Netflix

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.

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.

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.

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.

Russian Doll

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

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

 

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

 

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

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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