him.

The other amazing performance was the first season antagonist Patti Levin played masterfully by Ann Dowd. She had a recurring role after her death. Why not, if they killed 2% of the population why not have a dead antagonist, too? When she appeared in Season Two and Three and she was as wonderful as when her character was alive. If she was on the screen, it was worth watching. Whether live or dead, Patti was a pain in the backside.

The show is really interesting but for those of you who like “pick me up” entertainment, steer clear. If you like Always Sunny in Philadelphia with protagonists who at times aren’t very likable, this is a show for you. You won’t find one that is better written although you might find some written just as good.

Grade: B