Single-Season TV Shows

I’ve done a pick list for best TV shows, but this one is for shows that didn’t go beyond a single season. Underrated gems that deserve special mention.

 

Tales from the Loop first impression: An intriguing sci-fi TV series | Entertainment News,The Indian Express
1. Tales From the Loop. 2020. I worried about a Stranger Things rehash. The series is set in a small midwestern town in the ’80s (Ohio instead of Indiana), there’s a lab where dangerous experiments are performed, and kids play a key role. But where Stranger Things revels in the nostalgia of the ’80s, here the period is incidental. Stranger Things is full of anxious and overt horrors, using action sequences to supplement the character drama; Tales from the Loop shines in the small and quiet moments. Put it this way: Stranger Things is ET and Gremlins and Alien; Tales from the Loop is Blade Runner and Twin Peaks, filtered through a Kubrick-like lens where everything is held coldly at arm’s length, even as it magnifies the intimate and personal. Dialogue is restrained and used like a precious commodity; every word counts. We end up seeing lot of impossible wonders — time travel, body swapping, time freeze, snow that falls upwards, parallel-world travel, and robots with uncannily human traits — but the series isn’t about any of that. It’s about people; their fears, tragedies, and deepest hopes.


2. Godless. 2017. Marketed as a “feminist Western”, I think the label is misleading. The town of La Belle is dominated by women (since most of the husbands were killed in a mining accident), but the lead and supporting cast have an equal share of men and women, and the overall tone doesn’t really strike one as feminist. Which is good: film and TV suffer when politics become overt, and so I’m glad that Godless‘ excellence is carried purely on the strength of its artistic merits. It has all the classic ingredients of the western — outlaws, train heists, expansive scenery, disillusioned law officials, and a final shoot-out you’ll never forget — while being innovative enough so that it stands proudly among the greats in the western Renaissance. Jeff Daniels plays a baddie of mythic evil, and the underappreciated Jack O’Connell is used very well against him, as the adopted son now turned on his master. I’ve seen this series twice and I’m sure I’ll watch it again.

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3. Bodyguard. 2018. This one pleased me on many levels. It’s a solid thriller, with smart twists that match its brutal intensity. The romance between the Home Secretary and her bodyguard is handled believably, and in just the right doses, before she is assassinated halfway through the series. Most of all, the end reveal completely blew my mind – that the Muslim woman was a cold-hearted jihadist, and not the victim we were led to believe. “You all saw me as a poor, oppressed Muslim woman. I am an engineer. I am a jihadi.” This she says to the appalled protagonist, who had rescued her from the clutches of her husband in the show’s opening scene of terrorism. The cries of Islamophobia were inevitable, but it was so refreshing to see a mainstream Netflix production treat the subject of jihad terror with realism for a change. I was very impressed with Richard Madden (“Robb Stark”); he makes a good hero who gets shafted in the worst ways. If he’s not beheaded at a Red Wedding, he’s being framed as a suicide bomber with a bomb strapped to himself that he can’t get rid of.

Behind Her Eyes, filming locations, filmed, set, Netflix, where, Louise, Adele, cafe, London
4. Behind Her Eyes. 2021. As I write this, Behind Her Eyes is currently the most watched show on Netflix, and I can understand why. It starts as an erotic thriller and then becomes a manipulative game of out-of-body experiences. Then the ending which has everyone in an uproar, but is stunningly perfect given the premise of astral-projection. It reminds me of The Sixth Sense: all the clues are there, so that when you rewatch the series you can understand who Adele really is. It’s established that Rob is gay; his jealous behavior around David and Adele was about his feelings for the former, not the latter; Adele’s junkie behavior, and risking rough neighborhoods; etc. The biggest treat to the series is Simona Brown. She plays a single mother who does all she can for her son, and gets caught in a love triangle against her better judgment. She’s a genuinely good person who is manipulated into surrendering her body — an unpleasant shock, but dramatically compelling, naysayers notwithstanding.


5. Des. 2020. David Tennant is one of my favorite actors of the 21st century. He can play a lovable eccentric (Doctor Who), a brooding curmudgeon (Broadchurch), and one of the nastiest villains to walk the Earth (Jessica Jones). In Des he channels that last as serial killer Dennis Nilsen. Between 1978 and 1983, Nilsen brought home and killed at least a dozen men and boys, keeping their corpses around before butchering them. When he got to that, he boiled their flesh, kept other remains around his apartment, and flushed other parts down the john. (I wonder if Nilsen inspired Walter Dragonette in Peter Straub’s novel The Throat.) The drama is set after his arrest, inside interrogation rooms and courtrooms, as the series explores why Nilsen did all this shit. As true crime dramas go, this one is a cut above most, thanks mostly to Tennant’s chilling performance. He casually chats with authorities about his monstrous actions, and there’s no looking away.


6. Unbelievable. 2019. Here’s another true crime drama, about a serial rapist who kept on the move, hopping over states to confound the police. He never raped in the same place twice, nor the same kind of victim twice. He chose young women and old, of varying ethnicity and social class. The show flashes back and forth between two equally compelling storylines, the first set in Washington State in 2008, focusing on one of the rapist’s early victims (above pic), the second set in Colorado in 2011, showing how two detectives from different cities ended up nailing the guy. The first storyline is heartbreaking, as the Washington State girl isn’t believed by anyone — not her stepmother, her flat mates, or the police; she is arrested and compelled to say before a judge that she had made up her rape attack. The second storyline shows the pair of female detectives on top of their game as they use every resource available to close in on the rapist. The story arcs join at the end in a triumphant payoff, made all the more rewarding since the portrayed events are true.

Photo credit: Netflix
7. The Queen’s Gambit. 2020. This brought me back to my chess days in high school, and it even got me playing against my computer. I lost every time — as I evidently have lost my touch. But I was never anything close to the prodigy of Beth Harmon. She’s based on the real world chess prodigies Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov (mostly Fischer), and the show takes a lot of dramatic liberties, so this isn’t anything that could be called a “true story” without winking broadly. It’s wonderful drama all the same, showing a girl spiraling out of control with substance abuse, but almost never, ever, losing a chess game. What blows my mind is how exciting the chess games are to watch on screen. I wouldn’t have guessed that one could wring so much tension out of chess duels, but Queen’s Gambit proved me wrong.

Still from series 'Unorthodox' – young woman getting her hair shaved off
8. Unorthodox. 2020. One of the better religion-themed dramas in recent years: the story of a woman’s liberation from everyday life in an ultra-orthodox community. The Satmar Jews in New York are from Hungary, mostly descendants of Holocaust survivors, and they live to strengthen their ranks and churn out as many kids as possible. While this may sound inspiring, to some it can be suffocating. Women like Esty (the main character) are not allowed to explore their identities and are deprived of rights most American women take for granted. In the series Esty rebels and leaves her husband; she moves to Berlin where multiculturalism awaits. The power of Unorthodox lies in the way it acknowledges the beauty of conservative religion steeped in millennia of tradition, while showing how someone can be miserable in that tradition. We see the beauty of a Passover seder, not beautiful at all to Esty, and reminds us how easy it is to romanticize religion from a distance.

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9. The Five. 2016. I’ve never read a Harlan Coben novel, but since watching The Five I’ve considered giving him a try. He’s known for extremely convoluted plots involving past events which have been misunderstood, this case being a five-year old boy (Jesse) who disappeared and was never found and presumed dead. Until his DNA turns up at a crime scene 20 years later. Now the boy’s older brother is a solicitor, and his three friends are a doctor, a police detective, and a social worker — all still friends and still wanting closure over Jesse’s disappearance. The shocking evidence of Jesse’s DNA leads the characters on an absolute mindfuck through the lives of his family and friends, and finally to the identity of Jesse himself. Few of the subplots and side mysteries have anything to do with each other, and yet it all feels like it hangs together. That’s the Coben magic.

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10. I Am Not Okay With This. 2020. Take elements of Stranger Things (girl has telekinetic powers) and The End of the Fucking World (grief and mental health issues), and you get this series. It’s not on the same plane of excellence as the former, or as edgy as the latter, but it’s a very enjoyable watch. The protagonist lives an unenviable life: her father killed herself, her mother is a hollow bitch, and she suddenly realizes she has superpowers — she destroys things with her mind — that she can’t control. That’s what makes her powers interesting. Sophia Lillis is an actor to keep eyes on. She wasn’t impressive in It, but then she didn’t have a decent script. This series gives her a chance and hints at a promising career.

The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 3

“I’m sorry, this is absolutely surreal.”

Daniel’s words to Kumiko surely speak for the way many audiences feel about Cobra Kai‘s third season. By this point the San Fernando Valley has become a crazy alternate reality where karate is the rule of law and even the key to one’s spiritual salvation. If you’re Cobra Kai, then you’re a social Darwinist upholding survival of the strongest: strike first with bloodthirsty aggression, and forget you’ve ever heard of a concept like compassion. If you’re Miyagi-Do, then you’re a Zen Buddhist, competing more with yourself than others: train your body and mind to achieve balance, and fight defensively. And if you’re Eagle Fang, then you’re probably confused about what you are: a breakaway sect from Cobra Kai wanting to have your badass cake and eat it — but also to join forces with the Miyagi-Do infidels, heretofore your sworn enemy.

Friendships, romances, and alliances turn on a dime in this universe, and the dojos lose/gain students by a continual stream of attrition and defection. When karate brawls break out, all beings of authority — parents, teachers, and police — are powerless to protect kids from broken arms and comas. For that matter, the kids themselves seem powerless, as if karate is possessing them and putting them in thrall to absurdist melodramas. Sensais Johnny and Daniel are the worst in this regard, still seething over adolescent quarrels that any mature adult would have long put to bed. In the real world they would be deemed terrible role models; in the world of Cobra Kai they are weirdly compelling, and in this season about equally so.

One critic has described season 3 of Cobra Kai as ¼ teen soap opera, ¼ martial arts epic, ¼ Richard Linklater, and ¼ underdog sports drama — and that’s pretty much right. (Those who have seen Linklater’s Before series will find resonance in the return of Daniel’s old flings Kumiko and Ali, and their conversational therapies.) Strangely, this is what makes season 3 the best so far. If you’re going to do a cheesy dramedy, then go the full nine. Accepted on its own terms, this season is what the series has been building to, with John Kreese finally assuming his role as the nasty arch-villain, leaving Johnny out in the cold, and Daniel trying to pray Mr. Miyagi back to life.

Johnny and Daniel have a brief team up in episode 2 that ends on quite the opposite note. They are hunting the city for Robby before the cops catch him (for putting Miguel in a coma), and the hunt takes them to a den of thieves who stole the van that Robby took from the LaRusso auto shop. Johnny and Daniel unload an ass-pounding on these thugs, and interestingly, this is only the second time (up to this point) in the series that Daniel has been involved in a karate fight. He didn’t fight at all in season 1; he saved Robby from the beach attack in season 2; he will get into three fights this season, and this first one is hilarious. After he and Johnny kick the shit out of the thugs, they immediately begin attacking each other, overreacting as they always do to the other’s perceived faults. This is what I love about Cobra Kai: allies are as dangerous as enemies, for the most melodramatic causes.

The surrealism continues in one of the season’s best sequences — the school conflict of episode 4 that leads to smack downs and windmill kicks on the soccer field. It begins in the cafeteria with Eli demolishing Demetri’s science project (that took the poor kid three weeks to build), but Demetri and Sam are, incredibly, the ones who get chastised by Counselor Blatt, while Eli, all innocence, protests about being triggered in his safe space. He then warns Sam against any further micro and macro aggressions. Cobra Kai has never shown mercy in making fun of political correctness, and I’m glad to see that the series’ move to Netflix hasn’t cramped its style. In any case, when Counselor Blatt swallows Eli’s deferential bullshit, the Miyagi-Do “good guys” decide to take revenge in gym class. Of course, the soccer teams are conveniently divided so that the Miyagi-Dos are playing against the Cobra Kais, but the surrealism goes into overdrive when the punches, headbutts, and windmill kicks start flying, while the referee just stands on the sidelines exasperating and wringing her hands.

But as I foreshadowed at the start, season 3 is at its most surreal during Daniel’s trip to Okinawa, where he encounters his old girlfriend (Kumiko) and homicidal nemesis (Chozen) from The Karate Kid Part II. This is another reason why season 3 is my favorite: back in the day I liked the second Karate Kid film more than the first, which is heresy to most fans of the franchise. I saw Part II first, in the theater, and then worked back to the Part I on VHS, so the latter always felt more like a prequel: a sports film prefacing the epic adventure in Okinawa, where karate was high stakes and involved real fights — to the death, not to score tournament points.

Indeed, the Okinawan scenes in episodes 4 and 5 are the season’s best, some of them genuinely moving, especially when Kumiko reads Daniel the love letters that Mr. Miyagi had sent Yukie. The one he wrote on his deathbed — in which he describes to Yukie his special feelings for Daniel and his daughter, how Daniel welcomed him into his family and made him feel like Sam’s grandfather — actually brought a tear to my eye. And when Chozen makes his entrance the next morning, he exudes a real menace we’re not used to seeing in Cobra Kai because Kreese is so cartoonish. It turns out that Chozen’s surface hostility masks a deep shame that he continues to feel for trying to kill Daniel and Kumiko decades ago. When he paralyzes Daniel in a sparring match, and acts like he’s ready to kill him, my heart almost skipped a beat. Chozen is written very well. He forces Daniel to rethink his reverence for Mr. Miyagi, and ends up teaching Daniel “war secrets” that Mr. Miyagi withheld from him — moves that Daniel will use in the finale against Creese.

Most importantly — though I’m not sure the writers intended this — the Okinawan drama shows how melodramatic the American one is by comparison. For all their ugly history from Karate Kid Part II, Kumiko and Chozen have moved on, and are at peace with each other; Chozen is at peace with Daniel, and Daniel finds forgiveness within easy reach. If Daniel and Chozen can be this way after trying to kill each other, why can’t Daniel and Johnny put petty rivalries behind? There are two levels of surrealism here, the exotic Asian, and the absurdist American, and the former hangs as a commentary on the latter. In the finale, Daniel and Johnny finally bridge their dojos, and while this comes right after Ali telling them to bury the hatchet, I prefer to believe that Kumiko and Chozen had the stronger influence on Daniel’s reconciliation with Johnny.

As for Johnny, he and Miguel continue to be the best characters in Cobra Kai; they anchor the series, and it’s hard to imagine it without them. The things Johnny does to get Miguel out of a wheelchair are classic Johnny Lawrence — dangling porno mags over Miguel’s head, even lighting the poor kid’s foot on fire. Meanwhile, Miguel’s Cobra Kai buddies are proving themselves supreme assholes in avenging Miguel, resulting in a shocker I didn’t see coming: Eli pinning Demetri on the ground, and then — to the cheers of Tory and other Cobra Kais — sadistically breaking his arm. This while Sam chokes in a panic attack, unable to do anything to save Demetri. Which brings me to Mary Mouser’s performance.

Mouser is worth singling out, because she has come 180 degrees in her ability to impress as an actor, just as Sam has evolved into a better character. In my review of the first season I didn’t hold back my distaste for the entire Larusso clan, including Sam. But the family has become more likeable as situations propel them out of their world of goody-two-shoes comfort. I’ve gone from hating Amanda and disliking Daniel and Sam (season 1), to hating Amanda and liking Daniel and Sam (season 2), to feeling okay about Amanda and really liking Daniel and Sam (season 3). Amanda, for her part, is finally on board with karate and gets aggressive herself — bearding Kreese in his dojo and belting him across the face. Daniel of course shines throughout the whole season, especially in Okinawa. But Sam really stands out. She displays a vulnerability in her rage against Cobra Kai, and suffers debilitating panic attacks in the aftermath of Tory slicing her arm at the end of season 2. And the heart-to-heart between her and Daniel on the boat in episode 7 is probably their best daughter-father scene of the series.

Then there is Tory and Robby, who I’m guessing will be an item in season 4. They get in great performances as angry castaways, and I admit that Robby’s turn to the dark side caught me off guard. It must gall Johnny to no end that his son has chosen mentors regardless of their philosophy — from the pacifist LaRusso to the war-mongering Kreese — just so long as it’s not dear old Dad. I’ve heard some critics say that Robby’s pendulum swing is unrealistic, but it’s most certainly not: as a neglected and angry son, it’s natural for him to latch on to any father figure except the real one — especially an authoritarian like Kreese. Not to mention Robby’s history as a delinquent. Of course he’s going to backslide when his benevolent sensai LaRusso “betrays” him by giving him over to the cops. As for Kreese, his Vietnam flashbacks are the weakest part of the season. They do nothing to flesh out his character in any revelatory way, and the injection of themes like war crimes into a dramedy seems strikingly out of place.

I’m sure the final two episodes (9 and 10) will be the fan faves, but as good as they are, they can’t compete with 4 and 5. The Okinawa fight scenes beat even the finale showdown with Kreese, and Kumiko — sorry fans — buries Ali with an “i”. I have dreaded talking about Ali Mills, as fans have been orgasmic for her return, but let me rush in to assure everyone that I enjoyed seeing Elisabeth Shue reprise her role. It was fun to watch Ali, after all these years, referee Johnny and Daniel’s mud slinging, and then regale the dinner table with embarrassing stories of her and Daniel’s break up. Prior to the party she and Johnny have a night out that gives him some peace and closure, and this is all very nice. But I can’t say that Ali was necessary to make season 3 as good as it is, unlike Kumiko and Chozen.

Actually in fact, the Ali drama becomes somewhat intrusive in the finale, which cuts back and forth between the Christmas party at the country club and the karate war in the LaRusso home. In seasons 1 and 2 the finale battles were uninterrupted as they deserve to be. The season 3 finale divides our interest and puts our bloodlust on pause. And there is blood to be sure: Miguel’s face in particular ends up looking like it’s been put through a grinder. Sam’s face-off with Tory is no joke, as Tory comes at Sam with nunchucks. (Those are seriously dangerous weapons; a weakling waving them around could smash someone’s skull with very little effort.) But it’s the LaRusso home that takes the most outrageous beating — thousands of dollars worth of damage as the kids kick and smash each other through the coffee table, sliding doors, the Christmas tree, lamps, and other fineries. This karate war is brilliantly choreographed, though it’s not a masterpiece like the massive season-2 school brawl.

The final confrontation with Kreese is of course what pushes Johnny and Daniel together, and it will be interesting to say the least how their season-4 alliance unfolds. Miyagi-Do is an uncompromising school of thought; Eagle Fang might have to lose its fangs. Though maybe not. In going against Kreese’s new incarnation of Cobra Kai, Miyagi-Do might, just might, have to start playing more dirty, and tap into those war secrets revealed by Chozen. In any case, the final scene is pretty sweet.

Honestly, there was no better way to start the new year than with Cobra Kai season 3. I usually go for dark and depressing, but after the year 2020, Miyagi dramedy hit the sweet spot.

 

See also:

The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 1
The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 2

The Seven’s Members Ranked

I recommend Amazon Prime’s TV series The Boys, provided that you’re okay with ultraviolent and sexually perverse scenarios, and superheroes that are so reprehensibly evil that it sets a new bar. I’m not a fan of superhero dramas unless they subvert the genre in some way — like Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy; Ang Lee’s Hulk; the X-Men franchise (for the most part), especially the most recent Logan; and the brutal comedy-satire Super. The Boys is more subversive than all of those combined. It’s about team of desperate vigilantes who go up against The Seven, a team of superheroes who work for a private company (Vought) to combat crime and terrorism, though many of them are worse than bad guys. They’re worshiped by the American people who have no idea what a pack of flaming murderous selfish assholes these “heroes” really are.

But if the Seven are assholes, they are fun assholes, and a couple of them even decent at heart. Here’s how I rank them. There are eight in this ranking, since season 1’s Translucent was replaced by season 2’s Stormfront.

1. Black Noir. He never says a word and that silence is golden, enhancing his badass image. He’s pretty much an unstoppable killing machine, taking bullets fired point-blank into his hand; effectively a super-ninja. He seems to unnerve even Homelander. In one of their team meetings Homelander castigates the group for lousy performances except for Black Noir who gets a pass. One of his best scenes is decapitating a terrorist, but oddly, his very best comes at the Vought dinner party, where he sits down next to a pianist, glares at him, and then takes over playing the piano with an elegance that belies his creepy persona. That’s the moment I fell in love with Black Noir. Inspiration: Batman. Powers: Some super strength, heightened agility and speed, immune to pain, regeneration (moderate healing). Rating: 4 ½.

2. Queen Maeve. She’s pretty powerful and her heart’s in the right place. She joined the Seven because she actually wanted to help people. But as she climbed the ranks to become Number 2, she had little choice but to let Homelander bully her and to go along with acts of atrocity. In the end she finds herself and does the right thing, by saving Billy Butcher and blackmailing Homelander, and teaming up with Starlight against Stormfront. The side-plot with her lesbian girlfriend Elena (Maeve is bisexual) is a good one, that shows Vought able to capitalize on anything for money, even when it serves progressive causes like LGBT. I like Maeve because she’s the most conscientious of the Seven and tormented relentlessly by it until she’s able to do right. Inspiration: Wonder Woman. Powers: Super strength, some degree of invulnerability, can stop rifle bullets. Rating: 4.

3. A-Train. Inwardly weak and selfish, he’s the catalyst for all the events that follow at the start of season 1, and comes off really bad in killing Hughie’s girlfriend. It’s an accident that he writes off as “shit happens”. Still, he’s not an asshole by nature. He’s an addict who improves on himself throughout the two seasons, eventually helping Hughie and Starlight in the end, though even here serving himself just as much as them: as an African American he wants to bring down the racist Stormfront and get back into the Seven, from which he has been temporarily banned for his addiction problems. For whatever reason, I found myself liking this guy far more than he deserves, and that’s why I put him at #3. And love his supersonic speed. Inspiration: Flash. Powers: Supersonic speed, some super strength, regeneration (can heal fast), and some level of resistance to injury. Rating: 4.

4. Translucent. He gets killed early in the first season — hilariously, by a bomb jammed up his ass — and so he doesn’t really deserve a place on this list, but I’m tickled pink by a hero who uses his invisibility to spy on people in restrooms like a goddamn pervert. He’s basically the vehicle by which Hughie loses his innocence and becomes one of the Boys, when Hughie is forced to murder Translucent by triggering the bomb up his ass — the only way the Boys could figure out how to kill him, since all of his surface skin is as hard as diamonds. And what a coup to bring in the real Jimmy Fallon to play himself interviewing Translucent on the Tonight Show. Inspiration: Martian Manhunter. Powers: Invisibility, skin as hard as diamonds though vulnerable to electricity. Rating: 3 ½.

5. Starlight. The secret hero of the Seven is incorruptible, but I do find her annoying at times, and her evangelical Christian baggage somehow leaves its mark even as she breaks free of it. She has a problem with shitting or getting off the pot — between her on-and-off love affair with Hughie, and hating herself for staying in the Seven. Forced to give Deep a blowjob her first day on the job, she begins a pattern of perseverance in the face of how awful her “heroic” colleagues prove themselves time and again. It is a bit hard to believe that she stays with them at the end of season 2, but then maybe not; as she explains to Hughie: “If you jump ship and let the assholes steer, you’re part of the problem.” And we do need enough juice in the Seven for season 3. Inspiration: Supergirl & Stargirl. Powers: Some super strength, some degree of invulnerability, blinding eye blasts, electric beams. Rating: 3 ½.

6. Stormfront. Many people would place this racist bitch at rock bottom, even under Homelander. She’s a former member of the German Nazi party (very old despite her appearance) and still believes in old-fashioned Nazism. But her relentless undermining and thwarting of Homelander shoots her way up in my estimation. She’s a master manipulator, eventually able to make Homelander do exactly as she desires, and for this I can forgive some of her evil, since I despise Homelander with every fiber of my being. Watching her pull his strings and use him to her purpose made me feel warm inside. She loves killing people — savors it — and is quite the psychopath, and very entertaining. She was Translucent’s replacement, but she doesn’t do much better, as she is killed at the end of season 2… or is she? Inspiration: Thor. Powers: Supersonic flight, electric bolts, super strength, invulnerability. Rating: 2.

7. The Deep. More a joke than anything else, the Deep has made a career of sexually assaulting women while complaining how demeaned he is by the thankless shit jobs assigned to him in the Seven. When Starlight calls him out in public for making her give him a blowjob, the execs of Vought waste no time cleaning up their image by banishing him from the Seven and forcing him into the rehabilitation provided by an L-Ron-Hubbard church equivalent — which demeans him far more than anything he ever had to do as a superhero. He is forced to marry a goody-two-shoes woman and publicly profess the bullshit saving power of the Church of the Collective. The Deep is so pathetic and full of self-loathing — a rather embarrassing side show. Inspiration: Aqua-Man. Powers: Moderate super strength, high-speed swimming, underwater breathing, can speak with sea life. Rating: 1.

8. Homelander. He’s modeled on Superman (strike 1), as well as Captain America (strike 2), and he’s a despicable asshole in every single solitary way (strike 3). Praised by society for boundless heroism, those actions mask a burning contempt for human life and concern for one thing only: himself and his savior reputation. He mass murders people, including kids, to cover up Vought’s dirty secrets. And if he is inconvenienced by a rescue operation gone bad, then he callously lets people die and tells them to fuck off. He nauseates every moment he’s on screen. But he desperately wants to be loved and worshiped — which is precisely his weakness, as Queen Maeve is able to blackmail him in the end, making him publicly denounce Stormfront and leave the Boys (and Starlight) alone. Inspiration: Superman & Captain America. Powers: Supersonic flight, laser eyes, invulnerability, super strength. Rating: 0.

The Past Five Decades Ranked

In ranking the decades I have lived through (not counting the 60s, for which I was an infant at the tail end), it became clear that each era had its strengths. It’s not so easy to say which is best and worst — or at least not as easy as I used to think before working it through. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the 80s; though it ranks last, I’m glad I grew up in that period. Here’s how they line up.

The 70s: Rank #1

This was a gloomy and nihilistic decade, so it’s no surprise it’s my favorite. But I was too young to take it all in as it deserved.

It was the Golden Age of cinema, giving us masterpieces like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Alien. Even when a film wasn’t great, chances are that it was at least good. Blockbusters weren’t a thing yet, and scriptwriters actually had to come up with good stories; and they weren’t afraid to go dark. No decade has celebrated pushing the boundaries of free expression to its uttermost limit, thanks mostly to the consequences of ’60s liberation and outrage over the Vietnam War. Thus horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left.

These were the days when liberals stood for free speech, and when leftists were conversationalists, not snowflakes. Transgressive TV shows like All in the Family and films like The Exorcist could only have been made in the 70s — and will never, ever, be made again, let alone deemed acceptable in the mainstream. All in the Family‘s comedy reached many people and turned them away from their prejudices; it worked precisely because the comedy was so offensive. It remains the best comedy of all time, a withering social satire, but try posting clips of it on Youtube today, and they’ll be removed, by thought police who are catering to the feelings of the very people All in the Family was defending.

For music, the 70s was the best decade by far. It was the time of progressive rock — Genesis, before they sold out in the mid-80s; Led Zeppelin; Pink Floyd; Rush; Fleetwood Mac; and David Bowie. The music of this era was cerebral and not the most accessible, but it sure grew on you when you gave it half a chance, and it has aged better than any rock music in history, going back to the 50s.

Other stuff: Dungeons & Dragons was born in the 70s, ushering in D&D’s Golden Age (74-82) — the age of pulp fantasy involving morally ambiguous heroes like Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd & Grey Mouser. Parenting was hands-off, and kids had their independence. The only thing really bad about the 70s was fashion, and it was admittedly quite bad: the hair and dress styles were ghastly.

On the downside, it certainly wasn’t the decade of peace and prosperity. This was thanks to Vietnam and the economic purgatory left in its wake. Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia, and when he left office, his sins (and those of his predecessor Johnson) caught up and pummeled the American people with stagflation — something never seen before or since — as unemployment, stagnant growth, and inflation came together at once, and contradicted what everyone believed: that inflation correlated with growth, and that unemployment led to less inflation. Economics 101 went out the window, and no one knew what to do.

No wonder the 70s saw so much artistic creativity. It was the era of disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage. Thus the existential tone of so much of the entertainment. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. In sum, the decade was about ruined innocence — and while many people find that despairing, I believe it sourced a boundless creativity.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 70s: The Ice Storm, Ang Lee, 1997.

The 80s: Rank #4

I came of age in this era, so it’s “my” decade, but it ranks last. On the plus side, kids still had their independence; I never had to deal with helicopter parenting. There was no social media or internet, and while I enjoy online activities as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t have them growing up. It made me get outside. I played at the sand dunes, biked in the woods, and roamed the wilderness. I would have turned out a very different person (and not for the better) had I been micromanaged by a parent and stayed at home all day surfing the web. It’s true that as a D&D addict I spent a lot of time playing inside too, but it was old-school tabletop and fostered imagination and creativity. All that was the good part of the ’80s.

The bad was almost everything else. Aside from a few exceptions — and ’70s-styled layovers released during the early years of ’80-’82, like Road Warrior, Blade Runner, and Conan — film was awful. TV shows were even worse, Miami Vice being the singular exception. The music of the 80s was painful to the ear, and it’s aged even worse, aside from timeless bands like U2 and Peter Gabriel, and the more gothic artists like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Mission UK. As for hair and dress, it’s embarrassing to look back on, and everyone makes fun of it today, though to be fair, anything after the ’70s was a fashion improvement. At the time, I admit I loved the light-colored pastels, and even bought a couple of Miami-Vice style suits.

It was a socially conservative decade to say the least — the era of Reaganomics, homophobia, the religious right, the cold war, the drug war (D&D players like me recall the fundamentalist war on D&D with particular disgust) and a “family-friendly” outlook that harked back to the ’50s. We almost lost the right to burn the American flag. All of this was opposite the transgressive ’70s, which the Reagan era “corrected” by resurrecting ’50s mores: the importance of the nuclear family, and a collective spirit to oppose the individualism that encouraged thinking too deeply for oneself. The 80s was also the “be all you can be” decade, promoting a naive optimism that being the lowest underdog was no obstacle to achieving your dreams no matter the odds. (How else could films like Karate Kid be all the rage and taken so seriously?) The despairing cynicism of the previous decade required medicine, and the 80s had an endless artificial supply.

And though I rank it last, I’m actually glad that I grew up in the 80s. I was able to come of age without the helicopter parenting and social media, and then live long enough to appreciate, as an adult, the results of the tech and artistry booms when they arrived in the 21st century.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the ’80s: Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers, 2016-17-19.

The 90s: Rank #2

The era of good feelings and abundance, and also the tech boom. It didn’t start so well, with the Gulf War and the recession of 90-92, but soon after Clinton took office, times were grand.

Film started getting good again: gone was the corny humor that suffused so many ’80s dramas; filmmakers went dark, and turned out instant classics like Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and Bound. Quentin Tarantino became a thing, and indie films became a viable alternative to the mainstream. TV wasn’t great, but it was an improvement over the ’80s. There was the brilliant Twin Peaks, the hilariously anti-PC South Park, and other game changers that showed thinking outside the box. For fashion, the 90s was basically an anti-fashion decade, with comfort trumping style: ripped jeans, bike shorts even for walking, windbreakers, bandannas, etc. Still, the anti-fashion of the 90s was an improvement on what passed for fashion in the 70s and 80s.

It was the absolute worst decade for D&D. Modules were railroady and uninspired. The best efforts came in recapitulations of products from the 70s and 80s — desperate attempts to relive the old glory. TSR died at the end of the decade, and by then I had lost interest in D&D to the extent I almost trashed all my rule books and modules. (Thankfully I didn’t.) As for music, the popular stuff was an improvement over the 80s, the good stuff about equal. The highlights were Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Thanks to Clinton, the mid- and late 90s were some of the best years of American existence, full of peace, prosperity, and good will. It was the start of the tech boom, before technology enslaved people in the 21st century. The handwriting was on the wall for helicopter parenting — as parents become more territorial and paranoid about letting their kids explore and play on their own — but there remained a semblance of childhood independence.

The 90s saw many people shed prejudices without regressing into social justice warriors. When people were called bigots, it’s often because they really were bigots. The idea was that everyone should be treated the same regardless of sex and ethnicity, but you didn’t have to be hyper-aware of these issues at every moment, nor have everything traced back to male white privilege. Gay marriage was still in the future, and homophobia still a big problem, but the conversation was open; it was becoming increasingly uncool to be a homophobe. There was an LGB community, at least.

I can understand why those who grew up in the 90s defend the era so passionately. It was a time you could think life was great even when it threw its worst at you.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 90s: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, 2012.

The 00s-10s: Rank #3

I’m sure there’s a school of thought that insists on major differences between the aughts and the tens, but whoever says that is spitballing. The aughts never ended; we’re still living them. (Though I suspect the impact of Covid will bring about a genuinely new era.) The present era has been going on for 20 years, shaped by a gaudy media landscape that has radically altered how we get and process information. 9/11 was the catalyst, and technology made it all possible, but these were just the ingredients that gave release to intense tribal feelings that had been building on both sides of the left-right divide. It’s been the age of echo chambers, alternate facts, walls of intolerance… and the blurring and utter failure of the two-party political system.

Make no mistake: There was no substantial difference between the Bush (2001-08) and Obama (2009-16) eras, despite that one wore the Republican label and the other Democrat. This was a first in American history, when a changing of the party guard amounted to no real change at all. Obama was a slight improvement granted (he did some good for the environment), but certainly not much. Under both presidents, peace was elusive; both waged war and got people killed for no good reason; they toppled dictators and made things worse, leaving the Mid-East in shambles; both used the failed Keynesian methods of bailouts and stimulus packages to “jumpstart” the economy, and analysts (well before Covid) had been predicting the bursting of another housing bubble with another recession; both Bush and Obama infringed on civil liberties, especially the 4th Amendment. Then came Donald Trump (2017-2020), a demagogue whose success owed largely to Obama’s failure in helping the middle class, but also as a fed-up reaction to the woke left that has become as puritanical as the religious right was in the 80s. Trump stopped us from waging war but otherwise served us disaster. To put it mildly, we haven’t had a halfway decent president since Clinton in the 90s, nor a good president since Carter in the 70s. The 21st century has been an uninterrupted steamroll of shitty politics, with still no relief in sight.

Artists, on the other hand, have pushed themselves to new heights in the past 20 years, almost as if to prove that artistry can atone for political sins. Right out the gate came Lord of the Rings, which single-handedly redeemed the fantasy genre that had made a laughing stock of itself in the 80s. More gritty and dark fantasies would follow, including Pan’s Labyrinth. Westerns were also revived in the 20th century, with results just as marvelous. In fact, every single genre has shined in the theaters, whether drama, romance, mysteries, or thrillers. Acting standards have come a long way; special effects are staggering; narrative plotting and storytelling techniques are now very sophisticated. There are way too many good films to name from the last 20 years; both mainstream and independent films have had plenty to offer.

As for television, who could have predicted that TV drama would ever be as good (and often better) than film itself? It’s been nothing less than a 20-year golden age of TV, which began with The Sopranos in 1999, and since then has cranked a stream of top-notch series, like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks: The Return, Tales from the Loop, Channel Zero, Dexter, Regenesis, The Fall, The Man in the High Castle, The Wire, and many others. TV now holds its own with cinema, and in some ways even outshines it.

Music has been a mixed bag. The popular stuff is bad as pop music has ever been, but alongside this, indie artists have exploded everywhere. Thanks to social media their music is easily accessible, and this makes music about an even wash for the 00s-10s. The highlights of this era are The Killers, The Walkmen, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Taylor Swift (her post-country stuff anyway), and Arcade Fire. But there are many, many great indie bands, some that are almost never heard of: Old Abram Brown, Tan Vampires, Mines Falls, to name a few. This has been the major boon of social media: musical talent that would otherwise go unnoticed.

On the D&D front: At first the game saw an impressive revival, the Gilded Age of 00-02, as Wizards of the Coast launched the 3rd edition that harked back to the Golden Age of 74-82. It rekindled interests in those who had given up on D&D in disgust in the 90s, including myself. However, this was followed by a downward spiral: first with the release of 3.5 in 2003, which injected more rule complexities than necessary; then with 4.0 in 2008, which was so combat focused it drowned the role-playing experience; and most recently with 5.0 in 2014, which millennials and the Gen-Z’ers love but I despise for (a) making things ridiculously easy on PCs (giving them almost limitless hit points), (b) leaning on a high-fantasy approach and none of the pulp influences that made 1e so good, (c) pandering to the generations which have grown up on video games and cheesy superhero films, and (d) allowing woke revisionists to kill the spirit of the game.

I’m glad I didn’t come of age in the 21st century; I would have killed myself under suffocating parents who never let me out of sight. I’m also grateful that I was schooled to learn from those I disagree with. The 00s-10s has been the era of conversational retreat from anyone having rival opinions. Tribalism is found everywhere, but especially on the left I’m sad to say. For the last 20 years I’ve felt increasingly alien among my own liberal-leaning associates. The cultural scene is simply a travesty: between the woke left and a Trump-loving right, I wonder if America can ever be great again. One can hardly differentiate between satire and real news (see here for example). Which pretty much mirrors the political canvass of the 00s-10s: there wasn’t much to distinguish a Bush from an Obama, any more than real facts from the “facts” we prefer.

The Score Chart

70s (30 pts)
80s (22 pts)
90s (26 pts)
00s-10s (23 pts)
Hair/Dress
        0         2         3             4
Film
        5         2         4             5
TV
        3         1         3             5
Tabletop D&D
        5         4         1             2
Music
        5         3         3             4
Parenting/Childhood
        5         5         3             1
Cultural Mores         5         2         4             1
Peace/Prosperity         2         3         5             1

#1: 70s
#2: 90s
#3: 00s-10s
#4: 80s

The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 2

Before starting my review it’s worth reflecting on the reputation of the entire Karate Kid/Cobra Kai franchise. Here’s the breakdown of critical and audience approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes:

Karate Kid (1984) — 89% / 82%
Karate Kid 2 (1986) — 45% / 51%
Karate Kid 3 (1989) — 15% / 35%
Cobra Kai Season 1 (2018) — 100% / 96%
Cobra Kai Season 2 (2019) — 88% / 94%

A few points worth mentioning. There’s no denying the third Karate Kid film is one of the worst films ever made, but I remember liking the second film more than the first, and I’m certain that it was more widely cherished than these RT ratings suggest. The Okinawa setting, honor-shame codes, and fights to the death took things to a stronger level than any tournament could. And it was a commercial smash, more than even the original. It hasn’t aged well (anymore than the first has), but back in the day I thought it was the gem of the trilogy.

In any case, it’s clear that the new Cobra Kai series buries the Karate Kid trilogy, and I agree with this avalanche of opinion for reasons prefaced in my review of season 1:

If Cobra Kai is still the same Karate-Kid animal, it shakes things up enough to make it a watchable and in some ways even impressive miniseries. The Karate Kid I & II have aged terribly. As ’80s underdog films they were facilely one dimensional. The bad guys were ciphers with no backstories — Johnny Lawrence and his Cobra Kai gang completely unsympathetic jerks. The good guy was an endearing character, but he didn’t work very well as a karate protagonist. For one thing, Daniel LaRusso was a supreme light-weight, clocking in at about 120 pounds. His indentured servitude to Mr. Miyagi — waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences — was impossible to take seriously a way of learning karate techniques. As for Daniel’s crane kick, it was the sort of last-minute melodrama that won the day in other sports films of this era (like the quarterback sacking of Sean Astin’s character in Rudy, or the final hoop shot in Hoosiers). The Karate Kid was essentially a poster child for the Reagan years, optimistic about the underdog’s potential to “be all you can be”, really to the point of absurdity. Cobra Kai inverts this premise, so that the underdogs become the assholes — and the previous underdog becomes an even bigger asshole. That’s at least a story.

That story picks up where the first season left off, and wastes no time picking up where Johnny and Kreese left off three and a half decades ago — when Kreese literally tried to kill Johnny for winning only second place in the All-Valley Tournament. They proceed to beat the shit out of each other, which gratifies Kreese to no end, and by the end of the first episode Johnny actually allows the piece of shit to join his dojo as a deputy sensei. To give him a “second chance”. Any fool knows that Kreese can’t change, but Johnny is more vulnerable than a fool; he’s at a crossroads and beginning to change himself, and wants to eliminate dirty fighting techniques from Cobra Kai. On his rationale, if he can see the wisdom in modifying his creed, then perhaps so can his mentor who taught him the creed. Daniel, of course, doesn’t believe either one of them can change, and in short order resurrects Mr. Miyagi’s former dojo (Miyagi-Do) set in deliberate opposition to Cobra Kai. It has all the trappings of the classic trilogy — a Japanese garden, banners displaying axioms of self-defense, a tranquil atmosphere.

If season 1 was about the blurring of underdogs and assholes, then season 2 is about the elusive nature of mercy, no matter which of the two you happen to be. At Cobra Kai mercy is anathema, and yet Johnny wants to make allowance for it after seeing his son foully injured by his best student. At Miyagi-Do mercy is a virtue, but in the end out of reach to Daniel’s best student. The season flits back and forth between the two dojos: the punishing arena of Cobra Kai vs. the Elysian paradise of Miyagi-Do. Johnny puts his students in the mixer of a cement truck and makes them spin it by hand — a lethally dangerous exercise. Daniel puts his students on a circular wooden raft that capsizes unless their punches and kicks come in perfect harmony. Johnny’s students get drenched in cement; Daniel’s students get thrown into the pond over and over. Johnny later takes the Cobra Kais into the woods for a severe trial, while Daniel trains the Miyagi-Dos in alternating 100-degree outside heat and a walk-in freezer. The disciplines are opposite and exacting, and each produces a backlash. Miguel, like Johnny, increasingly questions the “no mercy” tenet (unlike Hawk and other students who worship Kreese), while Robby, frustrated by months of dance exercises and hyper-pacifism, finally lashes out and goes ruthless on Miguel when extended a merciful hand.

My view of Daniel LaRusso is considerably more positive this season, as he is much less an asshole. In the first season he went out of his way to shaft Johnny for the pettiest reasons — even going so far as to manipulate a business associate into doubling the rent in the strip mall where Cobra Kai operates (which shafts not only Johnny but all the other mall renters), and then trying to ban Cobra Kai from participating in the All-Valley Tournament because of decades-old grudges against Johnny. The season-1 Daniel was self-righteous in the extreme, and in the epilogue I imagined him reopening Miyagi-Do purely to settle scores with Johnny. That’s not quite how it plays out in season 2. By the end of the first episode Daniel has given up on revenge; he opens Miyagi-Do Karate not in order to fight Cobra Kai, but as an enlightened alternative. Throughout the season he mentors his students in the ways of inner balance, and in turn is able to find some balance himself. He turns out to be quite a good sensei. His worst crime is neglecting his wife and their auto business, but on this point, frankly, I found myself very forgiving: I like Daniel’s students more than I like his wife, and I see more value in the art of karate than in selling cars.

And when Daniel does lapse into self-righteousness he at least has cause. For example, in the fifth episode he bursts into Cobra Kai and interrupts the class to give Johnny a vicious tongue-lashing before turning full blast on the Cobra Kai students: “Let me tell you something about your sensei: He might teach you how to fight, but he doesn’t know a thing about what it takes to truly win at life.” Sanctimonious, yes, but Daniel earns it for a change. Those Cobra Kai shits trashed the Miyagi-Do dojo the night before, broken and smashed everything in sight, uprooted bonsai plants, and vandalized Daniel’s ’48 Ford Super De Luxe (given to him by Mr. Miyagi in the first film). To top it off, one of the Cobra Kais stole Mr. Miyagi’s medal of honor. That Johnny knows nothing of this outrageous attack on Miyagi-Do (it was Kreese who engineered it behind Johnny’s back) doesn’t diminish Daniel’s right to be fully enraged.

The weakness to this season is Kreese. For an arch-villain he’s curiously underused. Having been given a second chance at Cobra Kai, he begins to subtly undermine Johnny in his role as deputy sensei, but the only times he does anything effective is in the fifth episode, when he goads Hawk into trashing Miyagi-Do, and then in the sixth episode, when Johnny leaves town to visit a dying friend (Tommy, from the first Karate Kid film), and Johnny leaves Kreese in charge. No sooner does Kreese manage to persuade students like Hawk and Tory that “Sensei Lawrence is confused and needs to be brought back on track”, than Johnny expels him in the very next episode, realizing it was foolish to trust Kreese at all. Kreese never really emerges as the formidable threat I expected him to be — until the end of the finale. Hopefully season 3 will payoff his character as it deserves.

As before, the best two episodes are the final two, and they follow the same pattern. In the season-1 penultimate, Daniel and Johnny came close to burying the hatchet over drinks at a local bar. In this season’s penultimate they find themselves thrown together on a double date in a Mexican restaurant, and despite their initial hostility end up warming to each other. It’s not a lazy repeat; these calm-before-the-shitstorm ninth episodes are used very effectively to show how, underneath it all, Daniel and Johnny really do want to be friends — even if they can’t admit that to themselves without enough booze in their bellies. Possibly my favorite scene of the series is watching Johnny & Carmen, and Daniel & Amanda, on the dance floor after they eat dinner. We know the good will is about to be cruelly shattered (with the finale up next), and so it makes the moment extra precious.

As for the finale, it delivers the best and most visceral fight of the franchise. In some ways it’s a throwback to Karate Kid Part 2. As Tory says while holding a spiked wristband in Sam’s face, “This isn’t a tournament; there are no rules.” But unlike Daniel and Chozen’s fight to the death (in which no one actually died), Cobra Kai Season 2 has the balls to put its money where its mouth is. By the end of the staggering inside-school battle, Sam will be hospitalized, and her ex-boyfriend Miguel in a coma in ICU.

The school brawl is pure insane chaos, starting in a hall of lockers, then sprawling out everywhere in the building. Tory starts it, intent on smashing Sam to pieces for moving in on Miguel. Pretty soon every karate student is throwing fists and kicks, turning the first day of school into an all-out war between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do. It’s brilliantly choreographed and runs for a full twelve minutes; it must have been incredibly difficult to shoot.

The Cobra Kais were the tournament victors, but in the high-school halls their glory is not repeated. The Miyagi-Dos thrash them at every turn: Nathaniel beats Bert; Chris pounds Mitch; Sam crushes Tory (though barely, and not without bleeding for her efforts); even Demetri, miraculously, gets the better of Hawk. These victories are effectively nullified, however, when Robby betrays the Miyagi creed: lying beaten on the floor, he’s about to take a worse pounding when Miguel elects to show him mercy — to which Robby responds by sucker-punching him, leaping to his feet, and kicking Miguel off the railing of the second-floor landing. Miguel’s fall is horrible to watch; he crashes spine-first onto the first floor railing and almost dies. (Worth noting is Sam’s reaction. Appalled at Robby’s actions, she screams, “Robby, what did you do?”, conveniently forgetting that she had just kicked Tory over a stair railing herself.) So in another dramatic inversion, and as in last season’s tournament, the winner wins by fighting foul. This time someone almost dies for it. I wonder if there is a message here, or if season 3 will break the pattern. Is it possible in the Cobra Kai universe to win without being merciless? Or is it simply that losers who show mercy are the real winners? That’s not how it worked in the Karate Kid trilogy, where Miyagi-driven karate guaranteed victory. Maybe Daniel is just an ineffectual sensei in the end: when Robby fights as instructed (season 1) he loses, and when he ignores Daniel’s benevolent teachings (season 2) he gets satisfaction.

Cobra Kai continues to grow on me and I’m looking forward to season 3. With Miguel physically pulverized, Samantha emotionally traumatized, Carmen hating Johnny, Johnny hating himself, Daniel poleaxed over Robby, everyone needs a fucking time out. Worst of all, in the midst of all this ruin, Kreese finally makes his move and seizes Cobra Kai for himself, and because Johnny is so guilt-wracked, he gives up his dojo without a fight. Fans have speculated that Johnny and Daniel will join forces to take Kreese down, and I can see it happening.

My only concern about the next season is a possible embarrassment of riches. Predictions are firm for the return of both Ali (from Karate Kid) and Chozen (from Karate Kid 2). Some are also predicting Terry Silver (from Karate Kid 3). The danger of too many returning characters is finding room for their appropriate development. I hope everyone’s role will be done justice. But I’m not too worried. The writers of Cobra Kai have proven their mettle twice now, against every odd.

 

See also:

The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 1
The Spell of Cobra Kai: Season 3

Tales From the Loop

Over the weekend I discovered the TV-treasure that is Tales from the Loop. It’s based on the sci-fic artistry of Simon Stålenhag, which in turn inspired the role-playing game released in 2017, and so I was delighted to learn of a cinematic adaption even as I worried about a Stranger Things rehash. It’s set in a small midwestern town in the ’80s (Ohio instead of Indiana); there’s a lab where dangerous experiments are performed; and kids play a key role. But this is definitely its own thing. It’s not about ’80s nostalgia; the period is incidental. And where Stranger Things is full of anxious and overt horrors, using action sequences to supplement the character drama, Tales from the Loop shines in the small and quiet moments. Put it this way: Stranger Things is ET and Gremlins and Alien; this series is Blade Runner and Twin Peaks, filtered through a Kubrick-like lens where everything is held coldly at arm’s length, even as it magnifies the intimate. Dialogue is restrained and used like a precious commodity; every word counts.

The feeling of expansive emptiness has put off some viewers, but it works for me. I haven’t been so dreamily affected by cinema since my last Kubrick or Lynch film. The set pieces and atmosphere exude a sad beauty, as if science exacts a price in direct proportion to its wonders.

The series opens on the face of Russ Willard, played by High Sparrow (as we know him from Game of Thrones) Jonathan Pryce. He’s the founder of the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics (MCEP) — AKA “the Loop” — and speaks to the camera directly, explaining to us that the Loop’s purpose is to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe: “As a result of the unique research,” he says, “you will see sights that you’d say were impossible.” And with that, the series begins. (Russ Willard will resurface throughout the season’s narratives, especially in episode 4.)

Willard’s tease is largely misdirection. Yes, we end up seeing lot of “impossible sights” —  time travel, body swapping, time freeze, snow that falls upwards, parallel-world travel, and robots with uncannily human traits — but that’s not what the series is about. Tales from the Loop is interested in people: their fears, traumas, and deepest hopes. The sci-fic mechanisms go unexplained; to Mercer’s residents they aren’t even terribly astonishing. These citizens have lived with the Loop for so long (and unlike the Hawkins lab in Stranger Things, the MCEP is no big secret) that its resulting impossibilities are frankly a bit mundane.

The format of the series is sort-of anthology, sort-of serial drama. Each of the eight episodes focuses on a major character who is minor in some of the other episodes. The main family are the Willards — Loretta and George, their sons Jakob and Cole, and of course granddaddy Russ — and this family is anchored throughout episodes 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8. Episodes 3, 5, and 6 are thinly connected storylines standing mostly on their own. Here are the episode themes and synopses.

1. Loop. Time travel. The young Loretta in the ’50s meets her adult self in the ’80s.
2. Transpose. Body swap. Jakob and his friend Danny decide to be each other for a day, but Danny refuses to leave Jakob’s body.
3. Stasis. Time stop. A girl traps herself and her boyfriend in a moment of time.
4. Echo Sphere. Imminent death. Russ is about to die; his grandson Cole is strangely connected to his identity in some way.
5. Control. Loss of control. A grieving father feels unable to protect and provide for his wife and daughter, and so buys a dangerous robot to patrol their property.
6. Parallel. Travel to parallel world. A guy meets his alternate self and has an affair with his doppleganger’s boyfriend.
7. Enemies. Human vs. machine. The young George in the ’50s is left stranded on an island and hunted by a killer robot.
8. Home. Time travel, body-swapping, and the question of humanity vs. machines. All of these come into play in a masterpiece finale.

Here’s how I rank the episodes.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/home1.png
1. Home (Episode 8). 5 stars. The finale is a masterpiece, but then Jodie Foster directed it. Basically Home resolves — as much as anything is ever “resolved” in this series — the threads from earlier episodes, with Cole realizing his brother Jakob is not Jakob, but Danny inside Jakob’s body. He searches Jakob out in the woods, and finds the lonely mute robot, and the bonding between the two brothers is deeply moving. When another robot arrives on the scene to attack, Jakob-Robot dishes out an ass-pounding that took me by surprise, leaving the other robot in pieces. But Jakob doesn’t last long after this battle, and his robotic self dies as Cole cradles him. Cole ends up crossing a bizarre stream that freezes in warm weather, and that puts him outside the Loop’s time barrier. His escapade with Jakob-Robot felt like only hours, but when he returns to the town, he finds a new Mercer in which his grandmother and father are dead. His mother Loretta is still alive, gray-haired, and polexaed to see him (and to see him still young) after so many years. He also meets Danny in Jakob’s now thoroughly adult body, and Cole tells Danny that Jakob didn’t hate him for what he did, allowing the two a very surprising peace. I don’t know that I could forgive someone who stole a family member’s body and identity. There are countless scenes in Home that soar with transcendent moments, and the ending epiphany — that our lives are over in “the blink of an eye” — hits home indeed.

Tales from the Loop • Episode Script • "Stasis" - 8FLiX
2. Stasis (Episode 3). 5 stars. Riding a theme that Cole will grind in the finale, Stasis is about the desperate need for things to stay the same. The girl May does this in the most audacious way imaginable — by stopping time altogether — so that she and her new boyfriend can make their “moment” of love last. It’s a self-standing episode focusing outside the Willard family, and all the more surprising therefore that it’s so damn good. We aren’t allowed much time to invest in May and Ethan, but I was thoroughly in love with them both by the end, especially for their flaws. Brilliant scenes here, especially those showing the residents of Mercer frozen in whatever they were doing when May flipped the switch, one of whom is her mother in the middle of having adulterous sex, to May’s outrage. When May and Ethan decide to bang each other outside in the middle of the road, that was certainly taking advantage “of the moment”! Their mutual enjoyment doesn’t last however, and in the end May learns a hard lesson — that sometimes things are special precisely because they don’t last. Appreciating that truth takes a lot of maturity and learned experience, usually starting with teenage heartbreak.

Enemies (2020)
3. Enemies (Episode 7). 4 ½ stars. The scariest episode was directed by horror-meister Ti West, and there are indeed scenes on the island that made my heart skip. Its brilliance is that it goes from scary to being just as sad. In the ’50s the young George Willard is left stranded by his cruel friends on the forbidden island, where he is stalked and terrorized by a creature that is a robot. This is how George loses his arm (in the previous episodes, the adult George’s mechanical arm is never explained), and when he returns to the island in the ’80s, he seeks out his childhood terror in order to make peace with it. It many sound corny, but the execution is heartbreaking, and he even gives the robot (who is missing an arm) his own robotic mechanical arm to apologize for hurting it. The union between humans and machines is a common trope in science fiction, exploring what it means to be human.

Transpose | Tales from the Loop Wiki | Fandom
4. Transpose (Episode 2). 4 ½ stars. Two friends who are opposites decide to be each other for a day. It sounds fun. Jakob Willard is a smart introvert with a promising future to work at the Loop. His friend Danny is quite the opposite — popular with girls, lousy with grades, expecting to pound rock at the quarry for the rest of his life. Jakob and Danny come across a spherical object in the woods, and when Jakob climbs inside, they find that they have swapped bodies. They agree to swap for a day and live at each other’s homes. The next day, however, Danny decides that he wants to stay inside of Jakob’s body forever: to live as Jakob Willard and work at the Loop, not pound rock in a dead-end job. Jakob, desperate, goes back to the forest and into the machine, but he is alone, and so when he leaves Danny’s body, there is no soul around to fill Danny’s body, and Danny’s body goes into a coma. That’s not the worst of it. Jakob becomes trapped in a robot (the nearest creature in the forest), and he will stay a robot until he dies in the finale. Danny, meanwhile, has to live with his crime of ultimate identify theft — living as Jakob Willard for the rest of the season, under the roof with a family he has no right to. Freaky Friday plots are usually predictable, but Transpose gives them nice twists and tragedy.

Tales From The Loop's Tech Explained: What Every Gadget Does
5. Echo Sphere (Episode 4). 4 stars. It’s ironic that the episode focusing on the Loop’s creator is the one that makes least use of the sci-fic medium to tell its story. Russ Willard takes his grandson Cole to a huge sphere that echoes when you shout into it; the more echoes you hear of your voice tells you how long your life will be. Cole’s shout returns six echoes; a promising life. When Russ shouts into it, there’s no echo at all, for (as the doctors have told him), he will soon die. That’s what the episode is about — our inevitable death, which not even the scientific miracles of the Loop can negate. It’s a story about a boy’s pain over a grandfather he loves too much to let go, but with a very arresting twist at the end that suggests Cole’s relation to his grandfather is something impossible.

Tales From the Loop' Review | Hollywood Reporter
6. Loop (Episode 1). 3 ½ stars. I admit I wasn’t wowed by the premiere, but it did hook me with its glacial atmosphere and intriguing time loop. Meeting one’s future self (and vice versa) runs the risk of pesky paradoxes, but Loop deftly sidesteps them by, well, sidestepping the young Loretta’s life when the Loop returns her to the ’50s. She will remember meeting her adult self as a dream, not an actual time travel, until she becomes that same adult in the ’80s when the closed loop replays itself. Many viewers aren’t sure what triggers the young Loretta’s time travel to the ’80s; it’s when she first touches the stone from the Eclipse, in the barren snow field where her house used to be. She returns to her present in the ’50s when she replaces the stone in the Eclipse. The story is one about maternal love, which Loretta never felt (being abandoned by her mother), and so was determined to love her kids — Jakob and Cole — no matter how much her career at the Loop consumed her.

Charlie McDowell on Twitter: "Tales From the Loop is here and ...
7. Parallel (Episode 6). 3 stars. The next two aren’t that impressive, partly because of the stand-alone aspect, where the anthology format is really felt. The main characters (the Willard family) aren’t involved. (On the other hand, see Episode 3, Stasis.) A guy finds a broken tractor in a field, and as soon as he fixes it, it sucks him through a portal into a parallel world. He finds an idealistic version of himself there, romantically involved with a man he had obsessed in his own world. One thing leads to another: he is invited to live with his doppleganger and boyfriend; eventually he has an affair with the boyfriend, which leads to disillusionment and his leaving the home to find a new life in the parallel world in which he’s forever stuck. The biggest problem with this story is that it could have been so much more. I’m a sucker for parallel-world dramas, but Parallel doesn’t exploit the alternate setting in any of the numerous ways it could have.

Tales from the Loop • Episode Script • "Control" - 8FLiX
8. Control (Episode 5). 2 ½ stars. The only episode I’d call a dud. Not just because of the stand-alone aspect involving characters we don’t give a shit about (the ineffectual parents and young sister of Danny, whose body is in a coma and dying in a hospital bed, thanks to Danny now inhabiting the body of Jakob Willard whom he pretends to be; see Episode 2, Transpose). And not just because the sci-fic elements are rather uninteresting. No, what burns my piles above all is the political axe-grinding. This is a blatant anti-gun parable, and while I am no fan of gun-rights fanatics, I don’t like being preached to, no matter how much I agree with the message. That’s hollow artistry. Control is about a guy who is paranoid about his home being spied on, and so buys a patrol robot, that one night almost kills his young daughter whom the robot is supposed to protect. Really, it’s that on the nose.

Ten Films that scared Mark Kermode

I enjoy Mark Kermode’s film reviews and share a lot of his tastes, especially in horror films. What others find scary, he often finds banal and silly. There are no cheap-thrill blockbusters like The Conjuring and It Chapter 2 on his list of 10 films that really scared him.

Here they are. He excludes The Exorcist from consideration, which would be his #1, since he has analyzed the film to death many times.

1. The Vanishing (1988). (The Dutch film, not the ’93 American remake.) The final scene had Kermode in a state of abject panic that no other film (save The Exorcist) has ever achieved. It “scared the life out of him and scarred him”. Just talking about the film freaks him out. It involves being buried alive.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Kermode calls it as close to pure terror as you’ll ever find in a film (save The Exorcist).

3. The Haunting (1963). Unlike the ’99 remake, this haunted house classic nails it. It’s all to do with understatement and what you don’t see, which is an art lost in most of today’s horror films that drown in the overt.

4. Onibaba (1964). This Japanese historical horror drama terrified not only Kermode, but William Friedkin, who made The Exorcist, so that says something right there. It’s a nightmare vision of psycho-sexual bestiality, set in a 14th-century Japan of feuding warlords, where a woman and her daughter-in-law are forced to murder and loot weakened soldiers to survive. Then the older woman starts forcing her daughter-in-law into ugly carnal acts while wearing a demonic mask. The film has been interpreted over the years as a karmic tale, Buddhist parable, or Hiroshima parable, and all three are valid; it’s also bloody terrifying.

5. The Babadook (2014). The croaking noise made by the Babadook. (This was true of The Grudge too, which I thought scarier than The Babadook.)

6. Audition (1999). One critic was so scared at what he was seeing on screen that he said the police should investigate the circumstances of the film’s creation; that’s how much it freaked him out. I agree with Kermode that Audition is a great film, but it didn’t really scare me or have me panic-stricken in any way.

7. The Descent (2005). People in confined spaces in underground caves. Kermode has never been so claustrophobic as in watching the crawl-through scenes in this film. I agree with him entirely.

8. The Witch (2015). The demonic goat rising up on its legs really got under Kermode’s skin.

9. Nosferatu (1922). The image of the shadowy figure going up the stairs gave him nightmares.

10. Buried (2010). The rising panic that you get from seeing this guy trapped in a confined space throughout the whole film builds and builds.

 

Here are mine, also excluding The Exorcist, but The Shining too. Those two are in a class all by themselves.

Revisiting The Importance of Fire Walk With Me In A Post Season 3 World1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch, 1992. David Lynch’s darkest film contains scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. It was misjudged in the ’90s based on expectations from the TV series, and anyone who still doesn’t like it should listen to Mark Kermode, who rightly calls it a masterpiece. The question of whether Leland is an innocent man possessed by an evil spirit, or a garden variety sexual molester is ambiguous: “Bob” could be a hallucination or an actual demon. Fire Walk With Me is brilliant psychological horror and a character piece in contrast to the TV series’ focus on town intrigue and multiple-character dynamics. It’s an intensely personal film and a switch in tone that works wonders in the context of a two-hour prequel. The key is getting a distance from the TV series before watching it.

Official "Channel Zero: No-End House" Trailer Messes With Reality - Bloody Disgusting
2. Channel Zero: “The No-End House”. Season 2, 2017. This anthology series starts over each season with an entirely new plot and cast of characters. The stories are really weird and demented, well scripted, brilliantly directed, and they don’t flinch at all from showing horrible acts. Season one’s “Candle Cove” is about a puppet show that only little kids can see on TV, and which turns them into homicidal killers. Season two’s “No-End House” is about a haunted house with each room scarier than the previous. And season three’s “Butcher’s Block” is about two young women who join a family of religious butchers (they eat human beings) who live in a perverse version of Alice’s wonderland. Season two is the one that gets me. The college kids enter the haunted house looking for cheap thrills, but it turns into a prolonged nightmare that yields some of the most scary and disturbing material I’ve seen on TV.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/the-pact_shadow.jpg3. The Pact, Nicholas McCarthy, 2012. This is way underrated. It’s about a haunted house, but with a truly terrorizing twist. It turns out there is indeed a ghost in the house, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole goddamn time. When you learn this and reflect back to the start of the movie when some of the “ghostly” assaults began — the open closet door, the jar of food on the floor, Annie being levitated and thrown against the walls, the other girls disappearing altogether — you realize that only some of this was the ghost. That’s frightening on many levels, and the sort of thing Peter Straub pulled off in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. Psychopathic horror usually doesn’t scare me (classics like Psycho are suspenseful but they don’t give me nightmares), but McCarthy blends the psycho with the supernatural in ways that are unnerving in the extreme.

Image result for the exorcist iii legion jason miller4. The Exorcist III: Legion, William Peter Blatty, 1990. When I saw the film in the theater, I remember being so terrified by Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X that I was panic stricken. We see the wasted figure of Jason Miller (Father Karras) who we know from the first film should be dead; the sight of the possessed priest is a horrifying revelation. An acquaintance of mine once made the following comment: “The Exorcist III and Event Horizon are the two absolutely most creepy movies I’ve ever seen, because you can’t imagine anyone making these films if they didn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. They pull no punches whatsoever and carry a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the dark side.’ I cannot say that other films have struck me this way.” That’s a very insightful observation. While I don’t believe Legion is scarier than the first Exorcist, in some ways it’s more deeply unnerving, and yes, Event Horizon (below) falls into that same category. The fact that these films did poorly at the box office says something about the mainstream preference for cheap thrills over true terror.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/event-horizon.jpg5. Event Horizon, Paul Anderson, 1997. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury. This is by far the most terrifying sci-fic horror film — more than even Alien — and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/evil-dead-19811.jpg6. The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi, 1981. This low-budget classic (avoid the remake at all costs) may have some laughable acting, but it doesn’t matter. In terms of relentless pulverizing terror, few films have ever matched it. Demonic possession is my #1 scare anyway, and the trio of ladies are basically adult Linda Blairs, with voices and makeup jobs straight out of hell. The legendary scene in which Cheryl gets raped by a tree still brings my jaw to the floor. Linda eating her own hand is another unspeakable that today’s scriptwriters could learn from. The Evil Dead sequels had better budgets and special effects to prop them up, but they’re essentially comedy-horrors. The first film is dead-serious and doesn’t make you laugh at all. It came out in ’81 but it’s a ’70s film at heart — in some ways a triumphant last gasp of hard-core horror before Freddy Krueger became a hit.

Related image7. The Witch, Robert Eggers, 2016. I agree with Kermode here. Critics love it and audiences hate it, but that’s because today’s audiences are so stupid they think Hereditary and The Conjuring are the scariest things since The Exorcist. It’s set in Colonial New England (1630s) before the Salem Witch trials, and establishes the reality of the witch right away, so there is no possibility of misunderstanding the terror as being all in the mind. The film is about a girl whose baby brother is snatched (and killed), her other young brother molested and possessed (and killed), a freaky black goat which her younger siblings bond with (and which kills her father), and a wretched mother who blames her for everything (and whom she is forced to kill). All of this is carried on a Puritanical atmosphere of isolation and hideous shame. The Witch is organically terrifying, and relishes in the delights of hidden evil. It’s stingy in its sightings of the title baddie, relying on oppressive environment and mental torment. My full review here.

Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge (2004) - Horror Actresses Photo (43438316) - Fanpop8. The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu, 2004. For a PG-13 film The Grudge is downright pulverizing. I sat in my theater seat literally cowering with fear. By the final scene I’d reached the point that if the damn movie didn’t end, I’d become a gibbering lunatic. And it’s strange, because The Grudge isn’t the kind of movie you’d expect to be genuinely scary. Production-wise it’s not the most impressive, and I thought it would be like The Ring, which didn’t scare me at all. And Sarah Michelle Gellar? “Buffy” doesn’t inspire confidence in quality horror. But it sure did a number on me. The premise is a haunted house, that once you come into contact with it, the revenant haunting it will never stop hunting you down.

The Descent's Multiple Endings Explained | Screen Rant9. The Descent, Neil Marshall, 2005. I felt the same way as Kermode. There are claustrophobic scenes in this film that had me panic-stricken. The first 40 minutes are the best and scariest part, showing these women clambering through choking tunnels, swinging across bottomless chasms. Then it turns into a creature horror, which isn’t bad, but not nearly as effective as it’s first half.


10. The Man from Nowhere. James Hill, 1975. In the year 1976 I watched Once Upon a Classic, hosted by Bill Bixby. I was seven years old, long before I even knew what a horror film or TV show was. This “kids” horror story scared the fucking shit out of me, and for years I have wanted to watch it again to see how my adult mind processes it. (The DVD is only available in the U.K.) It’s set in 1860 England with a very effective Gothic atmosphere, and tells of a young orphaned girl who is sent to live with her uncle in his castle. When she arrives, she is stalked by a man in black who appears and disappears, telling her in threatening tones to leave. She is terrorized by this figure, and so was I. He stalks her everywhere and eventually even manages to break into her room in the castle, where he corners her. Another scene that gave me nightmares is where the man in black appears under Alice’s bedroom window around midnight whispering up to her in menacing rasps, “Alice! Alice!” Neither her uncle nor the housekeeper believe her when she cries to them hysterically, and it gradually becomes apparent that the housekeeper is using the man in black to scare Alice away in order to prevent her from inheriting her uncle’s fortune. Here’s a clip of Alice’s first encounter with the man.

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 12 & 13): Resurrection & The Longest Night

Analogies to Covid-19 fill the first season of Regenesis, but especially the last two episodes. Here we get quarantines; attempts to seal off traffic; health workers in respirator masks; and everyone is calling it a coronavirus. Which isn’t a bad guess. This virus gets in the lungs and life is over in a snap.

David and Jill arrive in Denver to start picking the virus apart. They get samples from all patients, half-expecting a Marburg chimera to show up, but there are no signs of poxes or internal hemorrhaging. Nothing about the virus looks man-made; it seems perfectly natural and not a bio-weapon. The terrorist threat that was set up in the previous episode recedes for the moment.

The tests run in Denver are only so useful, and David and Jill forward the samples to the NorBAC lab for proper PCR runs. But even the limited tests tell David enough. This is his lifelong obsession and something he dug up four months ago. The Spanish Fucking Flu. Appalled — knowing it’s true but can’t be — he bails on Jill, leaving her in Denver while he flies back to NorBAC to run the sequencing himself. When he sees the proof, the world falls on his head.

It’s at this point that the series brings us to the scene foreshadowed in the prologue of the first episode: an emotionally distraught David Sandstrom, walking the streets of Toronto in a daze, realizing that he royally fucked up, but clueless as to how. He calls his daughter Lilith and tells her he loves her; he musters the courage to go back to the lab and come clean to his co-workers; then he walks straight into the path of an oncoming car. He goes into a coma and is hospitalized.

The Return of the Spanish Lady

With David out of the picture (for now), it’s Jill who learns the truth when she returns from Denver, and reads the sequencing reports done by Carlos and Bob. Like David, she recognizes the Spanish Flu at once, since she did the sequencing for his sample four months earlier. The entire NorBAC team is stunned. How the Spanish Flu get out at all, let alone way down in Colorado? Caroline contacts WHO and other health departments to put out priority alerts, and then calls her associate Congresswoman Shuler. The politics of the phone call sound familiar in the era of Covid-19:

Caroline: “The Spanish Flu is extremely contagious. If not contained, it could turn into a pandemic overnight.”

Shuler: “Can you contain it?”

Caroline: “Right now there are 28 reported cases, all confined to the Denver area.”

Shuler: “That’s good.”

Caroline: “I think we should shut down all access to the Denver area — airport, highway.”

Shuler: “No, no. That’s politically impossible. And Caroline, do we have to use the term ‘Spanish Flu’?”

Keep in mind this is the same congresswoman who blocked Caroline and David’s attempt to shut down all the chicken farms in the Prion case. As I write this review (on April 9), the following eight states have still not issued statewide stay-at-home orders for the Covid-19 pandemic: Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The governors of these states, like Shuler, have their priorities.

Mission to Nunavut

Jill goes through David’s notes to find out where he got the Spanish Flu sample. She finds the Nunavut connection, and the name of Joe Okalik, but is puzzled that she can’t find any dig records or permits. Meanwhile the situation in Denver is getting exponentially worse:

Wes: “The CDC is widening the quarantine area.”

Caroline: “It’s doubled in just the last two hours.”

Wes: “They’re turning the old stables and airport into a quarantine center. Denver proper is reporting 10 confirmed deaths, 204 people in quarantine. Lakewood has 5 reported cases; Aurora 7.”

Jill: [Entering the room] “Here’s what I got. These are David’s notes, from what I can tell was the beginning when he first had a line on the 1918 flu victim. He was working with a guy named Joe Okalik in Nunavut, which makes sense, because the sample we worked on clearly came out of the permafrost.”

Caroline: “How did a flu in Nunavut end up in Denver, Colorado?”

Jill: “I don’t know. But more important than that right now is we need to find the body he exhumed and make sure that it’s contained. But I can’t find any dig records or permits anywhere.”

Caroline: “Okay then, go home, pack your long johns and catch the next flight up there. Jesus, fuck.”

Jill: “What’s wrong?”

Caroline: “I don’t know what’s worse. Thinking that some terrorist released the Spanish Flu or that the head scientist of NorBAC did.”

It’s hard to shake the terrorist threat in the air from the last episode, but Chiernegin’s MO is pox-hemorrhagic combos, not influenza. And it can hardly be a coincidence that the 87-year old Spanish Flu has re-emerged only months after David dug up an intact sample. The disaster has David Sandstrom’s name all over it.

Hospitalized

Back to David. His coma is his just deserts — a season’s worth of assholeries coming back to bite him. He has near-death visions of various people who died on account of his “failures”: Hira Khan, shot by the bullet meant for him (episode 3); Danny Dexter, who swallowed pills after David told him to stop playing hockey if he wanted to stay alive (episode 5); Mick Sloane, who thought he was a clone and begged David to save him (episode 7). David wants to join them, but they won’t have him. Each in turn tells him to get off his sorry ass and fix his mess. The vision of Mick is particularly nice: the kid overturns the hospital bed, throwing David to the floor.

Meanwhile, in the real-world hospital room, Mayko sits by David’s side, and in the final frame of Resurrection he comes out of his coma. But the penultimate’s title isn’t about David; it’s about the resurrection of the goddamn Spanish Flu. David confesses everything to Mayko in self-indictment: that he’s responsible for bringing back the flu; that the sample Jill sequenced wasn’t sent to him, but stolen; that he took it from the body of a miner he dug out of the permafrost in Nunavut, without governmental permission. But neither Mayko nor David see how any of this could impact Denver so far away.

Caroline and Jill rip David a new one

Only hours out of his coma and barely able to walk, David takes his lashings back at NorBAC with considerable grace. Prepared to confess to Caroline, she beats him to it, having already found his records of payment to the Indian Joe Okalik for their grave robbing mission. Also, from Nunavut, Jill has forwarded Joe’s emails to Caroline, which reveal the details of David and Joe’s past communications. (Strangely, Joe Okalik was dead in his home when Jill arrived, having fallen in the shower drunk.) Caroline tears David a new one for breaking the law and scientific protocols — and for making NorBAC look worse than an organization run by Donald Trump. She vows that from now on she will be micromanaging the hell out of him.

At that moment, Jill calls from Nunavut, and Caroline puts her on speaker phone. Jill has tracked down and located the grave of the miner. The grave has been dug up again; there are polar bear tracks everywhere; most of the body is gone, and the remains are a mess.

David, feeling an abyss beneath him, insists to Caroline that he was careful as hell; he had put the body back, burying it exactly as he found it. But apparently disturbing a grave for even a few minutes can fire off a scent to a starving polar bear. Once again, Caroline welcomes David to a new era of micromanagement — where he is henceforth obligated to share with her every scrap of his research — and she orders him to immediately release all of his and Jill’s data on the Spanish Flu to the five top vaccine labs in the world.

When Jill returns from Nunavut, she too is furious — pissed that David lied about how he obtained the Spanish Flu sample, and even more furious that he rejected her advice (in episode 7) to send their data to the World Health Organization. Had he done so, the world would be a lot closer to a vaccine now.

None of this explains how the flu got from a polar bear in Nunavut to victims down in Denver. Redeeming himself as best he can, David (who still belongs in the hospital) sets out to solving that puzzle with his team.

From Nunavut to Denver: Natural born carriers

They find that Patient 0 was a bird-tagger in Colorado who was out camping. David surmises that the flu outbreak started with a migrating bird that fed on the remains of what the polar bear left in Nunavut; the bird must have scratched or bit the bird-tagger. According to a report, the tagger was replacing batteries in GPS bird collars. David examines the last ten birds that she collared, and finds that one of them, sure enough, was a red-tailed hawk — a species that ranges from Nunavut to the western United States. The tagger was somehow infected by the hawk as she was collaring it, and she later infected some Denver locals. Thus is born a pandemic.

NorBAC immediately puts out alerts that the hawk needs to be found and captured (by using the software used to track birds with GPS collars) as a #1 international health priority. And who knows how many other birds feasted on the miner’s remains?

The elusive Ivan Chiernegin

So what about Ivan Chiernegin and the Marburg threat that was set up in episode 11? It seems that the terrorist plot was dropped in favor of natural disaster owing to David’s recklessness. The twist comes that the two plots are tied together, and that the elusive Soviet terrorist Ivan Chiernegin is none other than David’s friend Vassili Borov. I have mixed feelings about this; the logistics are handled okay, but it feels a bit contrived.

Let’s go through it from the start. At the beginning of Resurrection, as David and Jill are working in Denver, Caroline is following up on the Marburg threat in Washington DC, where she learns that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Chiernegin worked for the CIA in Iraq. When relations between America and Iraq went sour, Saddam Hussein offered Chiernegin a palace on the Tigress River and all the money Chiernegin wanted to work for him. The U.S. — not taking kindly to this betrayal — promptly took out the palace with a cruise missile, killing (presumably) Chiernegin and his wife and child. But years later in 1997, Chiernegin reportedly resurfaced in North Korea, and two years after that in Pakistan, leaving behind bio-warfare programs in each country. Then he dropped off the radar again in 2000, just around the time “Ivan Havlac” emerged in Cape Town to start working on the Miranda Virus at Bethke Labs.

So Chiernegin is still at large, but who knows where, and who knows when he ever plans on using his Marburg concoction. At the end of The Longest Night comes the dramatic reveal, when Daisy, the mother of baby-bomb Miranda (from the season premiere), comes to David’s home. She heard that he was injured, and remembers his kindness to her when he tried to stop her from mercy-killing her baby. When she sees his friend Vassili Borov getting into a taxi, she goes completely ape-shit — screaming that he’s the man who operated on her in Africa. David, stunned that Vassili (of all people) could be Chiernegin, calls Caroline and has her put out an APB; Vassili is taken by the police.

When David visits Vassili in jail, the terrorist and natural-disaster plots bleed into one. Vassili explains that Chiernegin (who was Vassili’s boss from the ’80s, recall) ended up marrying his (Vassili’s) daughter and having a boy. Those two — Vassili’s daughter and grandson — were killed in the American missile strike on the Iraq palace. Chiernegin was killed too, contrary to what the intelligence agencies believed. Vassili assumed Chiernegin’s identity, going from North Korea to Pakistan, arming them with the bio-weapons programs, and then settling in Cape Town as “Ivan Havlac” to begin synthesizing poxes and hemorrhagics. “Acts of justice” against the west, he says to David. Miranda he put into action (in the season premiere), but he ditched his plans for using the Marburg chimera when a much better opportunity presented itself. On a night they got drunk together, David told Vassili about his illegal Nunavut adventure and how he acquired an intact genome of the Spanish flu. At that moment, Vassili seized his golden opportunity:

Vassili: “You thought the nights of vodka and conversation were about friendship? You think we were comrades? You talk very freely when you drink, David.”

David: [Aghast] “Jesus, it was you. You went and dug up the body, didn’t you?”

Vassili: “And I left it exposed. How sloppy of me. I let Mother Nature do the rest. The bears and birds were my delivery system, they spread it all over. And who knows? Denver may not be the only outbreak. We freed the Spanish Flu, David — you and I — and I thank you for it.”

And this explains the strange coincidence of the Indian Joe Okalik being found dead in his shower when Jill flew up to Nunavut. Vassili left no loose ends. That he, as David’s buddy, turned out to be the big-bad smacks slightly of lazy plotting, though it does make sense as to why Vassili cultivated David’s friendship to begin with.

Nature spread the Spanish Flu, but not because of David’s carelessness. He had reburied the body properly, exactly as he thought. It was Vassili who went up to Nunavut, dug up the body, and left it blatantly exposed. That sort of gets David off the hook — though he doesn’t cut himself any slack. When Caroline insists that the Colorado deaths are Vassili’s fault and not his, he replies: “You can’t split the atom and blame the crew that drops the bomb, Caroline.”

And with that, David Sandstrom resigns from NorBAC. He’ll be back in season 2, but not before a self-imposed exile takes him to China, where he can work off his guilt and get into more trouble. As for season 1, it remains some of the best TV drama I’ve seen. These final episodes pay off the narrative debts with a merciless blow from nature, and make me pray that the Spanish Flu never comes back. Covid-19 is bad enough.

Original air dates: January 16 & 23, 2005

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Regenesis (Season 1, Episode 11): The Promise

There’s something foreboding about The Promise as things spiral out of control on every front. From an intense military drill, to the reappearance of an enhanced Miranda virus, to the threat of an even worse bio-weapon, to a priorty-1 alert of a SARS-like outbreak in Denver — it’s clear that the pen-penultimate episode is setting us up for a mighty slam. And loads of misery besides.

Regenesis never pretended to be optimistic, as how can it be when it deals in viruses, disease, and high body counts? Nature is uncaring as science itself; the best we can hope for is to put off the inevitable day when microscopic lifeforms wipe us out. One way of doing that is anticipating the worst, and practicing accordingly. Thus the opening scene of The Promise.

War Games

Those first five minutes are a brilliant piece of misdirection. The NorBAC scientists are chasing tails around the lab, yelling and tripping over each other, frantically making phone calls, punching keyboards, trying to gather data on a smallpox outbreak. David goes from room to room barking orders, demanding this and that, throwing people out of their chairs. He wants to know why the Windsor Detroit tunnel isn’t sealed; he gets a report that national guardsmen are sick, even though they were inoculated; a flight to China is being diverted to Guam for fear of smallpox carriers; the Canada-U.S. border has been closed. The lab is crawling with military personnel — like martial law. All of this is filmed in a long tracking shot that captures an ordered chaos. When Jill finally gets David’s attention with a report confirming “hemorragics”, David gets a poleaxed “oh shit” look on his face; then he knows why the smallpox is so deadly. He tells Caroline… and the game is over.

For that’s what it was all along: a drill run by U.S. Joint Forces Command, to test NorBAC’s response time to a bio-catastrophe. The team did very well, solving the problem in 2 days with only 22,000 people dead. (A lab in Atlanta took 5 days and paid for it with 600,000 deaths; and a lab in Mexico took 4 days with close to a million dead.) David, gloatingly, explains to an audience of scientists and military how he figured it out: In the game the military rushed in to fight what seemed to be a clear-cut smallpox outbreak, but there was something else inside the smallpox. The very inoculation that warded against the smallpox triggered a release of green monkey disease — AKA Marburg fever — that was hidden inside the pox.

But if this is a game, it sounds distressingly familiar: pox and hemorragics, synthesized to make a supervirus. That’s what happened in the first two episodes, where a terrorist engineered camel pox and ebola, and put it in a baby to spread through the Toronto area. The terrorist remained at large, and now, six months later, what? — the military is suddenly having labs in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico play war games involving another pox-hemorragic chimera?

Ties to the Miranda Virus

David is no dummy, and neither is Caroline, and they both suspect that the North American governments are worried that whoever manufactured the Miranda Virus may possess another, and even more lethal, biological weapon, that’s ready to be let loose. Caroline’s intelligence sources reveal developments confirming this.

For one, the terrorist William Zanzinger (who engineered the baby Miranda) is in fact no longer at large; he recently committed suicide in Cape Town, but intelligence officials don’t think it was suicide. Zanzinger was a mercenary, and he must have had help from someone smarter in creating the Miranda Virus; he was probably killed as a loose end by that someone. Cape Town rings a bell with David; he remembers a state-of-the-art DNA sequencer in a lab there, and asks Mayko to research it. She finds a Bethke Labs in Cape Town, but it was destroyed in a fire only a month ago — supposedly an industrial accident — and the facility has been sealed. That’s enough for David, who asks Caroline to have her British spy buddy to obtain all the bio-hazard samples he can from Bethke Labs.

When the bio-hazard samples arrive, Carlos and Bob run tests on them and PCRs, and to their horror the Miranda Virus is among the samples. And something worse than Miranda too — a Marburg virus, sure enough, that, as Jill says, “if you put on a plane from L.A. to New York, everyone would be digested from the inside out over roughly Trapdoor, Missouri”.

So on the one hand, Bethke Labs turns up Miranda and Marburg together, and on the other, a bunch of generals have the NorBAC team running around playing war games based on the Miranda scenario but using a Marburg chimera instead. The conclusion presses: whoever created the Miranda (ebola-camelpox) virus is getting ready to throw an even-worse chimera (marburg-?) virus at the world, and intelligence agencies are acutely aware of it.

Russian Hero: Vassili Borov

David goes to see a friend of his, Vassili Borov, who used to be a Soviet agent and worked on Marburg back in the mid-’80s. Vassili had defected and came west after the Berlin Wall fell, and assisted the Canadian and American governments in stopping various terrorist plots. Now he paints all day in his room, attended by nude models. He has quite the life.

At David’s request, Vassili examines the DNA images from the Marburg samples found in Cape Town, and tells David that it’s been weaponized: from the sequencing it looks to Vassili like whoever made it increased the incubation period. So someone could be walking around for weeks and not realize they had it — “a 10 megaton bomb in a hand grenade”. In the time between ’85 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in ’91, there wasn’t time for the Soviets to weaponize the Marburg, so whoever did this, says Vassili, probably wasn’t Soviet.

Back at the lab, Caroline tells David that the chief scientist of Bethke Labs is an Ivan Havlac, but he disappeared about six months ago (which would be shortly before the time the Miranda Virus was let loose). No one can find Havlac, or his resume for that matter, and neither British nor South African intelligence can figure out who he is. It’s a safe bet that this Havlac is the creator of the Miranda Virus, and the one who killed William Zanzinger, and now has plans to unleash an enhanced weaponized Marburg virus.

From his sequencing work, Carlos believes the Marburg samples must be American, which would mean they were taken from Fort Egan. An appalled Caroline makes a trip to Fort Egan, and learns from one of her contacts that indeed Fort Egan had been experimenting with Marburg decades ago, and was committed to destroying all their samples in the early ’70s — but not all of those samples were in fact destroyed.

David goes back to see Vassili again, who confirms that Marburg was stolen from Fort Egan sometime in the ’80s. The Marburg ended up in the hands of his boss, Ivan Chiernegin — the head of germ warfare for the Soviets. David believes that the elusive scientist of Cape Town who can’t be found, “Ivan Havlac”, is probably Vassili’s old boss Ivan Chiernegin. Chiernegin has likely continued to work on germ warfare as a terrorist in hiding, long after the fall of the Soviet Union in ’91. The terrorist appears to be Soviet after all, with a serious grudge.

Last-second bomb shell

As Caroline plans to get Chiernegan’s name on the radar of every intelligence agency, she and David are intercepted by Wes, who drops a bombshell: NorBAC has received a Priority 1 Alert for a SARS-like case that has broken out in Denver, Colorado. The local doctors and public health officials can’t identify the virus, but it’s nasty, and quarantines are already in place. David looks at Caroline and says, “I don’t want to sound paranoid, but let’s hope to God this isn’t coming from the same guy who gave us Miranda.”

David has a shitload more to be worried about than Miranda and Marburg, horrible as those threats are. The SARS-like virus in Colorado — as the final two episodes will reveal mercilessly — is nothing less than the Spanish Flu, resurrected unwittingly by David Sandstrom himself.

The Promise is a first-rate episode that simmers with shady plots and imminent terrors, and damned if it doesn’t make me fear the finale.

Original air date: January 9, 2005

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

 

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 9 & 10): The Secret War & The Source

Besides the loss of David’s daughter Lilith, it feels like others are absent all of a sudden in Regenesis. The virologist Jill Langston is having panic attacks and needs time off. Her published work (on Hepatitis-C infection of macrophages) is being trashed by other researches who claim she made errors, and she wants three weeks to redo her experiment. David and Caroline are pissed about this but try to accommodate her.

As for biochemist Bob Melnikov, he’s quitting NorBAC altogether — to work for a perfume company. That’s right. Perfumes have been his life-long passion; biochemistry at its purest. Naturally Bob returns to the fold almost as soon as he quits; the NorBAC geeks are his family. But in the meantime, throughout The Secret War and The Source, the lab is short-staffed.

Which leaves David, Mayko, and Carlos to do most of the work on two new cases, and they get little support from boss-lady Caroline. She flat out rejects taking on the first case, until David and Mayko can convince her that it falls within NorBAC’s mandate.

Case #1: Cleanup Crews in the Gulf War

At first blush, it seems to be a case of garden variety post-war traumas. A group of American civilians were privately contracted by the Pentagon to do cleanup work at a military base in Kirkuk during the Iraq War. The civilians were sent to do hazardous waste removal at bombed out sites, and they returned home to the U.S. showing a wide range of illnesses — joint pain, asthma, hair loss, organ failure, depression. Two sets of doctors concluded that their conditions were unrelated to one another and to their duties in Iraq, but they offered no explanation as to what made the civilians sick. Caroline is inclined to lump it all in with “Gulf War Syndrome” — complaints over which are still being stalled in the courts — and says that issues like this aren’t NorBAC’s mandate. With illnesses that diverse, it hardly seems likely that there’s a common culprit in any case.

David and Mayko aren’t so sure, and work closely with one of the victims, Louisa, who is now wheelchair-bound. They analyze the protective suits that Louisa and the other workers wore on duty, which includes a Reimer, a purification system designed to keep out nasty particles and bacteria. The integrity of the suits seem top-notch. The filtration system would keep out all bacteria, except maybe ten in a million, which the human body could easy fend off. The Reimer even recycles the wearer’s own sweat and urine to make clean drinking water (similar to what astronauts use), which David illustrates to Caroline — amusingly pouring a flask of his own piss into the Reimer and then drinking the pure water that comes out.

So why did so many cleanup workers get sick, and in different ways? In the tenth episode, Bob (now working in the perfume industry, but temporarily helping his old NorBAC team) suggests an answer: phages.

Phages: Viruses that infect bacteria

I’d never heard of these before. Phages — or bacteriophages — are viruses that infect bacteria. Bob thinks they might be the culprit, believing that DNA was somehow transferred to produce the variety of illnesses in the Iraq workers (some phages carry DNA). David is instantly on board with the hypothesis, and they explain it to Louisa:

David: “Let’s say you know you’ve got some nasty bacteria in the salt marshes in Iraq. So you’re going to want to run this through a filtration system like the Reimer, right?”

Louisa: “Yeah, they did that. But wouldn’t the filtration system keep the bacteria from getting through?”

Mayko: “All but ten in a million, as we’ve discovered.”

David: “Right, and that’s nothing for your body’s natural immune system to take care of. That’s why people have been calling you [Louisa] a paranoid hypochondriac. But if those ten little bacteria got infected with bacteria phages, that’s all it would take. Isn’t it, Bob?”

Bob: “That’s my theory.”

Louisa: “What theory?”

David: [Moving to the chalkboard] “It’s not the bacteria, it’s the bacteria phages infecting the bacteria that’s the problem. Check it out.” [Draws diagram] “Let’s say this is one of the nasty bacteria that miraculously managed to get through the Reimer filtration system unscathed, okay? All by itself, it’s not a problem. Except it’s been infected with a bacteria phage, which is a virus. So it multiples, and pretty soon, one becomes a million, and eventually they bust out. Now here’s the thing. Some bacteria phages can carry DNA. So when they all explode out of the cell — and remember, there’s millions of them now — they could be carrying toxic genes that they’ve picked up from the nasty bacteria.”

Bob: “Toxic genes attack internal organs. They can develop cancer cells, they can do anything.”

David: “Bob, you’re a genius.”

Bob: “Only if we can prove that that’s what happened to Louisa and her friends.”

David: “No, Bob. You’re a genius.”

More tests are run, and Bob’s hypothesis is confirmed. DNA-carrying phages account for the variety of illnesses in the Iraq workers. Phages infected the bacteria with new genetic material, causing the bacteria to mutate and secrete toxins that spread to every corner of the workers’ bodies — resulting in everything from cancer to organ failure to fibromyalgia.

It also explains why not all of the Iraq workers got sick. In some cases, the immune systems of the healthy ones were able to conquer the mutated bacteria, and in other cases, they just became asymptomatic carriers — shades of Covid-19 — spreading it without even realizing it.

Case #2: Rampant Hemophilia in Mexico

The second case is brought up by Carlos. He wants the team to investigate multiple cases of hemophilia in the Mexican state of Campeche. The incidence pattern is bewildering, because hemophilia isn’t contagious, and yet the disease is ranging over a wide area. Carlos and Jill fly down to Campeche and find that a large multi-national laboratory is working on strange GMOs, in particular, a hybrid plant designed to detect land mines by turning a certain color. But that theory is a dead end; none of the GMOs are causing the problem, and the local air and water supplies are fine too.

Jill flies back to Toronto to work on proving Bob’s phage theory, and David flies down to take her place. He and Carlos guess that mosquitoes might be the culprit (David thinks of this as he’s out collecting soil samples and getting bitten by a shitload of them), since mosquitoes use an anticoagulant to keep blood from clotting when they steal it. Maybe, somehow, there are mutant “super mosquitoes” whose anticoagulant is strong enough to cause hemophilia.

They collect and run tests on zillions of mosquitoes and finally find an anomaly in one: evidence of genetic engineering. But no one in Mexico is doing any genome work with mosquitoes. In Toronto, Mayko’s off-the-grid research turns up that there is a Belgian biotech, Jacques Rafause, doing mosquito research over the border in Guatemala — apparently working in that country because the government excuses him from environmental laws.

David and Carlos pay Dr. Rafause a visit, and learn that he is breeding mosquitoes as part of a bold project to eliminate malaria. His genetic engineering has produced side effects, however: the mosquitoes’ anticoagulation proteins are being hugely overproduced, thus blocking coagulation in human victims for extended periods of time. The anti-clotting period is about 24 hours, after which time the human body recovers. But during those 24 hours, if you cut or scrape yourself, you bleed to death. Theoretically, Rafause’s mosquitoes are confined to the farm… but it doesn’t take long for David and Carlos to show him how more than a few are escaping out of the cages and into the wilderness, and right over the border into Campeche.

The Secret War and The Source aren’t the most inspired episodes of season 1 — they feel a bit by the numbers — but they are enjoyable enough, and educational like all the scenarios in Regenesis.

Original air dates: December 19, 2004 & January 2, 2005

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5