Posts Tagged ‘Television’

The Thinker

Review: Orange is the New Black (Seasons 1 and 2)

Good news! Hollywood has finally produced a series that represents the full colors of America’s ethnic rainbow! And it’s done very well. The only downside: it depicts life at the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, run by the “Federal Department of Corrections”, supposedly somewhere in upstate New York. And except for some guards and a couple of administrators, there’s not a man in sight because it’s a women’s penitentiary.

I’ve been avoiding Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series, for a couple of years. It’s always hard to decide if I want to invest the time in a TV drama series. Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels and streaming services, there are an overwhelming amount of them out there. Even being retired, I couldn’t begin to watch them all. I did try a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, but the level of violence was more than I could stomach.

So it’s surprising that I could get into OITNB because it has plenty of violence, not to mention sex, nudity, cursing and more adult topics than I can enumerate. And truthfully, if these were scheduled for theatrical release, they would warrant somewhere between an R and an X rating. I’ve seen stuff in OITNB I’ve never seen elsewhere outside of X rated sites like, such as an explicit picture of a woman’s vagina.

If the goal of cinema is to take viewers into a whole new world, OITNB succeeds very well. What an interesting, fascinating and disgusting set of characters we get in this minimum-security women’s prison, sometimes all at the same time. You want both the inmates and the guards to be stereotypes but none of these are. The exception is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Piper is something of a lead character, at least at the beginning, a generally goody two shoes blonde white lady in her thirties. She happens to fall in lesbian love with Alex (Laura Prepon), a drug runner. Years afterward she gets ratted on by Alex, and ends up at Litchfield. This does not make her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) happy and he awkwardly tries to stay faithful to her while she sits behind bars.

Except there aren’t many iron bars at Litchfield: the “girls” sleep in dorms where they are regularly searched and humiliated. In their internet-free zone they mostly self-segregate by race or age (there is a fascinating group of older characters, including Kate Mulgrew as “Red”, who runs the kitchen). Most of them are pretty messed up (not a surprise), but these include many of the guards and administrators (perhaps a bit of a surprise). Proving that everything is relational, the guards abuse the inmates, some of them screw the inmates and some of them love the inmates. Litchfield is a tangled web of real life: a mixture of characters from the sweet Morella (Yael Stone), to the ultra-butch Big Boo (Carrie Black), to frequently insane Suzanne (Uzo Abuda) to the cold and steely killer Vee (Lorraine Toussant).

I was surprised by how easily I got sucked into this series. I was also surprised by how the characters grew on me, including some surprises like Suzanne, also known as Crazy-Eyes. The producers created a little universe inside a prison and accurately depicted life inside it. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman and her experiences at FCI Danbury (Connecticut), OITNB feels eerily authentic. It opens windows into the human soul and human experiences you won’t expect. Unlike Breaking Bad, which seems to revel in the worst of us, OITNB gives us a more accurate portrait of mostly good people gone bad, often due to factors outside of their control.

OITNB gives us a dose of real people coping (often badly) with what life has thrown at them. More importantly it gives us an opportunity to see women as people, instead of objects. It also allows seeing correctional officers as people, often flawed and profane, and with their own issues and foibles.

For me one mark of a good series is whether it follows me around. OITNB is like that: it will haunt you when you are not watching it, or follow you in your dreams. I found it hard not to binge on the show but sometimes I would succumb anyhow and watch three episodes in a row. It’s not really titillating; it’s more a grand exposition. While there is plenty of lesbian sex, much of it quite graphic, and shower scenes (pretty much everyone ends up at least partially naked) it’s not so much the individual characters that pulled me in as the exposition of this particular prison system in all its complexity and garishness.

So as long as you are up for a grownup adventure, it’s definitely worth your time. It helps if you are not homophobic, squeamish or racist. It’s a great reason to subscribe to Netflix if you don’t already. I have been watching Netflix’s House of Cards for years. In Season 4 though I find House of Cards is getting not so watchable. OITNB is much more so, perhaps because it feels more real and less Machiavellian.

Kudos to Netflix, creator Jenji Kohan, the series producers, directors and actors for giving us a compelling series worth watching that will take you to new places both inside the human soul and the worlds around it. Now I need to start watching Season 3.

The Thinker

Second viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 6)

Season 6 of this series emulates Season 5, which means that the overall quality is very good. There are no major clunkers in Season 6 (no Majel Barrett as Deanna’s mom helps) so every episode warrants at least a C grade. There is only one more season left for me to see again. It’s amazing that I forgot all this stuff over the last two decades when I originally watched them on TV.

Anyhow, if you want to scan Season 6 and watch only the good stuff, you can use my mini episode reviews with confidence.

  1. Time’s Arrow II. This is the conclusion from Season 5’s cliffhanger, which was not much of a cliffhanger. In Part I, Data’s head was found in a cave underneath San Francisco, causing certain members of the Enterprise crew to go back to that time to figure out what’s going on. In Part II they succeed and discover that some alien shape shifters are using a cholera outbreak in the bay area at that time to surreptitiously drain the life force out of many San Franciscans. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and Data’s jeopardy feels forced, but Mark Twain does get to visit a 24th century Enterprise. B
  2. Realm of Fear. The terminally shy and deeply annoying Enterprise engineer Lt. Barclay is back, this time with a new phobia: transporters. He slowly masters his fear and transports over to the starship Yosemite, where Barclay become pivotal in rescuing the missing crew. One of the stranger parts of this episode is where Transporter Chief O’Brian is talking about how safe transporters are. Transporter malfunctions are a regular feature of STTNG episodes. Of the Lt. Barclay episodes, this is the easiest to stomach. C
  3. Man of the People. Something is weird about the Lumerian ambassador the Enterprise is ferrying. The ambassador maintains his cool so he can excel at his duties through an intimacy ceremony that has the effect of prematurely aging his partner. When his companion “mother” with him dies, an innocent Counselor Troi becomes his next victim. She ages prematurely but no one seems to think this or her overly seductive behavior is that big a deal. Using 24th century magic, of course Troi will revert to her former svelte self by the end of the episode. C
  4. Relics. Pretty much every STTOS actor gets a chance to reprise his or her role aboard the Enterprise D if they wanted to, and in this episode it’s James Doohan’s (Scotty’s) turn. Speaking of transporter accidents (see Episode 2), Scotty’s been in one for 75 years that is why he doesn’t look a day over sixty when La Forge finally pulls him out. Scotty resumes being Scotty, but he’s a bit off his kilter (kilt?) on the Enterprise D. The only thing noteworthy in this episode is the Dyson’s sphere they encounter, making for some neat special effects for 1992. Scotty helps solve the crisis of the day and as a reward (but probably because he is sort of insufferable) he is sent to a more permanent retirement: Picard gives him an extended loan of a shuttlecraft as a going away present. Go study those technical manuals, Scotty. C
  5. Schisms. Apparently one episode using the insomnia meme was not enough in this series. Riker has a bad case of it but this time he is not alone. With the help of a holodeck, various crewmembers remember fragments of creepy “dreams” where they are being examined by aliens. In Riker’s case, he was partially dismembered and put back by curious alien doctors. It’s suitably creepy and well done, however. A-
  6. True Q. A promising intern Amanda is assigned to the Enterprise who soon discovers she has supernatural powers that frighten her. It turns out that she is a new member of the Q Continuum so naturally Q (John de Lancie) shows up to act as something of a sarcastic coach and naturally to spar with Picard too. Amanda must ultimately decide whether to become a Q too or abdicate her powers, which would not be a good idea, as Q must destroy her in that event. Guess which one she picks? C
  7. Rascals. Yikes! Yet another transporter accident! This one rolls back the aging for some Enterprise crewmembers including Picard who revert to 12-year-old children while retaining their adult memories and capabilities. The senior staff finds it hard to take orders from a child Captain Picard and we get to marvel at a young Picard with bountiful hair. O’Brien finds that having his wife Keiko turn into a 12-year-old changes their marriage big time, but if there was ever a case for legitimately having sex with a kid this would be it. (Glad O’Brien is not a creepy child molester!) The actor playing a young Picard though does a great job, and this is simultaneously fun and amusing while we await their eventual “re-aging”. Meanwhile, these child officers get to outwit a rogue Ferengi captain that takes over the Enterprise who has no idea who they are. B
  8. A Fistful of Datas. Speaking of transporter accidents, holodeck accidents are also a recurring theme in STTNG. We get another one in this episode when Worf, his son Alexander and Counselor Troi get caught up in a too-real holodeck simulation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Worf gets to play sheriff, Marina Sirtis makes an unconvincing deputy and Brent Spiner gets to play a bad guy. They have to find a way to safely end the simulation for the program to end. A mildly amusing waste of time. C+
  9. The Quality of Life. Dr. Farallon is another brilliant, cute but bullheaded Federation scientist. She is working on a “particle fountain” to make mining more efficient on the planet Tyrus 7A. To assist she creates “Exocomps”, intelligent mining machines that prove too intelligent. Data thinks she has created an artificial life form, which naturally Data finds “intriguing” and eventually becomes protective of. This is interesting mostly for Brent Spiner’s acting. A-
  10. Chain of Command, Part I. Figuring there was no reason to wait for an end of season cliffhangers, the writers decided to put them in the middle of a season. Starfleet gets wind of a secret Cardassian biological weapon and covertly sends Picard, Crusher and Worf on a mission to Celtris III to verify then locate and destroy the technology. This illegal weapon is tantamount to war if it exists, so the Federation feels the need to go to war status. They send Captain Edward Jellico to take over Picard’s command, presumably permanently. This abrupt change does not sit well with the crew and Jellico goes out of his way to ruffle feathers, but only because the mission requires it. It turns out that the Cardassians are luring the Federation into a trap. Worf and Crusher escape, but Picard is captured. This and the next episode will press all your favorite Star Trek buttons. A
  11. Chain of Command, Part II. While Jellico continues to ruffle feathers as Enterprise captain, a Cardassian interrogator, Gul Madred, tortures Picard on Celtris III. Both Patrick Stewart and the interrogator played by David Warner give exceptional performances as all sorts of torture tactics are tried to break Picard’s will. Stewart proves yet again that Star Trek producers got the best deal ever when they hired him, as evidenced by his terrific acting in this episode. This is one of the best episodes of the entire series. A+
  12. Ship in a Bottle. After episode 2, you would think they’d give the Lt. Barclay character a rest, but he’s back. Fortunately Barclay is somewhat ancillary in this episode, but he does discover a very persistent Professor Moriarty in a Holodeck simulation, one who has been in memory since Season 2. Picard has been lax in his promise to try to free Moriarty so he can safely explore the real universe, so he takes things into his own hands, so to speak. So there’s yet another bug in the Holodeck software while Moriarity and his lover Countess Regina twist Picard’s arm to allow him to escape to the real world. This is a fun episode because it’s mostly a hall of mirrors episode. Moriarty gets what he wants, sort of. A
  13. Aquiel. Geordi falls in love with Lt. Aquiel Uhnari, a somewhat difficult officer assigned to a subspace communications relay station who lost her crewmates but still has her dog. The plot actually hangs on Aquiel’s devoted dog, which is not quite what it seems. C
  14. Face of the Enemy. In another one of these “you can’t make this shit up” episodes, Deanna wakes up to find she is a major in the Romulan elite. She was captured on orders from Spock, who is trying to bring peace to the Romulans by ferrying three secret passengers to the Federation. Posing as Major Rakal, Troi must bossily assert her dominance over Captain Toreth, who resents her privileged place in Romulan society. There are lots of problems with this episode; the biggest is that Spock would not order something like this. Marina Sirtis though does get to act very bossy and seems to enjoy the change of page. C
  15. Tapestry. Picard dies, or does he not? He seems to be in the afterlife, which is not all that great because who should greet him but Q? Because he’s in the Continuum, Q lets him redo pivotal points in his life. Picard discovers that some of his less than savory youthful aspects were essential to the man he became, so Q lets him and his artificial heart live. B
  16. Birthright, Part I. We get our first glimpse of Deep Space Nine in this episode, in its pre-Sisko era. There Worf encounters an alien who claims that his father was not killed on Khitomer, but is actually isolated on a secret planet with other Klingons and Romulan overlords that he will take him to, for a price. Meanwhile, Data encounters Dr. Julian Bashir (a recurring and annoying DS9 character) who wants to study him. During a test, Data receives an energy surge, which causes him to dream for the first time. Worf takes leave to go to the planet where the Khitomer Klingons and their offspring live. After secretly entering the compound he soon discovers that the Klingons are happy to be there and the younger ones have no memories of or care of Klingon traditions and history, which he finds very disturbing. B
  17. Birthright, Part II. Worf cannot understand why these Klingons don’t want to escape. In fact, the Romulans are benevolent overlords. Worf manages to stir up the blood of some of the Klingons by relating their customs and rituals, which irritates the Romulan commander who wants the status quo. B-
  18. Starship Mine. Everyone on the Enterprise must check out for a barium sweep. To avoid a long-winded colleague, Picard makes an excuse to go back to the ship and encounters some thieves after the ship’s trilithium. Picard must beat these foes while the sweep reduces the survivable space on the ship. B
  19. Lessons. Picard falls in love with the new chief of stellar cartography, when he becomes taken by her musical abilities. After getting an unnecessary okay from Troi to pursue a relationship with Lt. Commander Daren (fraternization is apparently not a problem in the 24th century), they move deeper into love while Picard and Riker struggle through boundary issues with Daren and each other the relationship raises. Most of this episode is blessedly free the usual jeopardy the crew must overcome. However, Daren must eventually lead a team to a planet to protect a crew there from an unusual solar storm, pitting Picard’s personal feelings for Daren with his command duty to be impartial. This is an unusual episode because it’s of the heart, not the head, and Picard fills out more as a human being. A
  20. The Chase. Picard unexpectedly meets an old mentor of his, Professor Galen who tempts him to take an archeological adventure with him. Despite Picard’s great interest, he must decline, which makes the professor angry. The professor’s shuttle gets attacked when he leaves the Enterprise and he dies shortly thereafter. Picard senses Galen’s great discovery is at hand, and directs the Enterprise to a number of planets to chase it rather than attend a conference. His crew puts together part of Galen’s puzzle: that there was a master species from which all humanoid forms evolved billions of years earlier who seeded the galaxy. If they can construct the whole thing they expect to get a message for them from billions of years ago, literally encoded in the DNA. But both the Klingons and the Cardassians are hot on the trail as well, seeking advantage. So a treasure hunt of sorts is underway to get the last genetic material to complete the sequence of understanding. This turns out to be a really interesting episode combining an interesting idea with a lot of action. A
  21. Frame of Mind. Riker is cast in one of Beverly’s plays in a challenging dramatic role where he is a prisoner in a mental asylum. It gets surreal when he has dreams that he is in such a place. Which is real: the asylum or the Enterprise? B
  22. Suspicions. Dr. Crusher finds herself out of a job when she sticks up for a Ferengi scientist who believes he has created metaphasic shielding that would allow spacecraft to enter previously dangerous places, like a sun’s corona. She invites some scientists to the Enterprise to critique his controversial work, one of who dies during an attempt to test the shield using a shuttlecraft. On a second attempt, the Ferengi scientist also dies, and Crusher performs an illegal autopsy to figure out the cause. Someone’s hiding something. B
  23. Rightful Heir. Worf is having a crisis of faith due to his experiences in Episodes 16 and 17. He wants to have a religious experience and get in touch with Kahless, the founder of the Klingon code of honor who died 1500 years earlier and promised to return. Granted leave, he goes to Boreth where devout Klingons go to pray, but has little luck summoning Kahless. On the thirteenth day though he suddenly appears to Worf, who wonders if he is the real Kahless or a fake Kahless. His faith is tested yet again while Gowron (head of the Klingon empire) butts heads with Kahless, thinking he is a phony. Most of these episodes featuring Klingon power plays are good, and this is no exception. A-
  24. Second Chances. In yet another improbable transporter accident (how many is this now?) Riker discovers a clone of himself left on the planet Nervala II. He had been there as a Lieutenant eight years earlier, and only now has a window opened allowing transporters to get down to the planet again, where he literally finds himself. Commander and Lieutenant Riker have sharp words with each other, the Lieutenant is still deeply in love with Deanna and you know before its over will come sort of test of Wills, literally. B
  25. Timescape. Returning from a conference aboard a shuttle, Picard, Geordi, Data and Troi encounter weird pockets in the space-time continuum and arrive at their rendezvous point to find the Enterprise and a Romulan vessel seemingly frozen in time and in the midst of a battle. They must figure out what’s going on because it’s clear a warp core breach is underway on the Enterprise. Can they figure it out and restore the Enterprise? Of course! B
  26. Descent, Part I. Time for a second cliffhanger, which turns out to be the last one of this seven season series. Unsurprisingly, the Borg are involved but it seems they have mutated. They don’t care about the collective, their ship looks different and they just want to kill people, but not Data. Trying to save his crew, Data must kill a Borg, and he experiences his first emotion: anger and finds it instantly addictive. He spends much of the episode on the holodeck trying to recreate the feeling and not succeeding, while Starfleet raises its shields. Picard is put in charge of a fleet of three ships trying to protect some new border colonies from the Borg. The Enterprise goes through a number of vortexes trying to find a shuttlecraft stolen by Data, ending up on a planet where they find Data and a surprise that suggests the Borg are not their real enemy. A
The Thinker

Second viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 5)

Season 5 of this series holds its own, which is good because usually by the fifth season of anything the quality tends to degrade. Granted, the formula rarely changes from week to week with any of the Star Trek series. The Enterprise/Voyager/Deep Space Nine station is almost always under some jeopardy or unprecedented conditions and the plucky crew somehow manages to triumph over certain doom. If exploring space were this dangerous no one would bother. Anyhow, if you want to scan Season 5 and watch only the good stuff, you can use my mini episode reviews with confidence.

  1. Redemption II. This conclusion to the Season 4 cliffhanger was worth the summer wait as Picard and the Enterprise try to keep a Klingon civil war from starting while Romulans covertly try to smuggle arms to traitorous Klingons who want to the empire to ditch the Federation. Picard becomes something of a commodore and strings together a temporary fleet to blockade the Romulans along the zone between the Romulan Empire and Vulcan. This is a really fun episode particularly because Commander Data becomes temporary commander of the understaffed Sutherland and he gets to kick some serious ass. Denise Crosby clearly regretted leaving the show in Season 1 because she is back again as Tasha Yar’s daughter, now the Romulan commander Sela, who apparently inherited none of her father’s DNA. As a bonus Worf finally gets rid of his discommendation, which will prove useful in the seasons ahead. (Note: the Sutherland was a British ship also commanded by the fictional Horatio Hornblower, and was woefully understaffed. That is doubtless not a coincidence here.) A+
  2. Darmok. Picard gets caught up in an encounter with Danthon (Paul Winfield), a prominent Tamarian who is wrestling with an unseen foe on the planet where Picard is taken. Conveniently the Enterprise cannot rescue the captain but there’s the additional challenge that Tamarians communicate through metaphor, making communications almost impossible. Lots of flash and action in this episode, but little light here, so it’s eminently skippable. C.
  3. Ensign Ro. A disgraced Starfleet officer, Ensign Ro, is assigned to the Enterprise to help persuade her fellow Bajorans to refrain from attacking Federation colonies. Her real mission is something much worse that involves the Cardassians, but there’s the added complication that she has a smartass mouth and does not follow orders. Guinan helps her sort things out as does Picard, who adopts her as something like the new Wesley while he is off at the academy. Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes) becomes something of a recurring character through Season 5. A-
  4. Silicon Avatar. The Crystalline Entity is back (see Season 1) and lays waste to a colony and all the life forms on the planet, except for some colonists the Enterprise away team manages to save deep inside a cave. Doctor Marr, a specialist on the entity, joins on a mission to confront the entity but has a chip on her shoulder because the entity killed her son. As the entity shows signs of intelligence the choice becomes whether to talk to it or kill it. B
  5. Disaster. A series of powerful vibrational strings nearly destroys the Enterprise. The show becomes a fight for survival with a number of subplots, some of them a bit annoying. Keeping it wholly on the Enterprise certainly saved production costs. B
  6. The Game. Wesley pays a visit to the Enterprise during a break from Starfleet Academy and gets a serious crush on Ensign Robin Lefler (Ashley Judd, I mean, who wouldn’t?) Riker meanwhile returns from the pleasure planet Risa with an addictive game that soon take over the Enterprise crew for nefarious ends, and only Wesley and Robin aren’t playing. The problem with the episode is one you see repeatedly: piss poor security practices, but otherwise it’s pretty fun to see the crew turn into game playing zombies. B-
  7. Unification I. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone rogue and has secretly moved to Romulus where he is trying to teach logic and peace to an underground movement. Before going, Picard meets briefly with Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), who is estranged from Spock and close to death but shares what he knows about Spock’s mission. Picard uses a cloaked Klingon ship to secretly go to Romulus to contact Spock, bringing Data along. They find Spock just in time to end the episode so it can be continued in… A
  8. Unification II. … the second part wherein Spock spurns Picard’s request to stop his cowboy diplomacy. Picard also conveys the news of the death of Sarek, which does affect the logical Vulcan, particularly after he mind melds with Picard, who shared his mind with Sarek in a previous episode. Back on the Enterprise, Riker figures out that some missing Vulcan ships are being used by the Romulans to start an armed insurrection on Vulcan. This is being masterminded by … you guessed it … Sela (Denise Crosby) from the first episode of the season. A
  9. A Matter of Time. Penthara Four is hit by an asteroid that is triggering a catastrophic and sudden global cooling event. The only way to fix it is through a highly risky maneuver likely to wipe out all life on the planet and Captain Picard gets to decide if it’s worth the risk. A “historian” time traveler from the 26th century played by Matt Frewer shows up to supposedly document this famously historical incident but unsurprisingly he has ulterior motives. Frewer (“Max Headroom”) enlivens the show but really there’s not much worth viewing here. C
  10. New Ground. Worf’s adopted human parents decide they are too old to take care of his son Alexander, so Worf and Alexander have to try to establish a functional relationship, an uphill task. This is really the meat of this episode, such as it is, while the “plot” involves an experimental “solitonic wave” that could replace warp drive but causes a predictable crisis instead. At least Worf is no longer the only Klingon on the ship at the end of this episode. Pass. C
  11. Hero Worship. The crew finds only a child alive in a federation science vessel. After rescue, he quickly starts emulating Data as a way to cope with his feelings of loss and presumed guilt that he caused the catastrophe on his ship. The Enterprise gets caught up in the same phenomenon and has to figure out how to survive it. Nothing here you haven’t seen elsewhere, so pass. C
  12. Violations. Some “telepathic historians” join the Enterprise on a peace mission, but one of these mind readers has boundary issues, which causes those affected like Troi and Riker to be psychologically raped then go into traumatic comas. B
  13. The Masterpiece Society. Moab IV is in great danger because a stellar core fragment is due to pass by the planet, destroying its insular and otherwise unknown colony of humans creating utopia through good genetics and isolation. They accept help from the Enterprise only with great reluctance. Of course interaction causes changes to the dynamics of their society and breaks the Prime Directive too. It becomes clear that if the colony survives it will still be permanently altered by their presence. B-
  14. Conundrum. An alien ship scans the Enterprise and wipes out everyone’s memories of who they are. The aliens on the ship unsurprisingly have ulterior motives and plan to use the Enterprise as their proxy in a longstanding war. This turns out to be a fun and novel episode: some place the crew has actually never gone before. While not the show at its best, it is one you will want to watch for its theatrics. A-
  15. Power Play. The Enterprise picks up a distress call from what turns out to be lifeless moon. Upon landing the away team is quickly possessed by something. Eventually we learn it’s the spirits of prisoners left there doing the possession. The moon is a penal colony and these evil spirits are all trying to escape the planet. They possess Data, Chief O’Brien and Counselor Troi who nearly succeed in taking over the Enterprise so these spirits can return “home”. Except for seeing Data getting nasty, there’s not much reason to tune in to see this one. C
  16. Ethics. Worf’s spine gets severed in an accident, which proves that not only is security pretty poor on the Enterprise, but they don’t know how to secure barrels properly in the cargo bay either. In short, Picard is running a sloppy ship! Worf wants a dignified death and asks Riker to kill him like a Klingon would do, which he won’t. All this confuses and stresses his poor son Alexander. A rogue surgeon Dr. Russell comes aboard and advocates for a risky procedure to replicate and replace Worf’s spine, which gets Dr. Crusher’s professional dander up. Not sure what the point of this episode was except to fill out a season, but rest assured you can skip it without guilt. C
  17. The Outcast. The J’naii, a genderless species, contacts the Enterprise to get help finding a missing shuttle. This becomes quite a fascinating episode in today’s light, as it parallels the modern LGBT movement in a sort of reverse way. Those among the J’naii with gender feelings must be “corrected”. Soren, with feminine feelings, is one of these and working with Riker they develop strong feelings for each other. The only things that doesn’t quite work here is that Soren should have had male orientation, as it would have made it much more interesting for Riker to fall for a man, a critique Jonathan Frakes shared afterward. Otherwise it’s quite excellent, a couple of decades before its time, and one of the few episodes where the Enterprise actually boldly goes where no show up until that time had dared to go. A
  18. Cause and Effect. The Enterprise becomes caught in a time loop that always results in the destruction of the Enterprise. The interesting take here is how they figure a way out of it when they have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s déjà vu all over again. A
  19. The First Duty. Cadet Wesley Crusher gets injured during a maneuver with teammates around Saturn’s moons. Will the truth come out? Picard, scheduled to address the graduating students naturally gets involved since Wesley is involved and helps him do the right thing. B
  20. Cost of Living. Perhaps channeling Gene Roddenberry’s death during this season, his wife Majel Barrett appears again as Troi’s mother Lwaxana, who is feeling her age and agrees to be betrothed to a man she hasn’t met. Needless to say they aren’t well suited for each other, so she fusses over Worf’s son Alexander instead. This is as cringe-worthy as all these episodes. D
  21. The Perfect Mate. An empathic metamorph who can sexually and romantically bond perfectly with any male and is in peak hormones comes aboard the Enterprise. An ambassador is ferrying her to a planet where she will be a key part of a lasting peace between two warring worlds. She is every man’s ideal mate but when her guide Briam has an accident, Picard has to figure out a way to coach her while not getting involved with her. This episode is just fascinating and the most interesting part is puzzling through how Picard manages to do what no one else can do and stay detached from her. So it becomes something of a psychological study of Picard’s brain and motivation. It leaves it unanswered, but my guess is Picard is too self-controlled to allow himself to wholly let down his guard to anyone, even the perfect mate. Best of the season. A+
  22. Imaginary Friend. A young daughter of a man who works in engineering has an imaginary friend, which due to some usual fantastical events becomes a real evil alien girlfriend who starts wreaking havoc on the ship. Quite skippable. C
  23. I, Borg. The Borg are not back, but one Borg, a survivor from a crashed Borg scout ship, is rescued and isolated aboard the Enterprise. Picard who was once Locutus of Borg wants to use “3 of 5” to implant the viral idea of individuality that would destroy all the Borg. However, isolated from the collective this Borg, who the crew names Hugh, slowly gains an appreciation for humans and causes Picard to rethink his strategy. Good stuff. A
  24. The Next Phase. Trying to help a distressed Romulan ship, Geordi and Ensign Ro get caught up in a transporter “accident” that appears to have killed them, but in reality puts them in a time phase so that they can’t be seen while they wander around both the Romulan ship and the Enterprise unseen. Along for the ride is a Romulan who plans to destroy the Enterprise when it completes repairs and goes into warp drive. Can Geordi and Ro get back to their own phase and save the Enteprise? Of course, but the fun is getting there. B
  25. The Inner Light. Encountering an unmanned alien ship, Picard gets stunned and finds himself on another planet and in a new life, which unfolds over 30 years. He is married and eventually has two children and grows old while only minutes pass on the Enterprise. The plot here doesn’t really make any sense (how did the people of this planet create such a powerful probe when they have barely mastered putting a satellite into space?) but it strangely becomes a very moving episode anyhow. A
  26. Time’s Arrow I. Data’s deceased head is found underneath San Francisco, dated to the end of the 19th century. The Enterprise investigates the source of particles found in the chamber, which eventually sends Data back to this time and his probable death. Guinan advises Picard to go on a rescue attempt, because otherwise they will never meet. Includes Jerry Hardin playing a convincing Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). The conclusion awaits in Season 6 but this doesn’t quite feel like cliffhanger material. B
The Thinker

Second Viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 4)

I may be ODing on STTNG. Last night Patrick Stewart/Capt. Jean Luc Picard kept coming in and out of my dreams. It still amazes me that I purged most of this stuff over the years. In a way that’s good because it’s like seeing STTNG for the first time 25 years or so later. Season 3 was overall very good and ended up with a nasty encounter with the Borg. Except for the cliffhanger from Season 3 in the first episode, there are no more Borg encounters in Season 4. But the Klingon Empire is on the verge of a civil war and the Romulans seem anxious to find a pretext to start a new war with the Federation. Capsule episode reviews follow, so if you are seeing the series for the first time you can use these to skip the good stuff.

  1. The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. Captain Picard is still Locutus of Borg and has his mind tapped by the Borg to learn about the Federation’s weaknesses. To cope, the new albeit temporary Captain Riker has to develop some new strategies that Picard/Locutus could not infer. The Enterprise is severely disabled by its encounter, but at least it survives. The Borg destroy a fleet of starships then beeline for Earth, followed by the Enterprise once it affects repairs. Naturally using unorthodox strategies the Borg ship is destroyed and the captain is rescued, but just barely. Picard feels mentally raped and struggles to resume his command. A+
  2. Family. Trying to get his shit back together and since the Enterprise is back at Earth getting repaired, Picard takes a holiday with his family at their vineyard in France. Family turns out to be his grouchy and insular brother, his sweet sister-in-law and his “uncle”, actually his nephew. This is really a continuation of the last episode and shows just how ripped apart Picard became when captured by the Borg. Patrick Steward does some of his best acting of the series in this episode as Picard works through control issues with his brother. Meanwhile, Worf has a reunion with his adopted human parents while Beverly discovers a dated tape of her late husband who has a message for Wesley. A
  3. Brothers. Presumably Brent Spiner (Data) got paid extra for this episode as he meets his dying “father”/creator Noonean Soong (played by Spiner) and reunites with his evil “brother” Lore (also played by Spiner). Unfortunately, Data hijacks the Enterprise in the process but it’s not his fault; his homing beacon is built into his firmware and Dad wants to give Data an emotion chip before he dies. C
  4. Suddenly Human. The Enterprise rescues a Talarian vessel with five boys, one human. The human boy Jono was adopted by a Talarian (Endar) after the Talarians killed his parents and many other humans. The war-like Talarians are very anti-human but Jono seems attached to them. Picard exposes Jono to his real family, setting up a huge cognitive dissonance episode in the boy. Where does he belong? B
  5. Remember Me. In typical Star Trek fashion, the highly atypical thing happens but it’s all Wesley’s fault when his science experiment goes awry again. This generates what seems to be a cascading series of events where the Enterprise crew keeps mysteriously shrinking but only Dr. Crusher can remember the way things used to be. Although the crisis of the day seems too familiar, surprisingly this is actually a terrific episode as it plays mind games with you. Gates McFadden again gets to prove she can be a hell of an actor too when given a chance to shine. Good stuff. A
  6. Legacy. Tasha Yar’s sister shows up when the Enterprise shows up at their late security officer’s home planet. They are there to rescue people from a Federation freighter that crashed on the planet. On the planet two groups of rival gangs fight an endless battle for control. Tasha’s sister Ishara is used by one side to try to gain leverage by one group with the Federation, while the Enterprise crew tries to make her feel at home and offers her a chance to leave the planet for good like her sister did. Ishara seems willing to help and to leave, but is she really being duplicitous? And is her friendship with Data real or just a tactic? B
  7. Reunion. Klingons sure are a lot of bother and will become more so later in the season. In this episode Worf’s half human/half Klingon love interest/infatuation from Season 2 (K’Ehleyr) returns with a boy that bears an uncanny resemblance to Worf and turns out to be his son. K’Ehleyr is trying to mediate a succession dispute within the Klingon empire because its leader has been poisoned and is nearing death. In addition, an explosion is determined to be due to a Romulan bomb, suggesting that the Klingon Duras who quests for power is in cahoots with the Romulans. All this while Worf is officially “dis-accommodated” adds up to a big power struggle that Picard gets pulled into. B+
  8. Future Imperfect. During an away mission, Riker mysteriously awakes sixteen years later. He is the Captain of the Enterprise but everyone assures him he was suffering from a condition that would cause this memory loss. Or is something else going on? Of course it’s the latter but getting there is half the fun. B
  9. Final Mission. Wesley finally gets a call to attend Starfleet Academy but before he leaves he and Captain Picard end up on an away mission with a crusty miner whose badly maintained vessel ends up on an inhospitable planet. Wesley and Picard get to tell each other how much they really admire each other, and Wesley also gets to save the captain’s life. This feels like a creepy bromance written to satisfy the fans, but it’s utterly predictable and uninteresting. On the plus side, the Enterprise doesn’t have Wesley to muck things up anymore, at least not for a while. C-
  10. The Loss. Troi mysteriously loses her empathic powers and she finds it is devastating. It doubtless has something to do with the two dimensional creature off the helm and a powerful nearby cosmic string which of course looks lethal and will tear the Enterprise apart if our heroes can’t figure it out in time. Marina Sirtis does a great job here as a hobbled empath but otherwise the jeopardy feels kind of forced, like the basic plot that we see over and over. B
  11. Data’s Day. Data documents his day for a researcher and learns to dance from Dr. Crusher all while Chief O’Brian’s fiancé Keiko (Rosalind Chao) abruptly calls of their wedding. Meanwhile, to give the episode some semblance of a plot, there is an encounter with the Romulans and a spy on board. Keiko became a semi-regular of the show in this episode, at least until the producers spun off Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the two lovebirds eventually migrated to. C
  12. The Wounded. A highly regarded Captain is busy destroying Cardassian ships against the orders of the Federation High Council, as he suspects them of planning to restart a war. This is a terrific show and one of the highlights of the fourth season, with a delicious last minute or so when Picard has a little chat with the captain of a Cardassian ship. The Federation simply does not pay Picard enough! A+
  13. Devil’s Due. A mythical power returns after many millennium to a planet that seems eager to believe she must enslave them, as their predecessors had signed a contract with her for the long period of peace. Is she real or is there a man behind the curtain? Not hard to figure this one out so it’s easy to skip. C
  14. Clues. The Enterprise goes through a wormhole and loses 30 seconds … or was it 24 hours? This is actually a pretty clever whodunit with a twist ending you probably won’t see coming and very well done. It turns the normal jeopardy plot on its head. A
  15. First Contact. The Federation has been studying the humanoids on Malcor III and decides it’s time to make first contact and tell them about the rest of the universe. But are they really sufficiently advanced enough? Thinks go awry for Riker on the away mission, which sets up a massive case of future shock. B+
  16. Galaxy’s Child. Geordi gets to meet in the flesh Dr. Brahms, the designer of their engines he first “met” in a simulation on the holodeck in Season 3. He discovers that Holodeck simulations are not perfect leading to some embarrassing incidents for the infatuated Geordi. Fortunately Dr. Brahms is around when they uncover a one of its kind huge spacefaring creature. When it reproduces it finds itself drawn to the Enterprise and sucks its energy like a vampire with a fresh neck. Geordi and Dr. Brahms have to play nicely and wean this new “baby” off the hull before of course the Enterprise gets destroyed. C+
  17. Night Terrors. Why did the crew of the Brattain go crazy and kill themselves? The Enterprise crew gets the same symptoms when they investigate the incident, leading to literally sleepless nights, crew violence and the Enterprise getting trapped inside yet another rift. Nothing really new here. The crew didn’t get much sleep, but you might sleep through this one. C
  18. Identity Crisis. Geordi reunites with an old service friend and superior Susanna. They are the only two still alive from an away team mission both were on in a previous posting. On a new mission back to the place where the incident occurred, Susanna transforms into an alien creature with Geordi following suit. Can this be reversed before their entire human DNA is changed to the new species? Of course it can; Levar Burton had a contract to fulfill. B-
  19. The Nth Degree. Lieutenant Barclay from Engineering is back and having some success fighting his shyness but soon becomes extroverted and unnaturally smart, in fact sort of superhuman. It turns out he’s really channeling the powers of a race at the center of the galaxy. C
  20. Qpid. Vash is back and Q shows up for the ride. Q takes the key staff on a not so merry visit to Sherwood Forest and Nottingham. This is pure fluff and was written to perhaps give the cast a change of pace. It’s really just very irritating but with the occasional flash of humor. D
  21. The Drumhead. Is the explosion of a dilithium crystal chamber a work of sabotage? A respected retired ambassador with a chip on her shoulder arrives to find out and quickly turns it into an inquisition and fishing expedition. Naturally, Picard is greatly concerned by this 24th century McCarthy-ism. It’s not too hard to see where this is going but somehow it doesn’t matter as it is done so well and Patrick Stewart does such an adroit job with Picard’s untangling of this matter. A-
  22. Half a Life. Finally a Lwaxana Troi episode you don’t entirely cringe through. Since Picard won’t let her make his life miserable, she latches onto a visiting scientist from the planet Kaelon II (David Ogden Stiers, or Major Winchester if you remember M*A*S*H) who is trying to save his planet by fine tuning its cooling star. Dr. Timicin though is approaching age 60 and on his planet that means a nice life celebration followed by a peaceful death, and Lwaxana is not amused. Still not a great episode but the best of the bunch for the executive producer’s wife (Majel Barrett) seemingly annual guest appearance. B-
  23. The Host. Crusher falls madly in love. Unfortunately, she falls for a Trill without understanding it’s a species that lives inside a host’s body. The body dies and it moves temporarily to Commander Riker and finally to a female host. The idea of trill is actually one of the better ones that Star Trek writers kicked out and this one explores the meaning of love and actually shines some light on the subject. This is topical 25 years later as we struggle through issues like whether a transgender person can use the restroom of their choice. Good topical stuff all these years later. A
  24. The Mind’s Eye. When Geordi takes a shuttlecraft to a conference, he finds he is kidnapped by the Romulans, brainwashed and his visor is hacked to make him an assassin when he returns to the Enterprise. This time it is largely up to Data to figure out what’s going on, and he’ll need all the sleuthing powers of his hero Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. A-
  25. In Theory. Data gets hit on by the comely Ensign D’Sora and attempts to be her boyfriend, but of course android and human have inherent relationship problems. Data makes it seem like he has no experience in the lovemaking department but it’s not quite true. In Season 2, he related that he and Security Officer Tasha Yar were “intimate” so perhaps he had some tricks up his sleeve. Alas, it doesn’t look like this relationship was consummated. Data turns out to be D’Sora’s “rebound” boyfriend after a failed relationship. C-
  26. Redemption I. It’s time for a season cliffhanger, but no Borg this time, just more Klingon succession issues all while Worf tries to remove the unjust dishonor placed on his family. It looks like there are Romulans colluding with some Klingons to break the Klingon Empire’s relationship with the Federation. Worf, his brother and Picard quickly step deep into the doo doo. What’s really going on? And is that really Tasha Yar as a Romulan commander? The exciting conclusion awaits in Season 5, Episode 1. A
The Thinker

Second viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 3)

I’m working my way through this series again, now nearly thirty years in the past. Like a fine wine, STTNG improves with age and in this case subsequent seasons improve too. Season 1 was hardly watchable. Season 2 gave you some reasons to watch and introduced the neatest villain ever: the Borg. In Season 3 the first half leaves a lot to be desired then picks up and ends strongly.

You can read my reviews of Season 2 and Season 1 if you missed them. You can use my reviews to decide if an episode is worth bothering with. With well over a hundred and fifty episodes over seven seasons, there is little reason to see them all unless you are a diehard Trekkie, particularly those that disappoint, so use my reviews.

  1. Evolution. Acting ensign Wesley creates a science experiment with “nanites” that goes awry. It’s interesting that they conceived the idea of microscopic robots so long ago, an idea now starting to bear some fruition. The nanites become intelligent and declare themselves to be their own species, and when attacked hijack the Enterprise’s computer system. It’s an interesting premise unless you think about it a bit: mainly, why is there no proctor for Wesley’s creative experiments? Wesley and others on the Enterprise often do stupid stuff like this. C+
  2. The Ensigns of Command. Data is tasked to tell some colonists they must leave their planet or a species that claims their planet will destroy them. There are many skeptics among the colonists, so Data has to improvise. This is predictable stuff but it’s fun to see Data take on a human challenge. C+
  3. The Survivors. A verdant planet with millions of inhabitants is blown to smithereens except for a small patch containing an aging scientist and his wife. Why were they spared? The answer will disappoint. C
  4. Who Watches the Watchers? The Prime Directive gets the Enterprise in trouble again, but this time at least they have a good excuse: a Federation team silently observing these humanoids have their invisibility shields break down so they get discovered. Naturally, the Enterprise team is treated like gods and in the end it’s up to Picard to convince them there is a fake wizard behind the curtain. He succeeds but it feels too well wrapped up: the lady they bring aboard (Liko) is like, well okay we’ll all do our best to evolve naturally: see you in a few million years. C+
  5. The Bonding. An away team led by Worf ends in tragedy when one of the team, a mother, is killed. Her distraught son naturally blames Worf who was in charge and Worf gets a case of the guilts. Wesley tries to help the kid cope but then suddenly the kid’s mom is back. It’s some alien voodoo on the planet responsible for all this of course. The Enterprise crew feels duty bound to demonstrate that this “mom” is a fraud. Worf helps the kid cope with the loss in a Klingon bonding ceremony. Michael Dorn’s acting makes this otherwise predictable plot watchable. B
  6. Booby Trap. The enterprise gets sucked into a trap in the universe set to snare starships. Naturally the crew has to fight their way out somehow and Geordi gets tapped on the shoulder. To figure it out he needs the help of the designer of their warp engines replicated on the holodeck who he quickly falls for. B
  7. The Enemy. Geordi gets trapped on an inhospitable planet with a Romulan, which makes for strange bedfellows, literally. The plot feels pretty contrived but it’s fun and works somehow. B
  8. The Price. Deanna becomes infatuated with a dumb empathic negotiator who works through telepathic translators. Assassins get the translators leaving the negotiator to try to nonverbally bring two warring factions on a planet together in peace. Riker doesn’t look too happy with her choice in men, but he’s a nice guy at least. B
  9. The Vengeance Factor. The Enterprise gets involved in yet another clash of civilizations but in the process Riker falls for a woman who he eventually discovers is a carefully altered assassin. Can he keep his feelings from getting in the way of his duties? B
  10. The Defector. Why is this Romulan general defecting to the Federation? He says it’s to keep the Romulans and the Federation from open warfare. Fortunately, Captain Picard is smart enough to plan for the worst leading to a neat Corbomite maneuver at the end of the episode. A
  11. The Hunted. Again it’s up to Picard to figure out what’s really going on, this time at a penal colony. Unfortunately, they take on an escapee who seems (well actually is) engineered to get himself out of any box and he’ll take the Enterprise down with him. This is a lot of fun, keeps you hopping but again the Enterprise really needs to up its internal security defenses. You listening to me, Chief Security Officer Worf? A-
  12. The High Ground. A rare episode where Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher) gets to shine, here as a hostage who has to be high-minded while evolving feelings for her captor on one side of a complex civil war where giving your life for the cause is part of the mission. Lots of modern parallels in this episode. (The Islamic State comes to mind.) B
  13. Déjà Q. Q gets his comeuppance from the Q Continuum who realize he may be God-like but he’s basically a jerk. Q (John De Lancie) is forced to struggle for survival as a human on the Enterprise and try to wend his way back into the Continuum’s good graces. Fortunately, it happens just in time before everyone on the Enterprise decides to strange him for being so insufferable. C
  14. A Matter of Perspective. Riker gets accused of murder and also seducing the wife of a prominent scientist. He gets a trial of sorts using simulations on the Holodeck. C
  15. Yesterday’s Enterprise. The Enterprise gets sucked into yet another quantum flux of some sort, but this one is fun as they find the Enterprise C is stuck in the same space. The Enterprise C was destroyed in battle, but the two captains (Tricia O’Neill is terrific as Enterprise C Captain Garrett) get to meet, along with their first officers, and it’s all good, except the Enterprise C is still doomed. In addition, a quirk in the flux allows Denise Crosby (playing Tasha Yar) to reprise her role from Season 1. She still dies, but has a better death and seems to find true love. Good stuff! A
  16. The Offspring. Data creates a “daughter”, who names herself Lal. Lal though quickly evolves as an android in ways that Data cannot, including being able to do contractions and feel emotions. It’s not easy for an android to have emotions and she keeps Counselor Troi busy. This is quite special and endearing. Hallie Todd as Lal is terrific. A
  17. Sins of the Father. In an earlier season, Riker got to try out being first officer on a Klingon ship. In this episode, a Klingon officer becomes the Enterprise’s temporary first officer, but it turns out he’s actually Worf’s younger brother and there is a serious problem involving factions trying to control the Klingon Empire where both he and Worf prove pivotal. Picard gets to stand with Worf and act Klingon-y, which is neat. In fact, this is just terrific, the sort of show you wait all season for and the best show of Season 3 with plenty of competition. A+
  18. Allegiance. Aliens kidnap and replicate Picard. An alien in his body does lots of strange things like putting the moves on Doctor Crusher. Naturally, the crew is wondering what happened to their Captain but he is genetically identical. Picard meanwhile is trapped in a room with other prisoners being used this way and they try to find their way out. C
  19. Captain’s Holiday. A prickly Picard reluctantly takes a holiday on a pleasure planet but wants to read books rather than get laid. The latter seems to be the point of the planet. There he meets Vash (Jennifer Hetrick), who recurs in future episodes as a beautiful but dangerous galactic vagabond. They go on something of a treasure hunt together. True story: Patrick Stewart and Hetrick started dating each other because of this episode, so the chemistry on screen was also going on off the set. B-
  20. Tin Man. A super-telepathic and troubled Betazoid and former patient of Counselor Troi comes aboard to help make contact with “Tin Man”, a strange starship that appears to be an alien life form that will soon be destroyed when the nearby star goes supernova. Tam (the telepath) doesn’t work and play well with others, but Tin Man becomes a perfect companion. B
  21. Hollow Pursuits. Reggie, one of Geordi’s engineers is not quite Enterprise material, is late for work and spends much of his time on the Holodeck engaging in inappropriate relationships with replicants of the crew. Naturally a crisis happens and Reggie must perform. Can he get his act together? This is pretty cringe-worthy. D
  22. The Most Toys. Data is kidnapped by a ruthless (but somewhat charming) kidnapper. Can Data kill to save others and himself? This is a bit predictable but fun. B-
  23. Sarek. Yeah! Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard) is back with his newest human wife. Boo! Sarek is two hundred years old and is losing control of his emotions, but must negotiate a critical peace treaty. This requires Picard and Sarek to do a mind-meld so Picard can provide the stability Sarek lacks. Stewart proves again he is a first class actor and Lenard has lost nothing since 1968, including his looks. A
  24. Ménage à Troi. A Ferengi captain kidnaps Troi, her mother Lwaxana (Majel Barrett) and Riker but eventually only Lwaxana remains. The Ferengi captain surprisingly finds her hot and wants to make her his wife. It’s hard to know who is more annoying: Lwaxana or the Ferengi captain Daimon Tog. If you like the sounds of fingernails on a blackboard, you’ll love this grating and predictable episode. D
  25. Transfigurations. The Enterprise finds an escape pod containing a man with amnesia who they call John Doe. He’s very nice and empathic. Everyone loves him and Beverly starts falling in love with him. But he’s actually a hunted man with very special powers that his species needs to evolve but which they are resisting. B
  26. The Best of Both Worlds. The Borg are back so you know what that means: huge space battles against huge odds, and this one delivers these goods, a threat to Earth’s existence all while Picard gets kidnapped and turned into a Borg and Riker has to think on his feet. This has got it all and fits well as the season cliffhanger. It’s amazing though that it was bested by Sins of the Father. A+
The Thinker

Second Viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 2)

Yes, it is strange to go back and see this series again nearly thirty years later. It was a wonder I stayed with it after the first season of this Star Trek reboot. Even so, the first season was no worse that the second season of STTOS (Star Trek: The Original Series). It must have been the franchise that kept me watching. Either that or it was Patrick Stewart.

Thankfully Season 2 is a big improvement on Season 1, but does not come close to the last five years of the season, and it introduces us to the Borg. But there are some peculiarities in this season. Most strange is the introduction of Dr. Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) as Chief Medical Officer. McFadden (Beverly Crusher) was fired at the end of Season 1 for reasons I don’t understand. She returns suddenly in Season 3, probably as a result of fan pressure. Curiously, Crusher’s son Wesley (Wil Wheaton) wasn’t sent packing. Supposedly Beverly was at Star Fleet Medical School. Muldaur is okay as Pulaski, but showed little energy in the role, while “Acting Ensign” Wesley wanders the ship like he’s missing mommy.

Still, we do get Colm Meaney, who shows up as Chief Transporter Officer. Like Stewart, Meaney was probably too good for Star Trek and his role was beneath his capabilities. We also get Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan, whose role is mysterious but who seems to have some sort of special relationship with the Captain while mostly tending bar in the ship’s lounge, Ten Forward, also new in the show. In reality, Goldberg was simply a devout Trekkie who leveraged her stardom for a recurring role. Since she had done The Color Purple just a few years earlier and probably worked for the union minimum, she was likely too good a deal for the producers to turn down. We also get Gene Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett back as Deanna’s mom and Q (John de Lancie) makes a reappearance. In addition Commander Riker grows a beard. These changes seemed to settle things down a bit. A writers’ strike reduced the season to 22 episodes.

I watched them to reacquaint myself with the series, but it also gives you the opportunity to skip the chaff and go straight to the wheat, if you read my capsule reviews below:

  1. The Child. A surprisingly touching tale of the mysterious pregnancy of Counselor Deanna Troi by some spiritual entity that delivers a boy that gestates and matures in a matter of days. No virgin birth here but it’s hard not to wonder about the biblical parallels. B+
  2. Where Silence has Lease. The Enterprise gets sucked into a void — basically to be toyed with by a mysterious entity. There are lots of episodes like this in STTNG that doesn’t really make much sense but do pad out a season. C
  3. Elementary Dear Data. Crewmembers get caught in a viral holodeck program based on Sherlock Holmes. It’s innovative until you think about it a bit: whoever programming holodeck software did a really crappy job with the security controls. You would think Worf (security officer) would insist on deactivating the thing. C
  4. The Outrageous Okona. This is mediocre love story hiding under a transparent interplanetary Indiana Jones character. Data continues his endless quest to become human-like through failing to understand humor. C-
  5. Loud as a Whisper. The Enterprise ferries a renown negotiator who is also dumb (cannot speak) and who has agreed to try to bring peace to two warring tribes on a planet. Little mystery to this one. You know the plot, but it is competently made. C+
  6. The Schizoid Man. A strange episode where a dying old man/scientist with affectionate feelings for his much younger and prettier lab assistant occupies Data’s circuitry when his human body dies and then puts the move on his assistant. This episode feels incestuous and weird. D
  7. Unnatural Selection. Another back-to-back creepy episode, this one where a planet full of people who can only clone each other (and who don’t do sex) capture a bunch of Enterprise kids including Wesley before all the cloning ruins their gene pool. Dr. Pulaski of course figures out a solution just in time. D
  8. A Matter of Honor. Riker takes on the challenge of a temporary assignment as first officer on the Klingon vessel Pagh and handles the culture shock with aplomb. Quite a bit of fun but you kind of anticipate that his conflicting interests to both the Enterprise and the Pagh will be predictably tested. B+
  9. The Measure of a Man. Is Data a person even though he is an Android? This episode deservedly won all sorts of awards. See it! A
  10. The Dauphin. The Enterprise meets a shape shifter and Wesley develops hormones, only his crush is not quite the young lady he thinks she is. B-
  11. Contagion. The Federation and the Romulans fight over possession of a portal on a planet in the neutral zone that can take people to various periods of time while a mysterious computer virus ravages both vessels. One wonders if their operating system was Windows. B
  12. The Royale. The Enterprise is shocked to find gambling going on in a casino on an otherwise lifeless and inhospitable planet. Apparently a third rate crime novel is constantly replaying and the away team has to figure out how to end it so they can beam back up. Nothing special here except Picard’s reaction from reading the badly written book. C
  13. Time Squared. The Enterprise finds its captain in one of its shuttlecraft, which is surprising because Picard is still on board. Apparently they are in another weird time rift. You see these a lot on Star Trek but this one is very well done thanks mostly to Stewart’s great acting. A-
  14. The Icarus Factor. Riker is offered a command and meets his estranged father with whom he has bad karma. Wesley helps Worf have a Right of Ascension ritual. B-
  15. Pen Pals. The Prime Directive gets in the way again when Data develops a pen pal relationship with a girl over subspace on a rapidly dying planet. Wesley gets to try leading a team that seems hostile to his youth. This plot feels overly contrived. C
  16. Q Who. Q (John de Lancie) is back to harass the enterprise, but this time for a good cause: to introduce them and the Federation to the Borg, still the scariest space villain of all time. If the episode is about the Borg, you know it’s good and this initial encounter whets your appetite for more at the end of Season 3. A
  17. Samaritan Snare. Picard has a bad heart that must be repaired which forces he and Wesley (who is on the shuttle to take a Starfleet entrance exam) to awkwardly occupy a shuttle. Meanwhile Riker tries to help a vessel seemingly piloted by imbeciles who have an unexpected strength. C+
  18. Up the Long Ladder. Two early settler colonies from Earth in the same star system find a reason to hook up, literally, although they could not be more different. Thirty years later the Irish stereotypes look pretty offensive. Still, it’s kind of fun. B-
  19. Manhunt. Troi’s mother Lwaxsana (Majel Barrett) makes life miserable for Troi and Picard. Troi’s mom is going through a menopause, which makes her horny and particularly indiscreet. Frankly these episodes with Majel (also the voice of the computer) are tedious and unfunny. No exception here. D
  20. The Emissary. Worf meets his match and a potential mate in a half human-Klingon woman he both loathes and loves. She arrives to help the Enterprise deal with a Klingon vessel on a 75-year mission finally returning home. They have to figure out a plausible way to tell them the Klingons are not still at war with the Federation. This is a fun episode and goes to prove that Michael Dorn (Worf) is an excellent actor. B
  21. Peak Performance. With the Enterprise in a war game practicing for a Borg attack, Riker gets to see if he can outsmart Picard. Then the Ferengi appear out of nowhere. B
  22. Shades of Gray. A poisonous plant stings Riker during an away team mission. This allowed the producers to do numerous flashbacks, giving fans effectively half an episode and half of the cast sent home early for the season. Feels and is contrived, probably in reaction to the writers’ strike. Deeply unsatisfying. F
The Thinker

Second Viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 1)

How strange to watch this series again nearly thirty years later. I watched episodes of the original Star Trek series many times, not because they were that good, but because repeats were so easily available. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a much better show but I never took the time to go back and watch the episodes again, except sometimes when they were first broadcast, or in hotel rooms when I caught an occasional repeat.

STTNG (for short) lasted seven series where the original series lasted only three. STTNG’s first season was notably bad, while the original series (STTOS?) was best in its first season. STTNG though managed to shake off its first season and won eighteen Emmy awards, not to mention two Hugo awards, five Saturn awards and a Peabody award.

My Netflix streaming account gives me the opportunity to see STTNG again easily and in high fidelity that was simply unavailable when it was broadcast (1987-1994). Thirty years later it still looks quite slick; in fact it’s hard to believe nearly three decades have passed. Unlike STTOS, which had to contend with pennywise network overlords, STTNG (since it was independently distributed) had the money to build expensive sets and do gorgeous special effects. Still, watching the first season of STTNG again, many episodes are cringe-worthy. The whole first season was very much a shakedown cruise for this fancier version of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I also watched on Netflix an interesting documentary that discussed the behind-the-scenes power plays going on, not really among the actors, but among the producers, curiously produced and narrated by William Shatner. The major problem was that the series original creator Gene Roddenberry couldn’t delegate and became myopic on the series. After two years Rick Berman effectively took over, Roddenberry’s health deteriorated, he became a figurative role (he died in 1992), and the series started to improve a lot.

Under the circumstances the actors did pretty well considering that behind the scenes writers and directors were being hired and fired right and left. Still, many of the episodes are so poorly written that even fabulous actors like Patrick Stewart could not make the manure of their script into a rose. The third show, “The Naked Now”, stinks to high heaven, even worse that the episode 4, “The Naked Time” from STTOS which it references. It’s amazing the series survived after this episode, but perhaps not so much given that the subscribing stations were locked in for the season and Trekkies were so desperate for new material they could overlook these stink bomb episodes.

Anyhow, some random observations and thoughts:

  • Boy, the Enterprise is awfully white-bred. This part looks really off. Oh, they do have their token black (Geordi – LeVar Burton) and of course Michael Dorn who played the Klingon Worf is black. But the crew is mostly lily white; you would think in the 24th century we’d all be pretty interbred. A lot more people of color were needed.
  • Thirty years gave me a chance to appreciate Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher). She did not resonate with me at all in my twenties. It’s not that she suddenly looks hot thirty years later but I discovered that she is actually quite a talented actress.
  • The whole boy wonder Wesley Crusher thing really annoyed me thirty years ago. Wesley (Wil Wheaton) seemed pretty contrived: a crass attempt to bring in the youth market to make the show more successful. It’s still annoying seeing this in Season 1 again, and it is still feels contrived and artificial. However a second viewing showed me that Wil Wheaton actually does a good job with the role, although his part often seems saccharine. For a teen actor in a half-baked part, he did a great job.
  • In the “whose the better captain” argument, obviously I vote for Patrick Stewart. He gave Captain Picard real gravitas. But Picard is cerebral where Kirk is instinctive, so being introverted of course I’m going to appreciate that more. But there is also the obvious fact that Stewart can act and that Shatner could not, at least not without a very good director. To me there is no comparison and it mystifies me why others would disagree.
  • Technology: they got most of it right, to their credit. A few things seem off thirty years later. In one episode Picard orders people use “printouts” for security purposes. So I guess they still have HP Laserjet printers in the 24th century. The Internet was not a thing in 1989 so the idea of a World-Wide-Web was something not yet envisioned, but it can be forgiven because starships are separated by space and time, so it was implausible anyhow.
  • Data (Brent Spiner) remains an interesting character. Thirty years later though you wonder what he’s got that the ship’s computer doesn’t, other than artificial arms and legs. Data’s quest to understand and emulate humans seems kind of silly and kind of like tilting at windmills. Overall though Spiner does an excellent job with the part and makes androids look admirable.
  • The United Federation of Planets often seems a saccharine place. Rick Berman changed that when he got control of the series, adding necessary drama that was often missing or seemed forced in the first season. It’s unclear how the UFP got to be so cohesive. Some species in the federation fight with other species. Klingons insist on their own starships and seem loosely aligned at best.
  • It still makes no sense to bring children along for the ride. Yes, the saucer section is supposed to separate in time of crisis, and they actually show it twice in the first season. I don’t recall it afterward. I mean, pretty much every episode the Enterprise is put in mortal danger. Picard does his best to keep his people safe but geez, what were they thinking?
  • Gene Roddenberry did think up the holodeck, something the late creator can take credit for. It’s a really interesting idea and presaged our current virtual worlds. Indeed, it might have been the impetus for emerging technologies like Oculus Rift.
  • One thing I like, even though it is unrealistic, is how much work and decisions are delegated to human beings. Everyone has a duty and a task that a computer can’t quite master by itself. The computer aids the crew, rather than supplants it. Humans are in charge and an integral part of the future, perhaps by design. Today that looks a bit off but it is at least consistent with the Trek philosophy that a hopeful future for humanity is possible.

If you want to scan the first season, here are some episodes to watch and avoid:

  • Watch: 5 (first Ferengi encounter), 9, 10 (Q is interesting to watch, but insufferable in the series opener), 13 (meet Data’s brother), 22, 23 (goodbye Tasha Yar), and 25 (I love a good conspiracy, even if this feels a bit contrived).
  • Avoid: 1/2 (series opener), 3, 4, 8, 11, 14, 17 (too much like “And the Children Shall Lead” from STTOS).
The Thinker

A Mad Men retrospective

Eight years ago I wrote a retrospective for the TV series The West Wing, which lasted seven years on NBC. I am finishing the last season of Mad Men, which also lasted seven years. Mad Men appeared exclusively on AMC, a cable network, unless you include the many services belatedly streaming the show, including Netflix where I watched it. Netflix doesn’t have the last seven episodes available, however my wife has her ways so I am able to watch them anyhow.

Starting the series some months back I had to admit this was an unlikely choice of a show to hook me. It focuses on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. If you’ve been living under a rock, Madison Avenue is known principally for its advertising agencies. This was certainly true in the 1960s. Mad Men is a deep dive into this unlikely world, centered on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director for the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency. Sterling Cooper is filled with creative but deeply flawed people. Some like Draper also have natural good looks as an asset. Draper may be a creative ad guy but he is something of a wreck as a human being. Aside from smoking and drinking too much (typical of those with the means in the 1960s) Draper is also a chronic womanizer, constantly in and out of beds of principally very beautiful women, all while being married.

He is hardly the only one in the office to engage in these peccadillos. Most of his fellow partners are doing the same, and this includes the son of one of the founding partners Roger Sterling (John Slattery) who has a torrid on again, off again relationship with the office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). It’s a world of directing work from the upper floors of tall Manhattan skyscrapers, suits, frequent dinners with clients and personality dramas. With the exception of Joan and Don’s secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) who becomes a copywriter, women are invariably secretaries. Pretty much every man in the place has one outside his door. The women peck away at their IBM Selectric typewriters and answer the phone while waiting to find the right guy to marry, who is often their boss.

It’s a world of wooing clients, losing clients, making pitches to clients and tenuously trying to maintain clients while dressed in fancy suits, smoking too much and drinking too liberally, mostly from the bars in their offices. These men drink more than most sailors; it’s a wonder they can function at all. And yet producer and creator Matthew Weiner makes this world eminently watchable anyhow, despite the white shirts, shined shoes, and neatly trimmed and parted hair. You want to root for someone in this show but it’s hard, not because everyone is evil but because they are caught in a system that rewards deceit. Peggy Moss is the closest the series comes to such a character. As for Don Draper, he’s pitiable and thus hard to root for until you get his weird but compelling backstory.

What the show has going for it is top notch writing and directing, overseen by its obsessive creator Matt Weiner, as well as standout performances by actors who are frequently required to show their characters’ seamier sides. Equally impressive in this period drama was the attention to detail to the turbulent 1960s. Many events at the ad agency overlap with dramatic news stories, such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the moon landing. In a world where image is everything, everyone including the spouses tries hard to model their image while the story and camera takes us into their backstories.

There are lots of good characters to enjoy, but few you can feel sorry for. You can feel sorry for Betty, Don’s first wife played by January Jones until you discover she’s pretty insufferable herself. There’s the eager new exec Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) with his own Stepford wife back at home who, like George W. Bush, has to live up to the family’s expectations. It would take too long to list all of them, particularly when so many of them drop out to be replaced by others. There are crises both personal and business-related, sometimes at the same time. Don himself gets pulled more ways than Silly Putty. There are societal issues that creep into the insular ad agency world, including women’s liberation, racism, drug use, the space program and computers. From the first frame to the last, you really feel like you are living in the 1960s. I lived through these events, although I was a child at the time, so I can say it is eerily authentic. If nothing else, Weiner nails the 1960s and gives the viewer a largely accurate depiction not just of the world of advertising but of one of our most transformative decades. Much of the craziness we are living through in the 2010s has its roots in the 1960s, so the show helps you put today in perspective.

The show is principally centered on Don and Peggy, but more on Don than Peggy. Fortunately both Hamm and Moss prove up to mastering their roles. A closer inspection will find other things to admire. For example, the directing is outstanding throughout, and the transitions between scenes are often inventive and very clever, like the advertising world. I found excellence in places I did not expect. For example, Kiernan Shipka does a terrific job as Don’s daughter Sally across seven years of the series, and grew as an actress in the process. By the last season her role was mature and her acting was so good you could see her model both character’s mother and father mannerisms.

Mostly I was surprised that Weiner could make this sort of show work across seven seasons so consistently and with such uniform excellence. I really wanted to not like this show, as I find advertising reprehensible, but I was suckered in anyhow and kept spellbound for much of the series.

In my retrospective of The West Wing I said it was a classy show rarely seen on network TV at the time. Given that Mad Men was only shown on cable, its excellence and commitment to quality is a delightful surprise. It’s a compelling character drama and worth the investment of time, delight and heartache to watch all seven seasons worth.

The Thinker

Second viewing: M*A*S*H (the TV show)

When you are retired you often find you have time on your hands. Netflix streaming provides lots of content, but much of it is comfort content, i.e. stuff you have seen before. So I’ve slogged my way through all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H, mostly in microbursts, over the last few months.

For a show that began in 1972, it is still surprisingly good. “Good” is relative, however. In a time when most markets had four or 5 TV stations, you took what you could get. For its time, M*A*S*H was excellent TV. Today, it just rates as very good. Why is this? It’s because forty years later TV has gotten much better. This is due to the proliferation of cable and pay TV. While lots of dreck can still be found on TV, there is now so much excellent content on TV that it is excruciatingly hard to decide which ones merit your time. I’ve finished three seasons of House of Cards. While waiting for new episodes I have been watching Mad Men. Each episode of Mad Men sends jolts of adrenaline to my enjoyment system: it’s just so well done!

So M*A*S*H is comfort TV, although the harshness of that war would not normally make it something you would want to watch. There had never been a TV show that showed the reality of war before M*A*S*H. It showed life at a mobile Army hospital during the Korean War, and the crazy antics and horrifying things that happened there. Going through it again, I realize that I have seen every episode, not just once, but several times at least. I’m not sure when I found the time to see them so many times. I’m guessing it was when they were endlessly repeated on late night TV. Thirty plus years of distance has at least made me a more critical viewer. Some modern day reflections and observations:

  • The show is actually a reflection of the emerging values of its time (the late 60s and early 70s) than the time of the Korean War. Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rodgers) might as well be flower children with shorter hair. Their liberal and antiwar positions would have put them in the extreme minority in the early 1950s, and dangerously so. Both would have been children of the Great Depression but they are all flower power. The 1969 movie by Robert Altman provided the template for the show, and in 1969 the Hippie movement was everywhere, the Vietnam War was obviously a disaster and cynicism was rampant. It’s entertaining as hell, but it’s simply not an accurate reflection of the years it purports to represent.
  • You can sort of break down the show into three rather distinct segments: the slapstick/buffoon comedy years (Seasons 1-3), the serious comedy-light years (Seasons 4-7) and the extended mediocre denouement years (Seasons 8-11).
  • The first year is particularly hard to watch today. Its blatant sexism and the casual way women are treated as objects rather than people is actually hard to endure today, and this is good. We have evolved.
  • The second segment is actually the best part of the show. The horrors of war and the imperfect way its characters react to it is the heart of the show.
  • There are some good episodes in the third segment, but it’s perfectly okay to stop at the end of Season 7. Those last seasons will disappoint if you’ve seen the other seasons. The show feels played out, particularly since the show lasted eleven seasons and the Korean War lasted less than four years.
  • Alan Alda won a number of Emmys for his performance as the surgeon Capt. Hawkeye Pierce. I found myself having a love/hate relationship with both the actor and the character. I don’t think there was that much difference between the actor and his character, aside from the fact Alda is not a doctor. Alda must have been insufferably difficult to work with on the set. He dominates the show in frequently unhealthy ways, making it hard for other characters to shine. On the other hand, he’s really good, very intense and totally convincing. It’s not too surprising that Wayne Rodgers left after three seasons, sick of playing Harpo to Alda’s Groucho (in some episodes literally). McLean Stephenson must have felt the same way portraying Lt. Col. Henry Blake.
  • In spite of Alda’s overwhelming presence, most of the other characters do make their marks. Most notably is the maturation of Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit), the head nurse. For three seasons she played comic relief but in the second segment she becomes human, matures and deepens as a character. It’s lovely to watch and an excellent reason to stick around.
  • Who’s the better sidekick: Trapper John or B.J. Hunnicut? Seeing it again, I found Trapper more real and interesting. M*A*S*H would have been a much better show if directors had restrained Alda a bit more so Trapper’s character could shine. Mike Farrell is not really funny, but Wayne Rodgers certainly is. Rodgers was intense where Farrell was understated. It was a real loss when Rodgers left the show.
  • Who’s the more entertaining commander: Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) or Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan)? Henry Blake for sure, even though he was there for only its first three years. Stevenson was consistently hilarious but somehow grounded in the insanity going on around him. Harry Morgan is not a comedian at heart, and it showed. The show lost a lot of its luster when Stevenson exited stage right.
  • The series most memorable and adorable character is unquestionably Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), who was the only character that also appeared in the movie. He is an innocent thrown into a complex adult game that remains a good person with childlike tendencies. He’s cuddlier than his frequently present teddy bear.
  • Corporal Clinger (Jamie Farr) makes good comic relief but simply does not convince in any other role other than a Section 8 seeking transvestite. He should have been kept in a dress and probably let go after a couple of seasons.
  • Larry Linville as the one-dimensional Major Frank Burns was actually an excellent comedian. His character is so insufferable that it is hard to see this. I don’t think he ever won an award for portraying Major Burns, but he should have.
  • David Ogden Stiers as Major Charles Emerson Winchester did much to make the second half of the series worth watching. It declined steadily anyhow, but Winchester was certainly an interesting and quirky character.
  • Some of the sporadic characters are delicious, particularly Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) and Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter). Any episodes with either of them in it are worth watching, and in one episode they both appear together. Flagg is actually the funniest character in the whole show; he just appears so irregularly.

You have to be a die-hard fan to watch all eleven seasons, particularly the last few years of the show. If you are tempted to watch the show, cringe your way through very funny but hard to endure first season and stick with it through seven seasons if you can. By the end of the first season all the characters are well established. Certain shows are gems and worth watching if you don’t have the time or patience for the many episodes that endlessly repeat the same theme (war really stinks). These include:

  • Yankee Doodle Doctor (Season 1, Episode 6)
  • Tuttle (Season 1, Episode 15)
  • A Smattering of Intelligence (Season 2, Episode 24)
  • O.R. (Season 3, Episode 5)
  • Abyssinia, Henry (Season 3, Episode 24)
  • Welcome to Korea (Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Change of Command (Season 4, Episode 3)
  • Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler? (Season 4, Episode 10)
  • Dear Sigmund (Season 5, Episode 8)
  • Fade Out/Fade In (Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Major Topper (Season 6, Episode 25)
  • Point of View (Season 7, Episode 11)
  • The Party (Season 7, Episode 26)
  • Good-bye Radar (Season 8, Episodes 4 and 5)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Who? (Season 8, Episode 9)
  • The Life You Save (Season 9, Episode 20)
  • Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (Season 11, Episode 16 – the extended end to the series)
The Thinker

Laughing all the way: Parks and Recreation

No question about it: NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a funny sitcom! The NBC TV series will begin its seventh and final season next month. I on the other hand have just recently discovered it, and am streaming past episodes on Netflix.

I have found that I tend to binge on Parks and Recreation. Sometimes I will watch four episodes in a sitting, which is not a hard thing to do since each show is about twenty minutes when you take out the commercials. Then I will take a break for a week or two. As I get more and more into the series, I can’t seem to wait that long. Sometimes I watch it during the day. I just can’t seem to stop!

The series stars Amy Poehler as the deputy director for parks and recreation for the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. It’s a “mocumentary” from the creators of The Office (American version). I have tried to get into The Office but it never took. Parks and Recreation on the other hand was easy for me to like, in part because it’s about the civil service, and I inhabited that world for thirty plus years. Granted that I was a federal employee, and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her crew are city employees, but it feels familiar. With the exception of Leslie, most of the people working at Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department though fall into the stereotype of civil servants that spend more time goofing off than working. This is particularly true of their director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Despite the fact that he does almost nothing, he is hoping to become city administrator and then to get rid of his department. Ron you see is a libertarian, but not just a run of the mill libertarian, but a severe libertarian. He wants the parks contracted out to the private sector and would like these companies to charge kids to see ducks.

Leslie is just the opposite and basically runs the whole department with cheerfulness, aplomb and dedication. It’s just that her employees emulate her boss for the most part. They include her assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a skinny and short guy of Indian ancestry but born in South Carolina with a green card marriage to a doctor from Canada but with a passion to run a nightclub. It also includes April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) whose job is to keep the public from seeing Ron Swanson, Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) as a large fifty-something career civil servant on the cusp of retirement and Donna Meagle (Retta) as a snappy, fast-talking black woman with an attitude. Hanging outside the office and occasionally inside it are ancillary characters Andy Dwyer (“shoe shine boy”), Leslie’s friend Anne and toward the later half of the second season Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), sent by the state of Indiana to help run city government, which had gotten badly mismanaged.

The mocumentary style is now well refined. The camera becomes an unseen presence that the characters interact around and with, although rarely explicitly. This gives us insight into the intimacies of each character and actually kicks up the level of entertainment. The comedy of the show of course comes from the interaction of these characters and the slow soap operas of their lives that continue incrementally from show to show. Individually no character is particularly memorable, but as an ensemble they prove most entertaining. They become more entertaining as you get to know each of them and their backstories.

Not every show is a hit but all are funny to some extent and some had me actually on the floor laughing hysterically. I watch these alone as my wife is not into mocumentaries, and it’s just as well because falling off your chair from laughter is kind of embarrassing, particularly when snot starts running out of your nose. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV series so there were doubtless many other funny TV series that I missed over the years. I can say honestly though that I have never laughed so hard at a TV sitcom in more than thirty years, since WKRP in Cincinnati entertained us for four seasons starting in 1978.

I am just starting the third season so there is plenty more laughter ahead. Most of the laughter evolves around Leslie, Ron, April and Tom. Some of the funniest episodes though involve characters that appear irregularly. Leslie’s boss Ron is a twice divorcee, one with the chief librarian of the city named Tammy (Megan Mullally). Ron and Tammy have a deeply dysfunctional hot/cold relationship. Apparently about once a season the writers invent a reason for them to come together again, and the fireworks that happen when they do are not to be missed. So far these shows have been the comic highlights of the series for me, but there are also many shows that individually are great gems. “Greg Pikitis” from Season 2, which was immediately followed by the first “Ron and Tammy” episode, were two back-to-back shows that had me laughing and careening off my chair and onto the floor. Both of these shows were particularly inspired and should have won awards for the longest periods of sustained and hysterical laughter. There are also a number of periodically recurring characters to enjoy, such as the smarmy skinny TV hostess of “Pawnee Today”, Joan Callamezzo.

As a portrayal of the civil service, the show largely goes for stereotypes. I haven’t worked in city government, but it was my experience that with a few exceptions most federal civil servants I worked with were focused, dedicated and talented. In Parks and Recreation the writers found more humor in portraying civil servants as dispassionate, web and text surfing bodies inhabiting desks. Leslie is the big exception, as was Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), a city planner, who unfortunately left the show after the second season. Stereotypes aside, this is a comedy so laughs are the important metric. It’s nice though that at least some of the civil servants in the series come across as dedicated and professional.

In any event, the show seems to be hitting almost all of my laugh buttons. If you haven’t seen the show, give it a try. Season 1 is a little rough as the characters were just settling into place. Season 2 though should leave you fully hooked. Seven seasons apparently is all we’re going to get of life in the fictional town of Pawnee. I hope it’s not ending because the writers ran out of ways to make us laugh.


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