A few years ago, when I last appeared on Radio 5’s Saturday Edition, there was a challenge to the listeners to name the then best US TV show. Somewhat out of left field, one listener threw me It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and host Chris Warburton challenged me to explain it to him, as he’d never heard of it.
“A bunch of friends including Danny DeVito play tricks on each other in a bar,” was the best I could come up with, since I’d caught about five minutes of it once on FX.
That recommendation piqued my curiosity, but I never actually got round to watching it. I can’t imagine it’s the best US TV show ever, but on the strength of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet it’s probably both funny and sadly overlooked.
Okay. Maybe not.
But Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is at least now my favourite Apple TV+ show. Although, to be fair, there’s not that much competition on that score. But it is good.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is very much a “from the people who brought you It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia“, given that not only does it have a similarly long and unwieldy title, it’s created by that show’s star/writer Rob McElhenney, fellow writer Megan Ganz (Community, Modern Family) and co-star Charlie Day, while also featuring co-star David Hornsby in a lead role.
McElhenney plays the creator of one of the world’s biggest online video games, Mythic Quest, and he’s just about to roll out the first big extension to it: Raven’s Banquet. But he has a very particular vision, something that frustrates lead coder Charlotte Nicdao (Get Krack!n) who would simply like just one thing in the game that she can point out and call hers. Even if that is just boring thing like a spade.
Meanwhile, noted sci-fi author F Murray Abraham (Amadeus, The Name of the Rose) is doing his best to flesh out the storyline with a decent narrative, even if he doesn’t quite get games; sociopathic monetisation guy Danny Pudi (Community) is working out how to extract cash from anything that moves in it; testers Ashly Burch and Imani Hakim (Everyone Hates Chris) are doing their best to squeeze out all the bugs from it, even if Burch’s developing crush on Hakim is impairing her work performance; and boss Hornsby is doing all he can (ineffectively) to keep everyone happy, particularly his bosses in Montreal and his slightly scary, right-wing, McElhenney-besotted assistant Jessie Ennis (Better Call Saul).
Even if all their hard work and late nights pay off, the success of their game could rest in the hands of one person: 13-year-old YouTube reviewer ‘Pootie Shoe’ and his b-hole rating system.
In the US: Thursdays, CBS All Access In the UK: Not yet acquired
Why is Jordan Peele determined to prove me wrong? A while ago, I suggested that the old-school anthology show, with a different story and cast every week, no longer worked as a format, given the nature of modern television scheduling. Instead, the season-long anthology show has the best of both worlds, with both a regular cast and the ability to tell closed stories, all rolled into one:
With an audience who likes serial drama but who wants eventual conclusions to their stories that haven’t been drawn out too long, what could be better than a season-long story with a beginning, middle and an end, the next season then telling a completely new story in the same vein? With a bit of cleverness, you can even appease fans of the shows’ stars by having the cast come back to play different characters if they want – or just let them go off to the next job if they’d rather, just like in the old days, since that way you can get big names with limited availability to come in for just a season.
There have been attempts to return to the original, episodic formula, such as The Guest Book and Room 104, but these exceptions have somewhat proved my hypothesis that the format no longer works. How? Because no one watches them.
So I ask again: why is Jordan Peele is so determined to prove me wrong? I mean first he creates a feelgood, episodic anthology show for YouTube, Weird City, and now he’s resurrected possibly the most famous anthology show of them all, The Twilight Zone.
Why does the lauded writer-director of Get Out and Us think he knows better than me, hey?
In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, Syfy
In the UK: Not yet acquired
As you’ll see tomorrow when I review Showtime’s Black Monday, we are apparently entering a new phase of 80s nostalgia. We’ve already numerous 80s TV shows lapping up the nostalgia value of video games, sport, fashion, hairstyles, high schools, music, film, politics et al of the era (eg Dark, Stranger Things, Halt and Catch Fire, GLOW, The Americans, Deutschland 83). But while The Americans and Dark weren’t exactly a bundle of laughs, they were pretty pro the 80s or at least neutral. Which is odd, because the 80s didn’t exactly feel brilliant when we were living through them.
There’s a big wonderful decade out there for you to explore. The 80s was more than neon lights, a synth soundtrack, and basement D&D. “Just Say Yes” to the unsanitized 80s.
But does it really know how? Or even what the 80s was really like?
The In Crowd v The Nerds
It stars Benjamin Wadsworth as a homeless street criminal who really hates Reagan, mainly because the Gipper has shut down plenty of hospitals for the mentally ill, resulting in all manner of schizophrenics and the like killing themselves or dying.
I’m not sure why he’s hanging his hate hat on that particular hook so vehemently, but he is.
Then into his life come the pupils of King’s Dominion, a High School for kids run by Benedict Wong (Marco Polo, The Martian, Doctor Strange). King’s Dominion has one central feature of its teaching curriculum: it teaches poor kids to kill. Why? Because Wong’s peasant-descended family has tried to ensure the poor should never be in a position where the rich can run a tyranny over them.
Soon, Wadsworth is having to do a Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You: he’s learning who the in crowd and the out crowd are, what cliques to join and avoid, so he can become a pupil at King’s Dominion. But he has one big motivation to do it – he wants to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
Eighteen. Although there have been many more movies featuring Marvel comic book characters or that have been made by Marvel Studios, there have been 18 ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ movies since the studio began Phase One of its ambitious, interconnected franchise plans in 2008 with Iron Man. That’s more than an entire season of the average US TV show these days.
Getting to the end of your first season without getting cancelled is impressive enough. Getting this far with a relatively consistent continuity, despite numerous writers and directors, is even more impressive. But getting this far with at least some really good movies coming out of the endeavour is nothing short of amazing.
The key to the MCU’s longevity is that while some characters hop around and appear in other movies, each movie has had a different roster of superheroes to play with, ensuring a different tone and freshness to each one (hopefully). In addition, each main character’s franchise has stopped after three movies: it’s not Iron Man 18 we’re watching in cinemas, since we stopped at Iron Man 3, and Thor, Captain America and co have similarly bowed out after three movies or fewer in favour of new arrivals such as Black Panther and Doctor Strange.
However, one important feature of the MCUs is its periodic reunions of characters from all the franchises, both past and present, for something typically Earth-shattering that requires a combination of superheroes to defeat. These movies cement in the audience’s mind the idea that the MCU is truly interconnected and that missing out on one film is possible, but it’ll be like missing an episode of a serial TV show if they do. Iron Man might not have got a fourth movie, but he’s shown up in The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: Civil War, and Spider-man: Homecoming, too. And that’s before we even get to the ensemble The Avengers movies, in which everyone turns up, whether they’re dead or not.
Which is where we get to the problem. Movies aren’t TV series. Sure, you can stretch them to three hours or so if you want, but if you’ve got literally dozens of regular characters in separate movies, when you bring them all together in one movie, how do you give them enough screen time to properly service them as characters while still having a decent plot?
The Avengers: Infinity Characters
When Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, I suggested that writer-director Joss Whedon had done just about as well as anyone could be expected, given how many characters he had to squeeze into his script. In retrospect, my review was probably a bit more generous than the movie deserved, since it hasn’t held up so well on repeated viewings chez TMINE. But it’s still not bad.
One area I was also wrong about was in suggesting that Whedon was about the only person who could have pulled it off. Whedon was, of course, the king of Marvel’s Phase One, but since then, some unexpected new royalty has hit town: the Russo Brothers. Improbably picked to direct Captain America: Winter Soldier following their work on the paintball episode of Community, they immediately hit the ball out of the park with what to my mind is the best movie of the entire MCU – and a damn fine spy/action movie in its own right. No small surprise then that they got its sequel, Captain America: Civil War, to direct as well. That movie can also be considered The Avengers 2.5 in its own way, given how many MCU characters are in it, and while it wasn’t as good as Winter Soldier, it was still a really good movie.
Hopes were therefore high for their Avengers: Infinity War, the first of two movies designed to polish off the first three phases of the MCU – the season finale, if you will. By contrast, the once box-office transforming The Avengers and The Avengers 2‘s character rosters feel more like a small piece of local theatre, given there are probably twice to three times as many characters for them to juggle, both old and new. Infinity War also had to round off the massive storyline that’s been building since as far back as Thor.
No pressure, then.
Fortunately, they’ve certainly risen to meet the challenge, managing to out-Whedon Whedon himself.
The story so far…
For those of you who haven’t been following the linking storyline – and it does get explained in Infinity War, you’ll be glad to hear – there are six great big McGuffins known as Infinity Stones that have been popping up all over the MCU in the likes of The Avengers, Thor: Dark World, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Each of these has a different mega-power and the Big Bad of The Avengers, Thanos, wants to collect them as he’s basically an intergalactic Thomas Malthus – believing that life outstrips resources, it’s his mission to wipe out half of all life in the universe so that the survivors never have to worry about starvation, overcrowding et al ever again. If he gets all six stones, he can kill everyone with a single wave of his specially made Infinity Gauntlet (guess what that’s for).
Naturally, Earth’s mightiest heroes – as well as Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy – aren’t really inclined to let him. But even combined, can they really take on a Titan who can beat the Hulk in a fist fight, crush a god’s neck with his bare hands and hurl a moon at someone he doesn’t really like? And give that Infinity War is the first of two movies that answer that question, who’s still going to be left standing at the end of this one?
You may be surprised. Both non-spoilery and spoilery reviews after this trailer and then the jump.
I don’t honestly have a huge amount to say about the following two shows, so since they’re derivative US comedies that aren’t that funny, I thought I’d stick them together and create a whole review. How’s that for innovation?
Let’s Get Physical (US: Pop)
Basically Dodgeball with a hint of Blades of Glory but with aerobics instead of dodgeball or ice skating. Or jokes.
Matt Jones (Breaking Bad) is a former teenage aerobics star who screwed up and ended up going to seed and becoming a Wedding Singer. Meanwhile, his ex-girlfriend (Nip/Tuck‘s AnnaLynne McCord) ended up marrying his arch-rival Chris Diamantopoulos (Silicon Valley).
His tyrannical father dies, but stipulates in his will that for Jones to inherit the $8m coming to him, he has to beat McCord and Diamantopoulos at an aerobics competition or they’ll get it instead. So Jones is forced to recruit his mother (Jane Seymour – yes, that one) and anyone else who’ll dance with him, including criminals, to take on his former rivals… and get back into shape.
Diamantopoulos is good again as a total alpha dick and it’s nice to see Seymour in a starring role again. But if you’ve seen Dodgeball, you’ll have seen all the good jokes done before and much better by Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, and honestly, jokes about Jones being a bit unfit don’t come anywhere close to being as funny as people having balls and wrenches thrown in their faces.
A.P. Bio (US: NBC)
Failed Harvard philosophy professor (Glenn Howerton) loses his job and ends up as a teacher at a High School. However, instead of teaching his brainy class about advanced biology, he uses them to get back at his arch-rival (PhoneShop‘s Tom Bennett).
While CBS spends its time iterating formats until it gets them right, NBC seems to be working on ways to take good formats and make them slightly worse. However, while Great News was still a very good show, if not quite 30 Rock great, AP Bio is a pretty poor version of Community, with Howerton taking on Joel McHale’s role of the smart cynical high-flyer who doesn’t give a f*ck about anyone else and ends up slumming it in the minor educational leagues.
The first episode is all about Howerton, with minimal attempts to give anyone else anything to do –even Happy!‘s Patton Oswald just gets to walk on, act frustrated, then walk out again. Howerton’s just a bitter, narcissistic loser, though, rather than a source of wit, which means most of the few gags that work are those given to his arch-rival Bennett, although Howerton tasking his class to reverse-Catfish Bennett did earn a bit of a chuckle.
Still, despite Howerton’s insistence that they’re not going to learn anything from him and it won’t be uplifting and Breakfast Clubby for anyone, how long do you reckon it’ll be before that changes?
Here’s a trailer, and if you want to see for yourself the show’s averageness in full, you can watch the whole first episode afterwards.