Carlos (2010)

(TV-MA)

(TV-MA)

Plot Summary: Over the course of two decades, an elusive Venezuelan terrorist carries out devastating acts of politically motivated violence.

Cast: Édgar RamírezAlexander ScheerAlejandro ArroyoFadi Abi SamraAhmad Kaabour; Talal El-Jordi

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Queue It) The life of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez is extremely interesting in its own right, but the success of this project really depended upon Édgar Ramírez, who rose to the occasion in a remarkable way. Through him, the viewer can see the charismatic, ambitious, inspiring, fiery, driven, obsessed, aggressive, narcissistic, lecherous, hot-tempered, morally and ethically flexible person behind the notorious and fearsome reputation of Carlos the Jackal. One also gains pretty good insight into some of what drives, and the development of, revolutionaries, insurgents, terrorists, etc., and this series begs the question of where the line between those different classifications lies.  The project also calls out how instrumental governments have been in the success of these non-state combatants, and the ensuing hypocrisy of such governments in denouncing these individuals once their services lose enough value. Additionally, viewers can appreciate a fascinating account of the development of the Cold War from the perspective of its “front-lines” fighters and in constantly shifting international settings. In sum, this is a brilliant series about fascinating people and subjects, brought to life by excellent actors.

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The Middle (2009-Present)

The Middle

(TV-PG)

Plot Summary: The daily mishaps of a married woman and her semi-dysfunctional family and their attempts to survive life in general in the city of Orson, Indiana.

Creators: Eileen Heisler, DeAnn Heline

Stars: Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (White Noise) Every once in a while, you’ll get a chuckle out of this show, and there are some insightful commentaries about life in general. However, watching Frankie & Mike Heck schlep through life in their crappy jobs, in their crappy house, and with their ungrateful kids is way too often depressing. After Season 1, I will only be watching further episodes of this show if it happens to come on TV while I’m doing something else. That being said, Heaton and Flynn are charismatic in their roles; Frankie is a much better character than Debra Barone. Also, Atticus Shaffer is an excellent little weirdo.

Big Love (2006-2011)

Big Love

(TV-MA)

Plot Summary: A polygamist and his relationship with his three wives.

Creators: Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer

Stars: Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny

Serious Jest:animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)(Casual Watch)  I began watching Big Love for the novelty of peering into the life of a man with multiple wives, a trepidatious fantasy that I dare say all straight men imagine at some point (although further daydreaming about it often gives way to nightmares about being outnumbered and overnagged).  However, I did not think that I would find a show about Mormons in Utah so interesting after that initial novelty wore off.

Well, it wasn’t long before this series showed me how ridiculous my biases were.  The show grabs you with its universally human themes, and it also educates you by shedding light on both sides of explosively controversial issues that are very specific to a relatively small group of people, but nonetheless extremely important enough that we should all be aware of such issues.  The storytelling is gripping, featuring: a man who built a small empire out of nothing after being cast out of a polygamist compound and onto the streets; his first wife, who bought into this way of life out of love for her husband but still struggles with her choice; his second wife, whose father is the leader of the compound and is responsible for her husband being cast out; and his third wife, who was not very religious before meeting her new family, but has found the path through her love and devotion to this family.  More than anything, the themes revolve around people who are attempting to live what they believe is a righteous life, but having to hide it from the rest of society, lest they be persecuted, or even jailed.

It is hard to believe that the legal controversy over the ability of the State of Utah to not just deny polygamist marriage licenses, but to prosecute polygamists for cohabitation, did not come to a head until 2013 (see Brown v. Buhman).  As mentioned above, the show presents both sides of the coin, showing how the cohabitation laws were a useful tool for law enforcement seeking to prevent the wrongful exploitation of young women within polygamist compounds and societies, but also recognizing that a significant portion of people who were just trying to freely and honestly practice their religion were arbitrarily caught in the crossfire.  Ultimately, my hatred for pretext laws puts me on the side in favor of abolishing anti-cohabitation laws.  We should fight the war against exploitation of young women by changing the laws concerning exploitation of young women to better facilitate prosecution of the traffickers, not by casting a wider net that also ensnares innocent people.

The execution of the above-mentioned superior storytelling was masterfully performed by a strong cast.  This is the role in which I saw Paxton go from charismatic supporting actor to natural leading man.  All of the actresses playing the wives bring out their character’s individual strengths and beauty, but Ginnifer Goodwin in particular delivers The Girlfriend Experience; she only gets more beautiful the more you watch her.  And before she became a fantasy woman, Amanda Seyfried was soft-spoken teenage girl Sarah Henrickson, who expressed the turmoil shouldered by the children of polygamists through her big, blue-grey, brooding eyes.

amanda seyfried big love

Then

Amanda-Seyfried -Vogue-US-2015--01

Now

Unfortunately, the brilliance of the show was overshadowed in its later seasons by over-the-top plot twists.  It devolved into a hard-to-believe soap opera, and it lost a significant amount of the real-people-problems appeal that made it so relatable early on.  Thus, while the first two seasons easily deserve 4 mugs, the bad aftertaste in my mouth left by the latter seasons downgrades the series to a very full 3.

Underworld: Evolution (2006)

(R) 106 mins

(R) 106 mins

Plot Summary: Picking up directly from the previous film, vampire warrior Selene and the half-werewolf Michael hunt for clues to reveal the history of their races and the war between them.

Director: Len Wiseman

Writers: Danny McBride (screenplay, story, characters), Len Wiseman (story), Kevin Grevioux (characters), Len Wiseman (characters)

Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Don’t Bother)  Now that the special effects that were cutting-edge for this movie’s time have become not-so-impressive as the industry advances, the story itself is not creative or interesting enough to make it worth your time to direct your attention to the screen for almost two hours…unless you REALLY LOVE vampire or werewolf movies.  If that’s the case, let your freak flag fly!  It’s okay; I’m like that with football movies.  Besides, there are worse things to have on your TV in the background than leather-clad Beckinsale doing acrobatics, shooting weapons, and kicking ass.

We'd bite her back!

We’d bite her back!

Lilyhammer (2012-present)

(TV-MA)

(TV-MA)

Plot Summary: A New York mobster goes into hiding in rural Lillehammer in Norway after testifying against his former associates.

Creators: Eilif Skodvin, Anne Bjørnstad

Stars:Steven Van Zandt, Trond Fausa, Steinar Sagen

Serious Jest:animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)(Casual Watch)  I went into the first season hoping for The Sopranos-meets-Norway. I don’t know much about Norway, and it’s nice to get a glimpse into other countries through productions that feature them as almost a character in themselves (for example, The American). This series did a great job in featuring Norway. However, it was also pretty hokey and featured a protagonist that I did not like.

Frank Tagliano is a narcissistic, hypocritical bully, who pushes his culture and ideas of how the world should be onto everyone in his newly adopted country, stepping on hapless and sometimes innocent Norwegians for selfish gain in stereotypical American imperialist fashion. However, unlike The Sopranos, in which Tony Soprano constantly struggled with his conscience, this show glorifies Frank.  I feel like I’m supposed to chuckle as he “outsmarts” (more like strong-arms) people into satisfying his every whim. Fortunately, in the second and third seasons, Frank became a little more judicious and tolerable, while other characters, such as Fausa’s Torgeir, flourish. In my opinion, Fausa carries the show. He is charismatic, funny, humble, and tough when he needs to be. He idolizes Frank, even though he is often unrewarded for his unconditional love. Most importantly, he is the conscience of the show, and through him, we are reminded of the price one pays for being or following Frankie the Fixer.

By the way, world, look out for Maria Joana

maria-joana

and Ida Elise Broch.

  ida-elise-broch You might fall in love.

Band of Brothers (2001)

(TV-MA)

(TV-MA)

Plot Summary: The story of Easy Company of the US Army 101st Airborne division and their mission in WWII Europe from Operation Overlord through V-J Day.

Stars: Scott Grimes, Matthew Leitch, Damian Lewis

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Watch It Live)  As a former Marine who deployed to Iraq, this ten-episode mini-series is a must for my personal collection.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say all military personnel should have it in their collections.  Even if you have little to no interest in military affairs, however, you should take the time at some point in your life to watch this series all the way through.

Beautifully scripted, masterfully acted, and filmed amongst breathtaking (in many different ways) cinematography, this production, which significantly contributed to HBO‘s fast rise as the gold standard in series quality, is an amazing portrayal of the sacrifices made by troops and of the horrors of war.  A healthy dose of clips from this series was played by my instructors during training ops to drive home points about all kinds of important subjects germane to war.

A few random thoughts I had while watching the project:

  • Everyone did such a great job acting, and the character development was top-notch.  Even amongst this wonderful cast, Damian Lewis stood out, followed closely by Neal McDonough.

  • It was pretty awesome to see David Schwimmer play such a different role.

  • There are countless useful lessons to be learned from this series, especially by those who hope to lead troops someday.

  • Why is there so much hip firing throughout the series?  Isn’t it a bit unrealistic to make some of these shots without looking down your sights?

  • I watched one of the most squared-away officers in the 101st return a salute sitting on his ass.  This would not happen in the Marines.  Is it different in the Army?

  • I understand very well the transition that one may go through in terms of how he/she thinks of the enemy during war.  When you first get out there, you dehumanize them in your head in order to justify some of the things that you may have to do.  After a while, however, there comes a point when you realize that your enemies are human beings, much like you, fighting out of a sense of duty, and just trying to make it out of this thing alive like you are.  At least, I went through a transition like that, and this series did a good job of illustrating such a transition.  Still, despite the respect that our soldiers may have gained for the Germans as a formidable fighting force made up of dedicated human soldiers, they were still Nazis.  They were supporting some pretty foul principles.  I’m not saying that our troops were wrong for regarding Nazi troops with the respect that they did during the conflict, but I wonder if my attitude toward Nazi soldiers would have softened even after we defeated them.

  • It would be great to have a beer with one of the living members of the 101st who fought in WWII.

  • After you finish watching this production, watch The Pacific. It’s even better!  Then again, I’m biased. 🙂

Firefly (2002-2003)

(TV-14)

(TV-14)

Plot Summary: Five hundred years in the future, a renegade crew aboard a small spacecraft tries to survive as they travel the unknown parts of the galaxy and evade warring factions as well as authority agents out to get them.

Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Queue It)  This show is one of the best science-fiction stories I have ever experienced.  It’s got an overall entertaining background and interesting characters with compelling and varied individual sub-plots, taking place upon diverse and colorful settings, and told using different storytelling methods and unexpected plot twists, and even featuring a blending of English and Mandarin languages (Endarin or Mandarish?).  Think of it as what the Han Solo Chronicles might be like, if that story was told (setting aside that I think that there are a bunch of Star Wars books out there that probably cover that subject).

It is definitely limited by an inadequate budget, amateur stuntwork, low-quality cameras and some hokiness, but the story is so good and the actors really commit so, after awhile, you almost embrace these limitations as campy.  I do wonder how amazing this series could have been if HBO had grabbed it, though, instead of the CW-like production and wrangling of episode order that Fox put forth.  I am looking forward to see what Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, was able to do with a feature-film budget in the follow-up movie, Serenity.

I was actually surprised to learn that Whedon is from New York, given the overarching plot involving the oppression of individual states by the evil federal system that beat them in a civil war and given the country theme song.  Whedon’s yankeeness does make me feel a little more confident that I’m not being duped into cheering for the Confederate flag, though.

One final note: beware!  This series was cancelled in its first season, and leaves a lot of masterfully posed questions unanswered.  However, the ride is well worth the story blue balls that you will be left with when it’s done.  It’s like getting an awesome BJ from Esperanza Gomez, but not to completion; I still wouldn’t turn it down.  Really, though, you should have this show in your pop-culture tool belt.

Marco Polo (2014-Present)

(TV-MA)

(TV-MA)

Plot Summary: In a world replete with greed, betrayal, sexual intrigue and rivalry, “Marco Polo” is based on the famed explorer’s adventures in Kublai Khan’s court in 13th century China.

Stars: Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong, Joan Chen

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Watch it Live)  Martial arts, political maneuvering, military strategy, philosophy, sex, romance, culture clashes, and issues of family, dynasty, and pride…amongst more.  This series has it all.  Wonderfully acted and masterfully directed.  Storytelling at its top level.  This show makes me want to research history to learn how close to the real events this series depicted…but not until after the show is over.  Wouldn’t want to spoil any future episodes for myself!

Californication (2007-Present)

(TV-MA)

Plot Summary: A novelist battles writer’s block and a weakness for drugs, booze and sex while struggling to make things work with his girlfriend and daughter.

Creator: Tom Kapinos

Stars: David Duchovny, Natascha McElhone, Evan Handler

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Don’t Bother)  This show is very well done for what it is.  The script is witty, the actors are capable (although I’m not a fan at all of Madeleine Martin‘s deadpan portrayal of Becca Moody).  I just can’t relate to these characters.  For the most part, they are wealthy, entitled Los Angeles socialites who do terrible things to each other, yet they continue to hang around each other.  They are co-dependent, dysfunctional, hedonistic, and incestuous (not literally).  Not my cup of tea, but the story is compelling enough that I watched all the way through Season 2.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force (2000-present)

(TV-MA)

(TV-MA)

Plot Summary: The misadventures of a milkshake, an order of fries, a meatball, and their retired next door neighbor in the suburbs of New Jersey.

Creators: Dave Willis, Matt Maiellaro

Stars: Willis, Carey Means, Dana Snyder

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Casual Watch)  I watched the first 2 seasons on Netflix and would have kept watching, but I wasn’t willing to pay to watch the remaining seasons on Amazon, or even to take the trouble to download them on bit torrent.  I suspect you have to be high to really enjoy this show.  That being said, at about 10 minutes an episode, it’s entertaining enough to casually squeeze an episode or two in at lunch.  Also worth it for its pop-culture value; get 2 or more of your friends together, and you’ve got some great Halloween-costume potential!