• The Good Stuff

    Carmen Sandiego Season Two

    Back near the beginning of the year I raved about Netflix’s new original animated series, Carmen Sandiego, which was an unexpected treasure. It took a property that I was never personally invested in, and turned it into a thrilling superspy adventure with healthy doses of educational content. Well, we finally had a chance to watch the new episodes that were released last month, and the second season is even better than the first. The plot twists are twistier, the action set pieces are brilliantly choreographed, the laughs are more frequent… The ten episodes in the season almost function as one long narrative, with cliffhangers ending almost every episode and each new episode picking up right where the previous one left off. Big secrets are revealed, and even bigger questions are uncovered, yet to be answered. There is genuine diversity here, as well, both in terms of the cast of characters, but also the settings and the cultures being depicted.

    I loved the first season of the show, but I really loved the second. Carmen Sandiego is one of the best TV shows currently in production, on broadcast, cable, or streaming, and I really hope that it finds a large enough audience that they can keep making new seasons for a long time to come.

  • The Good Stuff

    The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

    I was twelve years old when The Dark Crystal was released to theaters in December 1982, and I couldn’t have been more primed for it. I was already a huge fan of Jim Henson and the Muppets and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy. I have distinct memories of watching the movie in the theater and being absolutely blown away by it. In the months that followed I read and reread the novelization by A.C.H. Smith, was glued to the screen when The World of the Dark Crystal making-of documentary aired on PBS, hunted down every behind the scenes article I could find in Starlog magazine and the like (though I didn’t learn about Brian Froud’s The World of the Dark Crystal book until many, many years later when it was reissued in an upscale hardcover edition, which I immediately purchased).

    I rewatched the movie a few times over the years, and while the sense of wonder and awe that the wholly fabricated world instilled in me never went away, I came to recognize that it was not a flawless work. The principle focus of the creators had always clearly been on the world and its inhabitants, and the technical challenges of realizing them through puppetry and practical effects, but the writing admittedly appeared to be a secondary concern. On the level of plot, the protagonists win in the end simply by dogged determination, but no choices or decisions that they make along the way have any bearing on the outcome. They survive long enough to be in the right place at the right time, and then the story abruptly ends without any hint about what comes next. And even on the level of dialogue itself in many cases the writing was done well after the fact. Until very far into the film’s postproduction the Skeksis did not speak English, but only gibberish that was improvised by the puppeteers on set, and early test audiences were deeply confused and unable to figure out what was meant to be happening. Only then did Jim Henson and screenwriter David Odell write dialogue for the characters, syncing the words to fit the mouth flaps of the puppets in the finished shots. Thankfully, the finished result only added to the otherworldliness of the scenes, with the odd rhythms and cadences of characters like the Chamberlain’s and the General’s dialogue in particular.

    Still, I love the original movie whole-heartedly, and recognize that it was a crucial influence on my developing tastes as a kid. So when I learned earlier this year that there was to be a prequel series on Netflix, I greeted the news with some trepidation. I had not kept up with the comic book spinoffs that had appeared over the years, and was not even aware of the middle grade novels of J.M. Lee (which the series draws on even more heavily than I realized while watching it), and in my ignorance I remember worrying whether the mythology and lore of the world of the Dark Crystal was extensive enough to support a ten-hour-long miniseries.

    I have seldom enjoyed being wrong more than this, because the world-building that has gone into fleshing out the setting, the cultures, and the mythos the world in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is staggering. And staggeringly good.

    The puppetry is among some of the best that I’ve ever seen, and breaks new ground in using new technology and techniques in order to keep most of the performances practical and in camera as possible. CGI is used sparingly, and in ways that never draws attention to itself, and while I found that I seldom ever even bothered to wonder how a particular shot was accomplished, after watching the making-of documentary The Crystal Calls I learned that several creatures and characters who I had assumed were entirely CGI were in fact practical puppets, operated by puppeteers erased digitally by green screen.

    The voice cast is a murderers’ row of talent, each of them sinking their teeth into the roles and making the most of it. The cinematography is stunning, the editing never misses a beat, the musical score is note perfect. There were twists and turns in the plot that I didn’t see coming, and new characters introduced who at once challenged my expectations and immediately suggested entirely new possibilities for stories that could be told in that world. (I would happily watch a spin-off series of two eccentric hermits that we meet in the course of the series, even if it was just the two of them hanging out, bickering intermittently between hugs, and putting on little shows.)

    After finishing the series last week, we immediately rewatched the original movie the following night (and the making-of documentary on Netflix the night after that), and if anything this new prequel enriches the experience of viewing the original. It provides context and additional meaning for stuff that was there from the beginning, but in often subtle ways. And there are mirrors and echoes in the prequel to things from the original film that I did not pick up on until rewatching it.

    It’s my understanding from interviews that I’ve read that a second season of the series is a possibility, if this first season does well enough. I am finding it difficult to type with all of my fingers crossed, because I very, very much hope that there is more of The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. If you have not yet checked it out, I highly recommend it.

  • The Good Stuff

    Star Wars: Myths & Fables

    Last night I finished reading Star Wars: Myths & Fables, written by my old pal George Mann and illustrated by Grant Griffin, which turns out to be the Star Wars book I’ve been waiting for my whole life without realizing it, and it was well worth the wait.

    As the title implies, this is a collection of short stories that all function as fairy tales, myths, and fables, set in the Star Wars universe. But the clever twist here is that these are stories as they would be told in the world of Star Wars. As in, these are tales that might be read to children on Tatooine at bed time, or shared in the cockpit of a longhaul freighter. And by telling the stories from the perspective of people in that world with a sometimes incomplete understanding of the context and details of what’s happening, it takes Star Wars away from the science fictional trappings that it usually wears and back to its fantasy and fairy tale roots. There are no Jedi knights with lightsabers here, only mysterious wanderers in brown robes with swords that seem to glow with an inner light. Familiar villains make an appearance, but here transformed into mysterious menacing figures in cautionary tales to keep the unruly in line. There are dragons, and witches, and pirates, and youngest siblings off on quests, but it’s all Star Wars, and it all works perfectly.

    I found the book shelved in the kids’ section at Powell’s Books, but it really is “All Ages” in the purest sense of the term, as I think this would appeal equally to young readers as to adults. Any Star Wars fan interested in seeing a little more fantasy than space in their space fantasy should consider checking it out.

  • The Good Stuff

    It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage

    Thirty-eight years ago today saw the debut of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ve been on a serious Indiana Jones kick since returning from Walt Disney World a couple of months ago, and after rewatching all of the movies (and starting in on the Young Indiana Jones made-for-tv movies, the Rob MacGregor novels, the Marvel comics, etc., et al.), I realized that character in his various outing and incarnations had a bigger influence on my tastes and interests, both in terms of what kind of stories I like to read and watch and what kinds of stories I like to tell, than any other single piece of media. As much as I loved Star Wars and Star Trek, Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Tarzan and Doc Savage, or any one of a hundred other great shows, movies, and comics, there’s probably more Indiana Jones DNA in my makeup than any other fictional character or imaginary world. It probably helped that I was exactly the right age for Raiders when it was released–I was two months away from my eleventh birthday, my mental cement still wet enough that I was very impressionable–but there are elements borrowed from that first movie that crop up in virtually everything that I write, whether consciously or not.

    It’s only been a month or so since I rewatched it last, but I think I might need to pop in the Blu-ray and fire up Raiders again tonight, in honor of the occasion. Or maybe I’ll just queue up the John Williams soundtrack as I put some time into my current work-in-progress, which definitely has more than a little Indiana Jones-inspired elements in the mix…

  • The Good Stuff

    Good Omens

    Good Omens is one of my favorite novels. I bought it the day it was released in the US in hardcover, and have probably read it a half-dozen times in the three decades since. (It’s probably my favorite thing that Neil Gaiman has ever written, and in my top five favorite Terry Pratchett works.) But despite the rumblings about possible film adaptations going back all the way to the beginning, I never had much confidence that it could be successfully adapted into a different medium. Thankfully, I was wrong. Very wrong, as it turns out. Because the six-part miniseries that was released on Amazon Prime the week before last satisfied in every conceivable way. The scripts by Neil Gaiman captured the tone and wit of the novel perfectly, and the direction by Douglas Mackinnon never missed a step. The score by David Arnold was note perfect, and the animated opening titles were fantastic. Everyone in the cast turned in stellar performances, but in particular Michael Sheen and David Tennant as the angel and demon who have hung around on Earth so long that they’ve gone native. I would happily watch another full season of those two characters just hanging out, sharing meals and bottles of wine, reminiscing about the old days.
  • The Good Stuff

    Carmen Sandiego

    I didn’t know that I needed a cartoon reboot of Carmen Sandiego in my life, but it turns out I absolutely do.

    I never came across the early Carmen Sandiego computer games in the 80s, but I was in college when the PBS series Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? debuted in 1991 and I have vivid memories of watching it in my dorm every day after class. I was only vaguely aware of the various cartoon spinoffs and subsequent computer games that followed throughout the 90s, and never had any great sentimental attachment to the character. So I greeted the news of a new cartoon series on Netflix with mild curiosity at best. The early teasers I saw looked interesting, and I liked the look of the character designs, but I didn’t have terribly high expectations going in.

    This week my kid and I watched all nine episodes of the first season of Carmen Sandiego, and it has quickly shot to the top of our list of Most Awesome Animated Shows. With Gina Rodriguez voicing the titular character and Finn Wolfhard voicing her hacker pal Player, the new series reimagines Carmen Sandiego as a kind of globe-trotting Robin Hood, stealing historical treasures back from the villainous V.I.L.E. and returning them to their rightful owners, all while keeping ahead of the superspies of ACME who are hot on her heels. The character designs by Chromosphere’s Kevin Dart (whose work I raved about on my blog ages ago) are gorgeous, the animation by DHX Media is fluid and lively, and the music by Lorenzo Castelli and Steve D’Angelo is note perfect. It is a jet-setting superspy thriller with great action and genuine laughs, and with a healthy dose of educational content in every episode.

    Since watching the series I’ve acquainted myself with the backstory and lore established through the various game shows, computer games, and cartoon spinoffs, and was surprised to learn just how much the new series draws from the earlier iterations, including the return of Rita Moreno (who voiced the character in the first cartoon adaptation in the early 90s) in a key cameo role. In terms of cartoon reboots, this is on par with the new DuckTales series in terms of creating something that feels fresh, new, and relevant while being constructed almost entirely out of elements that had already been established in earlier versions of the franchise. It’s a fantastic piece of work, and we can’t wait to see the second season!

  • The Good Stuff

    Killing Eve

    I’d heard all of the raves about Killing Eve last year, but only got around to watching the BBC America series this month. Created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and based on the Codename Villanelle novellas written by Luke Jennings, it stars Sandra Oh as an MI6 operative searching for an assassin played by Jodie Comer. I went in expecting to like it, but was not prepared for just how MUCH I would end up loving the series. It is by turns hilarious and heart-pounding, with amazing performances, sparkling writing, flawless editing, and the most spectacular soundtrack of any TV series I’ve watched in ages. (I stayed up late the night I finished the last episode building a playlist of all of the music from the show in Apple Music, and I’ve had Unloved’s Crash Boom Bang on a constant loop in my head ever since.) The second season is scheduled to begin airing in April, so if you haven’t checked out the first season yet you’ve got more than enough time to catch up and join me in eagerly anticipating what happens next. As for me, I’ll most likely be watching the whole thing again from the beginning in the meantime, because I just can’t get enough of this show.

  • The Good Stuff

    The Frankenstein Chronicles

    I’m late to the party on this one, I think. The first season of ITV’s The Frankenstein Chronicles was recommended to me by Mike Mignola back at the end of 2017, and when both seasons cropped up on Netflix a few months later I added the series to my watch list, but I didn’t get around to watching any of it until the holidays a few weeks ago. I thought I had a pretty good idea what the series would be about, but I was completely wrong. It was so, SO much more than I had expected.

    To avoid spoiling things too much, I’ll just say that The Frankenstein Chronicles is a period-piece horror/mystery story with supernatural/science-fictional elements that makes brilliant use of the era in which it is set, incorporating real historical figures in key roles. (Pointing out just who those historical figures are would spoil the fun so I’ll refrain, though I will say that I kicked myself for not recognizing the pen name of newspaper reporter until after I finished watching the second season finale.) And the story is set in a historical era that I haven’t often seen explored in these sorts of TV shows and movies, late Georgian England (1827 to 1830, specifically) rather than the more familiar Victorian era.

    The second season was scripted by a different team of writers than the first, and there is a slight shift in tone, but I found the way that they explore and expand on the way the first season ends deeply satisfying. There are moments of real horror throughout, so it’s not for the squeamish, but the way that real literary history, politics, science, and philosophy are threaded through the narrative was surprisingly sophisticated and well-done, to my tastes. Both seasons are available now on Netflix, and are well worth checking out.