TV

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I’ll admit, I’m a bit late to the party with this review of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the Amazon Prime original show that debuted to much acclaim last August. As I watched friend after friend declare its greatness through social media last summer, I was intrigued. But I was also skeptical. As a big fan of The Office, I was having trouble buying into the idea of John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert) as Jack Ryan. I wasn’t sure I could get past that, but I did recently decide to give the show a shot.

 

Although I’ve never read one of Tom Clancy’s novels, there’s a fondness in my heart for Jack Ryan, at least as he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of those films, like The Matrix or A Few Good Men, that I must sit down and watch anytime I come across it on TV. Later portrayals of Jack Ryan by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have a bit more of an action-hero vibe to them, but Red October is just a good old-fashioned spy thriller at heart, and Baldwin does a great job portraying Ryan as the fish-out-of-water CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of a Cold War submarine standoff.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan reboots the character in today’s climate of terrorist threats, and young Ryan is a Washington DC-based analyst whose job is to sit at a desk and follow the money. He discovers that a whole lotta money seems to be leading to a mysterious figure named Suleiman, and he’s quickly pulled into the effort to catch this target. The problem is, Ryan is an idealist who sees a black-and-white world where there’s a right and wrong way to catch the bad guys, but as he’s pulled deeper into the pursuit of Suleiman, his worldview is challenged by counterterrorism and its messy grey areas.

 

My skepticism of Krasinski proved unfounded. He’s wonderful in the role, absolutely believable as a former marine who can handle himself just fine when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but is still very much a fish out of water in those grey places. The rest of the cast is also fantastic—particularly Ali Suliman, who lends heart and complexity to a Suleiman character who could easily have devolved into a one-dimensional caricature.

 

Amazon presents the show in 4K HDR, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the look of the show is natural and realistic, so the HDR is quite subdued, but the overall picture quality is good. I streamed the series through an Apple TV and saw excellent detail in facial closeups and the many colorful landscapes, from DC to Paris to Syria to Vegas. I find Amazon to be somewhat more aggressive in its compression than Netflix, so I did see some banding and compression artifacts in the opening credits and solid-colored backgrounds.

 

The Atmos soundtrack is dialogue-driven, with the surround stage used primarily for music and ambient sounds. A lively firefight in Episode One does flesh out the soundfield and provide good demo material.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a tense, smart thriller that grabs a firm hold in Episode One and doesn’t ease its grip until the conclusion in Episode Eight. It’s best to set aside a chunk of time for this one—even if you don’t plan to binge-watch it, you probably won’t be able to help yourself.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Russian Doll

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

Anyone who tells you they truly enjoyed the first episode of Russian Doll is either a liar or a masochist. That’s not to say there’s nothing redeeming about the inaugural 24 minutes of this new Netflix original. It’s beautifully shot in a gritty, naturalistic style that makes subtle but effective use of its high dynamic range instead of leaning on it as a gimmick. It’s undeniably well written, despite the fact that its dialogue is too clever by half and a little pandering at first. And the performances—especially by Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black fame—are nothing less than inspired from the giddy-up.

 

The problem, though—and what kept my finger hovering over the cancel button for the entire first episode—is that the series starts on such an utterly grimdark note that it’s equal parts fatiguing and boring. It’s shocking just for the sake of shock value—or so it seems. It’s offensive for no other reason than causing offense. There’s nothing remotely likeable about any of the characters, and I found myself distracted by the incongruity of the fact that Amy Poehler produced this seemingly joyless pit of sardonic despair.

 

It’s not my intention to be moralistic here. And it’s not as if I shy away from the dark. But darkness without light is just sort of monotonous, and there’s nary a stray luminous beam to be found within Russian Doll’s first—thankfully brief—episode.

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

What follows that grimy start is a series of seven episodic romps, each of which cranks up the levity—and indeed the weirdness—until it manages to find some equilibrium. Some carefully teetering balance between the inherent grimness of the show’s premise (in short: Lyonne is forced by the universe to die in increasingly ironic ways and live some semblance of the same day over and over again) and the wonderful absurdity of it all.

 

By the time Episode 8’s ending credits rolled, I was oddly sad to see Russian Doll come to an end. I’d fallen in love with its unlovable characters. I was completely on board with its flippant earnestness. I wanted more of the show’s delightfully wacky and inventively improbable twists and turns. The utterly unapologetic human beauty and levity of its final moments more than made up for the soulless dehumanization of its earliest scenes.

 

Still, though, when I reflect on this undeniably beautiful work of whimsical and meaningful art and consider whether or not to recommend it to friends, I can’t help but pause. If you managed to make it through that first episode and you’re wondering whether to soldier on, yes. Keep going. It’s so worth the ride in the end.

 

But if you noped out before you even figured out what the show is really about, I can’t much say that I blame you.

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.

Castle Rock

Castle Rock

“There is a lot of history in this town. Not all of it good . . .”

 

You might recall my post “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy” (or you might not—in which case, feel free to click that link and then come back to join me here in a bit . . .) where I opined how all of these streaming providers coming up with their own content was really frustrating viewers. One of the shows that inspired that post was Castle Rock, a new Hulu original series that takes place in the Stephen King multiverse.

 

Now, this is a show I really wanted to see when it was announced, as it checked all of my must-see programming boxes. J. J. Abrams involved? Check. Stephen King an executive producer? Check. Set in the Stephen King world with tons of King Easter eggs? Check. A solid cast featuring several actors who’ve previously been in King adaptations? Check.

 

But, as much as I wanted to see Castle Rock, I was not willing to add another streaming subscription to my monthly credit-card statement.

 

Fortunately, you can now experience Castle Rock without a Hulu subscription by purchasing the series on disc (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray, or DVD) or via digital download in HD quality at the Kaleidescape store (which is how I watched).

 

So, before I get into my Castle Rock review, we need a little background . . .

Castle Rock

I am a really big Stephen King fan—or Uncle Stevie, as he likes to call himself. I’ve read all of his books, and seen many of the movies that have been adapted from them. The quality of King movies ranges from the fantastic (Shawshank Redemption, It, Misery, Stand by Me)* to the pretty good (The Green Mile, Thinner, Firestarter) to the abysmal (Cell, Lawnmower Man).

The problem with turning a Stephen King novel into a film is that when you try to compress 800-plus pages into a two-hour runtime, you end up chopping out so much material that the results are often just pale reflections of the original. Or you go the other way, trying to stretch something that worked well as a 10- to 20-page short story into a two-hour feature that just blunders around lost. (Two of King’s best adaptations—Shawshank and Stand by Me—were actually novellas, providing just the right amount of source material.)

 

The recent The Dark Tower film is a perfect example. Tower wasn’t a book but rather a magnum opus made up of seven books totaling nearly 4,000 pages. Trying to condense that much story into a single 95-minute film was an impossible task that only ended up angering and insulting fans.

 

King adaptations tend to work especially well as miniseries, where the source material can be given the room it needs to develop story and characters over multiple hours. Hulu showed they knew how to handle this perfectly with its 2016 eight-episode miniseries 11.22.63, which also happened to be the first pairing of Abrams and King. (Another outstanding example is Mr. Mercedes on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.)

 

Castle Rock is a ten-episode series that takes place in a small, fictional Maine town that will be familiar to King fans. Other King works set there include The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, Needful Things, and The Mist. It’s important to stress that while King does get an executive producer credit, he wasn’t involved in crafting this story, or apparently much with the production, and it isn’t based on any of his stories.

 

Rather, Castle Rock is a new tale set in King’s established world and features numerous subtle and overt connections and allusions to previous King works. These include Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), Diane “Jackie” Torrance (Jane Levy), niece of The Shining’s axe-wielding Jack Torrance, references to a certain rabid dog, events from The Body (which became Stand by Me), the Juniper Hill Psychiatric Hospital, and a certain prison no one wants to visit called Shawshank.

 

The opening episode, “Severance,” does a nice job laying the groundwork for what to expect from the series along with introducing us to several principal characters, including death row lawyer Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), who has his own troubled past connections with Castle Rock. He returns to the town after mysterious prisoner The Kid (Bill Skarsgard), who has apparently been kept locked in solitary confinement in a hidden section of Shawshank for years, utters Deaver’s name and nothing else. And there’s recently retired Shawshank warden Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), who had been keeping The

Kid locked away for reasons known only to himself.

 

The series is slow in parts, but definitely picks up for the final episodes, with Episode 7, “The Queen,” being especially good and featuring a fantastic performance by Sissy Spacek as Ruth Deaver that really deserved some kind of award nomination. Another standout was the gore-filled eighth episode, “Past Perfect,” that actually had my wife scream out.

 

There are some nice King-esque jump

Castle Rock

scares along the way, along with tons of general creepiness as we slowly move towards solving the mystery of who is The Kid and how did he get here, along with the overall question of, “Why is Castle Rock so rotten?”

 

The video is mainly a palette of muted browns, greys, and cool blues, but images are clean and detailed. Even better is the 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio mix, which does a wonderful job of keeping dialogue understandable while still delivering a lot of sonic atmospherics that certainly add to the experience when watched on a surround system.

 

I appreciated the brief “Inside the Episode” rundowns for each episode by the series creators/writers, which offered some explanations and pointed out some of the Easter eggs. The download also includes two new features: “Castle Rock: Blood on the Page” and “Clockwork of Horror.”

 

Be sure to watch a couple of minutes into the credits after the final episode, “Romans,” as you get a nice glimpse into what might be in store for the second season that Hulu has already committed to.

John Sciacca

 

* I’m sure some of you noticed that I didn’t include Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in this list of fantastic King adaptations. Well, the truth is, while The Shining is indeed a great movie, it veers way away from the original source material, almost to the point of being a completely different work.

Castle Rock

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Between passively sitting back and watching a movie and actively being involved in every action and decision while playing a videogame lies a relatively uncommon bit of media called an interactive film. Kind of like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series those of us who grew up during the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember, interactive films feature a story that unfolds differently depending on the choices you make at several moments throughout, resulting in a variety of possible conclusions.

 

With its latest installment in the Black Mirror anthology, Netflix is going interactive with the new film Bandersnatch. According to Netflix, “Bandersnatch is an interactive film that reacts to your choices. You’ll be able play on newer smart TVs, most 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

streaming media players, game consoles and web browsers, and iOS and Android devices running the latest version of the Netflix app. If your device is compatible, you’ll see the interactivity badge on the film below [in the upper right-hand corner of the image].”

 

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to enjoy Bandersnatch. Of 

the multiple Netflix-capable streaming devices in my home, several weren’t compatible, including a new Apple 4K TV, Dish Hopper 3, and Samsung UBD-K8500. Those who use Google Chromecast are also left out of the fun.

 

What did work was the Netflix app in my Sony XBR65X930D TV (two generations old at this point) and my Xbox One S. (PlayStation4 is also said to work though I wasn’t able to test.)  I could also enjoy the interactive experience using the Netflix 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

app on my iPhone 7—but watching a movie on a phone is a fairly soulless experience and certainly not recommended. Also, it wouldn’t work when I used the Netflix App from the Microsoft Store on my PC, but would work on the same PC when I just went to Netflix.com.

 

When you try and play Bandersnatch on a non-supported device, you’ll be taken to a two-minute trailer featuring scenes from previous Black Mirror episodes with multiple characters saying, “I’m sorry . . .” and then the primary Netflix account receives the email shown at the left.

 

Bandersnatch’s running time is listed at 1 hour 30 minutes, but your actual adventure could last quite a bit less depending on your choices. Fortunately, if you end up making a “wrong” decision, the film will give you a chance to go back and re-choose. A brilliant touch is that if you decide to make a different decision, you’re greeted with a quick fast forward kind of recap of the decisions you’ve made to get you to where you are. It’s bit like a customized series recap, and I found it pretty cool instead of just throwing you back to where you were. 

 

The first choices are pretty benign and come just a few moments into the film, where you pick which breakfast cereal you’d like to start the day with, followed by what 

music you’ll listen to on your ride into work. As the story progresses, the decisions start becoming weightier and have more impact on the story: Will you drop acid? What will you do with a dead body?

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Selection is a simple left, right, and enter, and the branching between storylines is truly seamless in that there are absolutely no breaks, hiccups, or interruptions whatsoever in the action or audio as your choice is carried out. You’ll also start to notice subtle things like in-movie ads that are based on prior choices you made. From a technical standpoint, Bandersnatch is masterfully executed and was fun to watch, err, play.

 

Without spoiling the fun, Bandersnatch takes place in 1984 and revolves around Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk), who is working to turn a famous Choose Your Own Adventure book, Bandersnatch, into an interactive video game. The film also includes Colin Ritman (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner) as prodigy video-game designer and somewhat mentor to Butler.

 

The story becomes very meta when Butler starts having a psychotic breakdown because of the workload and stresses of immersing himself in creating the game. He begins questioning reality and starts to feel he is no longer in charge of his own life—like there is someone else out there deciding things for him; what breakfast cereal he’ll eat, what music he’ll listen to . . .

 

The seeming “free will” and open ended-ness of the bulk of the story is a bit limited in actuality, and the film ultimately guides you to toward the end, which will have wildly different conclusions depending on choices you make late in the film. But how you get there—and how many times you’ll need to go back and make a different decision—and what sub-stories you see along the way varies based on your choices.

 

Most of the endings are a bit dark, twisted, and macabre, fitting in with what Black Mirror viewers have come to expect from the series. But I found them all varied and interesting enough that I enjoyed going back and re-choosing decisions over a period of 2.5 hours until I felt I had seen all the possible outcomes.

 

Bandersnatch is presented in 4K HDR and looks good, especially the many night and dark scenes in Butler’s room. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also does an admirable job of keeping dialogue intelligible while adding some nice atmospheric effect.

 

Black Mirror is an episodic show that has been described as a modern version of The Twilight Zone revolving around technology. IMDB describes it as “An anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.”

 

For those who are fans of the series, or just looking to expand their viewing options for an evening, Bandersnatch is unlike anything you’ve watched before and definitely makes for an interesting experience.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Blue Planet II

My wife and I watch a lot of documentaries. No, seriously, a lot of documentaries. Air a special about dinosaur dung or the restoration of a 1967 barn-find VW Beetle or how a famous actress invented frequency-hopping encryption during World War II, and we’re pretty much guaranteed to boost your Nielsen numbers for the night. Here’s the thing, though: We watch a lot of documentaries exactly once. That seems pretty normal to me. After all, do I really need to re-learn how Lego bricks are made?

The one exception to this rule is David Attenborough’s captivating nature docs, because there’s absolutely nothing normal about the treasures this wonderful man has bestowed upon the world. If you’ve never seen one of his series, I’m truly envious that you have the opportunity to discover him for the first time. His infectious, childlike sense of wonder about nature, combined with the wisdom you’d expect of a natural historian with 92 years under his belt, makes each of his series seem like a sci-fi/fantasy exploration of a planet in a galaxy far away. There’s a weird and wonderful sense of cognitive dissonance that comes from realizing, somewhere in the middle of one of his shows, that we actually live on this weird and wonderful world.

 

A scant 11 months after the incredible Blue Planet II first aired here in the Colonies, my wife and I have already devoured the series from start to finish three times. And as we were sitting down for our fourth feast this weekend, we finally decided to retire the 4K broadcast recordings clogging our DVR and move on to a proper home video release.

 

Netflix seemed the logical place to turn to, since the series just made its way to the service this month. And it took no more than a few seconds of viewing to note that their version was a huge step up from the original 4K satellite broadcast. Kudos to Netflix’s engineers for compressing such a visually complex image as well as they have. Simply put, Blue Planet II looks brilliant streaming in 4K, as long as you’ve got a good ‘net connection.

 

But shows come and go on Netflix. I can’t count the number of times that utterly re-watchable favorites have been yanked at pretty much exactly the same time I had a hankering to watch them. So, when I noticed that Blue Planet II is also now available on Kaleidescape—along with a whole host of other programming from BBC America—downloading it was a no-brainer. At a hefty 193 gigabytes, the seven-episode mini-series is not an impulse download, but as I said above, this is a show that’s already in heavy rotation in the Burger casa. I knew it was worth the wait.

 

I just didn’t realize how wait-worthy it would turn out to be. As lovely as these alien undersea vistas are via Netflix, they’re positively stupefying in Kaleidescape’s full-bandwidth presentation. The tiniest of details simply fly off the screen here. And

thanks to the High Dynamic Range presentation—something Blue Planet II lacks via Netflix, for whatever reason—you can’t help but be sucked right into the image, eyelids peeled, jaw agape, breath bated, mind blown. If the Broca area of your brain can crank out much more than the occasional “whoa” while watching a technicolor cuttlefish hypnotizing its 

cancrine prey in Episode Three, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Switch over to the Netflix stream (or the YouTube clip above), and that scene almost seems monochromatic by comparison.

 

Even if you’re not a biology nerd or a connoisseur of great documentaries, Blue Planet II is an absolute must-own on Kaleidescape (or on UHD Blu-ray, if you haven’t made the leap into the discless future just yet). It’s perhaps the most torturous AV demo material I’ve lain eyes on in ages. It’s the title you’ll pull up when skeptical guests ask, “Do I really need this HDR business?” Because Blue Planet IIs answer to that question isn’t a mere “yes.” It’s a yes with an exclamation point, delivered in a charming British accent, with a wink and an unforgettable lesson about the kooky unexplored corners of our own globe.

Dennis Burger

Blue Planet II

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.

The Expanse

Amazon Prime "The Expanse"

Back in May 2018, there was a disturbance in sci-fi TV culture. In the midst of broadcasting the third season of The Expanse, SyFy decided not to renew the show even though it was garnering its best reviews so far. This wasn’t the first time the channel had canceled a series at the height of its popularity. SyFy (then called the Sci Fi Channel) nixed Farscape in the middle of its fourth season after renewing it less than a year earlier for a fourth and fifth season.

 

The Expanse was reportedly cancelled because of broadcast rights. Unlike in the early aughts, options today go beyond network and cable distribution. International streaming rights for the series belonged to Netflix, while Amazon owned the domestic streaming rights. SyFy was only getting first-run rights, and that wasn’t enough for them so they killed the show. But after a #SaveTheExpanse fan campaign, Amazon worked out a deal and picked up the show. A happy ending for all!

 

The series is based on rich source material—a series of books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who go by the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. It’s an epic space opera about citizens of Earth, Mars, and The Belt, and how they deal with each other after the introduction of an unknown infectious molecule. The story centers on the remaining crew of a ship destroyed in a mysterious attack. As they try to figure out what caused the attack, they’re pulled into a system-wide struggle between the political juggernauts of Earth and Mars.

 

To say the source material is dense is an understatement, but it’s translated to the screen exceptionally well. The outstanding ensemble cast includes veteran actors like Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Chad L. Coleman, François Chau, and David Strathairn. There are also relative newcomers, including Cara Gee, who has a breakthrough performance opposite Mr. Strathairn during Season Three.

 

You can stream the first two seasons for free on Amazon Prime in 4K with 5.1 soundtracks. For now at least, Season Three is only available for purchase in 1080p with 5.1. But, with Season Four expected in 2019 (and possibly in 4K HDR), a 4K version of the third season seems imminent.

 

SyFy originally aired the first three seasons with HD broadcast masters, but the show was shot in 4K, and that’s what the UHD presentation is here (although visual fx were done at 2K and upconverted to match). The images look fantastic, and you’d be hard-pressed to see any degradation from the vfx being upped to 4K. Colors are vibrant when they need to be, and beautifully muted for some space shots—especially on the asteroid Eros towards the end of Season One. You can feel the oppression of being in a space station built into an asteroid.

 

The sound design is excellent throughout the series, although it really hits another level starting in Season Two. The Expanse begins by being true to the source material’s insistence on hard sci-fi—that is, a strong accuracy to the physics of being in space. Starting with Season Two, the series is a bit more lenient with its science, which leads to more engaging moments. The surround channels are used judiciously to enhance the atmosphere of the locations.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced as much enjoyment from a sci-fi series as I have from The Expanse, both in book form and on screen. There are thousands of fans, myself included, who are incredibly grateful Amazon decided to pick up the show for another season. But best of all, watching the UHD presentations on Prime is a great way to get ready for what’s to come next year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start another re-watch from S1E1.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Homecoming

Amazon Prime Homecoming

The brave members of the Armed Forces face numerous atrocities daily while on deployment, and the friendly staff of Homecoming is there to help ease their transition back into normal life. Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) is the therapist on site who leads the facility while also answering to her boss-from-afar, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale). Colin is voraciously interested in the outcome of the experimental treatment Heidi was hired to facilitate.

 

We see the beginnings of this experiment with war veteran Walter, played beautifully by Stephen James, although we aren’t privy to the specifics and depths of the treatment until later. Then something happens, and a complaint is filed. But we have no idea what it is, and thus begins the psychological thriller/mystery at the heart of this series.

Homecoming began its life as a scripted podcast, and the Amazon Prime series honors that source material. (Although there are some major alterations later on, the first TV episode is almost exactly the same as the podcast.) We follow two timelines—one before the incident with Heidi and Walter at the facility, which is shown in a widescreen aspect ratio, and one after, shown in a constricting 4:3 ratio with muted colors, as Department of Defense investigator 

Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigman) tries to determine if the complaint is valid and worth elevating to his superiors.

 

The acting throughout is excellent. The chemistry between Roberts and James pulls us in to the intimacy of their private counseling sessions and carries us along on their journey. There are some wonderful moments from supporting members Sissy Spacek and Dermot Mulroney. And Sam Esmail (creator of Mr. Robot) is masterful in his direction of all episodes. The visuals and quirky music choices do a fantastic job of alternately keeping you on edge and settling you into the experience.

 

Homecoming is available in 4K HDR with a 5.1 soundtrack. An initial search for it through the Amazon app will probably come up with the non-4K version since Amazon doesn’t seem to push their 4K offerings as hard as they should. So be sure you’re getting the proper high-resolution experience. The image quality is stunning and serves the cinematography exceptionally well. The surround speakers are utilized well, and the 5.1 mix never sounds gimmicky but is only there to increase the ambiance or, at times, the tension. There are no explosions or intense car chases to test the limits of your system—it’s not that kind of show—but the subtle use of sound effects throughout leads to some startling moments for the characters.

 

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

ER

Like millions of Americans in the ‘90s, Thursday nights meant one thing to me: It was time for NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup. NBC had dominated Thursday prime-time programming from the moment Bill Cosby donned his first sweater in 1984, and classic shows like Cheers, L.A. Law, and Seinfeld only tightened the network’s hold on Thursday viewership over the next decade.

 

But even the execs at NBC had to be surprised by the immediate breakout success of two shows added to that already powerful Thursday night lineup in September of 1994: Friends and ER.

 

My mother fell in love with ER (and George Clooney, of course) from the very start, so we quickly settled into a family ritual. Every Thursday night after work, I’d drive the 20 miles to Mom’s house. We’d settle in, flip on NBC, order some pizza, switch to something else when Madman of the People came on, and then switch back in time for our weekly appointment with the doctors and nurses at Chicago’s County General hospital.

We clearly were not the only ones captivated by this new drama—ER became a mainstay in the Nielsen Top 10 for the next decade, and at the height of its popularity averaged more than 35 million viewers.

 

ER finally signed off in 2009 after 15 seasons, a remarkable 331 episodes, and 124 Emmy nominations (a record for a drama). The final episode gave the series its largest rating in years, but the show seemed to disappear from the public consciousness very quickly after it left the air.

 

We live in an era of countless cable TV channels and multiple streaming platforms, yet for 10 years the only way to watch ER was on DVD. That finally changed last year, when the POP network started airing three episodes every afternoon. I soon found myself entrenched in a full show re-watch—a task that took up a Dr. Benton’s ego-sized chunk of my spare time (and about 75% of my DVR) over a six-month period.

 

Thankfully, anyone who now wants to revisit ER can do so in much simpler fashion. Earlier this year, Hulu announced it had added all 15 seasons to its streaming service. You no longer have to force yourself to watch three episodes a day just to keep pace, like I did. But that does bring up a big question: Is an ER binge really worth 331 hours of your precious screen time?

 

At the very least, I’d recommend watching the first seven or eight seasons—especially if you’re a first-time viewer. Medical dramas have always been a staple on TV, but ER was the first to expose viewers to the real blood and guts of a big-city hospital. The fast-paced, in-your-face cinematography was always a standout aspect of the show, and these early episodes look even better now that they can now be seen in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. (Note: ER episodes began airing in widescreen during Season Seven, but they were filmed in widescreen format from Day One.)

 

As impressive as ER was from a technical standpoint, it was always the characters that were the heart of the show. George Clooney may have become the breakout superstar, but every member of that stellar original cast created a character to remember. Even the smaller roles of the nurses and desk clerks seemed like people you wanted to have a beer with, and that only added to ER’s mass appeal.

 

Of course, with great success came great cast turnover. One by one, George Clooney and Juliana Margulies and Eric La Salle eventually left the show. Maura Tierney and Goran Ivanisevic came on board and helped to keep the quality (and ratings) at a high level, but the glory days of ER officially came to an end with the departure of Noah Wyle’s John Carter in 2005.

 

With no ties left to the original cast, ER lost much of what made it appealing in the first place. The storylines became more and more over-the-top (so many explosions!), but there were always just enough quality moments to keep me watching for all 15 seasons.

 

And as my re-watch reminded me, ER was never lacking in star power. Almost every episode seemed to feature someone who would go on to do bigger and better things—Lucy Liu, Kirsten Dunst, Christina Hendricks. Zac Efron, Chris Pine, and Jessica Chastain are just a small sampling of the many then-unknowns who made visits to County General over the years.

 

While I truly enjoyed my recent re-watch, it wasn’t always easy viewing. ER will forever remind me of my mother, even though we stopped watching together on a regular basis after she moved away in the late ‘90s. Mom is older now and going through some tough medical issues, and more than a few episodes hit just a little too close to home—but that was always the power of ER at its very best.

 

I’m sure that over the course of 331 episodes, you’ll shed some tears as well. And if you do manage to make it through to the very end, you’ll be rewarded with a final season that features return engagements from almost all of the show’s original stars. Even Anthony Edwards makes an appearance, despite the fact that Dr. Greene passed away way back in Season Eight.

 

ER may have been on life support over its last few seasons, but the final episodes provide a fitting end to one of TV’s longest-running—and best—dramas.

Gary Maxwell

 

All 15 seasons of ER are available on Hulu. It is also available for streaming from Amazon,
Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

Gary Maxwell lives in Dallas with his wife, three cats, 6,000 LPs, and a vintage Atari 2600.
He once attended 218 consecutive Texas Longhorn football games over a span of 17 years,
yet he seems unable to commit to a particular brand of shampoo. His all-time favorite TV
show is Star Trek, except when it’s dark on Tuesday. When someone asks Gary if he prefers
the Beatles or the Stones, his answer is “The Who.”

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

After saying goodbye to late-night TV in 2015, David Letterman returns to the interview chair in the new Netflix original series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction . . . with David Letterman. Gone are the Top Ten lists, stupid pet tricks, and cast of cohorts. The new show is just Dave and a guest, sitting on a stage in front of a live audience.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “series” in that introduction because, for Netflix regulars, it might set up the expectation that there’s an entire season’s worth of episodes to binge on right now. After all, that is Netflix’ modus operandi with most of its original shows. Here, though, a new episode drops roughly once a month. The first one arrived on January 12 and featured a fellow by the name of Barak Obama. Since then, they’ve added interviews with George Clooney in February and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in March. Up next on April 13: Jay-Z.

 

Each episode is pre-recorded and runs about an hour. The format is an interesting hybrid. On the one hand, you’ve got the Charlie Rose/Tom Snyder approach of sitting with just one guest and getting a nice, meaty interview. Yet the decision to add a live audience gives it a warmer, livelier vibe that’s obviously better suited to Dave’s interview style.

 

Spliced in between the interview segments are video vignettes—called “curiosity-fueled excursions” in the show description—in which Dave visits various locations to explore something related to the interview. In the first episode, he takes a walk with Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and they discuss the Bloody Sunday march in 1965. You may recall the powerful images of President Obama and Lewis crossing that bridge together during the 50-year anniversary march in 2015.

 

In Episode Two, we meet Clooney’s parents and are introduced to an Iraqi refugee named Hazim Avdal, whom the family sponsors. He tells the story of his flight from persecution by ISIS.

My Next Guest

In Episode Three, Dave takes a tour of Oxford with Yousafzai and several of her fellow female students—who don’t necessarily “get” Dave and his sense of humor. (“They hate me,” he quips to the camera at one point, and he may be right.) If you don’t know Yousafzai’s story (and I did not), she is from Pakistan and has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, especially the right for girls to be educated. At the age of 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban yet survived. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, she continues her activism while living and going to school in England.

 

I think you can tell from the above descriptions that, regardless of the guest, the show aims to dig deeper into important subjects of the day. I’ve found all the interviews to be really compelling, but one unexpected highlight is how much better we’re getting to know David Letterman as a human being with each passing episode.

 

Letterman has always been extremely private, and both Obama and Clooney try to turn the tables on him during their interviews, with limited success. But, just through the choice of guests, the extended conversations, and the vignettes, you start to see a fuller picture of this man who lived to entertain others for over 30 years and now, in his “retirement,” is free to explore some the issues that matter to his heart.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at WirecutterAdrienne lives in Colorado,
where  she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious is not food porn. I don’t say that to diminish the appeal of food porn, mind you. If I flip past the Food Network and catch a glimpse of The Taste, or At My Table—or really just anything with Nigella Lawson in it—I’m so totally onboard. I’m in. And with Chef’s Table, Netflix has proven itself more than capable of producing some of the best food porn known to man.

 

So, when the first episode of Ugly Delicious popped up in my recommended watchlist, I nearly dislocated my thumb scrambling for the select button. And five minutes into the first episode, I thought I had the show pretty well figured out. It comes off, at least at first, as something like a more erudite Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with a much more likable host (chef, author, and restaurateur Dave Chang, who you may remember from PBS’ The Mind of a Chef) and much less emphasis on unabashed gluttony.

 

By the end of its first 54-minute episode, I found myself drifting away from that comparison, because if anything, the tone and spirit of Ugly Delicious reminds me less of any food show I’ve ever seen, and more of some of my favorite food podcasts. A dash of The Sporkful. A sprinkling of Gastropod. A heaping helping of The Splendid Table. But even those comparisons fall short, because the truly delightful thing about Ugly Delicious is that it manages to carve out its own unique space in the landscape of culinary media.

 

And that might be because it’s really less about food and more about our relationship with food. The first episode, which focuses on pizza, really establishes the thematic undercurrent of the series brilliantly, especially in the way it grapples with the notion of authenticity versus honesty. We meet quite a few people during the course of the episode who have strong opinions on the right or wrong way to make a pizza. (In fact, after taking us to a pizzeria in Connecticut that makes a delicious-looking clam pizza, we immediately meet another pizza chef who scoffs, “You want clams? Have spaghetti and clams! That’s where clams belong—on spaghetti!”) But if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s that nothing is sacred. And yet, in a weird way, when it comes to food, everything is sacred. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such irreverential reverence.

Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious manages to get away with such contradictions because, as I said above, it’s really about humanity—and humans are nothing if not contradictory. The show also manages to work in conversations about food as culture. Food as politics. Food as identity. Food as rebellion. It grapples with issues of race and ethnicity, of geographic bigotry, of tradition, and it does it all while fueling one’s desire to eat in so many of the deliciously delightful locales spotlighted in its eight criminally brief episodes.

 

Honestly, if Ugly Delicious had even a whiff of pretention about it, it might be a little too heavy-handed to enjoy. But if anything, it’s a backlash against the pretentiousness that permeates shows of its sort. True, the delightful cast rips hard into Taco Bell in the episode on tacos (while trying to come to some consensus on what even is a taco). But Dominos and KFC aren’t anywhere near as reviled in the episodes on pizza and fried chicken.

 

Perhaps the most curious thing about Ugly Delicious is that despite its use of food as a lens through which to view ourselves, it probably captures the essence of eating better than any food show I’ve ever watched. Each episode truly feels like a meal, and I don’t mean just the eating part. I mean the conversations. The camaraderie. Indeed, the arguments.

 

So, if you’re looking for some truly delicious food erotica, give it a try. And even if you’re not into watching people eat and travel and talk about food, give it a try anyway. Because Ugly Delicious isn’t merely the best slice of gastronomic programming since 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s probably one of the best new shows of any genre to drop in the past year. 

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.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review