Series

Review: What If . . ?

What If? (2021)

I reserve the right to revise or retract this observation after we have more data to sift through, but for the time being, it looks as if Marvel Studios is developing a bit of a pattern with its Disney+ MCU shows. And I guess if I had to sum up that pattern in one pithy sentence, it would be: “One weird one, then one safe one.” It doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out that, as the fourth such series, the animated What If . . ? unfortunately falls into the latter category.

WandaVision not only debuted as the first new Marvel show on the platform, but also kicked off Phase 4 of the MCU, and it was enigmatically brilliant, nutty, poignant, and quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the superhero domain. Marvel followed that with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which was a perfectly OK geopolitical action/adventure romp that really should have been filmed as the fourth Captain American movie instead of stretched out over six episodes. Next up was Loki, which was every bit as weird as WandaVision but in its own distinctive way. (Weirdness, after all, loses its novelty quickly.) At its best, Loki came across as something akin to a Franz Kafka comic book adapted for the screen by Terry Gilliam at the peak of his form.

 

What If . . ?, is, by contrast almost entirely paint-by-

WHAT IF . . ? AT A GLANCE

Given its origins, this latest entry in the MCU could have been as adventurous as WandaVision but is strictly by the numbers. 

 

PICTURE
Disney+’s Dolby Vision presentation is simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also topnotch, with oodles of appropriate surround activity and a good amount of LFE.

numbers. And that’s a shame, really, because this series had the potential to be the franchise’s most risk-taking outing yet. By all rights, it should have been, given the concept. If you’re not familiar with that concept, by the way, it’s easy to explain: Take a variable or two at the heart of a popular comic book series and give them a twist. Off the top of my head, some of my 

favorite what-if scenarios from my youth included, “What if
. . . Spider-Man had never become a crimefighter?” “What if
. . . Conan the Barbarian was stranded in the 20th century?” and “What if . . . Gwen Stacy had lived?”

 

This new MCU riff on the concept starts with a similarly interesting premise: “What if . . .  Captain Carter were the First Avenger?” In other words, what would have happened if Peggy Carter had received the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America?  In the lead-up to that first episode, my brain took that prompt in a million different directions. The problem is, every single one of those directions was infinitely more interesting than the answer we’ve been given.

 

When you get right down to it, this ends up being a 33-minute retelling of the plot of Captain America: The First Avenger with some character swaps and a gaggle of non sequiturs thrown in for good measure. Peggy becomes Captain Carter, Steve becomes Iron Man . . .  err, I mean the Hydra Stomper, but nothing of any real consequence changes, despite the fact that the entire arc of Steve’s story

in the MCU has been about the fact that his unique character, temperament, and morals literally changed the course of history.

 

It’s really disappointing that the story falls so flat, because Marvel Studios obviously spent a lot of time and money on the animation for the show. It’s a neat mix of cel-shaded 3D and what appears to be hand-drawn 2D that’s vibrant and polished and a heck of a lot of fun to look at. True, there are times where the facial animations are a little stiff, but that’s about the only

criticism you could level at the look of the show.

 

Disney+’s Dolby Vision presentation is also simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Colors are rich. Contrasts are nigh-perfect. Lighting effects and shadow depth are stunning. And there’s a level of detail here that you just don’t expect from direct-to-streaming animated projects. The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also topnotch, with oodles of appropriate surround activity—especially in the action sequences—and a good amount of LFE.

But, at least as of the first episode, the execution of the series simply doesn’t live up to the expectations set by its premise or its presentation. This is not the title Marvel Studios should have played it safe with. Of course, there are still eight episodes left to go, and What If . . ? could prove to be the genuinely interesting thought experiment it has the potential to be. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Don’t get me wrong here: This isn’t a bad show. Far from it. It’s fun and entertaining and gorgeous to look at. But it could and should have been so much more than that, right from the giddy-up.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Schmigadoon!

Schmigadoon! (2021)

I need to get a couple of formalities out of the way up front. I’d assumed I’d be able to binge this series and review the whole thing, but only the first two episodes were available upon launch. I’m not a fan of reviewing works in progress but I’d already put the time aside to write this up, so I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

 

Second, I’ve known Schmigadoon! director/executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld for a while and have interviewed him a number of times, including in these pages. That has in no way inflected this review. Oddly, and fortunately, once a movie or episode begins, the experience takes over completely and I’m able to consider it on its own terms. Anything I might have 

heard about it or any outside influences become irrelevant. That’s no great skill or anything—it just is.

 

Some series telegraph exactly where they’re going straight out of the gate and subsequent episodes become minor variations on what was laid down at the beginning. That’s not the case here, so my comments will very much pertain to just the first two episodes, along with some likely misguided speculation (i.e., blind guessing) about where the show will go from there.

 

It’s good Apple has two episodes out there at the start because if they’d launched with just the first one, the show would likely be in serious trouble. I realize that in a culture that’s given over its creative soul to fantasy, anything resembling plausibility is strictly optional, and even a sin, but given that this is supposed to be a series about relationships, it would have helped a lot if there had been 

SCHMIGADOON! AT A GLANCE

The jury is still very much out just two episodes into Barry Sonnenfeld’s deliberately pared-down take on classic movie musicals. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K/Dolby Vision presentation is (with the exception of a couple of soft frames) sharp and vivid throughout.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is surprisingly tight and upfront, lacking the expansiveness you usually associate with big production numbers.

more of an effort to develop the core relationship and show how it necessitated the transition to a fantasy world.

 

But there’s a bigger problem: The dominant lead, Cecily Strong, is just unpleasant, both as a character and as a presence. I’ll readily acknowledge that, in her brattiness, she well represents some kind of current cultural ideal, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to go along for the ride. The idea of enduring her throughout a six-episode run is right up there with preparing my taxes as an inherently odious task. But I’m only two episodes in, so hopefully things will somehow get more interesting or in some other way improve—but I doubt anything will much change with her voice, which is a constant reminder that I need to get someone to come look at my garbage disposal.

 

It doesn’t help that her partner, Keegan-Michael Key, is as insubstantial as a wraith. He works hard to try to manifest himself but—so far—hasn’t been able to make much of an impression. It’s hard to have a show about relationships when half of the pair is barely there—but I have to wonder if, on some level, that wasn’t intentional. O, and I don’t believe for a second that either he or Strong are doctors. If you should ever find yourself with a physician as fundamentally immature as either of 

these two, it’s time to turn to prayer.

 

That’s not to say there’s no benefit to watching Episode One. There’s something fundamentally appealing about finding yourself lost in a world based on classic movie musicals, and the production numbers have an inherent verve and charm, even if some of them feel a little forced. And there’s a certain fascination to the overall approach to the production (about which I’ll have more to say below).

 

And even if you have to shield your eyes in the presence of the leads, focusing on some of the standouts in the supporting cast—in particular, Aaron Tveit as the town bad 

boy, Alan Cumming as the perpetually popular mayor, and Kristin Chenoweth as the scolding preacher’s wife—helps make the ride more enjoyable.

 

But Schmigadoon! doesn’t really begin to get interesting until early into Episode Two, when the ensemble breaks into “Lover’s Spat,” the first genuinely satisfying moment in the series and the first indication the hands at the levers might be able to steer the show someplace intriguing. It’s engagingly staged while bringing some new twists to the movie-musical conventions, and manages to strike the right balance with the somewhat treacherous equation that lies at the heart of the series without ultimately coming down on one side or the other.

 

About that equation: It seems possible the whole relationship thing is little more than a pretext for wading into the quagmire of the culture wars and, if true, there’s a chance Schmigadoon! could end up being bolder than it appears at first blush, and could ultimately redeem itself. The series places two moral systems in opposition: An archaic one, associated with movie musicals and rooted in a sense of community, and a more contemporary one that eschews community in favor of the individual. 

 

Putatively framed as a present-versus-fantasy-world-based-in-the-past thing makes the whole exercise seem pretty anodyne, but stand just off to one side and squint a little and it’s not hard to see it as what happens when smug urbanites happen to wander beyond the castle walls and go out into the countryside to mingle with the peasants. There’s so much I could say about that but I’m really biding my time and hoping the series has the courage to mix things up a little and show some understanding of those forgotten parts of the country and doesn’t become yet another exercise in coastal elitism (like, say, Space Force), just adding another echo to a chamber already deafening with noise.  

 

Maybe the most interesting thing about the production, though, is its claustrophobia. You expect a movie musical to feel big and lavish, but Schmigadoon! feels intimate, even squeezed, with no effort made to hide the scaled-down nature of the main set (or of the town’s populace) and with the dancers forced right up against the edges of the frame, with barely an inch of room to spare. Part of this is an extension of the aesthetic Sonnenfeld explored through his Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix, shooting the whole series on a soundstage and deliberately emphasizing its staginess, which made it feel like a throwback to early cinema—as in really early cinema—giving it a Black Maria/Victorian feel. Deployed here, it makes the action seem constricted, like it’s all playing out inside a Cornell box. Again, it’s too early in the series to know if this will pay off, but it’s undeniably intriguing. 

 

So far, I haven’t been real happy with how that approach has been translated into the audio mix, where all of the voices are tightly focused and upfront, with none of the sense of space you’d expect with ensemble numbers. But it’s a strategy that may yet justify its existence. 

 

There are some surprising choices with the color palette as well. You expect Technicolor—what you get is a kind of candy striping, with pumped-up whites (of all things), which, again, makes this feel way more Victorian than Studio Era. (The 4K/Dolby Vision presentation, with the surprising exception of a couple of soft frames, is sharp and vivid throughout, although there have been a few moments that seemed a tad too video-like.)

 

Sorry to have hedged so many of my bets, but it’s impossible (or at least irresponsible) to say anything definitive based on incomplete information. Schmigadoon! is worth a look—it’s diverting enough and may yet morph into something more substantial. But at this point, your guess at where it’s going to land is as good as mine.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Ray (2021)

Ray (2021)

I need to cop to some ignorance right from the giddy-up: I’m not familiar with the literary works of beloved director, documentarian, illustrator, and composer Satyajit Ray. As such, I’m not really in a position to judge the fidelity of Netflix’ Ray, a new four-part anthology adapting four of the auteur’s short stories: Bepin Choudhury’s Lapse of Memory, Bahurupi, Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, and Spotlight. All I can really tell you is whether or not the series stands on its own.

 

And the answer to that is, unfortunately, a bit complicated. Judged as a mini-series—and Netflix certainly pushes that interpretation by referring to the collection of four shorts as “Season 1″—Ray is a tonally and stylistically inconsistent mess of 

a thing that is unified only by its name.

 

Mind you, there are flashes of brilliance throughout the entire run. With the exception of the fourth short, the performances are captivating across the board. The first three episodes also do a fantastic job of establishing mood and conveying feeling.

 

There’s more that works about those first three episodes than doesn’t. But that’s not really how we determine whether or not something is worth our time, is it? We—well, I should say I, since I can only speak for myself—don’t really sit down and make a list of pros and cons and tally up the results before judging a movie or TV series or whatever the heck Ray is. Instead, I sort of intuitively gauge whether a work gave me more than it took from me.

 

And in that respect, three of the four installments of Ray have to be written off as intriguing failures. The first, “Forget Me Not,” an adaptation of Bepin Choudhury’s Lapse of Memory, does a lot right. It’s beautiful to behold (although perhaps not by videophile standards, since it’s intentionally 

RAY AT A GLANCE

This Netflix anthology of works inspired by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray is highly uneven, but features one standout that more than makes up for the series’ shortcomings. 

 

PICTURE
The third, worthwhile episode is richer, more colorful, warmer, and more vibrant than the other three, with deeper blacks and more penetrating highlights, all accentuated by the Dolby Vision presentation.

 

SOUND     

The music in the third episode is on a whole other level of artistry from the other three, and its mix manages to be atmospheric and inviting instead of over the top and off-putting.

flat and muted) and the acting is sublime. But at 64 minutes, it overstays its welcome. By 45 minutes in, I was ready for it to be over. Soon after that mark, the story shifts to a twist ending that flubs the landing, rendering the entire journey—as worthwhile as it is in spots—unfulfilling. The Dolby Atmos sound mix for “Forget Me Not” is also aggressive to the point of abusiveness.

 

My biggest problem with the second installment, “Bahrupiya,” adapted from the story Bahurupi, is that it’s mean-spirited and depressing, but for no real reason. To drag this short into a wholly Western context that’s borderline unfair, “Bahrupiya” had the potential to be something like Todd Phillips’ Joker, but somewhat more grounded in reality. In fact, it ends up being less so, and it fails to really convey any meaning in the end, aside from some obvious moralizing. Kudos to the makeup and prosthetics departments for some truly world-class work on this one, but it’s simply too soul-sucking to recommend.

 

The third entry, however—”Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa,” based on Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment (aka Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram)—is simply an amazing way to spend 53 minutes. My only complaint is that while other shorts in the series could have benefited from the loss of 20 or 30 minutes of runtime, “Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” could have kept me glued to the screen for at least a couple hours. 

 

This installment was directed by Abhishek Chaubey (showrunner Sayantan Mukherjee helmed the first two and Vasan Bala directed the last), with cinematography by Anuj Rakesh Dhawan, and it’s the latter’s contribution in particular that I’m most smitten with. This simply doesn’t look like any of the other installments in that it’s richer, more colorful, warmer, more vibrant, and benefits from deeper blacks and more penetrating highlights, all of which the Dolby Vision presentation accentuates. 

 

The episode also sounds different from the rest, in that the music is on a whole other level of artistry altogether, and the mix manages to be atmospheric and inviting instead of over the top and off-putting. 

 

By the way, I’m speaking of the original language track there, which is labeled as Hindi, but is in fact a mix of Hindi, English, and Urdu. Skip the English track, the default track when you load up the series for the first time. The dubbing is horrible throughout, but perhaps most importantly for our purposes, the English mix loses a lot of the atmospheric ambience of the original Hindi Atmos track. It’s flatter, more constrained, and less naturalistic. 

 

“Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” is, in many respects, a simple tale. It’s the story of a kleptomaniac singer, something of a local celebrity, who finds himself sharing a train compartment with a fellow traveler from whom he stole a beloved (and ostensibly magical) pocket watch many years past. The bulk of the runtime is devoted to the tension that develops as he first recognizes his old mark, relives the original theft in his vivid imagination, then tries his best to right his old wrong. That’s it, really. That’s the whole story. But it’s told in such an imaginative way that one cannot help but be mesmerized by it all. 

 

The less said about the fourth episode, “Spotlight,” the better.

 

So, my recommendation would be to check out the third episode and skip the rest. Make sure to switch over to the Hindi Atmos track, though. It’s not all in Hindi, mind you—the characters bounce around from language to language, sometimes in the course of a single sentence. And even in the English dub, you’re going to have to turn on the subtitles for at least some of the Urdu exchanges that couldn’t be translated and overdubbed for contextual reasons. 

 

“Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa” is, in many respects, everything you could hope for from a good home theater experience. It looks and sounds fantastic, Netflix’ presentation is unimpeachable, and it’s a lovely little tale to boot. Again, I cannot speak to its fidelity as an adaptation, but as a work of motion-picture entertainment, it’s a lovely and surprising experience from beginning to end. I only wish the other three episodes had been anywhere near as good. But they’re self-contained, so you can safely ignore them.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth (2021)

Generally speaking, I’m not a stickler for accuracy in page-to-screen adaptations. Cinema and TV play by different rules than novels and graphic novels, and trying to translate from the latter to the former with perfect fidelity is a fool’s errand. All I ask when a beloved work of printed fiction is being adapted for audiovisual media is that the tone, spirit, characters, and thematic thrust of the original survive the process mostly intact. You’ll notice I said “generally,” though. Every so often, a TV series like Sweet Tooth comes along that violates every rule of adaptation, yet results in something that surpasses its inspiration in virtually every way.

 

I don’t mean to poo-poo Jeff Lemire’s excellent comic-book series of the same name, which I positively devoured in its initial run a decade ago. But the comic was a grim thing, as most post-apocalyptic horror stories are. It was dark and violent, and while it may have been thoughtful and thought-provoking, the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead proves that you can only 

sustain a grimdark live-action narrative for so long before it becomes fatiguing and nihilistic.

 

Perhaps that’s why showrunner Jim Mickle and executive producers Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey decided to take a cynical horror story and transform it into a decidedly anti-cynical fantasy tale, almost a fable, that nonetheless maintains so much of the emotional complexity of the original. The shift in genre brings with it sweeping changes in the plot, the characters, indeed the themes of the story, but the bones remain the same. Sweet Tooth, in both its forms, tells the story of a world ravaged by a viral pandemic (known as H5G9 onscreen and simply “The Sick” on the page) that wipes out much of the human population, at a time when all new babies born to human parents emerge as human/animal hybrids.

 

As society collapses, most of the remaining humans blame these hybrid children for causing the pandemic, which leads to the children being hunted to near extinction. 

SWEET TOOTH AT A GLANCE

The source material’s grisly horror becomes woodland whimsy in this Netflix tale of half-human/half-animal children trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. 

 

PICTURE
Splashes of rich primary & secondary hues make great use of Dolby Vision’s expanded color gamut, resulting in reference-quality home-cinema eye candy.

 

SOUND     

The aural emphasis is mostly on pitch-perfect dialogue & a wonderfully whimsical score, both of which are well-served by the 5.1 mix.

Macabre stuff, right? It’s not hard to imagine why Lemire took this idea in pretty grisly directions.

 

Mickle doesn’t wholly ignore the dark implications of this story prompt but rather than dwell on them, he rebels against them. The result is a series that is bravely sentimental, boldly heartwarming, and defiantly sweet. 

 

This was a risky decision, because none of it would work if not for the talents of Christian Convery, who plays 10-year-old Gus, a half-deer child whose father sequestered him in a remote wilderness encampment shortly after the world went to hell. While the story does jump around a bit, injecting flashbacks to fill in the mysteries of what happened as the apocalypse was unfolding ten years prior, the brunt of the story revolves around Gus’s first foray into the outside world in a quest to find his mother. 

 

Convery has to do a lot of heavy lifting here, displaying a range of emotions beyond the capabilities of most child actors. But he absolutely nails Gus’s mixture of wide-eyed innocence and dogged determination. We not only see the story unfold mostly from his perspective but we also experience this strange and wonderful world through his eyes. 

 

I won’t spoil much of that here, but there’s one particularly moving moment in the second episode that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the show: While taking refuge with a family who has made a life for themselves in an old ski lodge, Gus hears music for the first time in his life. I can only imagine what sort of direction Mickle (who helmed four of the eight episodes) gave to Convery. How on earth do you prompt a ten-year-old actor to react to music as if he’s never heard it before? How many takes must they have done to get that scene right? I can only speculate. What I can say for sure, though, is that the scene is the embodiment of pure joy, the likes of which you rarely seen onscreen. 

 

If there’s a shortcoming in the show as a whole, it’s that Gus is such a compelling character that the story suffers to a degree when he’s not front and center, when the revelations unfold out of his eyeshot. But that’s a minor quibble, and it’s ameliorated by the gorgeous cinematography and Netflix’ nigh-perfect presentation, which work together to keep the eye engaged even in those rare moments when the heart isn’t. 

 

Rather than the drab post-apocalyptic environs we’re used to seeing in fiction of this sort, the world of Sweet Tooth is gorgeously verdant, with splashes of rich primary and secondary hues that make great use of Dolby Vision’s expanded gamut. The choice to film in New Zealand—despite the setting in the American Mountain West—gives the imagery a vibe that’s at once familiar and slightly askance. The flora doesn’t look quite right. The terrain feels a bit exaggerated. But all of this really works for the feel of the show, and every ounce of it is captured in stunning detail. 

 

There’s really one egregious visual blemish in the entire eight-episode run, and it occurs within the first few minutes of the first episode. In the prologue that establishes the premise—complete with narration by Josh Brolin—there’s about a half-second of posterization on one of the walls in a brightly-lit hospital. The thing is, this sequence is so heavily processed—with secondary hues pushed to their extremes and a dreamlike filter applied to the entire image—that it’s nearly impossible to tell if this is a consequence of bandwidth limitations or a byproduct of post-production. I lean toward the latter, since the rest of the show is downright reference-quality home-cinema eye candy. 

 

Some might be disappointed at the lack of an Atmos soundtrack but the series doesn’t really need it. True, some height-channel enhancements might have added to the immersiveness of the sequences set in the wilderness. But by and large, the series is a lot lighter on action than you might expect (much more so than the trailer would indicate), and the aural emphasis is mostly on pitch-perfect dialogue and a wonderfully whimsical score, both of which are well-served by the 5.1 mix. 

 

It’s difficult to know for sure whether you’ll like Sweet Tooth. You do, after all, have to have a stomach for outright weirdness and vulnerable sincerity in equal measures. If you dig Adventure Time, Where the Wild Things, and Pushing Daisies, it’s probably right up your alley. Granted, if I had a kid under the age of 10, I probably wouldn’t let them watch the series due to a few tense and scary moments here and there (most of which are in the aforementioned trailer). But for everyone else, it’s family entertainment of the best sort. 

 

My only concern is that if the show gets picked up for a second season—and it almost certainly will, given its popularity and cliffhanger ending—I hope it manages to hang onto its optimism, tenderness, and wide-eyed sense of wonder. We need more of that on TV, now more than ever.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Star Wars: The Bad Batch (2021)

Beginnings definitely aren’t Dave Filoni’s strong suit. As much as I’ve raved about his efforts on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that show took at least a season to find its footing. The followup, Rebels, also went through an awkward adolescence before developing into another incredible series—seriously some of the best Star Wars storytelling in the Disney era. 

 

As the architect of the galaxy far, far away in the animated domain, Filoni puts a lot of faith in his audience’s ability to invest in a long game, but the flipside is that we in the audience have to put a lot of faith in him, to trust that things will pay off in the 

end. And they always do, at least so far. What, then, to make of the fact that The Bad Batch, the latest Star Wars series to spin from Filoni’s mind, starts off pretty darned good?

 

Before we dig too deeply into the execution of this new Disney+ series, let’s get some horse-race stuff out of the way for those of you who are interested. The Bad Batch is a direct sequel to The Clone Wars. In fact, the first four episodes of the seventh season of TCW—which aired on Disney+ last year, five years after the show’s original premature cancelation—served as a transparent backdoor pilot for this show, which follows the trials and tribulations of a squad of rogue clones in the earliest days of the Galactic Empire.

 

The first episode overlaps with the final four episodes of The Clone Wars and the third act of Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, which is starting to become pretty well-worn territory in the new Star Wars canon. But rather than use 

BAD BATCH AT A GLANCE

This Disney+ followup to Clone Wars and Rebels hits its stride pretty early on for a Star Wars animated series. 

 

PICTURE
The animators take advantage of HDR to extensively explore light and shadow, resulting in one of the best uses of Dolby Vision in a cartoon to date.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack alternates between an intimate center-channel-heavy mix and a more bombastic, surround-channel-friendly affair that puts you right in the middle of the action.

the fall of the Republic, destruction of the Jedi, and rise of the Empire as a denouement or conclusion, the new show uses them as a jumping-off point, which quickly leads into territory that hasn’t been explored in live-action or animation.

 

Not to drop too much geekiness on your screen here but what makes Clone Force 99 (aka The Bad Batch) special is that they’re defective (or “deviant,” in their own words), and as such immune to the programming that causes the Clone Army to become proto-Stormtroopers in the new Empire. Each has a mutation that gives him a special skill but also makes him less controllable. And you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to guess that their uniqueness will eventually put them at odds with the new totalitarian regime. 

 

Neither do you have to be too observant—although perhaps you do need to be of a certain age—to recognize that this Bad Batch shares a lot of similarities with another group of small-screen anti-heroes, The A-Team, as well as big-screen misfits like The Dirty Dozen.

 

In the two episodes that have aired thus far—the 75-minute “Aftermath” and the 30-minute “Cut and Run”—we don’t really get a sense of what if any role this unruly team will serve in the impending rebellion. In fact, we don’t really get much of a sense of what the show’s formula will be, aside from the “formed family on the run from the Man” trope already explored in Rebels. 

 

But that sort of doesn’t matter—at least not yet. The Bad Batch doesn’t stand or fall on a unique premise. What makes the show work already is that it has established a consistent tone and style in just two episodes, something Clone Wars and Rebels fumbled around with for a bit too long. It also seems to already know what it’s about—mainly, the internal tug-of-war that arises from being an iconoclast searching for a purpose and a meaningful role in a society that seems to be falling apart.

 

In terms of its look, the series definitely builds on the foundation of Clone Wars, relying on similar character models and generally following the trend of taking a sort of Gerry Anderson-esque “Supermarionation” vibe and injecting a healthy dose of articulation and fluidity into the animation. 

 

Computing power has, of course, come a long way since Clone Wars first hit screens in 2008, though, and Filoni and his team don’t seem compelled to stick to the style of that series slavishly. The animation in The Bad Batch is much more detailed, and the backgrounds in particular benefit from much more richness, depth, and sophistication. 

 

Perhaps the most striking thing about the visuals, though, is the way the imagery benefits from high dynamic range. The Bad Batch was created from the ground up for exhibition on Disney+, not broadcast TV, and as such has much more freedom to use shadows and light in interesting and effective ways. It remains to be seen if it maintains this Botticellian chiaroscuro aesthetic as it moves into new and unexplored environments—and it seems it will—but it already represents among the best application of Dolby Vision in animation to date. 

 

Big props are also owed to composer Kevin Kiner, who returns to deliver a very different musical landscape from those he developed for Clone Wars and Rebels. With the former series, his music skewed heavily toward a Star Wars prequel-era style, and with the latter he had to at least evoke the music of the original trilogy. With The Bad Batch, though, he has managed to create a new and different musical language that nonetheless feels perfect for the franchise. There’s a mix of traditional and experimental, of orchestral and electronic, that feels like Star Wars without aping John Williams or Ludwig Goransson or even Kiner’s own previous work in this universe. 

 

The sound mixers seem to realize that they have something special to work with in Kiner’s score, because they give it oodles of room to breathe, both spatially and proportionally. At its most intimate, the sound mix is a center-speaker-heavy affair. At its most bombastic, it uses the entire Dolby Atmos soundscape to drop you right into the conflict. For the most part, though, it’s a three-channel, front-heavy mix, with dialogue following the characters from left to right across the screen and Kiner’s music filling the front soundstage, leaking into the surrounds to give it some ambience and an additional sense of space.

 

In short, The Bad Batch is an audiovisual treat of the best kind. And while the series itself hasn’t quite risen to the narrative or thematic heights of its predecessors, it’s off to a consistently entertaining start, which is something that couldn’t be said of Filoni’s previous animated Star Wars adventures. It also seems to be playing things a little safe at the moment, trying too hard at times to recreate the magic of its predecessors. If it can break out of that rut (and knowing Filoni’s past work, I have every reason to suspect that it will), The Bad Batch has the potential to be something truly great. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: The Flash

The Flash

I like my comic book heroes in red. Since I was a kid (a gentleman never tells, but it was during the Silver Age of Comics), my favorite comics character has been The Flash. I was drawn to him (the Barry Allen Flash—there have been several Flashes in comics lore) because of then-writer John Broome’s explanations of the science behind The Flash’s speed, and his gadgets (like the Flash suit that would pop out of Barry Allen’s ring and expand upon contact with the air), and the weapons the villains used. Even the outlandish stuff had its roots in plausibility, and as a kid, I was fascinated.

 

For those unfamiliar, Barry Allen is a police investigator imbued with the ability to move at incredible speed after a laboratory accident. Taking on the role of superhero The Flash, he devotes himself to fighting crime and other injustices.

 

Historically, the movies and TV haven’t been all that kind to The Fastest Man Alive. (I’ll leave out his various appearances via animation.) The original 1990 TV series starring John Wesley Shipp was more than a little too campy (though Shipp made a 

perfect Barry Allen), and the forced humor made the series feel as if it was embarrassed by itself. While he certainly gave a convincing performance, I found Ezra Miller’s wise-guy turn as The Scarlet Speedster in Justice League to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the original character—and make no mistake, icons like The Flash are ingrained into the pop-culture cosmos, and how they’re portrayed matters.

 

The current The Flash CW TV series, now in its seventh season, is much better than any previous small- and big-screen incarnations and in fact is really good, save the occasional moments of dumbness and some clunker episodes. (This season’s “The One With The Nineties” is particularly cringeworthy.) Grant Gustin stars as Barry Allen/The Flash, and brings a winning combination of charm, nerdiness, self-doubt, and enthusiasm to the role. His thin, muscular build is perfect for The Flash, evoking the coiled-spring energy of a whippet. (And man

THE FLASH AT A GLANCE

Now in its seventh season, this series is, if not true to the letter then entertainingly true to the spirit of the original comic.

 

PICTURE
Beautifully shot, with vivid colors and a wide-open feel—a refreshing change from the dark look of so many other comics movies and shows.

 

SOUND     

The sound effects complement the eye-popping visuals, with whooshes, rumbles, weapons fire, lightning strikes, and sonic mayhem galore.

is that suit tight—no room for pandemic binge-eating!) Candice Patton is absolutely wonderful as Iris West-Allen, far more than just The Hero’s Love Interest, showing a strength, independence, and intelligence, while also being totally enamored with Barry.

 

The cast has changed over the years, with Tom Cavanagh (particularly delightful in various incarnations of scientist/adventurer Harrison Wells), Carlos Valdes (Cisco Ramon/Vibe, Flash’s friend and conscience and all-around irresistible techno-geek), Danielle Panabaker (Caitlin Snow/Killer Frost), Jesse L. Martin (Joe West, father of Iris and Wally West/Kid Flash) and Danielle Nicolet (Cecile West, Joe’s wife) as the other recurring main characters. Other current Team Flash cast members include Kayla Compton (Allegra Garcia, cub reporter and wielder of electromagnetic energy), Efrat Dor (Eva McCulloch/Mirror Monarch, ruler of an alternate universe), and Brandon McKnight (Chester P. Runk, a goofy young scientist rescued from a failed experiment and rehabilitated by the team).

 

Naturally, Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone. While the series remains largely faithful to the premise and spirit of the comics, purists may bristle at some of the changes. Instead of being struck by lightning and bathed in chemicals in a lab accident, Barry gains his speed via a particle accelerator accident at S.T.A.R. Labs, which also creates other “metahumans”—both heroes like Vibe and King Shark (c’mon, the coolest superhero name ever), and the Rogues Gallery of new and classic Flash villains like the Reverse Flash, Abra Kadabra, The Trickster (played by Mark Hamill!), and Gorilla Grodd. Iris West is black, not the sleek blonde sophisticate of the comics. Joe West is Barry’s foster father, nonexistent in the original comics but which, admittedly, creates a complex dynamic between Barry, Iris, and Joe that the series explores with surprising depth. The Top and Mirror Monarch are women, not men.

 

But many important details are the same—the fictional Central City is still the main locale, and (well, this is important to me) the Flash’s costume is largely faithful to the original, sleek and skin-tight, not like that gawd-awful suit of armor the movie-Flash is burdened with. Then there’s the Speed Force, a crucial element in both the comic and the TV series. (I won’t give any more about that away here.)

 

The actors are all convincing in their roles, and likable, although keep in mind this is a CW series, so the mandatory twentysomething angst is ladled on all-too-thickly at times in all of its trademark CW soap-opera excess. There is much drama with a capital D and contemplation of The Meaning of Life and What It Means to Be a Hero. The recurring theme of The Flash bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders (in one story arc, almost literally) can get tedious at times.

 

With all that said, what really makes The Flash stand out is its heart. It’s far from being a one-dimensional, well, comic book series. It’s got humor and charm without being goofy, and it’s easy to really care about the characters. Over the course of seven seasons (with the seventh still in progress and an eighth on tap), there have been several richly-detailed story arcs with powerful characterizations and plot motivations, along with some genuinely moving moments. (The ending of Season One is devastating.) The love between Barry and Iris, and the affection of the members of Team Flash for each other, is touching, with real emotional depth.

 

But hey, a comic book series is all about escapism. And there’s plenty of it in The Flash. The special effects are literally dazzling. When the Flash runs, he looks terrific, with blurred motion, lightning streaking, and the world dizzyingly whizzing by. The special effects are mostly fantastic, some instances of cheesy CGI notwithstanding. (Was this season’s rendering of Fuerza a pandemic-induced rush job?)

 

The villains are by turn outrageous, disturbing, over the top, fun, self-parodying, or a little of all of that—grab the popcorn and enjoy the ride. The series is beautifully shot, with vivid colors and a wide-open feel—you won’t see many claustrophobic, grainy interiors here. It’s a refreshing change from the dark look of so many other comics movies and shows. And this being CW, the actors and actresses are . . . not hard to look at. The recurring gag of Cisco getting to name The Flash’s villains is a repeatedly funny schtick. The sound effects really complement the eye-popping visuals and the Sultan of Speed’s fleet-footed flights, with whooshes, rumbles, weapons fire, lightning strikes, and sonic mayhem galore. Fun stuff!

 

About that humor and pseudo-science: Clearly, the writers aren’t taking themselves too seriously. Some of the explanations for the metahumans’ powers, and how to defeat them, are so preposterous they must be nod-and-a-wink intentional. Whether this makes you chuckle or snort, YMMV. In one scene, Team Flash takes great pains to break into a lab to recover some dark matter, required to power some critically-needed device. After a brief search, they find what they’re looking for in a small suitcase labeled, “Dark Matter—Handle With Care.” Well, duh! But the square, straitlaced Golden Age Barry Allen would never play in today’s world.

 

Here I am, an old guy watching a comic-book character. Unapologetically. And enjoying the heck out of it. Would I think The Flash was a dumb show if I was a child, or teenager, or Gen whatever-er? Who knows? Who cares?

 

If you’re looking to get a break from pandemic world or migraine-inducing cable news or a bad day at the home office, delving into The Flash may be a respite you’ll enjoy. Let the Speed Force be with you.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Review: The Muppet Show

The Muppet Show

When a series like The Muppet Show drops on a streaming platform like Disney+, most people have a tendency to consume it in one of two ways. The vast majority probably head straight for their favorite episodes. In this case, “The Stars of Star Wars” and appearances by Carol Burnett, Alice Cooper, and Paul Simon are almost certainly going to be zooming their way down the Information Superhighway to thousands if not millions of homes this week. And chances are good that, after getting their Greatest Hits nostalgia kick, a lot of folks will forget that the beloved variety show is even there for the streaming by the end of the month.

 

Another approach is to start with the first episode and binge right through to the end. But let’s be honest with ourselves, Muppets fans: The first season of the series was not its best by a long shot. It took a while for Henson and crew to find the 

vibe they were shooting for.

 

So, how should you approach the five seasons’ worth of episodes now streaming on Disney+? I think you should go way off the beaten path. Start with Glenda Jackson’s appearance in Season Five.

 

Who? Yeah, no, I don’t know, either. Apparently, she was an actor of merit back in the ’70s, but I’ve never seen either of the films for which she received Academy Award nominations (1970’s Women in Love and 1973’s A Touch of Class). Call me an uncultured oaf. I’m OK with that.

 

For me, though, Jackson will always be the actor who appeared in the most off-the-rails episode of The Muppet Show ever made. Legend has it that most celebrities slated to appear on the show were a bit diva-ish in their demands, and most wanted to work first and foremost with Miss 

MUPPETS AT A GLANCE

The show hits Disney+ in its original edits, uncensored (although not free of warnings).

 

PICTURE
Despite being 1970s video upgraded to HD, the images are shockingly vibrant (if a bit bleedy), but marred by some really egregious edge enhancement.

 

SOUND     

The mono soundtrack is as rich and full-fidelity as one could hope for, and the musical numbers in particular sound fantastic.

Piggy. Jackson, on the other hand, left the writers to their own devices, resulting in a ridiculous romp that strains the boundaries between Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral. It’s a glimpse at what the show could have been had it not been a cultural phenomenon and a bit of a vanity project for the celebrity of the week. Of course, had it not been a cultural phenomenon, odds are we still wouldn’t be talking about it today, nor would Disney+ be spiffing it up for a big streaming release.

 

Well, “spiffing” might not be the right word. The video masters have been upsampled to HD, but given that the show was shot on videocassette in the mid-1970s and early ’80s, you should keep your expectations in check. There are no original film elements to restore here.

 

Still, colors are shockingly vibrant (if a bit bleedy at times) and aside from some really egregious edge enhancement in spots (an artifact of the master tapes or the work of a heavy-handed archivist, I don’t know), the show looks better than you might expect. It’s certainly an upgrade over the DVD releases, even if things like the occasional aliasing in blue-screen comps and some moiré artifacts and chromatic aberrations are more noticeable in 1080p. 

 

So I’ll give the video a solid B. It’s easy to appreciate that The Muppet Show looks as good as it ever has and significantly better in spots. But it’s also a little distracting at times to watch at cinematic proportions. If you have a TV in the den or family 

The Muppet Show

room, it might be kinder (to the show and your eyes) to do your watching there rather than in the home theater. Thankfully, though, the monophonic soundtrack is as rich and full-fidelity as one could hope for, and the musical numbers in particular sound fantastic, despite the lack of stereo mixing.

 

Hardcore fans of the series will appreciate that Disney+ presents the original UK edits of most of the episodes. Remember, US networks originally rejected the show, so it was produced in England by ATV and aired in the US in first-run syndication, where one short musical number was generally cut for length, since we in the Colonies have to suffer through more commercials per hour. One or two of the episodes I spot-checked seemed a bit short to be the full UK originals, but it could be that other edits had to be made due to music rights issues. Only a couple of episodes seem to be missing entirely, best I can tell. The bottom line is that this appears to be the most complete and intact presentation of the show to date.

 

Interestingly, even episodes that have been outright 

censored on all previous home video releases are presented in their entirety here. (Although I did notice that the Jim Nabors episode, one of the few I’ve had a chance to stream from beginning to end, does start with a brief textual intro about racist stereotypes and the decision not to censor those segments. When I returned to that episode to transcribe the content advisory, it didn’t appear, so such warnings seem to be a “first time you watch it” sort of thing.)

 

At any rate, that’s not the point of this diatribe. The point is, The Muppet Show is such a delightfully offbeat time capsule, a snapshot of a bygone era before Jim Henson’s creation became a little too safe and a little too kid-friendly and its alignment started the inevitable shift toward Neutral Good for a few decades—ironically due in part to the influence of Disney. So I implore you not to approach it the way you’re probably inclined to. Start with an episode from a guest star you’ve never heard of. There has to be at least one.

 

Hell, take my lead and start with Glenda Jackson’s episode, just to get a taste of what head writer Jerry Juhl was capable of when allowed to run wild. Whatever you do, though, don’t treat this Disney+ release like a Greatest Hits collection. There are some truly amazing deep cuts here I think you’ll find legitimately surprising and occasionally shocking.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: The Snoopy Show

The Snoopy Show (2021)

One of the things I love about Roku is the ability to quickly and easily customize its home screen. Find yourself watching content from one app more than any other? Just click the asterisk and move it closer to the top of the screen. Left cold by the offerings of another streaming service? Bump it down in the list, perhaps to page two or three. It seems a little trivial, but I use the arrangement of apps as a metric for deciding whether or not to cancel streaming subscriptions. If I have to scroll down past the topmost three and a half rows of icons to get to an app, that app is no longer worth paying for.

I only mention that because, after having watched The Snoopy Show, Apple TV+ has moved up from the precarious ninth position (right near the bottom of the screen at bootup) and is now resting more comfortably on the second row of icons, just below YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+.

 

Not to put too fine a point on it but The Snoopy Show is better than it has any right to be. And if that seems a little harsh, think back to when you first heard that Apple would be producing new Peanuts animated specials. Was your initial reaction even slightly hopeful? If so, I wish I could bottle your optimism.

 

But maybe I’m just jaded. Thanks to Ronald Reagan’s reign of deregulation, I grew up in the era of cartoons as commercials, when every 22-minute animated romp—

SNOOPY AT A GLANCE

Both family-friendly and charmingly weird, this Apple TV+ series presents the new adventures of everybody’s favorite cartoon beagle without lapsing into franchise-itis.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe.

 

SOUND     

It’s a shame the score doesn’t aspire to be anything more than poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi.

whether it aired on Saturday mornings or after school—was trying to sell me all manner of things I immediately begged my parents to buy. Robots in Disguise. Real American Heroes. Whatever M.A.S.K. was about. And, in the case of The Peanuts, Dolly Madison snacks, Coke, and Mickey D’s. (Although, to be fair, that last one wasn’t Reagan’s fault—that was true from the giddy-up.)

 

We’re in the midst of something of a cartoon renaissance, though. Kids today (and yes, it hurts my soul to type those words) have an embarrassment of legitimately good, kid-friendly, non-propagandist episodic animation to devour, from Steven Universe to Craig of the Creek to Hilda and Infinity Train, and it’s only been a couple of years since Adventure Time ended its run as one of the hands-down best TV series of the past 50 years.

 

Given that this is the environment The Snoopy Show is parachuting into, perhaps my expectations should have been a little higher. But I’m still honestly shocked that the creative talents behind this new Apple-exclusive series have put so much effort into making it so darned good.

 

Its virtues begin with its animation, which is both an homage to the classic Peanuts animated specials and a loving upgrade of their style. The characters themselves seem pulled straight from Sparky Schulz’s pen, and although the foreground animation has been giving a big boost (both in draftsmanship and resolution), there’s still something incredibly comfortable about the way Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the gang are animated. The herky-jerky, overly dramatic body language for which 

everyone’s favorite cartoon beagle is known translates beautifully into this new world of cartoons.

 

The background art, meanwhile, is a whole new ballgame. The canvas upon which these little animated adventures take place is of a quality quite unlike anything we saw in Peanuts specials of yore. There’s some Looney Tunes influence, for sure, especially in the way the background artists play with 

abstractions and intentional registration errors. There’s also some obvious homage to the earliest Peanuts Sunday strips, before everything got simplified down to flat secondary colors. The Dolby Vision presentation of The Snoopy Show, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe without banding.

 

But what impresses me most about the imagery is that the background artists have cobbled their influences and inspiration into something unique, with a character of its own, and of a quality you just don’t expect to see outside of feature-length animation.

 

It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of the music. Composer Jeff Morrow seems content to play a poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi here, aping the musical style of the old animated specials without taking any risks. Classics like “Linus and Lucy” may seem in hindsight to be an essential element of the Peanuts, but it’s important to remember that laying down a jazz soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas was a creative risk at the time. The studio suits thought it would never fly. So while Morrow’s soundtrack feels comfortable, and is incredibly well-recorded and mixed, it’s not really true to the spirit of what 

Guaraldi and producer Lee Mendelson were aiming for with the music of that original special and its increasingly less-interesting followups.

 

That’s really the only bummer of note here. I could also grumble about the fact that some of the Peanuts gang have been voiced by actors who fail to capture the old-soul timbre I associate with the characters, but 1) that’s more of an observation than a criticism and 2) the humans are really the 

The Snoopy Show (2021)

secondary characters here. As its name implies, The Snoopy Show is about Charlie Brown’s canine companion, not Charlie Brown himself. And the focus on Snoopy (and Woodstock) results in a genuinely chaotic vibe that I just love to pieces.

 

Yes, the show still captures the existentialism inherent to The Peanuts (and in that respect, it hews closer to the comic strip than previous animated efforts), but given the rich imagination for which Snoopy is known, and the fantasy worlds he famously inhabits, the shift in focus away from the human gang and toward the pup results in a commensurate shift toward the whimsical and downright weird.

 

As such, there isn’t always a clearly defined narrative arc to the three eight-minute vignettes that make up each episode, nor is there any continuity between them. Each is its own little universe. One entire short is dedicated to Snoopy trying to cool off on a hot day. Another is entirely about his spastic and unselfconscious dancing. The latter, by the way, is one of the few vignettes to have any sort of overt moral, but it echoes the more covert ideology that permeates the series so far: Life may suck sometimes, but it’s a lot more bearable if we choose to actively rebel against the darkness and embrace the goodness and joy and goofiness in the world.

 

That may not be profound but it’s true to Schulz’s creation, and it gives The Snoopy Show a timeless quality that’s rare, even in this new golden age of children’s animated programming. It also means that the series isn’t insufferable when viewed through adult eyes. This is one of those rare shows parents might actually enjoy just as much as their little ones.

 

And that’s not purely a function of nostalgia. Part of it is the fact that the show never panders to anyone. There’s some stuff here that will fly straight over the heads of anyone under 10, but that’s okay. There’s certainly nothing inappropriate for such young eyes and ears. I just can’t imagine our young niece laughing at the same things that made my wife and me chortle.

 

Will you enjoy it as much as we did? I can’t say for sure. The missus and I are both overgrown kids and weirdos to boot. But I hope you do. Because as fanciful (and mischievous!) as it is, the world needs more cartoons like The Snoopy Show.

 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Baumgartner Restoration

Baumgartner Restoration

I certainly don’t mean to diminish the larger economic or societal impacts of COVID-19, nor do I mean any disrespect to the two-plus million people whose lives have been lost so far. But as an entertainment writer, one of the most fascinating things about this pandemic is the way it has changed our viewing habits. And sure, you can chalk some of that up to the relative lack of new movies, but that alone isn’t enough to explain why a 20-year-old fantasy trilogy became one of the most persistent 

pop-cultural phenomena of 2020 or why its 4K re-release has so defied all studio expectations in terms of sales that it’s still nearly impossible to find at retail. People need comfort viewing right now, perhaps more than ever.

 

That said, you can’t exactly spend all your free time watching a 12-plus-hour fantasy epic over and over again. At least I can’t. Sometimes I need a shorter break from the real world—something that allows me to quick-charge my batteries so I can face reality again with renewed strength.

 

As of late, my favorite pick-me-up is a wonderful little YouTube show I’ve mentioned in passing from time to time over the past few years: Baumgartner Restoration. If you’re not familiar with the show, it falls firmly into a genre of YouTube series about fixing old stuff, most of which are hosted by amateurs with specific passions for Matchbox Cars or antique tools or vintage Star Wars collectibles.

RESTORATION AT A GLANCE

This YouTube series goes beyond providing an opportunity to watch the restoration of rarely seen works of art to become an exercise in mindfulness.

 

PICTURE

The 4K presentation is ripe with detail and begs to be seen at something approaching true-to-life scale, if not larger.

 

SOUND

Although the audio is primarily meant to deliver Baumgartner’s dulcet narration and the delicate sounds of his work, it still deserves to be heard on the best possible system.

Unlike the legions of YouTubers scrubbing rust off of old can openers with WD-40, though, Julian Baumgartner—the host of Baumgartner Restoration—Is the second-generation owner of the oldest private fine-art conservation studio in Chicago. And there’s a lot to unpack in that sentence because the real appeal of the show isn’t simply that it’s a restoration series. A big draw for me, as an art lover, is that the private nature of Baumgartner’s business means he gets to restore—and we the 

viewers get to see—all manner of gorgeous paintings that will never hang in a museum, and as such perhaps never otherwise make into the public consciousness. And that includes works by artists as well known as Norman Rockwell.

 

Another draw is that Baumgartner doesn’t merely restore damaged or time-worn paintings on his channel, he also meticulously narrates every step of the process, revealing why, for instance, he might use one type of 

solvent to remove a varnish on this particular painting when he used a completely different type of solvent on another. In a quirky kind of way, it’s a lesson in critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific thought. He takes nothing for granted, treats every problem as a learning experience, and most importantly he values his failures as learning experiences every bit as much as he values his successes.

 

I should back up for just a second here, because everything I said in the preceding paragraph only applies to the episodes Baumgartner narrates. Many times, he’ll actually upload two completely different versions of his restoration videos—one accompanied by narration and another completely devoid of explanation. The latter, which he labels “ASMR Videos“—a reference to autonomous sensory meridian response, a term for the pleasure some people derive from listening to soft, tactile sounds—carry soundtracks that consist of little more than the sounds of scraping, wiping, painting, and varnishing, along with the occasional light classical-music accompaniment.

 

And from the description alone, you might assume these are the videos I pull up when I’m having trouble going to sleep. Far from it, in fact. I find Baumgartner’s ASMR videos reinvigorating in the most peaceful way possible. It’s like I’m really,

seriously hyper-mindful of how calm I am while watching them, if that makes a lick of sense.

 

Whether you opt for the narrated or unnarrated videos, by the way, do what you can to watch the series on the biggest and best screen in the house instead of your laptop or—heaven forbid—your smartphone. Baumgartner Restoration is beautifully (although practically and functionally) shot, with a focus on the

art and the work Julian does to it. The 4K presentation is ripe with detail and begs to be seen at something approaching true-to-life scale, if not larger.

 

Via a good streaming device, like the Roku Ultra, the series is delivered virtually artifact-free, with good contrast and great color reproduction. I only wish it were delivered in HDR10 (or, at a minimum, HLG high dynamic range), not necessarily for the increases in peak brightness but more to bring out the subtle chromatic variations in the artwork.

 

The audio, like the video, is more utilitarian than artful in its mixing and presentation, since the goal here is to deliver Baumgartner’s dulcet narration and the delicate sounds of his work, and that’s about it. That said, there’s still a good case to be made for listening via a good sound system since there is quite a bit of dynamic variation in the soundtrack, quiet as it is, and you’ll certainly miss out on a lot of subtlety when listening through cheap computer speakers or—again, heaven forbid—the tiny speakers in your mobile device.

 

More than anything else, what makes Baumgartner Restoration such a beloved and indeed necessary show for me, especially right now, is that Julian has the sort of calming demeanor we haven’t really seen much of since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired its final episode in 2001. At a time when life feels like a firehose of strife, hatred, turmoil, and uncertainty, dipping into an episode of Baumgartner Restoration for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes at a time feels like taking a break to sip from a babbling brook of serenity and Zen. Yes, it’s moderately educational. Yes, it’s somewhat edifying, getting to see these works of art that I likely wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise. But if I’m being entirely honest, those are more side benefits than anything else. They’re icing. The real cake, at least for me, is that Baumgartner Restoration is an oasis of calm in a world that seems increasingly anything but.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: WandaVision

WandaVision

Since the 2014 release of Captain America: Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios has built up an increasing stockpile of trust with superhero-movie fans by pretty consistently cranking out entertaining action romps that span the genre spectrum from intense ’70s-style espionage thrillers to intergalactic comedies to dramatic epics and everything in between. With WandaVision, the studio is spending that trust on an offbeat experiment that will, in retrospect, be seen as either as massive success or an 

embarrassing failure. And two episodes into its nine-episode run, it’s nearly impossible to tell which of those outcomes is more likely.

 

The Disney+ limited series represents a few firsts for Marvel Studios. It’s their first episodic short-form production (earlier, tenuously connected TV shows like the pointless Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were produced by Marvel Television, a separate subsidiary studio). It’s their first foray into the so-

WANDAVISION AT A GLANCE

Marvel Studios’ attempt to run old sitcoms through the superhero mill in this limited-run Disney+ series might turn out to be a huge success—or a massive failure.

called Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and reportedly serves as the first in a trilogy of connected stories that will continue in Jon Watts’ upcoming Spider-Man sequel and conclude with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s also the first MCU product of any sort released since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.

 

But perhaps most importantly, it’s the first time Marvel Studios has placed anywhere near this much trust in the intelligence and patience of its audience. And I say that because anyone who tells you they fully understand what’s going on here either has insider information or they’re lying their asses off.

 

WandaVision is, in one sense, a portrayal of the supposedly idyllic home life of Wanda Maximoff and the Vision, two star-crossed lovers whose first big-screen appearance was in the otherwise forgettable Avengers: Age of Ultron (one of the studio’s few truly bad movies post-Winter Soldier). The problem, of course, is that we saw the Vision die an awful death in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War—first at the hands of Wanda herself then through some temporal trickery at the hands of Phase Three’s big bad, Thanos.

 

So the fact that he’s seemingly alive and mostly well in WandaVision is our first clue that something is amiss here. But it’s far from the last and hardly the biggest. A much more blatant clue that not all is as it seems is that the series is produced in the style of classic sitcoms, starting with a pitch-perfect homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show (Van Dyke himself was a consultant and influenced a number of creative decisions, including the choice to shoot with vintage lenses and lighting and to produce the first episode in front of a live studio audience), then bleeding into time-capsule recreations of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and—if the series’ trailer is any indication—going forward in time as the story unfolds, paying loving homage to newer and newer half-hour TV shows until . . .

 

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Where is this all going? What’s the point of this classic-TV homage?

 

Fans of the comics that inspired the series—most notably the fantastic The Vision and the Scarlet Witch mini-series from the ’80s, the heartbreaking House of M from the early aughts, and the brilliant-but-batsh— -insane Vision standalone series from 2015-2016—certainly have a clue as to what’s going on here. Or at least we think we do.

 

From my perspective, it seems blatantly obvious that WandaVision is a story about what happens when someone with the ability to manipulate the very fabric of reality becomes so stricken with grief that they form a new reality around them. And there are clues sprinkled throughout the first two episodes that this is exactly what’s going on. Wanda, unable to process the horror of losing her one true love—indeed, of being forced to kill him herself—has snapped. Unable to cope with the real world, she creates her own world to occupy, a world whose picket fences and goofball antics are all informed by the classic sitcoms she saw in her youth. It’s important to remember that Wanda grew up in war-torn Eastern Europe, and as such never had the idyllic suburban life she’s attempting to fabricate. So any sort of normal life is, for her, purely fantasy.

 

So it makes sense that when reality begins to intrude upon that fantasy, she rejects it, once again reforming the world around her into something she can once again cope with. We see this at one point when Wanda simple exclaims, “No!” and literally rewinds the tape on her sitcom life, only to reshape it into something a little more colorful and a little more congruous with her 

unexpected pregnancy.

 

It all sounds a little trite, but series creator/writer Jac Schaeffer and Episode 1 & 2 director Matt Shakman so fully and sincerely commit to the classic Dick Van Dyke Show/ Bewitched/I Dream of Jeannie tone, style, presentation, and aesthetic for so much of the running time—without a hint of spoof or parody—that you can’t help but be drawn into it. When the series ventures more toward Twilight Zone territory, as it does when

Wanda’s grasp on her faux-reality begins to slip, it’s as disconcerting for the viewer as it is for the characters.

 

Of course, that’s simply my take after two episodes. It’s entirely possible MCU mastermind Kevin Feige has constructed a trap for us comic-book fans, leading us astray with red herrings before yanking the rug out from under our collective feet, leaving us exactly as disoriented as I would imagine most casual viewers are after having sat through the first two episode of this weird experiment. Maybe this isn’t all Wanda’s delusion. Maybe she isn’t shaping reality around her. Maybe it’s—who knows?—aliens tinkering with her brain. Or maybe it’s a Truman Show sort of thing.

 

All I can say for sure is that, two episodes in, I’m utterly intrigued by WandaVision and can’t wait for it all to unfold. My first inclination was to think that perhaps Disney+ should have broken with tradition and dumped all nine episodes into our laps at once. The more I think about, though, the more I realize the weeklong break between episodes is an absolute necessity, giving me time to re-watch, to ponder, to reflect, and indeed to discuss what’s happened thus far before diving into the next chapter in this slow-burn psychological mystery.

 

Again, by the time all nine episodes are available, it could all end up being one big exercise in pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook, à la Tenet. Or it could be one of the most brilliant TV series to come along in years. And the wait to find out which it is consumes me like an itch I just can’t quite reach. But for now, I find myself in a Schrödinger’s Cat superposition of fascination and skepticism. It’s difficult for me to imagine any corporate machine pulling off an act of truly artistic surrealism of the sort WandaVision seems to be. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that they’re pulling it off so far.

 

And that’s largely due to not only the success of the aesthetic and stylistic conceit but also the delightful performances across the board. You could easily splice stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany into old footage of classic TV shows and anyone who didn’t know the actors already wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Kathryn Hahn is also an absolute tour de force in the role of Agnes, the nosy next-door neighbor who definitely has a major part to play in this mystery. (Indeed, most comic-book fans will have likely figured out who she is by the end of the second episode, but I won’t spoil that surprise.)

 

But world-class acting alone isn’t enough to sustain a series that’s attempting to take as big a bite as this one is. So, more than anything, I hope WandaVision doesn’t end up choking. Because if the MCU is to remain interesting, it absolutely must keep taking artistic risks like this.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.