TV

Veronica Mars: Season 4

Veronica Mars

The Hulu-exclusive fourth season of Veronica Mars—which surprisingly dropped this past weekend ahead of its originally announced July 26 launch—is a wild and wonderfully complex thing. And I don’t just mean the sociopolitical murder mystery at the heart of its plot. This eight-episode run also has a sort of meta thing going on, in which it explores the tenuousness of its very existence, and what a dangerous motivator nostalgia can be.

 

If you’re not familiar with Veronica Mars at all, perhaps it’s worth stepping back for a minute to explain why the fourth season is such a big deal. The series started life in 2004 on UPN and ran for two years before moving to the CW for one final season. Best described as a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (minus the supernatural elements) meets Raymond Chandler (minus all

the cigarettes), the show launched Kristen Bell into the spotlight, and gained a cult following due to its smart writing, wonderful characters, and incredible performances. And then it was canceled, all too soon, because nobody could figure out how to market a series that looked like a modern high-school drama and acted like a gumshoe classic.

 

In the years since, word of mouth has elevated the series to must-watch status, so much so that a feature-film 

reboot in 2014 broke records on Kickstarter in the video category and held those records until Mystery Science Theater 3000 came along and smashed them. The funny thing about that is that both projects ended up being blatant fan service that failed to capture what made the originals so great.

 

Re-launches of beloved properties seem to be all the rage in the world of streaming these days, though (think: Gilmore Girls and Full House, of all things), so it’s no real shock to see Veronica Mars return, 12 years after its cancelation. What sets this season apart—from other reboots of other properties, and indeed from the 2014 Veronica Mars film—is that it actually has something to say. A reason to exist beyond mere nostalgia. Some self-awareness about what a double-edged sword one wields when giving fans of a dead-and-buried TV show what they think they want.

 

In short, Veronica Mars Season 4 is Veronica Mars and it isn’t. It’s many of the same characters we knew and loved from the show’s original run, except they’re not exactly the same people anymore. Since the Buffy vibe no longer quite works, given how far removed from high school Veronica is these days, this season also leans more heavily on its Raymond Chandler roots, and makes playful references to other noir and neo-noir offspring of Chandler, including some blink-and-miss-it nods to Columbo and—true to Veronica Mars form—a good mix of subtle and overt shout-outs to The Big Lebowski.

 

At its heart, though, what makes this new season work so well is exactly the same thing that made the original series such a joy to watch. Namely, the bond between Kristen Bell as Veronica and Enrico Colantoni as her father and partner-in-crime-solving, Keith Mars. The banter between them puts the best of Cary Grant and Ros Russell to shame, and although that

Veronica Mars

rapid-fire back-and-forth has evolved to accommodate a world in which smart phones, smart homes, and social media are a thing, that evolution feels organic, not forced or kitschy. As does everything else about how the dark world of sunny Neptune, CA, has changed since we last dropped in on it to revel in the whodunnit of it all.

 

Perhaps the most impactful difference between the old and new incarnations of Veronica Mars isn’t the time that has passed, though; it’s the new format. By limiting this season to eight episodes, showrunner Rob Thomas (no, not the “Matchbox Twenty” one; the Space Ghost Coast to Coast/Party Down/iZombie one) is able to craft a compact narrative without all of the mystery-of-the-week episodes that padded earlier seasons.

 

Since the show is also now likely to be binged instead of doled out a week at a time, the new writing team (which also interestingly includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) has also been given free rein to weave a much denser narrative that involves not just a spring-break bomber, but also a blackmailed congressman, two hitmen for a Mexican drug cartel, and a fame-seeking pizza-delivery guy/conspiracy theorist (played to perfection by Patton Oswalt), all of whom come together in one big mystery of misunderstandings, double-crossings, and red herrings.

 

All in all, Season 4 comes as close to the perfection of Season 1 as anyone could hope for. Only a few minor quibbles (a stray reference to a director’s cut of The Big Lebowski when nonesuch exists, and a minor continuity error involving a cellphone video that doesn’t perfectly match events as they played out in an earlier episode, for example) mar what is otherwise a masterfully crafted reboot that can honestly be enjoyed as its own thing, even if you never saw the first three seasons and might not understand a handful of references to characters who didn’t have an organic part to play in this new story.

 

That last fact, though, plays right into this season’s larger theme about how nostalgia can bite you in the ass. Some longtime fans may have preferred to see those characters shoehorned into the plot anyway. And others will no doubt rage at the show’s handling of one of the original cast members. (I haven’t had time to peruse the forums just yet, but I can predict the hissy fits without even having read them.)

 

As for me, you can count this long-time Marshmallow (as Veronica Mars fans are known) amongst those who loved every minute of this season. I want more of the same. ASAP. But appropriately enough, “more of the same” would be outright impossible. The end of Season 4 leaves Veronica Mars (the show and the character) in such a place that it and she are left with no choice but to evolve again.

 

Technically speaking, I only wish Hulu would likewise evolve. The look of Season 4 is at times held back by the 1080p limitations of the service the show now calls home. Blacks are a bit crushed in some darker scenes, and banding rears its ugly head from time to time. Granted, the show looks better now than it did in its original run, but its mix of bright and sunny beach shots and shadowy nighttime skulking would greatly benefit from the high dynamic range that 4K brings with it.

 

Hopefully, by the time Season 5 rolls around (fingers crossed), Hulu will have grown up and adapted to the modern era as deftly and meaningfully as Veronica Mars has.

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.

Chasing the Moon

If you’re looking to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing from the comforts of your sofa, needless to say you’ve got a ton of options. From Ryan Gosling’s intense portrayal of Neil Armstrong in First Man to the just-the-facts-ma’am documentary approach of Apollo 11, on to the recently remastered HD re-release of HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, the space race has been covered from just about every angle imaginable. And yet, despite the fact that I have an

entire shelfful of DVDs and Blu-ray discs dedicated to the Apollo program, I’ve never seen anything quite like PBS’ new documentary mini-series Chasing the Moon.

 

That’s largely due to the documentary’s placement within PBS’ larger pantheon of programming. The three episodes that comprise this new and different doc fall within the 31st season of American Experience, the network’s series about our nation’s history and the oft-controversial figures that propel that history.

 

As you might expect if you’ve ever tuned into American Experience, the emphasis here isn’t on the scientific or engineering marvels that took us to the moon, nor the trials and tribulations of the astronauts themselves. Instead, Chasing the Moon plants the space race firmly within the geopolitical climate of the era, giving the viewer a hefty helping of historical context.

 

The first episode, for example, starts with a spotlight on Apollo 11, and even includes some shots similar to those seen in the recent IMAX documentary of the same name, 

but then sort of backs up and says, hang on, to understand how we got here we need to back up to 1957 and the Soviet launch of Sputnik. And to understand that, we need to back up again to World War II, to unpack the complicated relationships between Germany, the US, and the USSR. This presents an opportunity to unveil some archival footage I’ve never seen, such as the Germans testing their V-2 rockets and the Soviets trumpeting their early successes over the Americans.

 

Shockingly (to me, at least), there’s also extensive voiceovers from Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet Premier and a rocket engineer in his own right, who provides some modern perspective on the Russian side of the space race. Inclusions such as this, combined with the larger focus on politics—how they influenced the space race, and how the space race influenced them—make Chasing the Moon perhaps one of the most important documentaries on the Apollo program I’ve ever seen. Important in that it will give future generations insight into why all of this happened in the first place, not merely how.

Chasing the Moon

Granted, if you’re looking for a spectacular AV presentation, you might be a little disappointed. Since education is the primary impetus behind Chasing the Moon, no real effort has been made to clean up much of the grainy, scratchy archival footage and TV broadcasts that comprise the bulk of its visuals. Still, you’ve got a few avenues by which to view the series (which runs just 20 minutes shy of six hours over the course of three episodes), and quality of presentation may affect your decision about which road to take.

 

There is, of course, cable/satellite or antenna, as PBS will continue to rebroadcast all three episodes in the days surrounding the anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. There’s also the free PBS app, which is available on most streaming devices and requires no subscription, just a free login. The quality of presentation here is a step up from cable/satellite, but not quite up to the clarity of over-the-air broadcasts if you’ve got a decent antenna.

 

You can also purchase the show in 1080p HD with 5.1 sound from Amazon for $7.99 or Vudu for $9.99. There’s no real reason to opt for the latter unless you just hate Amazon Prime’s cluttered interface, as both are practically identical in terms of presentation. Or you could opt for the Blu-ray release for $25, which adds a few bonus features, including a making-of documentary and an interview with the director.

 

However you watch, though, I think Chasing the Moon deserves your attention, due to its distinctive take on this most historic event. Just don’t go in expecting the rah-rah flag-waving typical of Apollo documentaries. This is a warts-and-all exploration of the messy and often contentious reality of the space program from a societal and political perspective, and as such it touches on a lot of truths that more celebratory retrospectives often leave out.

 

In a weird way, though, that makes the big event all the more worthy of celebration.

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.

Stranger Things 3

Stranger Things 3 is such a tonal, structural, and narrative departure from what’s come before that it can take hardcore fans of the series (raises hand unapologetically) a few episodes to get into this year’s batch of eight episodes. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the first couple episodes. In fact, the show’s creators—collectively known as the Duffer Brothers—demonstrate time and again their ability to lovingly mash up, remix, riff on, and reassemble 1980s pop culture in new and inventive ways. It’s simply that this time around, they’re being a little cheeky about it.

 

There’s a poolside scene in the first episode, for example, in which they nab the Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and it’s played in such a way that you can’t help but anticipate exactly what’s coming if you know that film. That anticipation is hilariously subverted, though, setting the stage for a new season that is, at times, something Stranger

Things has never really been before: Zany.

 

Get a few episodes in to Stranger Things 3 and the reason for this starts to become clear. While leaning hard on all of the influences that have made the show so beloved to date—Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Rob Reiner, and all the other giants of genre and coming-of-age fiction from that era—the Duffers also start to bring other, darker influences to the forefront: Early-80s Sam Raimi, mid-80s David Cronenberg. As such, things can get a little more gruesome this time around.

To balance that gruesomeness, the show’s creators introduce a lot more levity. They’ve mentioned Fletch as a big inspiration for Stranger Things 3, and indeed, elements of the Chevy Chase screwball comedy can be seen in the side-quest of Hopper (the show’s irritable chief of police) and Joyce (the mother of Mike, the unfortunate victim of Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2). Add to that some unlikely influences such as Spies Like Us and Red Dawn (the latter of which is ribbed more than revered here), and you’ve got a weird and wonderful pastiche that, on paper at least, seems like it would struggle to hold itself together.

 

But hold together it does. Whether it’s tweaking mall culture, reliving the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R, or once again bringing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign to life in the creepiest of ways, Stranger Things 3 succeeds primarily because it’s not merely a gimmicky nostalgia romp—it’s a legitimate love letter to a bygone era.

 

Of course, as a result of that, some of its tropes may feel a little dated. The show isn’t interested in shades of grey: There are good guys and there are bad guys. And the bad guys are bad because they’re dirty commies hellbent on world destruction or something. Why are they hellbent on world destruction or something? Because they’re the bad guys. Duh.

 

Really, though, none of the above matters so much as the show’s amazing cast, which features a few new additions. Cary Elwes positively chews the scenery as the corrupt mayor of Hawkins, Indiana, whose shady political dealings allowed for

Stranger Things 3

the construction of the Russian-financed mall that serves as a front for the nefarious Soviet experiment at the heart of this season. And Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) absolutely shines as the misfit mall employee who helps crack the case at the heart of Stranger Things 3.

 

But the original cast, including the impossibly talented Millie Bobby Brown, is still the emotional heart of the show, and it’s their relationships, their emotional ups and downs, their successes and failures that keep us coming back.

 

Another thing that makes Stranger Things 3 such a fun and effective followup to the first two is that, despite all of its shake-ups in terms of tone, structure, and inspiration, there’s an undeniable through-line in the look of the show. The aesthetic is, unsurprisingly, 1980s through and through, and while capturing that look doesn’t leave a lot of room for super-vivid imagery throughout, the show’s 4K presentation relies heavily on HDR to add depth and texture to the shadows. There’s some nice use of spectacular (though not really eye-reactive) highlights from time to time, but most of the dynamic range is reserved for the lower end of the value scale. As such, you’ll definitely benefit from watching on a display that can handle the distinction between black and oh-so-very-nearly black.

 

The show’s 5.1-channel soundtrack also deserves to be experienced on the highest-quality surround sound system possible. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Stranger Things 2 was the impetus behind Netflix’ new adaptive studio-quality sound technology. Still, it’s a little shocking just how effective—indeed, how aggressive—the mix is this time around. I don’t think my subwoofer has gotten such a raucous workout since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the surround channels are pushed to their extremes in all the right places, especially in remixing the gloriously nostalgic soundtrack.

 

My only beef is that Netflix doesn’t give us any bonus features for Stranger Things 3. While another season of Beyond Stranger Things would have been ideal, any sort of extra goodies would have been appreciated.

 

Thankfully, the show stands on its own as a binge-worthy romp, especially for those of us who grew up in the era being mythologized here. And for what it’s worth, there is one tiny extra worth mentioning: If you’re the type to hit the stop button as soon as the ending credits start rolling, be sure to stick around past the end of the final episode. There’s a mid-credits sequence that sets the stage for Stranger Things 4, which by all accounts will likely be the show’s swan song.

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.

Good Omens

Good Omens

Good vs Evil. Dark vs Light. Angels vs. Demons. These themes are the basis of almost every story ever written or told. But Good and Evil working together to prevent the apocalyptic end of the world because they’re comfortable in their day-to-day lives and have no desire to see them end? Such is Good Omens, a six-episode limited series co-produced by Amazon and BBC Studios.

 

The series is based upon the novel of the same name written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman back in 1990. There were adaptation attempts in the past, most notably with Terry Gilliam in the early aughts. But it didn’t become a personal mission until Pratchett asked Gaiman to adapt it to a TV show shortly before his death.

 

It follows the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) from the Garden of Eden to modern England. They try to subtly thwart the End Times and coming of the Antichrist who, through a mixup at the hospital, ends up in a lovely, idyllic English countryside hamlet unbeknownst to the powers of Heaven and Hell. There’s a wonderful supporting cast, including Frances McDormand (God), Jon Hamm (Gabriel), and Michael McKean (Sergeant Shadwell of The Witchfinder Army). The writing is witty and whimsical with a dash of irreverence—quintessential Pratchett and Gaiman (if you’re familiar with their work).

Good Omens

The subject matter made it into the news because of a petition by the Christian group Return to Order claiming the show is “another step to make satanism appear normal, light, and acceptable.” The group is pressuring Netflix to cancel the series.—the limited-run series that has already completed airing and doesn’t have a second season planned. And that’s on Amazon, not Netflix. There has been some lovely and entertaining back and forth on Twitter with Gaiman, Netflix, and Amazon. The petition has since been changed to name Amazon as the offender. If you might be upset with God being voiced by a woman, or with the four riders of the apocalypse being portrayed as a group of bikers, better to steer clear.

 

Otherwise, Good Omens is delightfully quirky. It is quite obvious that the actors are enjoying the material, and the chemistry between Sheen and Tennant is wonderful. The series isn’t perfect—there are some pacing issues in the first few episodes and some of the subplots fall flat—but I was consistently chuckling and smiling throughout. And the soundtrack includes Queen hits. (Crowley is a fan and plays them in his beautiful two-tone 1933 Bentley.) Can’t go wrong with Queen.

 

Amazon’s presentation is excellent. It is available in 4K with 5.1 surround sound (although hard to find in a search, as with all Amazon selections currently). The colors look vibrant and the English countryside is especially welcoming—save for the Antichrist, of course. The sound is mixed well, with judicious use of the surround channels and consistently clear dialogue.

 

If you’re familiar with the work of Pratchett (the expansive Discworld series) and Gaiman (Sandman comic, Neverwhere, American Gods), Good Omens is a delightful jaunt towards Armageddon led by standout performances by Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Their scenes alone make the show worthwhile.

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.

Chernobyl

Chernobyl (HBO)

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we will mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

 

It was just meant to be a safety test, but something went horribly wrong. The failsafe button was pushed, the power output spiked to astronomical levels, and then the building shook. Nuclear reactors don’t explode. Nuclear reactors can’t explode. But the terror on the faces around the control room revealed a different truth—a truth that must be, one that defied the tenets of nuclear science believed by these men.

 

That opening line from HBO’s limited mini-series Chernobyl could be as pertinent in today’s politics-vs-science climate as on April 26, 1986. Over five terrifying episodes, we’ve learned about the multiple issues—including suppression of information about the flaws in the reactor design and inadequately trained workers—that inevitably led to one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.

 

Chernobyl went surprisingly under the radar for the first few weeks of its broadcast, probably because it overlapped with the last couple episodes of the HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones. Average viewership was around 1 million per episode in the US. One can only hope that the number increases via streaming as award buzz grows, because this show strongly deserves it. The script by showrunner Craig “Don’t judge me just by The Hangover” Mazin is excellent, the performances by the whole cast—and especially Jared Harris—are Emmy-worthy, and the practical effects of the radiation exposure victims are perfectly repulsive.

 

But the unsung star for me is the haunting score by Icelandic composer and cellist, Hilder Guðnadóttir, who incorporated recordings she collected with collaborator Sam Slater from a power plant in Lithuania, near the filming location, in her composition. They add a creepy, otherworldly element to the terrifying story presentation.

 

Chernobyl also has its own podcast, hosted by Peter Sagal of Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, with episodes devoted to each episode of the series. Sagal speaks with Mazin about the show’s themes, characters, and where the creators chose to take poetic license. (Chernobyl is a narrative show, after all.)

Chernobyl (HBO)

Since the only way to currently see Chernobyl is by streaming it through HBO, presentation is limited to 1080p and Dolby Digital. There are some compression artifacts notable in dark scenes. Two examples that come to mind are during the opening when the reactor explosion is seen from a distance against the night sky, and also when three workers descend into the darkness of the plant days after the explosion to open water valves. The sound design incorporates the 5.1 channels well during both of those scenes.  But this is primarily a dialogue-driven series, so about the only time any amount of information is sent to the surrounds is during the disaster.

 

Hopefully sometime soon— after Chernobyl presumably wins some awards—HBO will release the Blu-ray UHD version the show deserves. Although at the rate they network’s going, we’ll be lucky to get it before the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is deemed safe for the living.

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.

Dead to Me

Dead to Me

In Netflix’s new original series Dead to Me, nothing is quite as it seems. Even the show itself isn’t exactly what you might glean from a casual viewing of the Netflix teaser. You think it’s going to be a show about a grieving wife who lost her husband in a violent accident and is trying to move forward with the help of a support group—and especially another grieving woman that she meets there.

 

Perhaps you tune in because you love the two female leads, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and you think it’ll be fun to watch a sharp-edged show about two middle-aged woman who suddenly find themselves single and must help each other navigate grief, dating, parenthood, etc.

 

You’ll realize before the end of Episode One that Dead to Me plans to tell a different—and much more interesting—story. And if you’re at all like me, you’ll be instantly hooked and burn through all 10 half-hour(ish) episodes in a weekend.

Dead to Me

One thing that does meet expectations is the performances, as both Applegate and Cardellini are a joy to watch. But the real credit goes to show creator Liz Feldman and the writing team for giving them such great stuff to worth with. This kind of story could easily slip into a stereotype: “One is hard and angry. The other is sweet and quirky. Don’t they make a wacky team?” But both characters are fleshed out with depth and believability. Yes, Applegate’s Jen has a hard time keeping her anger in check, but she’s written as a real woman, with a real vulnerability underneath that helps her remain the sympathetic heroine.

 

Dead to Me is presented in Dolby Vision or HDR10 with a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. I streamed it through my Apple TV to an LG OLED TV, and the picture quality was excellent. The show is meant to have a very natural, everyday look, so there’s nothing particularly stylized about the cinematography. But the image is clean, colorful, and razor sharp, and the many Orange County, CA landscapes provide some nice eye candy. It’s beautifully lit, and the HDR just serves to reinforce that, be it through bright patches of sunlight streaming in through windows or the flicker of a firepit’s flames against the dark night sky.

 

Dolby Digital Plus is just fine for this type of dialogue-driven content. Your surround speakers and subwoofer won’t see much action here, although there is some effective LFE use in certain key scenes.

 

I must admit, I’m not sure if Dead to Me has the legs to run many seasons without the story devolving into absurdity. But I thoroughly enjoyed Season One, and I look forward to seeing what surprises Season Two will throw our way.

—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.

Our Planet

It’s been barely more than a year since beloved natural historian Sir David Attenborough took viewers on another romp around the natural world in Blue Planet II, so for some it may seem a little soon for another such epic journey. After all, Attenborough’s tentpole nature documentary series tend to follow big technological leaps, either in terms of presentation (HD, 4K, HDR, etc.) or exploration (e.g. the Nadir and Deep Rover submersibles employed in Blue Planet II).

 

Needless to say, we haven’t made such quantum leaps in the past calendar year. For the most part, what sets the new Netflix original Our Planet apart from its predecessors isn’t technological (although its heavy reliance on 4K drones does mean that we get to witness the wonders of a natural world from a new perspective at times). No, for the most part, what sets this series apart is its intent, and the prominence of its message.

 

Since the 1980s, Attenborough’s documentaries—at least the big “event” series—have been largely subtle in their environmental and conservational messaging. A summary sentence here or there. Maybe a wrap-up episode that connected the dots and spelled out how human activity has threatened and continues to threaten the fragile ecosystems around our pale blue dot.

 

With Our Planet (and its accompanying hour-long making-of special), that message takes center stage. Which isn’t to say that Attenborough dwells on it constantly. Large swaths of the eight-episode series are devoted to the drama, heartbreak, and 

hilarity of the natural world. Show a ten-minute clip from the middle of any given episode to your dad, and he might be hard-pressed to tell it from an old episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, if not for the stunningly modern cinematography and deliciously dynamic Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

But Attenborough does a great job of priming the 

pump here, setting the stage in such a way that you can’t help but meditate on how much of nature relies on delicate, precarious balances, and how those balances are undeniably being thrown out of whack.

 

One example: It’s one thing to be told that arctic sea ice is on the wane. It’s another altogether to see with your own eyes how that’s affecting the wildlife in the region. At the other end of the globe, we also see how diminishing sea ice around Antarctica is disrupting eating, mating, and migration patterns of everything from seals to penguins to humpback whales.

Even if that message doesn’t resonate with you, it’s impossible to deny that Our Planet is an absolute feast for the eyes. Presented here in 4K with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 (depending on which HDR format your system supports), the series is one of the most striking video demos I’ve ever laid eyes on—in any format. The high dynamic 

range is used here to enhance everything from the iridescent shimmer of orchid bees to the fluorescent glow of algae growing underneath sea ice, and while we’ll likely never know how much better (if at all) it could look if released on full-bandwidth UHD Blu-ray or via Kaleidescape, one thing is for certain: This streaming series manages to surpass the already mind-blowing video presentation of Blue Planet II on any format, streaming or not, and that’s mostly due to its stunning HDR mastering and grading.

 

There are times when the contrasts and highlights are so rich and nuanced, and the imagery so detailed, that your brain just can’t help but interpret the picture as glasses-free 3D. Individual snowflakes fall through the back of the frame, reflecting stray sparkles of sunlight, without a hint of lost definition or clarity. If not for the liberal application of slow-motion, you’d swear you were looking out a window. Indeed, only the appearance of some very occasional, subtle, fleeting, almost imperceptible banding in the underwater sequences of the second episode give the slightest clue that this isn’t uncompressed video.

The audio is mostly fantastic, as well. For a nature documentary, the surround effects can be quite startlingly aggressive at times, but they’re never egregious, and such effects are always used for the purposes of immersion, not merely spectacle. If I have a slight beef here, it’s that the Dolby Digital+ encoding doesn’t quite fully capture the nuanced timbres of Sir Attenborough’s inimitable voice in the way I suspect Dolby TrueHD would. But again, that’s a minor nit to pick.

 

As mentioned above, the series is also amongst the rare Netflix offerings to be accompanied by bonus features—in this case, a behind-the-scenes documentary that sheds light on how so many of the stunning images within were captured. The series was four years in the making and involved 3,365 filming days at 200 locations, with a total of 6,000 drone flights and 991 days at sea. With only an hour to play with, the behind-the-scenes doc can’t dig into all of the high-tech trials and tribulations of the filming, but it’s enough to scratch your curious itch and answer most of the biggest “How did they film that?!” questions you may have.

 

In the end, it’s difficult for me, a nearly fanatical David Attenborough devotee, to come to terms with the fact that Our Planet could conceivably be the last of his major earth-spanning natural history mini-series. He is, after all, approaching the age of 93. As such, and when taking into consideration the urgency with which he delivers his message here, it’s hard not to view this series as a potential swan song of sorts. If that be the case, I couldn’t imagine a finer farewell, nor a more fitting final lesson from the man who has done so much to entertain, inform, and enlighten us about the wonders of the natural world for the better part of half a century.

 

To call this one “essential viewing” may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever typed.

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.

Love, Death + Robots

Love, Death + Robots

The first night I sat down to watch the new Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots, I went into it in full binge mode. At 220 minutes total, it hardly seemed a daunting marathon. Four episodes in, though, I was burned out. Overloaded. Overstimulated. Desensitized to the carnage and ribaldry pouring out of my screen.

 

That’s not a knock against the series, which is the realization of David Fincher and Tim Miller’s failed attempts to bring Heavy Metal to the big screen again. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the fact that I think I’ve discovered the first streaming series that expressly discourages binge watching. That could in part be due to the fact that most of the 18 shorts in the anthology are radically different in tone, style, and genre. The collection runs the gamut from dungeon-diving horror to comedy to fantasy to science-fiction, with sprinkles of high-tech action/adventure and steampunk wǔxiá thrown in. The animation is also

quite varied, including a nice mix of hand-drawn 2D animation and CGI that ranges from stylized and painterly to hyper-realistic. There’s even a delightful live-action short that harkens back to Steven Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories series from the 1980s.

 

In short, there’s really nothing tying these episodes together, aside

from loose adherence to the titular theme to one degree or another. Honestly, a better title might have been “Love, Death, and/or Robots.”

 

But none of that should be interpreted as a knock against the series, either. Merely an observation about why I think Love, Death + Robots works better as a collection of disconnected morsels, intended to be taken in one at a time here and there, not consumed in one or two sittings.

 

You almost certainly won’t enjoy all of the shorts, even if this is your sort of thing. (And to gauge whether this is your sort of thing, it probably boils down to your fondness for the aforementioned Heavy Metal, the magazine on which it was based, or maybe even the old MTV/BBC Two anthology series Liquid Television.) Half of the shorts in this first season collection

are downright brilliant, and the other half are a weird mix of puerile, pointless, and outright repugnant.

 

The problem is, although I think most people would agree with that assessment overall, I doubt you could find two people who could come to consensus on which shorts belong in which category.

There are a few objective standouts, though. “Zima Blue,” one of the few 2D shorts, is as profound as it is simple in its storytelling. “Good Hunting,” an adaptation of one of the short stories from Ken Liu’s award-winning The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is another fantastic vignette that manages to create a wondrously gorgeous and compelling world populated by fascinating characters in its all-too-brief 17 minutes. It’s one of the longest shorts in the series, although it feels like one of the shortest.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, goofy and disturbing romps like “The Witness” seem to have taken the series’ lack of censorship as a mandate rather than a license, and the result is a gratuitous and exploitative nightmare that I can’t imagine anyone actually enjoying.

 

Don’t let missteps like the latter scare you off, though, as long as you’re not turned off by animated violence and sex across the board. Love, Death + Robots is a radical experiment in filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated in spite of its misses. And its audiovisual presentation is utterly stunning. From beginning to end, Love, Death + Robots is a UHD/HDR video torture test that demands to be watched on the best screen in the house. Only a weird sound mix for one of the shorts, “Sonnie’s Edge”—which buries the dialogue and leans way too heavily on the surround channels—keeps this series from being an A+ AV demo from beginning to end.

 

In the end, Love, Death + Robots is, like most good genre fiction, a product of its time. Without the risk-taking attitude of new media outlets like Netflix, it probably wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. Had it somehow beaten the odds and been made before now, there’s no way it would have snuck under the wire with an R rating without some massive edits. And without the benefit of modern AV formats, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.

 

But in a weird way, the series also comes across as an interesting rejection of our current media climate and its emphasis on gluttonous consumption. To appreciate the series fully, you really need to treat it as a bag of snacks, not a sustaining meal.

 

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.

Forever

Amazon Prime "Forever"

I’m late to the party on this one, I know. But I have to assume that if I, a massive Fred Armisen fan, somehow just found out about the 2018 Amazon-original series Forever, there must be at least a few of you out there who would love this delightfully weird and wonderful series, if only you knew it existed.

 

Here’s the problem, though: Talking about Forever isn’t easy. Even explaining what the series is about isn’t easy. But to understand its charms, you really have to look no further than its opening five minutes. The show starts with what plays like an homage to the introductory scenes of Pixar’s Up. With nary a line of dialogue, we see the relationship between two awkward lovebirds—embodied delightfully by Armisen and fellow SNL alum Maya Rudolph—grow and mature and become what it eventually becomes.

 

What’s great about this silent-movie sequence is that you understand everything you need to know about these characters before ever hearing them utter a word to one another. Armisen’s Oscar is the sort of chap who was likely nicknamed “Grandpa” before he was twenty. He’s a creature of habit and longs for the stability of til-death-do-us-part. Rudolph’s June is a free spirit who’s stifled by routine and perhaps indeed the very notion of security. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt within her, but she is repelled by it. Or perhaps she’s repulsed by her need for it. It’s an important but ambiguous distinction that the show explores but never fully resolves.

As wonderful as these opening moments are, though, Forever doesn’t really come into its own until the banter between Oscar and June takes centerstage. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any movie or TV show so perfectly capture the almost-secret shared language that develops between mates. At times, watching Forever feels almost like an act of voyeurism, even if the conversation we’re snooping on is as mundane as the perfect beach food or the best position in which to sit.

Amazon Prime "Forever"

And, yes, conversations like that are plentiful throughout the show’s brief eight-episode run. But they aren’t the point. Forever ultimately serves to grapple with the question of what happens when two wholly incompatible weirdos are nonetheless perfect for each other and committed to spending eternity together, when the notion of eternity terrifies one of them and is taken for granted by the other. And what makes it work is that the series explores interpersonal conflict in such a way that there are no good guys or bad guys in the

impasse between commitment and wanderlust, comfort and excitement, routine and spice. Writers Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang have the courage to explore their subject matter with refreshing nuance.

 

If there’s one criticism to be leveled at the show, it’s that after all of that nuance, Forever comes to a tidy (though wacky) conclusion a little too quickly, and in choosing where to end this weird adventure, Hubbard and Yang do put their thumbs on the scales a little. Armisen—much as I love him as a comedian—also struggles to bring the same level of gravity to serious scenes as does Rudolph, whose talent for navigating complex emotional shifts is awe-inspiring throughout.

 

Those are minor criticisms, though. If you love quirky love stories with a heaping helping of metaphor and metaphysics, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

 

The bigger criticism is that once again, Amazon makes it nearly impossible to find the 4K version of the series via streaming devices. Your best bet is to search for it on your computer and add it to your watchlist. Not that Forever needs to be seen in 4K HDR to be enjoyed, mind you. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about its cinematography or presentation for most of its roughly four-hour runtime. But still, if you’re going to watch it, one assumes you’d like to watch it in the best quality possible.

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.

The Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy

A few years back, YouTuber Patrick H. Willems made a mock trailer for an imaginary X-Men film helmed by Wes Anderson. I’m honestly not sure if the video was intended to poke fun at Wes Anderson’s films or the whole concept of the X-Men, but I also kinda don’t care. I just want to see that movie. And in a weird way, I felt like I had come close to seeing it play out in reality as I watched the first episode of the new Netflix original series The Umbrella Academy.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s much more to this stunning new series than that. After a bit, it starts to feel more like, “What if Wes Anderson and Guillermo Del Toro teamed up to write and direct a mashup of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen?” Don’t worry if you have no idea what any of that means, by the way. All you really need to know is that The Umbrella Academy is a fun and introspective comic-book romp with lovably flawed 

characters, delicious action, and a wonderfully weird sense of humor. And as with all good pastiche, it manages to synthesize all of its comic book inspiration into something delightfully new and captivating.

 

The premise goes something like this: In 1989, forty-three women around the world mysteriously give birth despite having not been pregnant earlier that day. One mysterious billionaire tries to adopt them all, but only manages to assemble seven of them, six of whom he trains to become masked crimefighters. Fast-forward to today, and said billionaire has died, bringing this dysfunctional family back together to solve the mysterious circumstances of his passing.

What I love most about The Umbrella Academy is that it manages to do far more with its premise than you might expect (unless you’ve read the comics on which the series is based). Yes, part of the appeal here is watching super people do super things. But at its heart, the show manages to be both grander in its scope and far more personal. It tackles big questions, yes—questions about determinism vs. free will, about nature vs. nurture—but also grapples with issues like what happens when the repressed demons of our past start to break their restraints. (We’re talking metaphorical demons here. The show is weird and supernatural, but not that weird and supernatural.)

 

I also love the fact that showrunner Steve Blackman (Fargo, Legion, Altered Carbon) resists the urge to lean on heavy exposition. The world of The Umbrella Academy isn’t our own, but it always errs on the side of letting the viewer get

The Umbrella Academy

immersed in the world rather than dragging us through it with CliffsNotes. There’s absolutely no explanation for why there’s a talking chimpanzee butler, for example, because it’s the most normal thing in the world to the inhabitants of the series. You just have to roll with it. And other mysteries that unfold do so mostly organically.

 

Even if you don’t care about any of the above, The Umbrella Academy is worth a watch simply as a display torture test. Despite the fact that

the resolution is limited to 1080p (likely a result of all the special effects, which would have been tough to render in 4K on a TV show budget), the stunning Dolby Vision high dynamic range proves that contrast and color vibrancy are more important than pixel count when it comes to rendering a jaw-dropping image.

 

If I have one nit to pick with The Umbrella Academy’s AV presentation, it’s that the compressed audio just doesn’t quite do the show justice at times. That’s largely due to the fact that it boasts the best pop-music soundtrack since Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of this wonderful music would rock so much harder in full-bandwidth Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio.

 

That’s only something you’ll really notice if you have a truly high-fidelity sound system, though. And it’s seriously no reason to skip this brilliantly dark, hilariously weird, and wonderfully acted superhero romp.

—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.