TV Series Review: Better Call Saul (S4 & S5), Knocking on the Door of Greatness

I will start off by apologising for not penning a review for S4 of the brilliant Better Call Saul. I think I got lazy. After completing S5 I knew I had to pay homage to some of the best, if not the best, TV ever. In the Breaking Bad universe my lame excuse would have earned me a ride to the desert with no return trip.

Through 5 fabulous seasons, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, have demonstrated Better Call Saul isn’t a simplistic joining-the-dots exercise. It is essentially an origin story of characters that were established in Breaking Bad and an intricate expansion of that world. It’s a clear-eyed character study of how one lawyer breaks bad.

S4 offers us front row seats to the final piece in triggering Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Right at the end of the season, we were gobsmacked by his remorse in front of a panel of judges and peers deciding his fate as a lawyer. Kim (Rhea Seehorn), his girlfriend, sees a side of him she hasn’t seen before. “Did you see that asshole? He had actual tears,” Jimmy says gleefully after tricking the panel into reinstating his license. A profound sense of shock coupled with utter disappointment washes over her mien as she realises she was one those assholes, and likewise with us. As Jimmy is escorted back into the courtroom, he turns back to Kim and gives her a double-pointed-finger knowing look. I mention this last point because in S5 Kim does the same to Jimmy, a sign that she is on the brink of breaking bad.

From S1 to 4, the series can be observed to be adhering to 4 main plot threads: McGill’s transformation into Da Man, Mike Ehrmantraut’s (Jonathan Banks) gradual realisation of what he has to do to provide for his family, Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) execution of his ultimate kill-the-competition plan and Nacho Varga’s (Michael Mando) painful once-you’re-in-you’ll-never-be-out lesson. Everything that happened in S1 to S4 can be put into a simple Venn diagram with two mutually exclusive circles: the drug stuff and the lawyer stuff. In S5 the two circles gradually become one and the same. The weaving of various plot threads is sheer masterclass.

Gilligan and Gould continue to hedge the lines between good and evil, innocence and sin, comedy and drama, sticking to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something artistically indelible comes across. All through the first 4 seasons I can’t say it reaches the greatness of Breaking Bad, but with this current season I can’t proclaim that anymore. The pieces are all on the table and it is knocking on the door of greatness. It is all segueing beautifully into the events of Breaking Bad, not just in terms of timeframe but in tone and content.

It doesn’t make the mistake of wearing us out with action which in excess is boring. The modus operandi continues to be a tempo of slow burn interspersed with punchy dialogue, riveting montages and gripping tension, burning it all down to a simmer. Violence is always purposeful and comes in beautifully choreographed staccato bursts. But Gilligan and Gould’s forte is characterisation and over 5 seasons it approaches the level of art. There is a profound sense of ennui in the characters as they seemed fated to go in certain treacherous directions (we do know how most of them will end up). They moved in a distinctive cadence and the acting is nuanced, knowing that ‘show’ is always stronger than ‘tell’. Villains are never painted in broad strokes and in a welcome change of pace they are actually intelligent. Lalo (Tony Dalton) is one fascinating villain – full of charisma and unhinged menace boiling just under his skin, a true revelation. The innocence and simplicity of some characters is contrasted effectively with the depravity of others. All through all these storytelling elements, the creators still come up with brilliant scenes that never seep into gilding the lily territory. I am thinking of the ice-cream and ants bookenders of an episode; I am thinking of Jimmy and Kim chatting at the balcony late one evening and Jimmy places a beer bottle precariously on the edge. My eyes glued to the teetering bottle, a metaphor of their frail relationship.

And what a relationship it has become. From a voice of reason, a moral compass and a heart of conscience, Kim has seemingly embraced the questionable lawyering tactics of Jimmy. If Jimmy is the heart of Better Call Saul, then Kim is the soul. To see her realise that sometimes one needs to do something bad to do something good, and step over to the dark side is heart wrenching. We know she doesn’t feature in Breaking Bad, which means a lot of things will happen next season and I just don’t want her to die. My heart aches just thinking about Kim.

All the previous seasons ended with Jimmy, S5 ends with a different character which sets up S6, the final season, brilliantly. All the winding roads lead to Breaking Bad. If Jimmy ending up as a manager of a Cinnabon outlet in Omaha is a tragedy, then Kim embracing Saul Goodman’s dirty lawyering is an even greater tragedy. I wait with bated breath for the conclusion and I know not everyone will live to see the next day.

Rating 4.5 / 5

TV Series Review: Better Call Saul (S3), It Keeps Getting Better

This is it! Any notion that Better Call Saul is a cash grab exercise after the illustrious Breaking Bad is totally dispelled in S3 for even the remotest BB fan. For me, I had no idea why Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould would even take an interesting but sidelined character and weave a series around him, but count me humbled and awed. Just like BB, every season of BCS just improves by leaps and bounds; every major and minor character grows with new layers peeled away. BCS is no longer a cool looking prequel accompaniment to BB, it has come into its own. And if you watch TV series day in day out, you will know that there’s nothing quite like BCS out there.

The payoff of all the storylines culminates here in S3. I have begun to love the slow and deliberate build-up which will be challenging for most people, but it does feel like Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are weeding out the fake pretenders who came in here thinking it is another BB. The art of storytelling is marvellous – sometimes I have no freaking idea why characters do what they do, like Mike throws a pair of red shoes on a telephone wire or Jimmy throws a drumstick on the floor or the camera holds on Kim for a few seconds longer than necessary and then WHAM! The revelation arrives like a thunderbolt and it knocks one out of the ballpark. My mind starts to scroll through an encyclopedia of scenes from past TV series and movies, and nothing resembles what I have just witnessed. That is a miracle in itself. Most TV series tend to breed familiarity, characters react fast and move like sequenced plot-points. Nobody gets mentally challenged by writers who just wrap a new colourful paper around some regurgitated plot and say it’s a new product.

I can already see the stuff moving towards the events of BB. The suspense is sublime – it teases you, then it slowly squeezes your throat. You will want it to squeeze you faster, but it doesn’t listen to you. It squeezes you till you are out of breath at its own time. There’s a scene of Hector Salamanca telling, more like commanding, Nacho that his dad’s shop will be used as a conduit for his drug shipments. You will see Nacho saying “please no” because he has to give it a shot, but you, like Nacho, already know it is hopeless. You can literally feel the moment Nacho hatches a plan in his head to kill his boss. The scene breathes with potency and authority. You will surrender to its power as more players come in and the plan is executed, all at its own time and then you will start to breathe again.

S3 is also the season that finally brings Gus Fring to the fold. He is such a cool-as-cucumber character – a drug lord disguised as an everyday man masked behind the veneer of a manager of a fast food chain. S3 plants the seeds of relationship between Gus and Mike, and I am rubbing my hands in glee as their bond becomes binding.

S3E5 is one of the best episodes ever! And I am not even saying it’s the best episode of BCS, I think it is one of the best episodes of any series ever. All the deliberate build-up culminates in this one helluva episode. It is so surreal that this episode is about two brothers going head to head in a battle of wits. The gloves are off, no one will be the same anymore, one loser, zero winner, brotherhood is dead. The writing is stellar, the acting sublime and that final shot, chock full of symbolism.

There is still so much I want to say, but I think I should shut up. You know it is the mark of a great series when you suddenly realised you have been rooting for multi-layered shady characters. You would want the worst to happen to them, but you will want the story to take its time. Knowing how all the players will eventually end up gives me such a sense of melancholy, especially with Jimmy, who lands up as a manager of a Cinnabon outlet. He doesn’t deserve that or does he? Time will tell.

4 / 5

TV Series Review: Better Call Saul (S1 & S2), A Spin-Off as Good as its Predecessor

If Season 1 established the world of Better Call Saul, it really comes into its own in Season 2. This is a series that displays so much confidence and knows what it wants to be – a character-driven suspense drama. It never panders to anyone. If your main complaint is “it is so slow”, then IMHO the failure is yours. It never, not for one second, stoops down to give you generic action scenes, car chases or scenes synchronised to heightened music. The story isn’t based on these staples; it is instead based on drawing out compelling characters in “true to life” situations. For Breaking Bad fans, we already know how each one of the characters would pan out, but how Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould lay out the groundwork is nothing short of amazing. In a million years I wouldn’t be able to guess BCS is about the love between brothers and sibling jealousy.

If Season 1 introduces the two main characters – Jimmy and Mike, I feel this season is all about Chuck. What a fine actor! I pity him as much as I want to slap him under a gigantic fluorescent light. Not for Howard Hamlin though; that “always turns up his nose” face, I feel like bashing! And I love the gun dealer. If I want to buy a weapon, I would want to buy it from that fella. What a character!

Each episode of Season 1 can at times feel it is about one thing stretched out to 50min. Season 2 does a much better job with this deliberate pacing. Each time the story centres on Jimmy, I couldn’t wait to see what happens to Mike, and vice versa. The finale hits my G-spot. None of that stupid cliffhangersame-old-same-old. It just closes a chapter on the characters and they are a few steps closer to what they will become in BB. I can’t wait to find out more about them.

This is one of the best series currently on TV and I can confidently say there is nothing out there that even resembles BCS.

Rating 4 / 5

TV Series Review: Goblin: The Lonely and Great God (2016), Goblin Laid Down a Marker for K-Drama

The missus and I must be the only Korean drama aficionados that have not seen this massive hit drama. Let’s put it in context for you – Goblin currently lies at #239 on IMDb’s list of Top Rated TV Shows. I checked, it is the ONLY Korean drama series on the illustrious list. Yes, Crash Landing On You isn’t there, I am sorry 😬

Since the series exploded on the small screen, we have heard so many positive things about it from friends, but none was more persuasive than my niece who went to most of the filming locations during her exchange program in Korea. She even saw the cast and crew filming episode 12-13 at the BBQ restaurant. The series also heralded a cultural phenomenon with fans picking up the fashion trend portrayed in the series and Korea’s tourism numbers rocketed up. While the world went Goblin nuts, we remained oblivious to it, but we finally check it out, all thanks to this lockdown.

Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) a decorated military general from the Goryeo Dynasty is framed as a traitor and killed by his master, the young King. Years after his death, he is cursed by the almighty to stay immortal forever and endure the pain of seeing his loved ones die as a punishment to the beastly kills he committed in the wars to protect his country. He becomes an immortal goblin, helping people with his powers and being a kind man in spite of his grievous past. The only way to put an end to his immortality is the Goblin’s bride, whose aid in pulling out the sword embedded in his chest will culminate his painful immortality. Ji Eun-Tak (Kim Go-Eun) is a bubbly high school student who remains cheerful and hopeful despite her tragic life. She summons the goblin by chance and their fates begin to entwine. Goblin’s nephew Yoo Deok-Hwa (Yook Sung-Jae) leases the Goblin’s house to a grim reaper (Lee Dong-Wook) and the two end up living under the same roof. In the fray is also Sunny (Yoo In-Na), a charismatic young lady who runs a chicken shop in which Ji Eun-Tak works as a part-timer. As the lives of Kim Shin, the grim reaper, Ji Eun-Tak and Sunny interweave, a deeper story unfolds as they are not just strangers who met by chance but people with deep-rooted relations.

I plucked the synopsis from Wikipedia. It’s for the 1% in the world who have never heard of Goblin 😊 Here comes my take…

The Koreans are so good with these epic fantasy romance dramas. They know the inherent conceit is to create an impossible romance. By that I mean the man and woman will find it impossible to be together, but yet every atom in their body will drive them towards each other. I have been schooled in this mantra of Korean romance having seen so many of the great ones. In Hotel Del Luna and Crash Landing On You, both man and woman have everything to lose if they wish to be together, likewise in Goblin. If Eun-Tak pulls the sword out, Kim Shin ceases to exist. If she doesn’t do it, she will be in constant danger.

The impossible romance only works if the couple is painted so believably, their chemistry so palpable, their love so powerful that we will hope with our entire being that they find their happiness. Initially, I had some trouble believing the stuff thrown at me. Kim Shin is more than 900 years old trapped in a 30+(?) body, while Eun-Tak is a 19-year-old high schooler. The height discrepancy is the gap of the wealth divide of any country. Thankfully, they are on the same maturity level but Eun-Tak does have to teach him a few things about love. The whole thing spelt illicit to me. Maybe it’s because I am a teacher so this looked to me like a sleazy romance between a teacher and his junior college student. But dammit… with every episode and every ethereal moment I bought into it, hook, line and sinker.

Eun-Tak’s Cinderella-esque underpinnings aside, what eventually endeared me towards her is her spunkiness. Being born into poverty doesn’t limit her. She grabs life by its horns and forge something for herself, staying steadfast to her beliefs. She plays a 19-year-old girl with aplomb. The world through her eyes is a wondrous one. She isn’t awestruck (at least to me) by the wealthy Kim Shin and will get pissed at him and is not afraid to speak her mind. I don’t find her stunningly pretty like the dime in a dozen actresses in Kdramas, but her confidence and feistiness is a breath of fresh air.

In any healthy relationship, each person will see the world through the other’s eyes and evolve to become a better person. Eun-Tak’s presence changes a quiet and regal Kim Shin to someone who is able to see the beauty and funny in life. Oh man… if I live to be more than 900 in a forever young 30+ body I will surely gain some smarts and enjoy my time on earth. I am not going to be an angry Wolverine staying pissed at the world all the time.

The first 8 episodes had me scratching my head a fair bit. It just wasn’t compelling stuff and the dialogue is frivolous. As much as I find it a little underwhelming, I was still engaged because of the fascinating back stories, gorgeous cinematography and the chemistry of the characters. I particularly enjoyed the bromance between goblin and the nameless grim reaper. The writers really milked the possibilities and drew out the juxtapositions between two supernatural beings. Oh… gorgeously beautiful people demand the most beautiful shots. The photography is amazing. You just need to freeze-frame any shot with your eyes closed and then open your eyes and see a poster shot. The bokeh shots, the slo-mo, the scenery… beautiful. In goblin’s mansion, the furniture and home decor are things of wonder. My eyes will constantly wander to the wardrobe, kitchen ware and shelves. Nothing, not even a light fixture, is out of place and the whole mansion and all its amazing rooms is like one of the man-made wonders of planet earth, I kid you not.

From episode 9 onwards, Goblin goes on a different route, things are more urgent, the frivolity disappears like wisps of smoke and in comes an urgency that builds and builds to a crescendo. Suddenly, you will realise the first 8 episodes are some clever expositional passages disguised as hilarity and absurd situations. Suddenly, you will realise all the characters are linked in grandiose ways and they have been placed on a chessboard by God to see how it all plays out. Think Job in the bible and you get what I mean. What’s also clever about it is Goblin doesn’t rely on a negative force to retard the principals’ arcs in the first half of the series. From episode 9 onwards, villainy arrives in all its evil and I was all in. I could map out the ending but that ending in my head came in episode 13 and I had no idea what they were going to do with the last 3 episodes. The last 3 episodes have some of the best falling action ever that culminates in a prolonged bittersweet moment that brought on a heartache like no other. The last 2 episodes can practically be a movie about having amnesia and learning to fall in love again.

Goblin has inspired moments of writing and every element coalesced into an organic whole that is effective and affective. I think it’s not far-fetched to say it’s art. It’s definitely great television, period. Sure, I can tell you a few things that are off but taken as a whole, this feels like a phenomenon where all the stars aligned and something transcendent happened. This one definitely laid down a marker for the rest of Kdrama-dom to pull up their socks. I can safely tell you with all my heart that Hotel Del Luna and Crash Landing On You won’t have happened if it isn’t for Goblin.

Rating 4.5 / 5

TV Series Review: The Haunting of Hill House (S1) This is Good Horror

What is good horror?

IMHO good horror movies ground the journey in the everyday world, which allows us to feel closer to the unfolding horrific events. Good horror isn’t just about delivering good scares, it is paramount that it makes us care for the protagonist. Good horror understands that what the audience’s imagination conjures up is far more potent than sophisticated special effects or elaborate make-up can produce. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is all these and more, so much more.

In the summer of 1992, Hugh (Henry Thomas & Timothy Hutton) and Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) and their children Steven (Paxton Singleton & Michiel Huisman), Shirley (Lulu Wilson & Elizabeth Reaser), Theodora (Mckenna Grace & Kate Siegel), Luke (Julian Hilliard & Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and Nell (Violet McGraw & Victoria Pedretti), move into Hill House to renovate the mansion in order to sell it and build their own house, designed by Olivia. However, due to unexpected repairs, they have to stay longer, and they begin to experience increasing paranormal phenomena that results in a tragic loss and the family fleeing from the house. Twenty-six years later, the Crain siblings and their estranged father reunite after tragedy strikes again, and they are forced to confront how their time in Hill House had affected each of them.

One of things that occasionally comes up when I discuss movies with friends is that they would stay away from certain genres. Westerns and horror are usually the genres that draw the short end of the stick. I find that baffling because there are great movies in any genre. The point of the game is to watch the good ones. The Haunting of Hill House is a great one.

What is great about the series isn’t the scares, it is how the story unfolds across 10 episodes that makes it a true class act. The narrative structure employs flashback-driven plot mechanics with each episode devoted to one character. When one character opens a door, a door in the past is opened by the same younger character. So the past informs the present and in a brilliant sequence in the last episode, even the future informs the present. The triggers for all the flashbacks are meticulously calibrated for impactful storytelling. It is a technique as old as the first stories told, but in the hands of writer-director Mike Flanagan it becomes inventive and fresh.

There are a few standout episodes that made my jaw drop to the floor; episode 5 comes to mind. It achieved a steady sense of mounting disquiet, slowly unravelling the mystery of the bent-neck lady and the final sequence of revelations sent a cold chill down my spine. It also put me in a place of infinite sadness. Up to that point, it was the high point of the series, but I had no idea Flanagan would up the ante with episode 6. This episode is a technical wonder; done with several long single takes, the longest being 17 minutes. How the camera weaves in and out of characters in two locations, the funeral home and Hill House, is truly stunning. It was profoundly sad, confrontational and explosive. Secrets are revealed, truth is said and the family unit fractures, seemingly beyond repair. The final episode closes with a strong sense of catharsis which left me exhausted, but in a great way. I felt like I have lived a lifetime with the Crains, and I have not even hit on the scares yet.

The Haunting of Hill House has some of the best horror imagery I have seen. None of them feels cheap and derivative, every element serves the story. In fact, this series doesn’t follow the typical game plan with a scare inserted in regular intervals. One of stylistics that stood out is that it also doesn’t rely on music to heighten the nerve-shredding scares, lending it even more authority. There are some scares that don’t even feature horror imagery which is a marvel. These scenes would just focus on a character talking and yet they sent shivers coursing through my veins. Just listen to the lady talking to Steve in the opening episode and tell me you did not steal a glance at your ceiling or the scene where Mr Dudley talks to Hugh about his wife and daughter. The shifting dynamics is sheer masterclass and your imagination is working over-time choreographing the words into action, and that is way scarier than a CGI ghost.

This series is chock full of highs and lows expertly woven through its 10 episodes. Boasting well-written characters and an ever-changing perspective with two plot-lines. The Haunting of Hill House is essential viewing. If you are a film lover worth your salt you have to check this out. This is one house you will want to check in but you won’t be able to check out.

Rating 5 / 5

TV Series Review: Ozark (S3), This Time They’re All In

In these dark times, prefacing a movie review and drawing parallel with the current state of the world is almost a cliché. But there is something about watching the Byrdes get caught between a rock and a hard place in the midst of a world hunkering down in a quarantine that makes it ever so satisfying. Seeing them get away by the skin of their teeth feels cathartically purgative. We detest them, pity them, but yet we want them to escape their dire predicament, just like we hope to see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

This season is more of the same cockamamie schemes to launder money through the newly acquired Missouri Belle casino, but Marty and Wendy are no longer on the same page. Under the watchful eyes of the FBI, Marty wants to keep it on the down low, but Wendy has plans to make the businesses go legitimate by investing in another casino and hotel. Their marriage is rocky and they are seeing a marriage specialist. Their laundry baskets of dirty linen are long past their wash-by dates, but reconciliation is far from their agenda as they seek to undermine each other which turns out to be one of the most morbidly hilarious running gags ever.

Into the criminally dysfunctional family comes bipolar Ben, Wendy’s brother. The guy is a ticking time bomb, a wild card and a loose cannon, all rolled into one. Him falling in love with Ruth Langmore, an important partner of the Byrdes’ operation, doesn’t do the Byrdes any favours. Elsewhere, lawyer Helen Pierce features strongly in this season, right up until the last shot of the season (pun intended) and Darlene Snell has some big plans of her own.

The Byrdes have been on survival mode since the get-go, and this season finds them being pro-actively thinking of ways to safeguard their future. This comes as a refreshing turn, instead of seeing them react to the waves of imminent life-ending danger. Wendy continues to step out from under Marty’s shadow and step up to the plate. Her character arc is the best this season, culminating in a grief-stricken prolonged sequence. I thought she was grieving over the death of a loved one, but the start of the next episode suggests she may be weeping for herself. The Byrdes have always prided themselves with not crossing certain lines, but this season they crossed many lines like Macbeth killing King Duncan. There can be no sweet returns after this.

If there are weak spots, one of them is definitely Ben who is the very definition of a plot mover, but I have to say he is a fine actor. The scenes of him switching through emotions on the spectrum was impressive and definitely a calling card for future roles. Things are also sluggish at the midpoint and only hit a frenzy with the last few episodes which were also busy setting up new developments for the next season.

That said, the final scene is devilishly delicious. Between the devil and the deep blue sea, the Byrdes are right smack where they deserve to be. The noose is around their necks and this time they are all in.

3.5 / 5

TV Series Review: Ozark (S2), Unlikable Characters that are Complex

TV Series Review: Ozark (S2), Unlikable Characters that are Complex

Sometimes I feel like a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, all smiley and everything nice most of the time, but I allow myself to go to the dark side when I get absorbed by characters on the screen and on the page. Cathartically and vicariously, I get to be a crazy rich Asian with beautiful women hanging by my coattails or a hardboiled detective solving a baffling crime or, my personal favourite, a wannabe crime lord with a burgeoning crime empire and lots of dead bodies in my wake. Netflix’s Ozark is my guilty pleasure of the third kind.

The second season finds Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) juggling family life and dealing with the cartel’s attorney Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), as well as the Snells and Langmore Ruth (Julia Garner).

If Season 1 has heavy shades of Breaking Bad, Season 2 forges a slightly different path with Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) taking more of the limelight, but there is still no mistaking the hues and narrative tracks of Breaking Bad. Being compared to the seminal masterpiece of an ordinary family man evolving to become a crime lord is not necessarily a bad thing, but I would think the writers would use Season 2 to breakaway and forge a new direction.

The first half lacks invention and the sickening euphoria of discovery. By that I mean the narrative strategy is simply to pile up problems and more problems for the Byrdes to solve, because they are in the unique position to keep the fraught balance between the cartel and the Snells in place. For most of the first 5 episodes I find myself drifting in and out the laboured situations. Marty and Wendy have become reactive characters, not proactive and I found myself plotting out how all the narrative threads will play out. That’s not a good thing.

Then the second half started to lay on the surprises because endings that I had predicted reached their crescendos in mid-season. This season also sees Wendy coming into the foreground and her new found purpose in herself is compelling. If Marty’s character feels like he is regressing to a safe spot, especially after a traumatising event, Wendy muscled up to hold the fort and the family together. Her character arc was particularly revelatory and absolutely satisfying.

Season 2 remains edgy and engrossing, and I must say I was surprised by the demise of quite a few major players. Don’t worry, I will not reveal who they are, and I must say the dispatching of most of them hits the spot for me. The narrative structures of a couple of episodes are truly inspired, especially the one that begins with a lengthy flashback on a couple (not the one you are thinking about) and the ending sent a cold chill down my spine. The acting continues to be top tier and the introduction of a new character, the cold hard bitch of a lawyer Helen Pierce, adds steel to the story and she has some of the best lines…

“Don’t f*ck with me. Don’t f*ck with my client. He’ll kill your children. He’ll gut your wife. Do you want to know what he will do to you?”

“I am a lawyer. I move words around.”

“This is the first law of power. Those who can, shit on others. Those who can’t, clean it up.”

Onwards to extreme negotiations and cockamamie schemes of S3…

TV Series Review: Ozark (S1), Sign Up for Money Laundering 101

We started watching this on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, the wifey said “Let’s catch an episode” and that doesn’t happen very often. We ended up watching two. On Monday night, we binged the last four episodes over dinner and finished at 1130pm. Ozark is the latest series that made us make plans to accommodate it.

The Byrdes, Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) and their teenage kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hubiltz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), are, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary family with ordinary lives. Except for the job of Marty, a Chicago financial advisor who also serves as the top money launderer for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico. When things go awry, Marty must uproot his family from the skyscrapers of Chicago and relocate to the lazy lake region of the Missouri Ozarks.

Netflix’s Ozark is not the network’s crowned jewel of crime. I think that title belongs to the staggering Narcos. But Ozark with its muted hues, small-time criminals, big-time wannabes and conglomerate-sized drug lords comes at the heels of it. When we signed off from the series last night, the missus made an interesting observation that it bears similarities with the seminal Breaking Bad. She is right… Walter White’s journey to the Dark Side stems from a wrath against fate, and the world was gifted with one of the most outstanding anti-heroes. But Marty Byrde’s journey down the dark rabbit hole comes from a place of careful consideration and his resourcefulness at self-preservation while playing a numbers game.

Ozark is money laundering 101 and it opens with a monologue that is IMHO the gold standard of beginnings. Jason Bateman under-plays Marty with a quirky demeanour and he is most compellingly watchable when he is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. How he talks himself out of any situation and comes up with cockamamie schemes to suck unsuspecting victims in is a twisted joy to behold. Laura Linney’s Wendy is also his equal and slips into a co-conspirator role with ease and necessity. Her arc sailing from indignation to realisation borders on the satirical. This is a crime series with no good characters, zilch, every character, even the children, is all manners of perversity and vileness, but the cool thing is that you are going to start rooting for the scumbags.

The plot isn’t propulsive but the Byrdes’ wiggling out of impossible situations make for compelling viewing. There are not many weak episodes except perhaps that extended flashback one which examines the characters’ initial motivations and how they become who they are later in the game. That was the only gimmicky episode that pulled the relentless pace at that point to a standstill with not much added value. In terms of characters, I couldn’t stand Charlotte’s whiny nature and her sudden outbursts which sounded like cliches. Her arc just doesn’t feel convincing, but Jonah’s character is refreshing and he is already one step into psychopath territory. The revelation here for me is Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore, a young criminal in-the-making with an eye out for the future, a fascinating character.

Ozark does a great job of examining the psychology, sociology and economics of crime and feels like a doorway into the nefarious world of drug cartels and money laundering. IMHO it doesn’t hit the top tier which is occupied by ground-breakers like Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Sopranos, but it deservedly resides on the shelf just below that, and that is definitely not a bad place to be in.

Time to check into the last resort and trust me… don’t drink that seemingly revivifying thirst-quenching lemonade offered by the host no matter what.

Rating 4 / 5

TV Series Review: Kingdom (S2), Kingdom Hasn’t Lost Its Bite

My friend is going to ‘kill’ me if he reads this. At a chanced meeting at our coffeeshop, he told me he was disappointed with S2 of Kingdom because of the lack of zombie action. There is nothing wrong with that observation. As a matter of fact, he is right, but I am reminded of one of the tenets of great storytelling – it is not the what, it is the how. Kingdom is a Korean period zombie story set in the Joseon Dynasty, but it isn’t content with just populating the historical landscape with humans fighting zombies with antique weapons using archaic battle strategies. If Kingdom had catered to just the action junkies, it wouldn’t be transcending into cult status. Yes, I believe Kingdom is destined to be a cult classic.

S2 benefits from an uncanny release date that feels like a grim joke. The world is presently in the deathly grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and mankind is probably in the midst of undergoing a major system reboot. Seeing the protagonists of Kingdom watching wide-eyed with disbelief written on their faces as the zombies rampage towards them in broad daylight takes on a different meaning. Reel life becomes real life. The anxiety hits really close to home.

S2 starts immediately from the cliffhanger of S1 and it doesn’t let go of its grip. Replete with rich people sitting in ivory towers watching poor folks run and die, an undercurrent of classism runs through it. The central spine is still about a prince becoming a king and a female doctor coming into her own in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. S2 is relentlessly paced. Gone is the meticulous setup of place and characters, the shackles are gone. It’s get-busy-living-or-get-busy-dying time. It does a great job of painting a world drowning in hopelessness, populated by humans across the spectrum. Even when faced with a common enemy, people are still selfishly looking out for themselves. Court intrigue, power struggle, double crosses still run in tandem with the zombie apocalypse, but these side-plots never bogged down the main thrust of the story.

Sandwiching the story of a crown prince becoming a true king of his people, not through status but by action, the zombie action is spectacularly riveting. There is still a macabre sense of humour embedded in certain bloody scenes where characters are dispatched in ridiculous ways that made me guffaw. Scenes of zombies swarming the landscape is jaw-dropping and inventive. The science of how the zombies work and ultimately destroyed is well-explained. In short, if you love your zombie action, this one has it in spades and in bloody refreshing ways.

I particularly enjoyed how they closed out Crown Prince Lee Chang’s arc. In any narrative, what he has done through two seasons is more than enough to make him become the king twice over, but such is the way of a man who has learned benevolence and kindness that he understands the throne is an obstacle in showing love for his people. That would have been a fitting ending, but Kim Eun-hee, the writer of Kingdom, fast-forwards the story a few years later and sets up an enticing promise of S3 with some clever expositions ending with a mouth-watering cameo.

And thus begins the long wait for S3. I have mixed feelings with that not because I don’t want to see how the story will progress, but it means Kim Eun-hee will have her hands full and probably won’t have time for Signal S2, my favourite TV series of 2016. I will just have to be patient. Right now, I am rubbing my hands in child-like glee to see what will happen in S3.

Rating 4 of 5

4 / 5

TV Series Review: Kingdom (S1) (2019), Abra-cadaver…This Korean Period Zombie Series Hits a Bone Run

Prior to watching this my wifey and I saw Rampant, also a Korean period zombie movie set in the Joseon Dynasty. This one bored us to death. It made us so sleepy that we turned in at 1030pm. That NEVER happens.

Then we gave Netflix’s Kingdom a whirl because I read that it is written by Kim Eun-hee who wrote the compelling Signal (2016), one of the best things that happened that year. A few minutes into it we realised the story is practically the same as Rampant – court intrigue, some power hungry scumbag wants to rule the kingdom, a prince who is still wet behind his ears; all this right smack in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. But the similarities end here.

Kingdom does everything right. The humour never feels forced, characters lift off the screen and those damn zombies are the killer. The great zombie movies always know how to capture a microcosm of society, from the cowards to the heroes, and make it fun. Kingdom has that in spades. Every episode shows you the basest of human behaviour and also the best.

The visuals are great. The locations are stunning. The zombies are incredible to behold. The premise of how they come to be is horrific. To tell you more is to spoil the fun for you.

I enjoyed the crown prince’s arc. Like the prince in Rampant, he gradually learns the ways of a good king by caring for the weak and developing a mind of a military strategist.

The scenes of zombie carnage are superbly set-up and shot. Pathos is never in short supply and unlike Rampant we actually care for the characters here.

However, the zombies rightfully take centrestage. The physics of their movement, the singularity of their feral desire and their physical look, all outstanding.

There are only 6 episodes in the first season and it ends with a cliffhanger that gives the saturated genre a good kick in the butt. 

You know I can’t recommend Rampant at all, but watching it before you see Kingdom will show you how everything can go wrong even if you have an amazing story premise. Then you will begin to understand and marvel at the mechanics in the crafting of a good zombie entertainer.

Rating 4 of 5