24 March 2020

The Strain Seasons 2 and 3

Real World Trauma Acerbates the flaws in The Strain Seasons Two and Three
by Kristin Battestella

After an unraveling end to the First Season of The Strain, it took me a long, long while to return to the thirteen episode 2015 Second Season. Childhood flashbacks recounting fairy tales of nobles with gigantism and quests for the curing blood of a gray wolf start the year off well. Horrific blood exchanges lead to village children vanishing in the shadow of the creepy castle before we return to the present for secret deals with The Master, alliances with the Ancient Ones, and blind telepathic feeler vampires canvasing the city. Scientists Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) contemplate vampire vaccines while former antique dealer Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) pursues a rare strigoi text and rat catcher Fet (Kevin Durand) prepares their explosive defensive. Government officials like Justine Feraldo (Samantha Mathis) fight back against the zombie like masses despite shootouts in infested laboratories, double crosses, and sentient, disguised as human foot soldiers. Old fashioned black and white Mexican horror reels add personality and history to our reluctant heroes while more superb action and flashbacks standout late in the season with “The Assassin” and “Dead End.” Unfortunately, early on in Year Two, my main dilemma with the First Season of The Strain returnedyou can read all of this, but it is much too much onscreen. Unnecessary timestamps and location notations clutter reintroduced characters, new problems, old problems, and unintroduced newcomers. There are too many separated characters with unbalanced screen time who must repeatedly explain who they are. Enemy's enemy is my friend mixed motivations create confusion – multiple people hunting The Master individually making promises to his fellow ancient vampires with little background on who these chained monsters chilling beneath Brooklyn are. Cryptic double talk and real estate transactions may be filler or meandering developments, but it's a toss up on which one will drag on or disappear. The past stories are often more tantalizing because our team isn't much of a team. It took so long in the First Year to get everyone together, yet each is still toiling over what to do in this vampire zombie apocalypse. After previous fears over any tiny contagion, one and all shoot, blast, slice, and splatter at will. They hand out fliers with the monster details and warn the community, yet unaware police are shocked to find vampires in a dark alley.

Maybe The Strain is meant to mirror how no one is on the same page in a crisis – we are now witnessing that chaotic misinformation mistake first hand indeed – but the plot is all over the place, too. It's been a few weeks onscreen since The Strain began, however life is upside down for some while others seems totally unbothered. Again, this is a foreboding parallel to our real life pandemic with the poor working man much more deeply impacted than the wealthy ease of access, but here there's no sense of the storytelling scope despite opportunistic orchestrations and tough women securing the five boroughs. Slick villains talk of great visions and master plans, but tangents diverge into a dozen different threads and multiple dead ends. Is The Strain about a doctor experimenting on the infected to test scientific theories or weird do nothing telepathic vampires and slow strigoi chases? Are we to enjoy the precious moments between our little people struggling on the ground or awe at the zombie outbreak turned vampire mythology? New people and places are constantly on the move, jumbled by an aimless, plodding pace as too little too late politicians talk about quarantines when The Strain is past containment. Confusing, pointless storylines take away from important intrigues and significant elements tread tires amid random threats and dropped crises. The conflicts on cruel science for the greater good grow hollow thanks to constant interruptions and changed emotions. Provocative diluted worm extracts taken for illness or ailments are used as control by the strigoi or when necessary for our heroes, but the scientific analysis of such a tonic or hybrid cases is never considered. Infecting the infected experiments and vampire free island security only take a few episodes, yet viewers today who can't pay the rent are expected to believe it takes weeks for a market free fall and runs on banks? “The Born” starts off great, but often there's no going back to what happens next regarding cures and Roman history as contrived messy or blasé action pads episodes. Rather than driving away in a cop car, dumbed down characters run into a church for a lagging, maze-like battle that kills an interesting minority character. When the community comes together for “The Battle for Red Hook,” unnecessary family pursuits ruin the sense of immediacy while the hop, skip, and jump to Washington D.C. for two episodes of scientific effort gets ditched for glossed over vampire factions and historic relics. Both the lore and science are interesting, but these mashed together entities compete for time as if we're changing the channels and watching two shows at once. Instead of the rich detail we crave, The Strain continually returns to its weakest plot with shit actions and stupid players causing absurd consequences.

The Strain, however, does look good, and the ten episode Third Season provides coffins, gore, goo, and nasty bloodsucking appendages. The vampire makeup, creepy eyes, monster sinews, and icky skin are well done. Occasionally, creatures scaling the wall and speedy, en masse action is noticeable CGI, but the worms, tentacles, and splatter upset the body sacred. Sickly green lighting invokes the zombie plague mood while choice red add vampire touches alongside silver grenades, ultraviolet light, and ancient texts. Sadly, Season Three opens with an unrealistic announcement that it's only been twenty-three days since the outbreak started. The uneven pace makes such time impossible to believe, and tricked out infrared military are just now arriving three weeks into the disaster. Although, I spent February marathoning The Strain, and it is beyond depressing – nay downright infuriating – to see how our current administration did not heed epidemic warnings, responding terribly to the Coronavirus outbreak with red tape and lack of resources. Mass manufacture of The Strain's bio-weapon is also never mentioned again as the science is now nothing more than a home chemistry set. Instead, step by step time is taken to siphon gas in a dark, dangerous parking garage – which could be realistic except The Strain has never otherwise addressed food, supplies, precious toilet paper, or the magically unlimited amount of silver bullets. Once again, everyone who fought together goes on to separate allegiances on top of hear tell global spread, Nazi parallels, control centers, and messianic symbolism. It's all too clunky thanks to people made stupid and contradictions between the onscreen myths, technology, and abilities. Too many convenient infections, Master transformations, tacked on worms, and excuses happen at once – cheapening Shakespearean touches and monster worm bombs with redundant failures. Montages wax on human history while voiceovers tell audiences about government collapse, glossing over arguably the most interesting part of the catastrophe for drawn out experiments on microwaves. There's no narrative flow as the episodes run out but suddenly everyone is sober enough to use the ancient guidebook to their advantage. After such insistence over sunlight and ultraviolet, those safeguards are inexplicably absent when needed. No one maximizes resources and opportunities in “Battle for Central Park,” and people only come together because they accidentally bump into each other. In “The Fall,” a carefully orchestrated trap and prison plan is finally put into action against The Master, but ridiculous contrivances stall the operation before easy outs and one little effing asshole moron ruining it all. Again.

The cast is not at fault for the uneven developments on The Strain, but if Ephraim Goodweather is only there to be a drunken bad parent failing at every turn, he should have been written off the show. If we're sticking with Eph and his angst before science, then his pointless strigoi wife and terrible son Zach should have been tossed instead of hogging the screen. Cranky, obnoxious, budding sociopath Zach's “Why? No! Don't!” lack of comprehension is unrealistic for his age, and everything has to be dumbed downed to appease him. Maybe quarantined parents can now can relate to this scenario, but onscreen The Strain is continually talking down to viewers like we are five and it gets old very fast. Previously compassionate characters are reset as cold marksmen, and Eph claims he no longer cares about the cause when he was once at its epicenter. He complains he has nothing to do, bemoaning the lack of a feasible vaccine before gaining government support in creating a strigoi bio-weapon only to ditch it for microwaves and vampire telepathy. Zach ruins each plan anyway, and by the end of Season Two, I was fast forwarding over the Goodweather family plots. Nora Martinez is also nonexistent as a doctor unless convenient, relegated instead to babysitting, and Samantha Mathis' (Little Women) Justine Feraldo likewise starts off brassy before unnecessarily overplaying her hand and failing bitterly because of others. Initially The Strain had such a diverse ensemble, but by the end of the Third Season, all the worst things have happened to the women and minorities. Ruta Gedmintas' Dutch wavers from the cause for a conflicted lesbian romance that disappears before she returns to the fold as Eph's tantalizing research assistant when she's not being captured and rescued. I won't lie, I only hung on watching The Strain as long as I did for Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) as the thousand year old hybrid Quinlan. He uses his conflicted history with The Master to help Setrakian and sees through Ephraim while developing a distrustful shoulder to shoulder with Fet. Unfortunately, his vampire super powers come in handy unless he's forgotten about when it's time for the action to sour or let failures happen, and nobody tells officials about this almost invincible half-strigoi who could be useful in a fight. Setrakian, Quinlan, and Fet make for an ornery, begrudging trio, living in a luxury hotel while pursuing Abraham's relics whether they agree with the plan or not – mostly because Fet accrues all manor of weapons and is happy to use them. Setrakian has some crusty wisdom for them, but his battle of wits with Jonathan Hyde as the at any price Palmer provides great one on one scene chewing. The double crosses and interchangeable threats feel empty, and Palmer also has an odd romantic side plot that wastes time, but Richard Sammel's Nazi vampire Eicchorst remains a deliciously twisted minion. “Dead End” and “Do or Die” reveal more personal history as the mature players provide intriguing questions on immortality, humanity, and barbarism. Miguel Gomez' Gus finally seems like he is going to join the team, but then he's inexplicably back on his own rescuing families and refusing to accept his mother's turn in more useless filler. He and Joaquin Cosio (Quantum of Solace) as the absolutely underutilized fifties superhero Angel are conscripted to fight vampires but once again, they remain wasted in isolated, contrived detours.

Streamlining Fet, Dutch, Quinlan, and Gus as vampire fighters testing methods from Setrakian's texts and Eph's science funded by Feraldo could have unified The Strain with straightforward heroes versus monsters action we can root for in an apocalypse. Watching on the eve of our own real world pandemic, was I in the right frame of mind to view The Strain unclouded? Thanks to creators Guillermo de Toro and Chuck Hogan and showrunner Carlton Cuse's foretelling social breakdowns between the haves and the have nots, maybe not. That said, The Strain terribly executes two seasons worth of source material. An embarrassment of riches with a scientific premise, mystical flashbacks, assorted zombie and vampire crossover monsters, and intriguing characters fall prey to uneven pacing, crowded focus, and no balance or self-awareness onscreen. The Strain may have been better served as television movies or six episode elemental seasons – science in year one, vampire history the second, relic pursuits, and a final battle. Disastrous characters and worthless stories compromise the meaty sacrifices, crusty old alliances, and silver standoffs – stretching the horror quality thin even in a shorter ten episode season. Rather than a fulfilling mirror to nature parable, The Strain Seasons Two and Three are an exercise in frustration, and even without the real world horrors, it's too disappointing to bother with the end of the world reset in Season Four.

12 March 2020

The Magnificent Seven Season 2

The Magnificent Seven Season Two Rides into the Sunset 
by Kristin Battestella

The thirteen episode 1999-2000 Second Season of The Magnificent Seven opens with action vignettes and heroic punches as gunslinger Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn), sharpshooter Vin Tanner (Eric Close), ladies man Buck Wilmington (Dale Midkiff), gambler Ezra Standish (Anthony Starke), preacher Josiah Sanchez (Ron Perlman), healer Nathan Jackson (Rick Worthy), and kid J.D. (Andrew Kavovit) take names no questions asked when crooks think they can ride into their town.

New federal marshal Peter Firth (MI-5), however, has a strict approach in the “The New Law” premiere, enacting a no guns policy and relieving The Seven of their services. Railroad entrepreneurs want official assurances that a progressive town doesn't need gunslingers, but up to no good ranchers Brion James (Blade Runner), Stacy Keach (Mike Hammer), and Tim Thomerson (Trancers) see an opportunity as our boys move on, each with a moment of humor, trouble, or doubt on what they will do next. Of course, this is the season premiere, so we know The Seven will ultimately stick around amid foolish policies and town raids. While this feels more like a standard plot than a standout opener, the townsfolk get in on the action and our boys know where to find each other when they are needed. Rousing riding montages build as two becomes four, and finally all seven combine for cavalry ruses, jailhouse rescues, and pondering the outcome at the saloon. As this season progresses, The Magnificent Seven becomes more serious, relying less on action or generic plots of the week and more on fine ensembles, characterizations, and town-centric tales with great guest stars. Straight dramas take the forefront before the more adventurous two part “Wagon Train,” and one can tell this was probably meant to be the big premiere but was held back for a February sweeps run as none of the recurring ladies that strengthen the beginning of the season are featured and more potentially interesting characters introduced here don't re-appear. Would be homesteaders, rival land claims, and threats to the judge mean our boys will escort the train, but stubborn men are reluctant to have cowboys around their family folk. Multiple flirtations, villainous vows, a jolly powder man, widows, and ornery kids lead to attacks on the camp, questions about this must have land, explosions, and deed double crosses. From fiddling and dancing to shootouts, kidnapping rescues, and dynamite, The Seven do it all as tensions build to shootouts and wagon sieges. These quirky bad guys must get rid of these “seven hooligans,” and by Part Two, ladies are running away with our heroes amid marriage proposals, gold prospecting, and safety versus taking a stand. The sappy may be too much for some viewers who prefer the solid action and the stakes are both made easy yet insurmountable, but the dangers and dalliances accent the questions on outlaw living compared to settling down with family. Fortunately, the jerky men made weak and charming character moments remain entertaining. When those seven silhouettes ride up the mountain crest as the crescendos peak, there really isn't any doubt about who's going to win.

Scared Chinese railroad works also seek out our heroes in “Chinatown” after fellow workers are beaten and killed. The Magnificent Seven shows surprisingly brutal attacks thanks to rapacious, racist, good ole boys; slick rail baron Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings); and vengeful hot head John Cho (Harold and Kumar) speaking out about the wrongdoings. In town, our boys have official jurisdiction and here they'd be meddling in a private entity, but that's never stopped them before and they won't take a family's precious jade as payment, either. Multiple storylines converge as our boys free abused women, uncover murder plots, and find evidence proving money and motive. This well balanced piece addresses hate crimes, immigrant labor, corrupt white men, illegal business practices, and cooked books with ahead of its time wisdom. Our young immigrant wants to “learn to shoot so I can be an American” but our gunslinger answers that “learning to shoot don't make you an American, but it could make you a killer and it won't fix the way you feel. Guns and hate is a bad mix.” The Magnificent Seven tackles issues we're still dealing with today in some serious storytelling, but it's therapeutic to see the good guys win – even if it's only on the small screen for an hour. Territory freedom versus statehood regulations expand The Magnificent Seven beyond generic West simplicity in “Serpents” as protests begat bar fights and a dead hotel patron carrying a sophisticated rifle and $10,000. Who hired this assassin and how did he himself end up dead? The Seven argue about what to do with the money as whispers and accusations mount. Pairings we don't normally see bring out each other's ire while multiple temptations such as ladies, wealth, and weapons test our heroes. The soapbox speeches go on despite the fatal risks, underhand tactics, and backdoor deals as our group divided faces their demons. Who's really the target and will our flawed heroes overcome and save the day? Bullets are taken and our multifaceted cowboys come through in a deep episode that fully shows The Magnificent Seven's potential. This should have been the finale, as “Obsession” revisits the Larabee family murder on the crime's three year anniversary and feels more like a somewhat rushed and unresolved Season Three premiere than a conclusion. A former flame turned wealthy widow under fire offers The Seven fifty dollars each for protection in what should be an easy side job – a day or two out of town reminiscing on wild times with carriage rides, feasts, and feather beds. Is there more to life than drinking or fighting? The saucy romance moves fast, but decisions to stay on the seemingly idyllic farm have consequences. Conversations waxing on honest hearts and kind love culminate in multiple wounds and innocents caught in the crossfire as silhouettes and eerie music accent the titular creepy. Suspicious paperwork reveals the boys were right to distrust such quick happiness, and The Magnificent Seven comes together for one last shootout.

There aren't any truly bad episodes this season – The Magnificent Seven gets better as it goes on – but serious versus humor pacing issues hamper several entries amid lingering clues that episodes aired out of production order, were held over from the First Season, or where rushed to included more stories as cancellation loomed. The second hour “Sins of the Past” combines motherly competition, dilemmas, and history as each of the boys face arrests, romance, business, rescues, and clearing one's name. It's a somewhat slow, getting to know them deeper, gray bottle episode, but the acts should be structured with separated drama and humorous plots. Treating drastically different stories with standard A, B, C back and forth doesn't give each tale the focus they deserve even if the humor fades once the boys bond together. “Achilles” also has too much with card games, ladies, poetry, robberies, shoot outs in the street, and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. The psychological toll of being a gun toting town protector and unlikely pairings, John Brown pasts, and vigils over the wounded lady jar with lighter plots or too briefly featured situations. It's great to see The Seven struggle amid angry townsfolk, funerals, illiteracy, and more, but the scale is crowded and uneven. Night time raids versus hanging up the guns, wisdom from the villain, and more superb elements again deserved more time, but this late in the season, the series writers may have been trying to include all their ideas when had The Magnificent Seven continued, this would have been a fine episode to have some players depart over grief, killer instinct, and their perceived heroic shortcomings. This episode in many ways highlights the best the show has to offer as well as its problematic, short lived network constructs. Likewise, “Ladykillers” has scaffolds, saloon swagger, and sassy female bounty hunters who wound a man to keep him alive for the higher reward. Buck thinks it's a dangerous job for women, but they object that giving birth is more deadly. The serious grit, however, is again played for romance and male sensitivity rather than strong women and their struggles in the West. The rowdy, aggressive sister drags men into the barn yet it's all jokes about getting into their britches and sowing wild oats with come ons about who is the most handsome of The Seven. Personal vendettas and debates about if a woman with a gun can be trusted happen alongside surprising gun shots, injuries, chases, and stand offs as the humor is then completely dropped for dark redemptive questions, domestic violence, voiceover prayers, arguments on executing women, and pulling the trigger in cold blood. The topical elements may be too much for a friendly Saturday night, but once again, it's what The Magnificent Seven could have been. Imagine if one of our boys was shot and a woman replaced him?

Chris Larabee has loosened up a little bit, but Michael Biehn is still dressed in all black to match his rough exterior. Chris tries to ignore gunslinging challenges, but today is just as good as any day to die and he'll shoot up J.D.'s bowler to prove his fast shot. Memories of his late family, however, are fading from his mind, and Chris works on his nearby homestead to get away and hold on a little longer. Of course, he's also jealous when Mary has other prospects – a safe family life is not exactly something he could give her – but Chris admits their friendship is special to him and he's not blind to her headstrong beauty. He doesn't give a damn about a person's past if they ask for help and won't take their precious tokens as payment. However, he does threaten to shoot Ezra and won't tolerate when a sleazy guy puts his hand on his shoulder. Chris yells at J.D. to deal with his guilt; he won't get sentimental, but tells the kid to change his mind about leaving, for if J.D. were perfect he wouldn't be one of them. Chris drinks his pain away and initially objects to his friends questioning his former flame when he has a new chance at happiness, but he realizes they wouldn't be suspicious for no reason. In the absence of the judge when asked who's in charge, he supposes that's him, taking to this lawman thing more than he admits, yet Chris lingers in the back of the church by the doors and tries to remain objective if one of their own is accused. Chris' father-in-law Ed Lauter (Family Plot) comes to town in “Vendetta,” claiming to have killed the man who killed their family, but Tyne Daly (Cagney & Lacey) is pursuing him for her own revenge. Chris resented his disapproval of his marriage and he's angry at his father-in-law bringing this trouble back to him now. Buck says Chris should consider his suffering, but the men blame each other and have it out amid their confrontations with Daly's harsh Irish matriarch scoffing at the dirty church but confessing she is going to kill and enjoy it. She's a God fearing woman kneeling at the altar for forgiveness yet shouting from the balcony how she'll fill 'em with lead, willing to destroy the rest of her family for vengeance that isn't as clear cut as it seems in another Magnificent Seven standout with prayers and gunfire intermixing for superb drama. Eric Close's Vin Tanner still has a wrongful warrant hanging over his head – he isn't afraid to die but will take a stand on being strung up for the wrong reason. Vin thinks he can defend himself alone, but Chris brings along his mare's leg and Vin's grateful when all the boys join his cause. He lies, however, that his handwriting is terrible to hide his illiteracy. Mary thinks he has traveled and has many interesting stories to tell, but he rebuffs her newspaper opportunities before sharing his words on heroics and heart, reciting poetry on how much he values her mind. She offers to teach him to read and write down what he wants, keeping his secret the way Vin keeps Josiah's family confidences to himself. He takes a liking to a married woman in “Wagon Train,” rescuing her from the bad guys before insists no woman belongs to a man – a true husband will know her worth, thank God for her, and never put her at risk. Buck says his nobility will earn him smooches but also trouble, and Chris briefly wonders if he can still depend on Vin. He knows the affair isn't right, but Vin's too wily to settle down and tame land no matter how he feels. He rejoins the fight despite the nasty husband shooting at him, and Chris assures him that there's nothing to explain. Vin resents The Seven for teasing him, but he agrees this is where he belongs.

Dale Midkiff as ladies man Buck Wilmington has some then risque bathtub scenes but loses his touch with several gals this season – much to the bemusement of the boys. Buck lets a man live when he has the death blow even if he doesn't deserve it, for he'll always stand up for what's right, although Chris says he's too proud. The two are close, but they argue, too, and Buck only tells Josiah when he has fearful nightmares. He gets stir crazy when it's calm and peaceful, cutting loose and accidentally taking a Chinese medicine to cure a “limp noodle” – a condition he insists is not a problem. Despite being both intimidated and intrigued by a lady bounty giving him the cold shoulder, he pens a romantic letter to help J.D. Buck lays it on think, lowering his voice and putting on the charm before getting a dose of his own love 'em and leave 'em medicine. He's caught up in a duel for “Love and Honor,” defending a wronged woman against A. Martinez (She-Devil) as romances crisscross amid afternoon standoffs and talk of integrity. The duel is actually a sword fight, yet there's not a lot of action in the first half of the episode, and we don't notice because we're enjoying the characters, multi-ethnic plots, and female but not damsel in distress angst. There's a touch of Zorro, too, with spars, swords cutting the candles, and begrudging respect from Martinez. He says he's going to find six men of his own to watch his back, and he, too, would have been a fascinating replacement if need be. Besides, it's also nice to hear the boys actually called magnificos, and had The Magnificent Seven continued, Fabiana Udenio (Summer School) as sassy bartender Inez could have been fine flair. Her three episodes are full of Buck foil, for he's unarmed in their battle of wits, and Vin has her back when confronting the Don from whom she fled. Sadly, we don't get to see Inez relate to the women in “Ladykillers,” because after holding down the saloon so well, she disappears in the cut back second half of the season. J.D. is tough, too. He's angry at a baddie using dynamite against families rather than fighting like a man, but the others think Andrew Kavovit's kid is still hot air. He dreams of riding with the Texas Rangers, insisting he's no longer the rookie in need of his six big brothers, yet J.D.'s foolish enough to gamble with Maude and buys a Chinese potion to make him grow taller. The bowler jokes continue, but J.D. confides in Buck how often his missing a bullet is just dumb luck. J.D. knows the townsfolk blame him when his stray shot leads to a citizen's death in “Achilles” and becomes reluctant to use his guns. Josiah reminds him to take pride in what he's done for this town, and these touching, growing up fast, or leaving contemplations could have been a longer story arc. J.D. regains his enthusiasm when he doesn't need his holster to save the day, but he gets tongue tied when trying to court Casey. Their fishing competition and pulling pigtails banter are charming, but Nathan insists every girl wants a bracelet, not the frog digger J.D. intends to get for Casey. Dana Barron appears in five episodes this season as Casey, but the out of order episodes have her liking him one hour, then hating him the next before running to his side when he's injured. She gets mistaken for a boy when her hair is up in her hat, but Casey matures and softens up with J.D. even as she comes in handy and helps the boys.

Anthony Starke's Ezra P. – the “P” stands for persuasive – Standish “Attorney at Law” intends to buy the saloon and improve his new “Standish Tavern” but he wasn't made honest labor or Puritanism. When donning the unthinkable Union Blue for a disguise, Ezra at least makes sure he's a colonel. The only thing that can drag him away from his down pillow at dawn is the word “bet,” and he takes odds against Buck in a challenge, encouraging betters to spend expeditiously. Of course, he, too has on occasion found it necessary to defend his good name in a sword fight, however Ezra reluctantly buys an abused girl in “Chinatown” when Nathan doesn't have enough money to outbid a wealthy creeper and free her. She follows Ezra to be his servant, but while he may be a scoundrel, Ezra insists he's always a gentleman to a lady. After a losing a card game with six suspicious kings in one deck, Ezra ends up with nothing but his hat, gun, and boots before finding out it was a fake leg under the table that defeated him. He wonders how he ever let himself come to a career in law enforcement, and writes to his mother that he is baby sitting again and gets slapped when he tries to move in on a woman for her gold claim. Michelle Phillips' Maud Standish wins the deed to the town hotel in a poker game, and mother and son are so genteel as they throw down the gauntlet over rival prices, two for one drinks, and tainted booze. He calls her out for being self-serving, but she insists she taught him better than using his own money in business before selling at top value and buying his saloon. Maude's accused of theft in “The Trial” when missing diamond cuff links are found in the false bottom of her satchel. Ezra's happy to put his mother behind bars, but she spruces up her cell with lamps, furniture, and curtains before sweet talking the Judge, and it would have been great to see more of their law and con woman opposites attract. He says she's the first prisoner to ever tell him he's the most handsome man in the world, but when her accuser proposes marriage, Ezra draws up a prenuptial agreement including a chef, maid, and shop accounts. She's supposed to pick out the ring, but Maude steals his carriage to flee instead. Ezra is likewise tempted with The Seven's found $10,000. He's tired of being knocked out, shot at, and disrespected with such indignities for $7 a week but Chris says he's the only one who complains about the risks they take and doesn't trust him to guard the cash. Although sharing the wealth is never his first instinct, Ezra's angry they all think he'd cut and run. He confides in Josiah that he thought he had proven his loyalty to his friends, and he tells Ezra to face his demons – giving him the money so it can serve its purpose and fix his mercenary ways.

(18 year old “Save a horse, ride a cowboy” me would have *loved* to have screen captures of this back then!)

Ron Perlman's Josiah Sanchez prays for a sign and finds a dog instead, but doesn't mind that the Lord loves a good riddle. Money is like manure and should be spread, but Josiah objects when his church is called unclean because it's open to all paths regardless of belief – including dusty folk and troubled souls. When insulted as a mere handyman, he says Jesus was good with a hammer, too. Josiah provides forgiveness for those who would be consumed with revenge in great one on one wisdoms. He's still enchanted by Maude, reads The Iliad, and waxes on romance but won't offer J.D. courting tips and claims he's on a vow of silence and abstinence when a widow takes a liking to him. He lifts heavy water buckets to avoid temptations when guarding a large sum of money but ultimately sleeps with it and dreams of angels before taking up golf as a lesson in humility against your own worst enemy – yourself. Josiah's proud to defend Nathan's father in “The Trial;” they share Scripture together and even Maude compliments Josiah's well spoken parables. He puts the case in perspective by removing talk of color, slave, and master and instead asks the jury which one of them wouldn't kill the man who terrorized his family if he had the chance. Josiah hates funerals no matter how nice heaven is supposed to be, brings peace to prisoners facing the noose, and says he's not drinking alone but with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Unfortunately, a drunken Josiah returns to town in “Penance” spouting righteous atonement amid dust storms and accusations of murder. The investigating Pinkerton hones in on Josiah's reluctance to talk because his sins are between him and God before revealing more of his family history and regrets. The evidence pointing to Josiah is contrived and it's obvious who the murderer is; however the purgatory mood, murder mystery askew, and horror film making create a unique atmosphere. We had so little time for The Magnificent Seven to dig deep with a scary or dark storyline, but Josiah comes to his senses to minister the criminal just in time. Rick Worthy's Nathan objects to being accused as a snake oil man but is often frustrated that his meager medical skills aren't much use. He wants to pursue his doctoring more but anguishes when his lack of schooling acerbates fatal wounds. Nathan won't take the given gold claim from a dying man he tried to save, either – even when Ezra waxes how they could build a hospital with it. At times, they have a more lighthearted banter, but Nathan educates Ezra on rapier techniques in an intriguing spar between the southern con man and the former slave. Nathan was his master's sparring partner, so his swordsmanship is not so fond a skill. The boys have his back, however, in “The Trial” when Nathan's father faces a lynching. Pleas about the war being over and nasties making the firm distinction between the black accused and white man victim add dimension to touching father and son moments. After slavery, war, and separation, a free man deserves a day in court, but Nathan does not expect justice and confides his history and fears to Chris. Superb tears, pain, and performances bring the terrors of the past full circle thanks to confessions and circumstances that are enough to break a man's spirit – almost.

Judge Travis has our boys' backs against the territory bureaucrats, but Robert Vaughn's crusty lawman won't given them a raise even if he admits he's glad to see them defeat sleazy prosecutors. The Judge is sympathetic to men who kill because they had to, commuting sentences and protecting a charge once justice has been ruled, yet he's reluctant to hang a woman and being fair doesn't always help his case. Once a colder snob when The Magnificent Seven began, Laurie Holden's widow Mary Travis has let her hair down and earned a brief appearance in the opening credits. Buck doesn't want her to look at a dead body, but Mary says it is part of her job, and she gets tough when interviewing a nasty marshal – drinking when he insists women should be wives, mothers, tea total, and not vote. She may not be able to find a pencil when it's already behind her ear, but Mary dons a holster and gets dirty riding to the wild Purgatory town when seeking out the boys. The Magnificent Seven has multiple women relating to each other without taking away from the men, and Mary vows how they are rare, good men who have helped one and all many times. When a former flame proposes to her in “Wagon Train,” however, she doesn't immediately accept but considers her son, the newspaper, and the opportunity for progress in town compared to starting over on the farm with a ready made family. Of course, Chris is not amused – he says she'd be foolish to turn down a good man, but Mary confides in him that she isn't ready for such a big decision. This would have been another great plot to revisit a la Shane, but outspoken editor Mary moves on, campaigning for statehood and writing articles on Freedom of Speech and amendment rights. Old school western street facades, wooden storefronts, balconies, and rooftops provide The Magnificent Seven with ample places for shoot outs, standoffs, crashes, chases, broken windows, and close quarter fist fights. Horses, hats, dusters, ropes, cigars, and poker accent saloons, wagons, telegraphs, barrels, wanted posters, and Spanish touches. The slow motion may be a bit too much at times and the outdoor filming makes for a fuzzy picture today – by the end of the season, you can tell they're using the same hilly spot from different angles, too. However, the rustic realism and dirty, dusty action is nicer then often overly noticeable CGI in HD. The attention to period detail continues with wallpapers, Victorian interiors, bonnets, bustles, and fine ladies' silhouettes, and The Magnificent Seven was probably quite expensive in its day thanks to well done stunts, leaps, cannons, and explosions. Blunt, multi layered gunfire sets off impressive stagecoach heists, villains caught in the wheels, trick riding shots, and swinging saloon doors that always end up off their hinges. Surprising sword action is also intense as wide shots survey the overall battle while above and below filming keeps the blood and slashes realistically tight. Great windstorms, dusty roads, flapping shutters, and slamming doors build suspense, and dark silhouettes show scary attacks when more graphic violence couldn't be shown in the well choreographed and edited action. Today maybe costs would be saved in rotating the cast or not having all of The Seven in each episode, but be it bloody noses or broken ribs, our boys also get their bumps and bruises with comical cues or heroic notes to match. The opening titles once again remind us we're in for a rousing good time with picturesque heroes on horseback riding onward to save the day.

The first half of The Magnificent Seven aired as a Winter 1999 mid-season replacement before the final episodes were dumped in a Friday night summer burn off, unceremoniously ditched after a sweeps attempt to boost the declining Walker, Texas Ranger and continue the CBS Saturday western night post-Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. My crummy, taped off TV VHS tapes certainly got some wear, and I remember being involved in one of the first internet campaigns to save the show – embarrassing but now fascinating Geocities websites chronicling the transition of television from desperately dependent on Nielsen ratings and advertising dollars to online fandom and streaming freedom. If this Magnificent Seven was on a premium channel or internet service today for three, ten episode seasons of arc storytelling with one show runner, who knows what the possibilities would be. In its second season, The Magnificent Seven remains both an action man's adventure and a wholesome television western. This was as heavy and violent as a network Saturday night show pre-Y2K was going to get, yet the series is great television when it overcomes such opposing constrains with next level performances, plots, and swagger. This show simply ends much too soon, and it's easy to end The Magnificent Seven here and go right back to the beginning for comforting cowboy entertainment.

27 February 2020

Death Becomes Her

Deliciously Dark Death Becomes Her gets Better with Age
by Kristin Battestella


Writer Helen Sharp's (Goldie Hawn) plastic surgeon fiance Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) thinks Helen's childhood friend Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is an amazing starlet. Madeline has stolen Helen's beaus previously and does so again, but fourteen years later, Helen achieves her revenge by looking stunning and wooing Ernest into her killer plans. Madeline will do whatever she can to compete – including visiting the mysterious Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini) for a youthful elixir. Unfortunately, the costly potion leads to bodily disasters if you don't take care of your beauty, and unlike these desperate ladies trying to stay forever young, the 1992 dark comedy Death Becomes Her only gets better with age.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and writers Martin Donovan (Apartment Zero) and David Koepp (War of the Worlds) open the surprisingly PG-13 Death Becomes Her with 1978 not so well received ritzy as Playbills are tossed aside and stage glory turns sour thanks to show within in a show awkward performances, bad choreography, caricatures on youth, and phony songs about you. Flirtatious winks, polite shade, through the teeth comebacks, and backhanded compliments are played straight as your frienemy steals your man, and Death Becomes Her wastes no time with back stabbing wedding bells and revenge decades in the planning leading to book party invitations and who's looking swell versus who's looking worse for the wear changes. The man looming above the frame is reflected in the mirror behind the woman – reverse revealing the personal disconnect as each says things they don't mean alongside more symbolism and aggressive gestures. Hellish characters and murderous plans are both deliberate and measured yet flippant and off the cuff as our plastic surgeon is dismissed as a ghoul for not healing but indulging vanity even in death. More quirky visuals layer the Hollywood commentary – what's with that guy upside on the wheel at the spa? – and reflective camera shots create viewer double take. What if we did look twice and really paid attention beyond face value then what would we see? Death Becomes Her winks at the secret opportunities available to the elite behind closed doors amid insular they know that we know that they know that we know flattery. Confidence only comes with beauty, and the camera's distorted angles and askew perceptions reiterate this frame of mind as wide shots have the face in the center but the subject at hand in the background. With such in camera staging, one need not resort to fast paced editing later to compensate and piece together wit or tension because the bags full of makeup, screams over seeing oneself in the mirror without said makeup, and fake tears sprayed in the eyes while practicing crocodile speeches – in the mirror framed by defaced pictures of her obsession – speak for themselves. One woman equals sex while another demeans flaccid, and cuckold phrases reiterate the servile men and obedient dogs as demented one liners, frantic questions, and disturbing calm lead to top of the stairs teetering and the not so dead rising behind one's back. Formaldehyde is bought in bulk on top of jokes on doing something “funny” with a dead wife and “It's alive” homages. Eternal youth potions await in a scary, humbling castle where newcomers tip toe so their heels don't echo on the floor before sampling this hush-hush, ageless elixir to prove its price. Snake charmers admit the forever young will look suspicious if they don't disappear, and Death Becomes Her is likewise self-aware of how lacking in self-awareness its desperate characters are when not heeding knives or warnings to preserve the facade. Women who for decades purposely inflict pain without actually harming each other let all the violence out and apologize – tag teaming the man they were fighting over because they need him to maintain their seemingly miraculous vitality forever. Twisted dream sequences, wide lenses, and zooms accentuate the preposterously clever scheme of tranquilizers on the wine glass and finishing dinner before planting the body in a car going off Mulholland Drive as quips about divorce in California, never seeing a neighbor in Los Angeles, and those with no talent for poverty orchestrating murder escalate the satire with handy hardware, bloody bodies in the lily pond, and a hole in the stomach big enough to right see through you.

Everything has to be taut and perfect for Madeline Ashton, and only Meryl Streep (She-Devil) can play a bad actress obsessed with wrinkles without winking and scene chewing for the camera. Madeline strikes the right pose, plumps the bosom, and remains pampered even if she hasn't worked in sometime and is no longer the breadwinner. In order to hide her impoverished past, she must show up Helen at all times and mere make up won't do. Despite her fame and wealth, Madeline's ugliness shows in her mistreatment of the maid or any pretty supple ingenue. When rejected by her younger lover for not considering how he feels, she blames him for making her feel cheap. Even if the spa refuses to do a traumatic plasma treatment, Madeline demands the procedure money is no object because she fears younger women must be laughing at her. She's shocked at Helen's transformation and makes excuses about feeling terrible at having happiness at Helen's expense, but Madeline doesn't feel that terrible and she's not really happy. Fortunately, her shady zingers return with her beauty, but Madeline says what she shouldn't, leading to scary body bags and uncomfortable realizations – although she enjoys having no pulse because nobody can play dead better than she can. Goldie Hawn's (Overboard) Helen is initially a shy and quiet writer compared to her old school rival Madeline, dowdy and twisting her handkerchief rather than expressing her anger. She warns Ernest that Madeline only wants him because she has him. Madeline has stolen men from Helen before and she wants Ernest to pass her Madeline Ashton test, but when he does not, Helen becomes a gluttonous cat lady obsessed with rewinding Madeline's onscreen strangulation. Upon eviction she ruins her therapy group by talking about Madeline before overcoming her outlook by vowing revenge and looking dynamite while doing it. Literary success follows, and Helen lies to Madeline's face about never blaming her, kissing her cheek as she pits Madeline and Ernest against each other. Now a vivacious vixen, Helen claims sisterhood while plotting with her man – embodying the shade, deception, and fierce competition of the woman scorned even if she doesn't really want Ernest anymore. She just wants to take him from Madeline and use him for her fatal revenge, and both ladies willingly become a Hollywood type of vampire, consuming the essence of a man for their own youthful survival. What does their undead beauty contest get them? Each other, stuck forever in an “I paint your ass, you paint mine” begrudging.

Ernest Menville was once a famous plastic surgeon, but now Bruce Willis' (Color of Night) doctor is a postmortem fixer for the Hollywood dead between breakfast bloody marys. Life with Madeline hasn't worked out, and she's reviled by his bottom feeder, drinking himself to death existence. When complimented for his mortuary work, Ernest admits the secret weapon for coloring dead skin is spray paint, but he knows it isn't real work and would sell his soul to really operate again. He argues with Madeline about who ruined whom and won't take jokes about his clients being stiffer. Though unhappy, wishing to divorce, and easily swept up when Helen comes on to him with sexy words, Ernest is reluctant to go along with her plans, for he takes the change in Madeline's temperature, pulse, and hair – because that's what men notice – as a miracle. Ernest gains confidence despite his fear over what he has done, wanting to make Madeline his masterpiece, painting her and carefully mixing the turpentine. He won't be rushed when her eyes must have artistic balance! Ernest will fix them and then go, but when the ladies need touch ups, his sudden backbone becomes a problem. Death Becomes Her's few daylight scenes are about Ernest realizing what took him so long to leave. He was willing to keep his marital promise in spite of the suffering and humiliation, but his obligations are fulfilled in her death do us part. The camera at the not all that it seems spa has to be switched off before Isabella Rosellini's (Merlin) Lisle von Rhoman can be mentioned, but the million dollar price tag for her mysterious potion is relative to such elite clientele. Her stunning beauty and barely there clothes make it easy to soft sell her elixir – Lisle is sweet when charming a guest, telling them to follow spring and summer but avoid autumn and winters however she's sassy when ordering her Tom, Dick, and Harry henchmen and intimating with her deceptions. She knows why her clients come to see her, for they are scared of themselves, their bodies, the lengths they go to in maintaining their secrets, and their inevitable failure. Life is cruel, taking away vitality only to replace it with decay, so we want to believe her sweet talking promise to defy natural and endorse the check despite her dominance. The camera heightens Lisle's look fair and feel foul with carefully orchestrated poses and frames. She's centered perfectly in each shot with daggers, dobermans, and amulets. Lisle crosses her legs in her throne chair and says “thank you” when someone exclaims about God, but her seductive wraps and high collared, witchy robes suggest an underlying evil. After imploring our plastic surgeon to now take the youth and beauty he gave to others for himself, Lisle's full menace is revealed when he questions her on the nightmarish consequences of immortality. Of course, there's a wink to Rosellini's casting because she looks so much like her mother, and bemusing not so dead cameos include James Dean, Jim Morrison, Elvis, and Marilyn alongside appearances by Mrs. Zemeckis Mary Ellen Trainor (Tales from the Crypt) and poor doctor with a heart condition Sydney Pollock (Three Days of the Condor).

The naughty but sinister, frenetic strings of Alan Silvestri's (Predator) theme set the mood for Death Becomes Her amid a dash of jazz, disco beats, and campy cues. Boas and colorful stage backdrops in the opening sequence establish an over the top, garish, tacky and lamé atmosphere before static on the old television, retro patterns, and poor clutter contrast the massive Beverly Hill mansion with gated entries, a grand staircase, hefty doors, and heaps of marble. The made to look ugly, old, and desperate makeup and bodily transformations are well done amid tears and soggy rain making a women look worse before bemusing good skin versus bad skin comparisons and boob lifts. That pretty left hand with the giant rock ring is always prominently displayed! Subtle nudity is also reflected through windows and doors as supple butt shots provide curves to the sagging and wrinkles. The square nineties blazers and low buttons add masculine angles for the women, however low cut cleavage, deep blouses, and lace invoke feminine symbolism along with thigh high slits, Egyptian life giving motifs, and our glowing pink potion. Death Becomes Her abounds with mirrors everywhere – frames within frames via television screens, snapshots, and gold portraits pepper every scene. Clever reflections, shadows, and silhouettes do double duty while red stands for passion, black for suspicion, and white for innocence as dramatic overhead drops, balcony dangles, thunder, and shot gun blasts apply terror in the killing scenes. Neck snaps, stairway rolls, holes in the gut, and backwards results are as disturbing as the decision to kill. Sure, some of the bumbling bodies and squashed heads may look poor now, but that also keeps them funny, and there are more intriguing or random visual gags to catch our eye – the doctor throwing away his stethoscope when he can't get a heartbeat, the yuppie tennis couple with the bruised elbows, those weird ass gliding nuns. The pink pastels and green palm trees in the eighties upscale buildings are perfectly gaudy now, but the blue lighting, black marble, and arrows pointing to the morgue mirror how the characters are inevitably walking towards death. Michelangelo motifs and pools of water could be symbolic life renewals as one tries to escape the locked doors, gilded elevators, grand arches, maze like spires, and those ever present mirrors but Death Becomes Her's beauty goes from svelte to garish with vampire pale, white out eyes, pasty skin, and gross peeling.

One may love or hate Death Becomes Her but there is no in between and it takes multiple viewings to study the dual nuances, comedic layers, and dark subtleties. Questions on immortality – or at least looking immortal – deepen the commentary on beauty and why women compete to look so enchanting even if it kills them. Today's dark comedies often feel crass or too disturbing, but the great cast keeps Death Becomes Her mature with a tongue in cheek that doesn't have to berate the obvious. While not in your face horror, the choice macabre moments and increasingly bleak palette illume our dread and fear of old age. We can laugh at the sardonic winks even as Death Becomes Her calls out Hollywood then and hello look at us on the 'gram now, remaining delicious because its satire is unfortunately more applicable than ever.

"Do you remember where you parked the car?"

14 February 2020


Performances Make the Flawed Dickensian
by Kristin Battestella

Shades of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit pepper winks to David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby in the BBC's 2015 mash up Dickensian. This ten hours plus series from creator Tony Jordan (EastEnders) features murder mysteries from A Christmas Carol and prequel fallout for Bleak House and Great Expectations alongside twists from Olivier Twist and a potluck of Charles Dickens' characters from Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit, and more buying and selling at The Old Curiosity Shop. It's surprising no one attempted this novelty before, however the Marley meets Fagin gimmick wears thin thanks to uneven pacing, poorly focused storytelling, and a meandering intermix of too many characters. Fortunately, strong performances and superb source material keep the melodrama worthwhile.

Scowling townsfolk, death beds, and shocking will readings open Dickensian as wealthy made paupers, meager wages, unpaid debts, arguing businessmen, and creepy child dealings make for a melancholy Christmas Eve. It's moody and surreal to see famous characters populate the same cobblestone streets and ominous back alleys, congregating as we recognize the eponymous names and places before Christmas morning brings blows to the head, coroners, and inspectors on the murder case. Dickensian has a lot to do and moves fast – maybe too fast when viewers aren't sure yet who has an important part to play and which characters are merely window dressing, spying on the comings and goings over subdued holiday celebrations. Everyone's a suspect montages and redundant whodunit zooms for each person can also be too humorous a la the 'burbs despite humble gift givings, police questioning, and motives run amok. Mysterious journals, clues, and stolen wallets but other valuables left on the dead are plotted and edited as a modern thriller rather than a traditional period piece, yet the audience most familiar with these characters and the literary references is more likely the older Victorian fan than fast moving younger viewers. At times the great attention to Dickens details is too much – it would take more than one viewing of Dickensian to catch them all – yet we're also supposed to enjoy characters in separate storylines bumping into each other by mere happenstance or pick pocket in a scene transition disguised as a connection. Gossip about the murder spreads fictitious details of strewn innards as messages are burned and families argue. Pauper's graves and poor proposals begat modest weddings, but a codicil in the will leads to ruinous investor schemes. Smitten older aristocrats come courting with awkward tea visits as baubles are bought and pawned and desperate loans mount. Orchestrated jealousies and faked dog rescues escalate amid no alibis, arrests, and ruined nuptials. Debt collections are suspiciously erased whether they may have been collected or not, and despite Dickensian's back and forth nature, the best moments are when the action stays still and the players have time to really act. It's not quite clear which plot is the main focus here – Great Expectations meets Bleak House or A Christmas Carol meets Oliver Twist – and unrelated sidelines further upset the uneven balance as more new characters with familiar names, arranged suitors, and departed true loves come and go. Previous assault charges, witnesses, and drinking contests lead to rooftop dares and ingratiated villains, and Dickensian is again stronger when there are no cutaways from the murder questioning and action on the trail. Pleas to forgive arrears fall upon reluctant lawyers and merciless lenders as goods are seized and women high or low remain beholden to the nearest man – father, brother, lover, husband, or pimp. Constables gain sympathy and valuable testimony by feeding street urchins mutton pie, but a reward for the killer only makes for costly kisses, beatings, and debtor's prison.

Despite such potential, halfway through Dickensian, the episodes begin to feel the same. Threats are a long time coming, and it's sad to see the ladies love the wrong man even if the bitterness isn't surprising because we know how their novels end. Strong arming creditors, plotting couples looking for their come up, and soldiers who can't get a promotion go round and round amid for love or money break ups and off the book warehouses. Poor villagers are ironically happier in many ways compared to the losing wealthy and shady folk putting themselves out to gain or maintain. Surprise relatives, detectives tête-à-têtes, and unusual evidence pits suspects against each other before fainting spells, jails, and clever escape plans. After a sagging middle and humorous side stories that stall more important events, the dalliances, lies, and sabotage come together in the penultimate episodes as constables resort to brutal methods in gaining confessions. Something finally feels like it's happening on Dickensian thanks to bloody pregnancies and sisterly arguments where the uninterrupted drama is allowed to be the sole focus. Critical letters are burned, doctors don't arrive in time, and the Bleak House prequel angst again makes the case that Dickensian should have narrowed its concentration. These characters can coexist, sure, but don't force everything to happen at the same time so they undercut each other. Time is running out to find the killer, and revisiting the murder alley, its killer blows, and the personal motives are just as much about the deduction on the case as reminding the audience that we're supposed to be solving a crime. Apparently its been weeks onscreen – if not more if we think too much about the weather changes and early pregnancies – and in plain sight evidence should have been realized a long time ago. Was the malice planned or was it just an ordinary man in terrible circumstances? Flashbacks of the crime are well done with a surprising murder weapon, tearful revelations, and excellent performances as the ensemble carries the new twists on the familiar tales. Unfortunately, once the murder is resolved, the supersized finale returns to the same old back and forth. Forgotten characters are suddenly at the forefront wasting time while weak siblings quickly mature. Lawyers and strongmen come together as secrets are finally let out, but if it were all so simple, why did it take so long? The disastrous weddings and sour culminations leading to Great Expectations are superb enough thanks to more fine performances, yet Dickensian doesn't even need this entry if it's going to be cluttered with falling flat obtuse. In the end, the series is so busy setting up its gimmick with one and all at the pub for a sing a long that Dickensian forgets to embrace the dynamite characters Dickens left to explore.

The family's East India Trading Company deals have gone belly up, but Sophie Rundle's (Peaky Blinders) Honoria Barbary doesn't know about the misfortune – unlike Alexandra Moen (Doctor Who) as her serious, spinster sister Frances. Honoria works in a dress shop and tarries with her poor soldier boyfriend, but her glowing, youthful countenance turns pale and sad as she is forced to choose between her family and happiness. Frances is almost gleeful in giving Honoria the bad news, turning cruel in setting up her sister in a loveless marriage with an older aristocrat rather than build her own life. Honoria takes on their circumstances and potential scandals, bearing the guilt, punishment, and consequences we later know in Bleak House. Stephen Rea's (The Company of Wolves) Inspector Bucket, however, is straight forward and methodical, putting people in their place with facts. His new detective unit must investigate, gather evidence, and find the perpetrator to prove its merits, and Bucket stays determined despite a bad back and preferring to be home with his wife. He takes no pleasure in punishing the decent for committing a necessary evil and takes an honest man at his word even if he doesn't believe the killer when he hears the surprising confession. Bucket's infuriated more with child trafficking not being against the law, and he struggles when justice isn't satisfied. Only Omid Djalili (His Dark Materials) as Mr. Venus speaks frankly with Bucket, for he is able to see the criminal scenarios objectively when Bucket becomes too close to the case. Tuppence Middleton's (Clean Skin) Amelia Havisham is likewise reluctant to take advice upon inheriting most of father's estate. She's shrewd in business, aware of costs and new safety designs, and doesn't want a man to solve her problems. Unfortunately, Amelia is so smart yet so foolish, wanting to be loved despite all the red fags. Her melancholy end toward Great Expectations is excellent – no thanks to Tom Weston-Jones' (Copper) Meriweather Compeyson. The con artist is supposed to reunited Amelia's money with his fellow plotter Joseph Quinn (Les Miserables) as her brother Arthur, but Compeyson bends all the shady angles for himself. His slick takes over the increasingly drunk and desperate Arthur like an abuser in a relationship, and Arthur soon regrets their association. John Heffernan's (Dracula) lawyer Jaggers is as close as Dickensian comes to having one person involved and aware of every situation thanks to will stipulations and financial matters. He treads carefully, warning clients not to trust so easily, yet nobody listens to him, and the character remains terribly underutilized.

Peter Firth's (MI-5) nasty Jacob Marley personally knocks on reluctant doors for his payments and gets his kicks with Fagin's clientele. His infamy precedes him as he threatens one and all, and it's said one would be very disappointed in trying to find anyone to shed a tear for him. Likewise Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders) as his partner Ebenezer Scrooge is only concerned with people if his money is in their pockets, calling in his loans regardless of illness or holidays. He humbugs at Marley's dalliances when they interfere with business and wants the whole firm to himself. People can't pay him back at their convenience, he has terms and their collateral, and it's their lack of foresight if they speculate and lose money. Robert Wilfort's (Gavin & Stacey) Bob Cratchit dares to question why his thirteen shilling pay is being docked by Marley, struggling over a one pound loan before taking a Christmas Eve stroll when the shops are closed to steal leftovers in the trash. Family is sacred to him and Jennifer Hennessy (Death Comes to Pemberley) as Emily Cratchit. Their children – including engaged seamstress Martha, young apprentice Peter, and sickly Tiny Tim who's somehow the same age as in A Christmas Carol seven years later are their priority. Mrs. Cratchit brings Bob pies at work and despite their situation, the family is happy and festive, appreciative of the little things and protective of each other because they are all they have. Anton Lesser (The Hollow Crown) as creepy, shrewd taking Fagin, however, keeps his underlings in line with food, shelter, and threats. He claims to have their best interests at heart, insisting his charity is better than these youths being on the street, yet he'll blame them to save himself from the noose. Where Dickens could only imply the Victorian severity, Dickensian realistically addresses the city underbelly, and Fagin offers to sell Nancy to Bill Sykes for fifty pounds. It's odd then, that at times, Fagin is also portrayed sympathetically, sad as his minions leave him before they kiss and make up – dragging on when their tale seems ended in order to set up the titular Oliver for a second year that would never happen. Delicious meetings between Scrooge and Fagin also come too late when their crusty curmudgeonry could have been so juicy. Why should Bethany Muir's (The Little Drummer Girl) Nancy trust in the law when girls like her die all the time and nobody cares? She's told to make nice to all the rich men, but comes to trust the Inspector and love Bill. Nancy doesn't think love can feed you or keep you warm but Mark Stanley's (Game of Thrones) Bill is saving up his money so they can start a new life. Fagin says Nancy deserves better and mocks Bill, but he's tired of being Fagin's patsy – leading to bittersweet moments when we know their tender ultimately has a terrible outcome.

With so many characters on Dickensian – listed alphabetically in the opening credits – one almost needs a who's who and from which book chart. However, some players in this ensemble are just irrelevant clutter, including ruddy nosed and gin loving Mrs. Gamp, crusty one legged Mr. Wegg, and gossipy original character Mrs. Biggetywitch. Rather than jolly good Victorian charm, these superfluous busybodies are out of place amid the murder mystery and prequel drama, and the isolated, bickering Bumbles serve no purpose but to test the fast forward button itch. During the British airing of Dickensian as twenty half-hour episodes, it must have been very easy to tune out and not go back thanks to such a crowded screen and confusing internal chronology. The edgy strings and modern theme music also sound too generic when a voluminous period score would set off the colorful frocks, carriages, antiques, pocket watches, and top hats. We don't get to see the breweries and churches nor much of a house beyond its front door facade. The grass is obviously fake and the interiors feel tight with close quarters filming, yet Dickensian's snow, horses, and birds chirping are better than time wasting CGI sweeping across a fake ye olde Londontown cityscape. Balls, chandeliers, and grand interiors contrast the fiddles and candlelit accessories while tolling bells, parchments, quills, and lanterns create period mood. Back alleys add ominous underbellies and fog sets off the whodunit flashbacks. Dickensian looks great, but the series is twice as long as it should be and not as tightly woven as the master himself could have done. If Dickensian had been made ten years prior, perhaps it would have had more Masterpiece weight than Downton melodrama. It's not as good as it could be, paling in comparison to earlier BBC adaptations such as the 1998 Our Mutual Friend, the 2005 Bleak House, and the 2011 Great Expectations. The gimmick is often more important than the narrative, and Dickensian would have worked better as television movie events – mash ups between A Christmas Carol mystery and Oliver Twist downtrodden separate from the upscale bitter of Great Expectations and Bleak House prequels. Too many characters and a lacking focus make Dickensian too complicated to lure new viewers to Dickens and those failed hopes for a second season. Having said that, the rich source material keeps Dickensian likable for literary and period piece fans thanks to entertaining moments and worthwhile performances.