TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: The Spectacular Spider-Man

I searched “best spider-man tv shows of all time” and one result regularly topped the lists – The Spectacular Spider-Man. I’d heard good things about the series before (it was originally released in 2008), but I never bothered checking it out. Now I’ve watched both seasons, and I’m impressed. 

The Spectacular Spider-Man retreads ground so old its foundation was laid by comic book legends Stan Lee and Steve Ditko way back in 1962. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The series skips any sort of origin episode and leaps right into Peter Parker juggling super hero antics and high school teenager drama. It’s a formula that works well throughout the series – Peter’s life is often just as interesting (if not more so) than Spidey’s. Peter, like most high school boys, is a fool. He belongs with Gwen Stacy, but dates Liz Allan and pines for Mary Jane Watson. C’mon man, get your life together.

A hero is only as good as his villains, and the series mostly succeeds in throwing compelling enemies at Spider-Man. Doctor Octopus creating super-powered rogues to compete against Spidey is a nice twist, and it makes sense for common criminals to feel a desperate desire to knock Spider-Man down a peg or two. The guy constantly pokes fun at them while webbing them up. I especially enjoy Spidey’s banter with Kraven the Hunter. Kraven wraps Spider-Man in a bear hug and says, “Be still. The noblest prey ends the hunt in silent dignity.” Perplexed, Spider-Man responds, “Prey? Silent? Dignity? Ah, you don’t know me at all!”

It’s also nice that Spider-Man regularly defeats his enemies using guile. Rhino outclasses Spider-Man in strength, so Spidey lures him down to the sewers and uses stream to overheat the sweating Rhino. Brains beats brawn. The only villain that falls somewhat short is Green Goblin. The Goblin is one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes because he terrorizes both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. The Spectacular Spider-Man gives Venom that role (which works well, no complaints there) while the Goblin’s story revolves around the mystery of his identity. The mystery gets old fast. But it’s easy to forgive that when the series also treats us to an epic Sinister Six battle in “Group Therapy” in which the symbiotic suit wrecks shop, treating the Vulture and Shocker like play toys. The fight choreography and battle scenes are excellent throughout the series.

I mentioned Spidey’s banter with Kraven, and what really sells that banter is voice actor Josh Keaton. Keaton is an excellent Peter Parker/Spider-Man, embodying the joking nature of the hero and delivering during the more serious moments. After Sandman sacrifices himself by absorbing an oil tanker explosion, Spider-Man is impressed to say the least. He says, “You wanted a big score, Marko? Far as I’m concerned, you just scored about as big as a man can.” The line works thanks to Keaton’s earnestness.

There’s a lot to like about The Spectacular Spider-Man. Watching Peter Parker and his buddy Harry try out for the football team, Venom acting like the petty kid he is, Spidey battling the Lizard at the zoo – it’s all engaging and fun. It’s a damn shame the series never received a proper ending. The showrunners deserved at least a couple more seasons to wrap everything up. If it ran for more seasons, I’m sure it could overtake my personal favorite Spidey show, Spider-Man (1994). Speaking of which, that 90’s theme song still kicks ass.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: The Challenge: All-Stars

I wouldn’t normally write a review for an individual season of The Challenge, but All-Stars is special. The spin-off began life as a “bring back the old schoolers” concept promoted by executive producer Mark “The Godfather” Long. And the Godfather delivered; All-Stars revives classic personalities and puts them through the wringer of modern challenges.

The cast features fan favorites like Alton Williams and Ruthie Alcaide, but the standout stars are Laterrian Wallace and Kendal Sheppard. Though neither of them make it to the final, that doesn’t matter. This is a redemption story for Laterrian, a competitor who always seemed to fall flat in his previous challenges. When Laterrian celebrates his first daily challenge win in 18 years while “Mo Money Mo Problems” hits, it’s impossible not to feel happy for him. Kendal is a returning champion, so she never had a chip on her shoulder like Laterrian. What she does have is a target on her back, and her elimination wins and daily challenge domination cement her as a multi-generational threat.

All-Stars is overall a quick watch, and it doesn’t use a redemption house or other silly twists that prolong a game indefinitely. If anything, ten episodes is a bit of a tease, but it is very cool to see a large number of individuals competing in a final. Daily challenges and eliminations are only part of the game, and you never know who might surprise you in a final. Jonna Mannion gave birth less than a year before the season started, and she damn near wins the entire game.

MTV absolutely should continue All-Stars, because it’s better than the Champs vs. Stars spin-off and more palatable than the 20+ episodes of the flagship show. It recaptures some of the fun and carefree vibe of past challenges, especially when natural entertainers like Teck Holmes are providing the commentary. Here’s my big plea to the showrunners: please please bring back Landon Lueck. The guy has been in his cage way too long and needs to be released.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: Cobra Kai (Seasons 1 – 3)

Cobra Kai is not prestige TV. It’s not a show you must watch. Its heavy handed in its use of flashbacks, it gets sillier over time, and in reality most of the characters would be arrested for assault or attempted murder. Still, I watched three seasons of Cobra Kai in a little over a week. I don’t normally binge watch TV, but the ongoing struggles of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his new karate kids sucked me right in.

Most attempts at resurrecting old franchises are all about the cash grab, but the creators of Cobra Kai are fans first. Respect is shown for the Karate Kid movies (with plenty of callbacks), while old characters feel new due to the changes in their lives and attitudes. Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) are great frenemies, and watching them sing along to REO Speedwagon is something I never knew I wanted. The young cast is a fun group, and it’s a good sign that I want both Miguel and Robbie – combatants fighting over the same girl – to do well in their fighting tournament.

I’m glad William Zabka has been given a chance to redeem his karate character. Johnny Lawrence is a man stuck in the 80s, and it’s funny to see him trying to figure out Facebook messenger and modern dating. It’s even better to see his realization that preaching “no mercy” to hormonal teenagers is not too wise. He adapts his thinking, teaching his kids to kick ass while remaining honorable. Yeah, I can get behind that message.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: The Good Place

Saying goodbye to The Good Place feels a bit like saying goodbye to NBC’s must-see TV. I know Seinfeld, Friends, and even The Office have been gone for years, but The Good Place held the flickering torch of NBC prestige comedy. Maybe it’s fitting that Michael Schur’s comedy series is all about death and the afterlife.

I know I just compared The Good Place to classic comedies, but I wouldn’t rank it amongst the funniest shows ever made. That’s not a bad thing, at least not for me. It’s a “comedy” because it’s a half-hour long and contains humor, and it’s not drab enough to be a drama. More than anything, The Good Place examines the biggest questions – what happens after we die, why is being “good” important – in a fun and poignant way.

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and her mismatched friends are all dead, but they find the afterlife is as complex and unorganized as regular life. The cast is strong, and it includes the gem Ted Danson, who apparently can’t stay away from seminal comedies. One of my only complaints is I would have liked to see more of Adam Scott, who plays a demon that’s basically the worst dude you ever met at a party. The demons really are one of the best parts of the show. Their childlike enthusiasm for penis flattening is almost heartwarming.

The Good Place isn’t overflowing with standout episodes (with one big exception I’ll talk about in a bit). Again, that might sound like a knock against it, but it’s not, because the series is greater than the sum of its parts. With some comedies it’s easy to pop back to favorite episodes, but this show isn’t built that way. This story is best experienced as a whole, more akin to a novel than a TV series with long season breaks. There’s a reason individual episodes are labeled as “chapters.”

I haven’t said much about the plot of The Good Place, and I won’t. It’s a special, winding journey that culminates in one of the best TV finales I can remember. Really, for as good as the show is, I didn’t expect it to end so perfectly. It offers closure while retaining a great mystery, the greatest of all. Future TV writers should take note.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a certain kind of dread regarding death and eternity. The Good Place acknowledges this when Eleanor says, “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” Flipping a negative into a positive is what this show is all about. It’s lovely that way.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: Nathan for You

Nathan for You is ostensibly about a business school graduate (Nathan Fielder) who helps struggling businesses with inventive, “out-of-the-box” ideas. What it’s really about is Nathan creating weird and awkward scenarios with real people, often at the cost of Nathan’s dignity. Nathan for You is part scripted TV show, part documentary, and Nathan plays a more socially stunted version of himself. When it works (and it usually does), it is absolutely hilarious.

I’ll use one of my favorite episodes – “The Movement” – as an example of the show’s template. A moving company spends most of its budget on paying its employees, so Nathan’s plan is to create a fitness craze around moving household objects. The show’s producers find a fitness gem named Jack. Nathan stages a photoshoot to sell the idea that Jack’s physical transformation from overweight to extremely fit came about by simply moving objects around, and Nathan also hires a writer to create a fake memoir about Jack. Along the way Jack is invited on TV morning shows and he bullshits like a champion when questioned about his volunteer work with jungle children. It’s brilliant.

TV host: “Jungle child is what?”
Jack: “Jungle child are children that live in the jungle… A while ago I was working with a jungle child, his name was Dende, he was a great inspiration for me, and unfortunately, tragically he died when baboons kidnapped and ate him.”
TV host: *stares at camera with mouth agape*

The episode culminates with Nathan finding people who volunteer to move boxes for the moving company with the goal of getting fit. It’s a short-term solution to a larger problem, but Nathan pats himself on the back just the same.

One of my favorite parts of the show is its expanded cast of Craigslist characters, bounty hunters, security guards, celebrity impersonators, and other random, odd, and very real people who help provide much of the show’s humor. They blur the barrier between scripted TV and documentary, and Nathan actually bonds with some of them in surprising ways. The series finale is over an hour long, and it’s all about a Bill Gates impersonator searching for his long-lost love. That’s not what you’d expect from a Comedy Central show, but Nathan for You is not regular TV. It’s a circus, and laughing at the show’s participants is like laughing at ourselves in a fun house mirror. We all have a weird side to us; Nathan Fielder just hasn’t exposed it yet.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: The Wire

I’d been saving The Wire for years. Anyone who searches “greatest TV show of all time” is bound to come across The Wire, so I was well aware of its reputation before finally watching. It’s a terrible predicament for art to be saddled with a prestigious label, because most art cannot live up to the echo chamber of praise. The Wire does, though. It lives up to expectations even while defying them.

The city of Baltimore is the setting for the show, and it is also the main character. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) garners much of the show’s focus, but even he seems to realize he’s a small, churning pawn within the urban sprawl. There are major factions that comprise the city, including enterprising criminals, police officers, school teachers and students, dock workers, politicians, and more. Each season of the show shifts its focus, and a minor character in one season may end up being a crucial cog down the road.

But what makes The Wire so compelling? There’s the city of Baltimore itself; its exposed underbelly is as fascinating as the underside of a rotting log. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns ignore TV conventions like “police case of the week” to extend storylines to something more satisfying. Characters can follow the law or flout it, but all of them have moral shortcomings. The cast is diverse, featuring mostly black actors. And above all, the writing is excellent and grounded in the streets, projects, and back corners of Baltimore. The show doesn’t take great pains to explain every character and plot point to the viewer, and I understand if that frustrates some. I retreaded multiple scenes to pick up on things I missed, and even as a careful viewer I know I still missed important connective tissue. I appreciate art that makes me work for it. In that way The Wire is dense, challenging, and rewarding.

There’s no question The Wire is TV at its best. I could write a Key Character feature about most of its impressive cast (Lieutenant Daniels or “Stringer” Bell would probably be my first pick). The only question is, which season is its pinnacle? Season one is my favorite right now, but I’ve only watched through the show once so far. It’s a testament to its quality that after one viewing I felt the urge to immediately start the whole thing over again. That time will come soon enough, I’m sure. Omar comin’.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: Beast Wars: Transformers

I loved many cartoons when I was a kid. Spider-Man, TMNT, X-Men, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Ducktales, Recess, and the list goes on. There was no other feeling in the world like waking up on Saturday and being excited to have some cereal and absorb quality animation. I loved many, but there was only one that I awoke before dawn to watch – Beast Wars: Transformers. Don’t ask me why, but Fox pushed Beast Wars to an early morning slot (5:30am or 6:00am), television purgatory. I’ve never been a morning person, so the fact that pre-teen Adrian set an alarm on the weekend (much earlier than his normal wake-up time for school) just to watch a half-hour cartoon speaks volumes.

Beast Wars begins with the Maximals and Predicons, descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons, respectively, crash landing on an uninhabited planet. Rather than transforming into vehicles, the Maximals and Predicons adopt beast modes ranging from a rhino to a pterodactyl. The two sides spend the series fighting for survival, and eventually, for the future of the universe. The full CGI animation was groundbreaking for the time, even if it looks dated today. But creators Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio never used the cutting edge animation as a crutch for storytelling. Not only did Beast Wars reinvigorate the Transformers mythology, it introduced us to distinct and interesting characters.

Within the first few episodes we see the smallest, mouthiest Maximal Rattrap openly disrespecting his leader Optimus Primal, at one point calling him a “chicken.” The youngest and most impulsive Maximal, Cheetor, regularly disobeys orders. And about half of the Predacons openly express their desire to overthrow Megatron and take control of their side. These conflicts help the characters feel real, with individual personalities, histories, and agendas. As an inexperienced battle commander, Optimus must earn respect from his crew, and he sums himself up in the pilot episode: “I will not give an order I would not be willing to do myself.” In a later episode he leaps headlong from an exploding island, and when Rattrap calls him crazy, Optimus responds, “Eh, sometimes crazy works.” He really does live up to the Prime name. But the stand out character would probably have to be Dinobot. He is a Predicon who joins the Maximals in their battle against Megatron, and he is Shakespearean in his desire to retain his honor while fighting for the winning side.

There’s a lot to like when watching Beast Wars. Many of the beast and robot forms still look super cool (like the half wolf, half eagle Silverbolt). The voice acting is excellent. The direction is better than I remember, with the camera emphasizing the action and violence of war as well as the natural world. Whereas Spidey couldn’t even throw a punch in his 90s TV series (due to silly restrictions), the transformers are shot, blown up, and some are ultimately destroyed in important episodes. I won’t spoil anything here, but the setting is also an integral character. Even with their advanced technology, the transformers are perplexed by the mysteries of their new planet, including alien constructs that defy gravity and foreshadow an even greater threat.

Sadly, the overall quality declines after season one. Season one is the longest season, which gives it room to breathe and develop its characters gradually. Season two is still good, while the truncated final season and its big climax feel rushed. Worse still, the sequel series Beast Machines is a huge disappointment. But none of that takes away from the fun and excitement to be found on Beast Wars: Megatron spending time in a rejuvenation hottub with his rubber ducky; Rattrap constantly bickering with Dinobot; a gorilla flying on a hoverboard; infamous Decepticons returning to the battlefield. Sincerely, Beast Wars is the best. I just wish I hadn’t lost my transforming toys years ago. Well, that’s just prime.