Netflix

Review: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

One night about eight years ago, right around this same time of year, I had just introduced a five-year-old girl, a seven-year-old boy, and a prematurely jaded 20-year-old film student to some classic Max Fleischer cartoons and they were clamoring for more. I couldn’t find any other good ones on YouTube, so I decided to follow a train of thought—and take a big gamble—and introduce them to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse via the Christmas special.

 

All three sat rapt throughout. I was surprised that almost every big laugh landed and nobody in that rag-tag group was thrown by the show’s fever-dream take on the holiday. The only real comment came from the five year old, who reacted to Pee-Wee 

running around the playhouse screaming “It’s snowing! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” with a vaguely admiring “He’s crazy.” I couldn’t disagree.

 

The Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is by far the best thing Paul (Pee-Wee Herman) Rubens ever did. The early seasons of the Playhouse had their flashes of brilliance, but seemed more daring than they were mainly because they were being shown on Saturday morning on CBS. By the time of the Christmas special, the series had run its course, having become a little too educational for its own good. There was really no reason to expect anything great out of this primetime offering, let alone an act of genius.

 

It’s no longer possible to appreciate just how bold the Playhouse Christmas was, unapologetically deploying just about every aspect of the gay subculture to challenge the hegemony of the safely patriarchal Bing Crosby/Perry Como

PEE-WEE AT A GLANCE

An exercise in inclusiveness before that notion became a divisive edict, as sweet as it is funny, Paul (Pee-Wee) Rubens’ genius effort might be the best holiday special ever.

 

PICTURE     

Far from state of the art, and about the best you can expect from late-’80s network TV, the show looks surprisingly good on Netflix.

 

SOUND     

Again, we’re talking 1980s TV here, but the audio does a good enough job of reproducing the dizzyingly eclectic soundtrack.

portrayal of the holiday. But the show didn’t spring from the rage, resentment, and overweening pride that mars practically every contemporary effort along the same lines, instead portraying a world of others where everyone gets along out of mutual tolerance and respect.

 

Just as importantly, Rubens also managed to honor longstanding comedy traditions—the show is practically a textbook of classic schtick—and the comfortable conventions of the network holiday special while doing the best job since Charlie Brown of actually capturing the feel of the season, which is why it’s as strong today as when it debuted in 1988.

 

It’s easy to figure out if the Pee-Wee special is for you: If the opening doesn’t have you convulsed with laughter, you’d be better off watching the Hallmark Channel or Die Hard instead. The beautifully modulated series of gags in this off-the-charts

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

production number rivals the pacing of the comic revelations in the best Chaplin shorts.

 

There’s little point in recounting the standout bits—although Little Richard on Ice, The Billy Baloney Christmas Special, Grace Jones in a crate, and Hanukkah with Mrs. René are all classics. And it’s hard to get enough of Larry Fishburne as a very urban Cowboy Curtis. That’s not to say that the show doesn’t occasionally sag, but the cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers are all mercifully held to about 15 seconds each. The only truly

painful moment is K.D. Lang’s incredibly misguided take on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which she clearly meant as a goof but was unable to goose above the level of a high-school talent show.

 

The Christmas Special is from the late ’80s, before TV started aping film-production techniques, but Rubens turns all the various shortcomings of that deeply and permanently flawed medium into virtues. The playhouse is unapologetically set-bound, which reinforces the idea of a man-child living completely divorced from the outside world. (That the Pee-Wee character only really worked within the artifice of a children’s show helps explain why he never translated well into movies, and why his TV incarnation is way less retrograde and offensive than all the other man-children who overran the ‘80s—and plague us still.) The primitive computer graphics still work because they don’t try to be anything more than what they are—the projections of a child’s imagination. The now legendary puppetry and stop-motion animation remain brilliant.

 

I was surprised by how good the show looks on Netflix. But you first need to get beyond the opening animation, where a welter of artifacts makes the snowfields look like they’re covered in soot. You can’t expect a TV production from 30-plus years ago to have contemporary sharpness or subtle gradations of color—which would be way out of place here anyway. Everything is appropriately vivid and cartoony, and while there’s the occasional soft frame, there’s never anything egregious enough to pull you out of the show.

 

Watching the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special is like listening to ‘20s small-group jazz—it’s impossible not to feel good. A lot of Christmas shows cynically try to nail the feeling of holiday cheer in an effort to spur a nation of knee-jerk consumers to buy yet another round of crap they don’t really need and on the outside chance the show will become up a perennial and rack up some ill-gotten residuals. But the Pee-Wee special has something sincere about it that reminds me a lot (and don’t let this creep you out too much) of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You—another genius effort from an outsider looking for redemption in the pop-culture heart of the holiday.

Michael Gaughn

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

Space Force

Space Force

It’s not hard to figure out how this all began. Netflix had an unexpected boon when Millennials didn’t discover The Office until after it had migrated over to the subscription service but then seized on and devoured it as if they’ve just summoned up manna. As all that was playing out, NBC announced it would be bringing The Office back under its wing as part of its new Peacock streaming service, eventually depriving Netflix of what is probably its steadiest flow of viewers.

 

While they would never publicly admit it, Netflix found itself desperate for a new series that looked, walked, and smelled enough like The Office to retain a sizable portion of that show’s audience.

 

Enter Office creator Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell with an itch to do a service comedy—an idea as old as the hills (or at least as old as Aristophanes)—and as fresh as today’s headlines. Or at least that’s how they would have presented it at the 

pitch meeting—assuming they even had to do a pitch before Netflix handed them a blank check.

 

To cut right to the chase, Space Force is nothing but a mess, way overinflated in every possible way, the most hackneyed of sitcom premises puffed up with a stupidly large budget and a random mob of a cast. If this had been made for a fraction of the money and with a little less latitude, the constraints might have brought some badly needed discipline to the exercise, yielding something tighter, funnier, and more watchable. Maybe.

 

What we have instead is the Netflix equivalent of It’s a Mad, 

Mad, Mad, Mad World—a too-big-to-fail comedy that puts a gun to your head and tells you to laugh because it’s desperate to justify its existence. There are some laughs, occasionally (I have to admit to falling for the space chimp bit), but far too rarely. Space Force is the sitcom equivalent of spending an evening watching a room full of monkeys perched at typewriters and waiting for one of them to randomly tap out a joke.

 

To go with another animal analogy, it’s a great, big slobbering Labrador of a show, utterly superficial, with no ideas or convictions of its own, desperately trying to please everybody and willing to do anything to get a little attention. If you’ve heard that it’s a spoof or satire, you heard wrong. Space Force doesn’t bite—it licks your face instead. It doesn’t have the creative courage to skewer a damn thing.

 

But enough of the generalities; let’s talk specifics. You get the sense Carell loves The Great Santini and decided, for some reason, to bring it up to date. But it would be hard to name another actor more different from Carell, with his extremely limited acting range, than Robert Duvall. That cognitive dissonance might help explain why he can’t get a bead on his character but constantly shifts between playing a pint-sized general, Michael Scott, and an ambiguous third being who might actually be Carell himself.

 

The cast is big and, almost without exception, unexceptional, the most offensive member being Ben Schwartz as Carell’s media manager. His every moment on screen is the comedy equivalent of waterboarding. Carell’s character fires him in the first episode, which seemed logical and felt definitive, and led to the hope we were rid of him forever. But this is a cliché-laden sitcom after all, so he keeps arbitrarily popping back up throughout the series, like a horror-movie villain or a rodent, even though his shtick is predictable, his actions implausible, and he fails to generate any laughs.

 

The biggest offense—although you can’t really blame the completely bland, inoffensive actress saddled with playing her—is the pilot who starts out as Carell’s whirlybird chauffeur and somehow ends up commanding a lunar mission. She’s not a character or the product of a legitimate creative act but a fashionable amalgam, born of checking off a bunch of boxes meant to suck up to contemporary sensibilities. As far as you can get from three-dimensional, she’s a direct descendant of the personified virtues in a medieval morality play.

 

More specifically, she’s only there to be the token tough-but-caring black girl who rises to a level of great responsibility because she has a massive father complex.

 

If there’s any glimmer of light in this black hole of a series, it’s John Malkovich as the lead scientist. He’s ultimately nothing but a stereotypically affected straw man, Alice to Carell’s Ralph, Felix to his Oscar. It’s only Malkovich’s ability to make something out of nothing that causes his screen time to add up to anything resembling creative redemption.

 

Pardon a little inside baseball, but I watched Space Force straight through when it debuted and planned to publish this review then. But my reaction was so strong, I felt the need to buy some distance before going public with my thoughts. Unfortunately, the weeks that have since elapsed have only reinforced my original impressions.

 

If you’re big on Anointed vs. Underclass fictions that come down firmly for the Anointed, this show is for you. If you find succor in a day-care center view of the world, you’ll probably actually enjoy the image of a military mission jubilantly jumping around the lunar surface like a bunch of infants. I didn’t. Space Force shows how far we’ve devolved since Metropolis, and suggests the Fredersens of the world have irrevocably won.

Michael Gaughn

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

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

For those of you unfamiliar with this Netflix series, Altered Carbon is set around 360 years into the future, with Season 2 taking place 30 years after Season 1. Based on the brilliant book by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is centered on the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs, formerly an Envoy—a highly-trained and feared soldier—and now a private investigator.

 

In this future world, a person’s consciousness can live indefinitely, downloaded into a “stack,” a device made possible by the discovery of not-entirely-understood alien technology that can be implanted into a “sleeve,” or newly-grown body—which 

doesn’t necessarily have to be the one they had before. The only way a person can be truly killed is if the stack is destroyed or if they can’t afford a new body. The alien material from which the stacks are made is found only on Kovacs’ home planet Harlan’s World. As such, it’s extremely valuable, the stuff of wars.

 

(Non-spoiler alert: Unlike many lazily done reviews that consist of a give-it-all-away plot summary and the reviewer concluding, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” I’m not going to reveal any of the key points for anyone here.)

 

Takeshi Kovacs has been re-sleeved—but in a new body, played by new lead Anthony Mackie, who gives Season 2 an entirely different feel. Mackie’s Kovacs is more charismatic and has more empathy and a wider emotional range than the previous two Kovacs, played by

CARBON AT A GLANCE

More pedestrian, less mind-blowing, than Season 1, but better than most of the other comic book-style sci-fi out there.

 

PICTURE     

Dazzling visuals in the Blade Runner neo-noir tradition.

 

SOUND

More restrained than the visuals but just as impressive—except for some occasional musical miscues.

the reserved Will Yun Lee and the stereotypical Tough Big Guy Joel Kinnaman. Mackie (known for playing Falcon in the  Marvel movies), dominates the screen with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him presence and physicality, yet gives room for his co-actors to breathe. He brings nuance and, yes, even a little humor to the role in the midst of a grim future world.

 

Ostensibly brought back to Harlan’s World to solve a murder, Kovacs soon finds himself immersed in political intrigue, double-crossing, and other conflicts. He’s also reunited with love-of-his-life Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who created the stacks, who Kovacs has been pursuing across planets and timespans, and who is a key element in all that’s happening. Goldsberry is utterly convincing as the once heroic, now traumatized Falconer.

 

As in the first season, real and virtual reality and human and AI characters mix. The characters and actors are a mixed bag. Simone Messick (Misty Knight in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) plays bounty hunter Trepp with an oddly effective combination of tough-girl steel and compassion for those she cares for. My favorite of the bunch, Chris Conner, plays Poe,

Kovacs’ right-hand “man,” as a funny, flawed, insecure, and lovable AI character. You read “lovable” right—in Altered Carbon Season 2, Poe (modeled after Edgar Allan Poe), along with fellow AI and friend Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), are the most “human” characters and the actors displaying the greatest range of emotions. Poe suffers from a programming glitch and Dig 301 seeks a sense of purpose. In fact, the most touching scenes in the series are between the two of them.

 

Less believable are Lela Loren as Harlan’s World leader Danica Harlan, who never quite projects the steely ruthlessness the character requires, and Torben Liebrecht 

as a flat, one-dimensional Colonel Ivan Carrera. Perhaps this is how the directors wanted these characters played, but the result is that they aren’t as convincing as they should be. Oliver Rice is perfect though as Stone, Harlan’s assistant, the kind of obsequious toady occupying boardrooms and capitals everywhere.

 

As in Season 1, the visuals are dazzling. The claustrophobic feel owes a debt to Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, like so many other science-fiction shows, yet the look of the series is striking, from the honeycomb/alien motifs in Harlan’s palace to the neon-gritty street scenes and 3D computers-of-tomorrow graphics. When characters enter virtual reality, colors and perspectives are shifted in ways that seem surreal and hyper-real at the same time. Season 2 is an entirely believable portrayal of how the world could look around 350 years from now. (Be aware: As in the first season, the show doesn’t shy away from violence.)

 

The soundscapes complement the visuals (save for an occasional bout of overdramatic musical cheesiness) with almost subliminal insinuation into the viewer’s consciousness at times, interwoven with and part and parcel of the fabric of the presentation. That’s a compliment.

 

So. Altered Carbon Season 2 has all the ingredients of sensational sci-fi—but it doesn’t scale the mind-blowing heights of Season 1. The plotlines are more straightforward, less twisted and surprising, more pedestrian. The first season deeply explored themes like: What does it mean to be immortal? What does it feel like to be able to switch bodies and sexes? What are the social implications of the rich being able to enjoy these things, while the poor cannot? How far will someone go to gain power over others to ensure they have access to immortality?

 

However, Season 2 glosses over these ideas, becoming more of an us-versus-them narrative. Ironically, while the latest Takeshi Kovacs is more nuanced and multifaceted than the previous ones, most of the rest of the supporting characters are not.

 

That’s not to say Season 2 is bad—far from it. I dislike ratings, but for perspective, if the first season was an A, the new one is a B-minus, and the show is a heck of a lot better than some of the comic-book dreck shi-fi out there. Is it worth watching? Yes. (And it stands on its own. You don’t have to watch Season 1 first to enjoy it.) There are enough plot twists and surprises to keep things interesting, and the visuals are gripping. But I missed that rocketing adrenaline sense of wonder of its predecessor.

 

There’s talk of a Season 3, and there’s also the animated Altered Carbon: Resleeved, which I haven’t seen yet. It’ll be interesting to see how they stack up.

Frank Doris

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

Dracula (2020)

Dracula (2020)

The myth of Dracula isn’t one I think needs retelling. It, and vampires in general, have been done to death over the past couple decades. But whenever Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss write a project together, I’m intrigued.

 

For the uninitiated, Moffat and Gatiss worked together on the sci-fi favorite Doctor Who before continuing their working relationship with the series Sherlockan intricate and deeply satisfying retelling of the Arthur Conan Doyle character in modern day with fantastic performances. Even before watching Dracula, I noticed that there were already a few similarities between the two series (both being based on existing material with the season being only three 90-ish-minute episodes). If they could do for Dracula what they did for Sherlock Holmes, it would be an excellent, smash-hit TV show.

 

It certainly is a TV show. Excellent smash hit? That would be a bit of a stretch. There are aspects of the series that stay true to the source material—such as character names, Dracula’s trip to England, and his typical phobias—but the structure of the retelling is different and the purposes of the different characters are often skewed in some way. That said, it doesn’t go far enough in its reinvention to feel distinct and new.

 

The three episodes are incredibly uneven and, while there’s some great writing peppered throughout, there’s an odd mixture of modern vernacular and attitudes that doesn’t fit with the 1800s time period of the first two episodes. (The third episode 

time jumps 123 years to our present day.) The series can be a bit schlocky, and relies too much on trying to reinvent the myth without truly accomplishing the feat. There’s also rarely any subtlety to the acting or directing. It’s very in-your-face throughout.

 

Of the three episodes, I enjoyed the second the most by far. It takes place almost exclusively on the ship Demeter that brings 

Dracula (2020)

Dracula to England. There are some interesting glimpses into Dracula’s past and the relationships between the characters on the ship, and a mystery of who is traveling in one of the cabins that stays locked. It could almost be treated as a standalone story, save for some references to the first episode.

 

Where the show does consistently succeed is in it practical effects and accompanying sound design. There are moments that made my body contort and my brain not want to see what was about to be revealed (although I always did, deep down, want the reveal). The sound mix felt very much intended for someone watching it on TV without a surround setup, as it was almost entirely present in the front channels with only obligatory reverb and music sent to the surrounds.

 

The HDR presentation is used mostly in the visually dark moments, such as Dracula’s castle in Episode One or the corners of the Demeter in Episode Two. Not unexpectedly for a creature of the night, most of the scenes are dark. One moment of blaring sunlight at the (somewhat disappointing) end shows off the bright end of the HDR spectrum.

 

The Dracula delivered to us by Moffat and Gatiss feels like it isn’t sure what it wants to be. It doesn’t go far enough to be full-on camp, but there’s too much campiness to feel truly terrifying. Unless you’re aching for more Dracula, it might be best to limit your intake to just the second episode.

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.

The Witcher

The Witcher

The sword & sorcery fantasy genre was mostly relegated to movie theaters until Game of Thrones came around and busted into popular culture. When it finished its run in May 2019, there was a hole left ready to be filled, and many prophesied that The Witcher would be that successor.

 

In truth, it isn’t, but not in a negative way. There are no question similarities between the two: Both have a rich collection of novels and short stories that were written around the same time, both have the aforementioned sword & sorcery components (although The Witcher has more outward sorcery than GoT), and both have fervent fan bases that were ecstatic to see the stories get adapted for the screen. But where Game of Thrones was a highly complex political intrigue show with an enormous cast of characters supporting that narrative, The Witcher focuses on three main characters: The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), Cirilla (Freya Allan), and Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra).

 

Written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher Saga is a collection of five books beginning with Blood of Elves. But the two short-story collections—The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny—set up the relationships in The Witcher Saga, and it’s from those short stories that the eight episodes pull from, which can cause the storytelling to feel disjointed early on in the

The Witcher

series.

 

The episodes also follow multiple timelines that eventually converge. As viewers, we’re not made implicitly aware of the different timelines, and they only become apparent four episodes in. Add to that a slew of names that are just thrown about, and the potential for confusion is high.

 

But it all comes together and works. There are some wonderful stories that give 

a sense of how deep the mythology of this world is, and some interesting character study, particularly of Yennefer. There are frequent moments of levity and self-awareness that I found endearing, and multiple instances of a well-placed expletive from Cavill’s stoic portrayal that caused me to laugh out loud.

 

The Netflix presentation is in 4K HDR with a 5.1 surround mix. The HDR is used to great effect with a bunch of dark scenes that are aided by the depth available from the dynamic range. Moments of sunlight felt piercing as it supported the narrative of the scene. Detail is excellent and the magic visual effects look convincing and epic. The surround sound effects mix is subtle and lets the score, by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, soar. The series has been renewed for a second season that is expected at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021.

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.

The Crown (Season 3)

The Crown (Season 3)

When Peter Morgan’s Netflix-original historical drama The Crown launched in 2016, it did so with an interesting conceit: In dramatizing the life of Queen Elizabeth II from 1947 to modern times, the cast would be replaced every two seasons to account for the roughly two-decade advance of the calendar. Season Three, which recently dropped on Netflix in its ten-episode entirety, is of course the first to feature such a complete re-casting.

 

It honestly never occurred to me that I might have a problem with this. But as Season Three approached, I realized just how smitten I had become with Claire Foy’s performance as Elizabeth and Vanessa Kirby’s brilliant turn as Princess Margaret. Trailers and clips of the new season, and interviews with its cast, left me cold. Made me a bit bitter, I’ll admit.

 

For anyone with similar concerns, let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way from the giddy-up: The new cast is fantastic. Olivia Colman manages to capture the essence of Queen Elizabeth II perfectly. Helena Bonham Carter is an absolute force of nature in the role of Princess Margaret. And I imagine Matt Smith is watching Tobias Menzies’ performance as Prince Philip right now with a tinge of envious respect. Simply put, the new cast has won me over completely, perhaps aided by the fact that John Lithgow returns ever-so-briefly as Winston Churchill (the only casting carry-over) to provide a bit of continuity to the whole affair.

 

It’s simply a shame that the writing this season doesn’t live up to the brilliance of the new cast. The thing I’ve always loved about The Crown—at least until the end of the second season—is that it was believable. I’m no Royalphile, mind you, so I’ve never really been bothered when the series had to take some liberties with reality to compress ten years’ worth of history into ten episodes of television. When it did so in its first two seasons, I rarely noticed.

 

The third season, though, takes such a turn for the tabloid that it strains the bounds of credulity. The second episode, “Margaretology,” in which Margaret attends a dinner at the White House in the midst of a vacation in the U.S., is one of the worst offenders in this respect. I have no doubt that a meeting between Princess Margaret and LBJ was a bawdy affair—by the standards of the day. The problem is that The Crown turns it into a bawdy affair by today’s standards, ripped right out of a 

modern revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, complete with a scandalous kiss on the mouth and an improvisational limerick contest so salacious I didn’t even need to fact-check it to know it didn’t happen.

 

As I said, I realize any dramatization of this sort is going to be at odds with reality from time to time.

The Crown (Season 3)

But a viewer’s reaction should be (and, speaking for myself alone here, was for the first two seasons) “Did that really happen?” not “There’s no way that happened.”

 

The third season so completely lost my trust by the end of the second episode that, had I not already committed to reviewing it, I would have cut my losses and kept my fond memories of the Claire Foy run of the series.

 

And that’s truly unfortunate, because The Crown is so beautifully made otherwise. The cinematography in particular has always been stunning, but reaches new heights of artistry this season, especially in the way it conveys the emotional isolation of Elizabeth. HDR is used brilliantly to create a tangible distinction between the interiors of Buckingham Palace and the sunlight of the outside word piercing through the windows, intruding on the space within but never able to fully illuminate it.

 

Set design, costume design, and all of the rest of the elements that contribute to the visual verisimilitude of this historical world are all captured wonderfully by the excellent 4K/HDR presentation. So, if you can stomach the unnecessary sensationalism of it all, you’re in for an absolute treat of a presentation worthy of the best home cinema setups.

 

My advice, though, if you haven’t seen any of The Crown yet, would be to watch the first two seasons and simply pretend that the series ends in early 1964 with the birth of Prince Edward. The third season of The Crown is gorgeous and brilliantly acted, sure, but simply ends up being too insulting to truly enjoy. The earlier seasons, imperfect as they may have been, deliver an emotionally fulfilling and interesting story, beautifully shot and wonderfully performed, and are still very much worth your time.

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 Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There isn’t anyone (my parents excluded) who made quite the same long-term indelible impression on my life as Jim Henson did. Fred Rogers is close, but with Henson I’ve continued being entranced by his work, and the work of his company, far beyond my formative childhood years. I watch The Muppet Christmas Carol every December, Farscape is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and I’ve recently introduced my four-year-old son to Fraggle Rock. And of course he loves the lessons learned on Sesame Street.

 

But there was something about the release of The Dark Crystal in 1982 that had an even deeper impact. Maybe it was the fantasy setting or the incredible world-building of Thra, the world of the film. Or maybe the painstaking detail put into the terrifying Skeksis or the relatable Gelfling named Jen. Whatever it was, when The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was announced as a prequel to the movie, I was part ecstatic and part scared. Would the Netflix series be able to capture the magic I felt from the film? And prequels can be problematic, as we already know what the outcome is going to be—at least in a broad sense.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There was no need for me to worry. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a beautifully-crafted example of storytelling that builds on the mythology of the movie. The first couple episodes are a bit slow moving as there’s a decent amount of exposition covered and there are multiple storylines that need to be addressed and followed, but things soon get moving. And all the while we are treated to the expansive landscape of Thra, more so than what was presented in the movie.

 

Landscapes are full and lush, with intricate detail that’s on full display in the 4K Dolby Vision presentation. The characters are wonderfully unique—from the Skeksis to Gelflings to Podlings—and the HDR highlights the depth of the puppet designs. The

characters are brought to life with an all-star cast that includes Nathalie Emmanuel, Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Awkwafina, and Lena Headey. I was fully invested in their stories. The voice acting and puppetry kept me engaged throughout.

 

The vast majority of the series uses practical effects, but there are a few 

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

moments when CGI is employed that don’t quite match and can be mildly distracting when viewed in 4K HDR. Luckily these moments are few.

 

The Atmos audio is done tastefully. For the most part, surround channels are used to enhance the atmosphere with ambient effects sent to the rears. There are a couple choice moments with motion through the Atmos height channels that could draw your attention from the screen, but I didn’t find the mix to be excessive in any way.

 

Considering that The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is building upon an existing mythology, I could understand some concern that someone coming to the series fresh might feel lost. Luckily that isn’t the case. There’s plenty of information to bring in new visitors to Thra while keeping those of us who have spent years there enthralled. It’s an adventure for new and old alike.

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.

Mindhunter: Season Two

Mindhunter: Season Two

There is a deep fascination in American culture with crime stories, and in particular, serial killers. We’ve had award-winning movies like Silence of the Lambs, which was based on an amalgamation of serial killers, award-winning TV shows like Dexter that portrayed its lead character as a sympathetic serial killer, and documentaries like Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes that aim to give us a glimpse inside the mind of a serial killer. That isn’t to say America holds a monopoly on serial killers or the fascination therewith, but we certainly have more than our fair share.

 

In the 1970s, this led to the creation of the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The unit was originally comprised of 10 agents, and a few years after its formation, they began to visit and interview captured serial killers in prison to try and profile them and discover their motives. The Netflix series Mindhunter is based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, which was co-written by one of the members of the BSU, John E. Douglas, and its first season was a fictionalization of the creation of that unit.

 

That first season focused primarily on Agents Holdon Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they dealt with setting up the BSU in an FBI whose views on their psychological work were at best dismissive and at worst severely hindering. They were joined by psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) to try and bring some legitimacy to their work. Peppered throughout the season is the development of Dennis Rader (Sonny Valicenti) into the BTK Killer. In addition to the excellent performances by Groff, McCallany, Torv, and Valicenti, there are dynamite breakthrough performances by Cameron 

Britton as Ed Kemper and Happy Anderson as Jerry Brudos, both serial killers interviewed by Ford and Tench.

 

After a long hiatus (which made me wonder if the show was ever going to return), Season Two takes everything from Season One to another level. The interviewing of serial killers continues, as does the outstanding performances by the actors portraying 

Mindhunter: Season Two

them. Damon Herriman as Charles Manson is particularly captivating (incidentally, he plays the same role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). While the story of BTK continues throughout, the season’s central incident ends up being the Atlanta Child Murders that happened at the end of the ’70s and into the ’80s.

 

During the nine episodes, the lead actors are able to exercise their acting chops as we get character studies of them. And they all deliver. Ford tries to come to terms with a mental breakdown he experienced at the hands of Kemper at the end of Season One, Tench has an incident happen with his family that leads him to question how his job affects his personal life, and Carr struggles with the harsh realities of having to be closeted and trying to have a life while working for the Bureau in the ‘70s. The addition of Michael Cerveris as the new FBI Assistant Director means that, perhaps, they now have someone of power in their corner.

 

David Fincher, who is one of the executive producers, masterfully directs the first three episodes, setting an ominous and stark tone for the rest of the season. Visuals have excellent detail and the set dressing and props work perfectly to build the late ‘70s/early ‘80s timeframe. The 1080p version is very good, but the episodes really shine with 4K HDR. There isn’t anything exceptionally flashy in the show, but the HDR adds excellent depth to the darker scenes and causes an overall grittier presentation. In a good way.

 

There is some very interesting, subtle sound work throughout the episodes, especially in how the atmosphere of the backgrounds amplify the mood of the scenes. This is the majority of how the surrounds are used in the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus mix. There is no Atmos version available.

 

Both seasons of Mindhunter are available for streaming through Netflix. Season Two could stand on its own, but you’ll miss a bunch of backstory. I’d recommend binging the entire 19-episode series.

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.

The Chef Show

The Chef Show

The Chef Show is pretty much definitive proof that Netflix’ recommendation algorithms can’t quite figure me out. I’ll watch pretty much any food show the service slings in my direction, no matter the sub-genre. Food as culture? Gimme. Food as process? I’m taking notes. Food as an excuse to travel? Love every minute of it. Food as social glue? That may well be my favorite food sub-genre of all.

 

When you get right down to it, The Chef Show is all of those things in some sense, but it’s not really any of them at its heart. But getting to the gooey center of what this series actually is proves to be difficult. Which may be why Netflix didn’t shove it

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down my throat from the time it dropped back in June of this year, despite the fact that I’m its prime audience. 

 

To get to the sense of what I mean, consider a scene in the first episode, in which Gwyneth Paltrow, sort of befuddled, it seems, by what’s going on, asks, “What is this TV show for?” To which its hosts, Jon Favreau and Roy Choi sort of shrug and say, “We don’t know. Nobody knows. We just started filming.”

 

Favreau and Choi, of course, worked together on the 2014 indie film Chef, and The Chef Show at times feels like an excuse for the duo to recreate the magic of that amazing 

film without making a pointless sequel. Instead, they simply hang out with their friends and cook and chat. And since their friends happen to be people like Paltrow, Robert Rodriguez, and Robert Downey, Jr., you’ll see a good number of celebrity faces. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a celebrity showcase.

 

But there I go again, trying to define The Chef Show by telling you what it’s not, rather than what it is. I think the reason for that is that the series never really figures out for itself what it wants to be. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it refuses 

to be forced into some preconceived box, and instead just does its own thing. There’s no template, no real structure, no actual recurring elements aside from the cute stop-motion animated interstitials that serve to segue between segments.

 

You kind of get the sense the footage that comprises the show—which was captured over the course of three years and not even pitched to Netflix until a season’s worth of shows had 

The Chef Show

been assembled from it—could have just as easily been dropped on YouTube five or 10 or 30 minutes at a time, a fact reflected in the lack of HDR, despite the 4K presentation.

 

That may sound like a diss on my part, but nothing could be further from the truth. The freeform, unstructured, internet-y nature of the show is what I love about it most. Ultimately, it’s something of a metaphor for Favreau and Choi’s approach to cooking. One phrase that pops up time and time again when the two are hashing out new dishes is, “Sure, why not?” There’s no real recipe, just an understanding of what makes food tastes good, and a desire to mix things up and see what works.

 

At any rate, the result of all this experimentation is that, on the one hand, The Chef Show is probably the most food-like food show of any I’ve seen. And on the other hand, it’s not really about food at all. One gets the sense that if Favreau and Choi shared a love of cars, this would be a car show. If they had bonded over sailing, it would be a sailing show. In the end, their love for one another is really the glue that holds this little experiment together, and I think that gives them the liberty to break some rules.

The Chef Show

To give you one example of the rules they break: Early in the series the duo attempts to make beignets from a box of Cafe Du Monde mix, only to fail spectacularly and realize after the fact that they’ve used an expired mix. In most food shows, that would have been left on the cutting-room floor. In The Chef Show, it’s kind of the point, because that shared experience is so much more important than the results of their efforts.

 

I’m reminded of the big Sunday dinners my meemaw (for you Yankees in the audience, that’s southern for “grandmother”) used to make when I was a kid. The entire family would come together after church and stuff our faces on some of the best country cooking to ever cross my palate, then unbutton our pants and talk about the week for a few hours before going home for a nap.

 

It wasn’t until I was much older and my meemaw had died that I realized something: As much as those gigantic weekly meals were the superficial excuse for our Sunday gatherings, and as much as we still sit around and reminisce about her mashed potatoes and fried chicken livers and purple-hull peas, the food was never the point. For as much as she slaved over a stove every Sunday to feed 10 to 15 people, all of that cooking was really just an excuse to bring together the people she loved most in the world.

 

The Chef Show is pretty much exactly that. The delicious-looking dishes are just the pretense. The process is just a necessity, no matter how much love and mindfulness they pour into it. The real magic of this show is in the conversations—the ones that revolve around art and filmmaking and family as much as the ones that revolve around food—and if there were the faintest whiff of inauthenticity to any of it, it just wouldn’t work on any level.

 

But work it does. Brilliantly so. So much so that another “volume” of episodes is slated to drop in mid-September, barely three months after the first batch of eight. And I can say this for certain: I won’t be late to the party this time. I’m looking forward to Volume Two with a level of anticipation normally reserved for Star Wars movies and new episodes of Critical Role.

 

If anything, though, it makes me wonder what other little gems exist in the Netflix catalog, just sitting there waiting to be my new favorite thing, but failing to pop up on my radar because they don’t necessarily fit into the service’s A.I.-driven algorithm, designed to hack my viewing habits into component parts that can be used to predict what formula will appeal to me next.

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.

After Life

After Life

If you appreciate a show that grabs you by the hands and pulls you through all the feels in a short amount of time, After Life is for you. Ricky Gervais writes, directs, and stars in this series about a man who has lost his wife to cancer and is trying to find a reason to keep slogging through this life. He can’t bring himself to commit suicide, yet he sees no hope for joy. So he has decided to embrace bitterness and hopelessness as superpowers that allow him to do and say anything. His resulting interactions with the people in his life swing between funny, heartbreaking, wickedly off-color, and even downright sappy. 

 

After Life is British to the core—a quiet little show filled with quirky people talking to each other a lot. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightfully honest and poignant. If you only know Gervais for his more acerbic wit, you might be surprised how unapologetically sentimental he can be at times, and those opposing forces mesh perfectly here. It’s like brewing Kuding to make sweet tea.

After Life

Season One consists of just six 30-minute episodes, so you can easily binge this one in a weekend. Netflix presents the show in Dolby Vision and HDR10, with a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. The picture quality through my Apple TV was very good—it’s a clean, nicely detailed image that goes for a natural look, so don’t expect a lot of stylized shots to exploit the HDR. Overall, the improved dynamic range just lends a better sense of realism. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack is primarily dialogue through the center channel, with some music filling out the soundstage. Overall, it’s not an AV presentation to show off your system, but it suits the subject matter.

 

I was surprised and perhaps even a bit disappointed to see that a second season of After Life is in the works. This one seemed perfect as a limited-run series—six episodes that tell a complete story, capturing a time of painful transition in someone’s life. But Season One proved to be such a sweet surprise to me that I’m also intrigued to see what the show has in store in its next life.

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.