Category: TV


This year we found one series that could easily sweep most of the categories–a single television series that had everything: compelling story, a full range of emotions, great characters, tremendous action, a sharp use of humor, all kinds of genre elements that were satisfying and left viewers feeling inspired.  Richly detailed sets and costumes.  An impossible feat to replicate.  No drama came close.  No other visual effects spectacle could touch it.  And its audience is everyone.  A truly epic addition to television viewing, that series is The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the greatest television series to come along in years.  If you love genre like we do, this was as good as it gets.  And like icing on the cake, along came The Mandalorian at year end.

But we’re not going to ignore the other good things that happened on the small screen this year.

Our borg Best of 2019 list continues today with the best in television.  If you missed it, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2019 here and the best Kick-Ass Heroines of 2019 here.

Without further ado, this year’s Best in Television:

Best Borg SeriesDoom Patrol (DC Universe).  With this year’s series Doom Patrol we got a look at two borgs, DC Comics’ Cyborg, an update to Martin Caidin’s original Bionic Man from the 1970s, and an older borg created before the word was even coined in the 1960s, Robotman.  Both characters revealed a glimpse at what life might be like with significant cybernetic enhancements (when brought together by a modern Dr. Frankenstein).  For 2019, it was the way to get your borg fix on the small screen.

Best TV Series, Best New Limited TV Series, Best TV Fantasy, Best Writing for TV, Best TV Costumes/Makeup, Best TV SoundtrackThe Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix).  It was worth the wait.  Jim Henson’s seemingly impossible to replicate artistic vision was successfully achieved thanks to his daughters and the company he founded.  The kindest heroes, the darkest evil, a truly epic, legendary story for the ages.  Everybody is cranking out CGI extravaganzas, but how many are creating artistry so fundamentally real, with so many individual artists and artisans contributing and achieving so much?  Even that wouldn’t be enough if not for the layered mythology and epic adventure story.  Add great humor, high stakes, emotional impact, an all-star voice cast, Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim’s  imaginative musical score, and those puppets and all that go into them–it adds up to a rare thing–a Henson masterpiece.

Best TV Sci-fi Series, Best TV DramaThe Man in the High Castle (Amazon).  Amazon Studios could not have adapted a series more faithfully, making changes for the medium and the times, than its take on Philip K. Dick’s most celebrated novel.  The use of science fiction to tell a deep and twisty level of subplots and unique setting all came to a perfect conclusion in the series finale.  Exciting, intelligent, frightening, and the most thought-provoking series this year, it was also different from its sci-fi competition.  Honorable mention: The Mandalorian (Disney+)–but only if we allow space fantasy since the series is not true science fiction, The Orville (Fox)–for its two-part epic movie-worthy space story, “Identity.”

Best New Ongoing TV Series, Runner-up: Best TV Soundtrack, Runner-up: Best TV Costumes/Makeup The Mandalorian (Disney+).  Not a lot needs explaining with this series, which in only its first two hours we rated it closer to the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back than anything with the Star Wars label on it since.  The Western motif is still alive, not all that hidden here in space fantasy garb.  And we won’t get started on the impact of The Child (aka Baby Yoda) on the genre-loving world and beyond.  Credit Jon Favreau’s visible enthusiasm and love for the original movies for the success of this surprisingly awesome arrival–the series is proof Star Wars is far from over.

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This Friday fans of the science fiction TV series The Expanse get their wish: a fourth season and new studio commitment that may yield even more seasons.  Dropped by the Syfy channel more than a year ago, Amazon Studios is breathing new life into the series, taking over right where the third season left off (check out a preview for the new season below).  Based on the James S.A. Corey series of novels (eight with a ninth in the works), the show has earned a fan following much like that of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, in part because of its similar dark and gritty look at the future of Earth.  And as a bonus, unlike most TV series, The Expanse now has its own behind-the-scenes book digging into the production, full of concept artwork, ship and costume designs, and all the future tech that goes into a visual effects-filled show.

The Art and Making of The Expanse was created by Titan Books editor Andy Jones and Alcon Publishing’s Jeff Conner.  It doesn’t skimp on the photographs, giving fans both a treasure trove of screen images while also showing how those final shots came to be.  It recounts how the series made its way from video game to roleplay game to novels before getting picked up for TV.  Showrunner Naren Shankar and producers Mark Fergus, Daniel Abraham, and Ty Franck tell the whole story with contributions from actors Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper, Wes Chatham, Cas Anvar, Thomas Jane, and Sadavir Errinwright, production designer Seth Reed, costume designer Joanne Hansen, construction coordinator Robert Valeriote, senior VFX supervisor Bob Munroe, and concept artist Tim Warnock.

Readers will see all the key sets, spacesuits and other costumes, props, designs, ships, ship signage, and more from the first three seasons with a look at the fourth season’s concept art.  Look for layouts on each main character, the major ships and space stations, and a lot more.

Here is a preview of season four of The Expanse, with new cast members Burn Gorman (Torchwood, Forever, The Man in the High Castle), Lyndie Greenwood (Sleepy Hollow, Nikita), Jess Salgueiro (Orphan Black, The Strain), Michael Benyaer (Deadpool, Magnum PI), Chai Valladares (Star Trek Discovery, The Boys), and Kris Holden-Reid (Vikings, Lost Girl), and a new cyborg or two:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

This is what I was hoping for in Jonas Åkerlund’s movie Polar, the brutal Mads Mikkelsen dark action movie that was more wannabe Zack Snyder than anything interesting, fun, or thought-provoking.  Cold Pursuit is something like Polar.  You’ll feel the cold, sure.  But director Hans Petter Molland′s take on dark comedy is a little more subtle, less “look at me and all the carnage I can fit on a screen and have my characters laugh about.”  But Cold Pursuit is also not the Coen Brothers’ Fargo.  And that’s a good thing if you don’t worship Coen Brothers movies.  It’s also a good thing if you like Fargo only a little bit.

What the heck am I talking about?  Unlike a lot of films that go direct to streaming services, this was a theatrical release.  You can tell the difference.  So it beats out most direct-to-Netflix, Amazon, etc. fare.  But Cold Pursuit was marketed and billed more like a dark comedy.  Only it’s not very funny.  But it’s an enjoyable, satisfying revenge flick.  So blame the marketing.  Cold Pursuit is a steady, measured drama about a resourceful snowplow driver near Denver, played by Liam Neeson (sporting a Han Solo at Hoth parka), who is successful at his job, but less successful with his family relationships, including communicating with his wife, played rather blandly by Laura Dern (it’s the part, not the performer).  When their son is murdered by a low-level member of the local drug community, Neeson’s character, Nels Coxman, first tries to kill himself.  When he learns his kid wasn’t really involved in drugs he begins relentlessly pursuing everyone involved in the world that killed his son, aiming for the top, which reaches back to an anal-retentive, self-absorbed, young, wealthy kingpin called Viking back in the city, played expertly vile by Tom Bateman (Murder on the Orient Express).  This is when the movie takes the action turn.  Bateman plays that villain you love to hate and really want to see get a comeuppance.

Dozens of named characters get killed in different ways throughout the picture (I thought about counting the bodies but didn’t).  Each cleverly gets their own pre-sound era cinema “tombstone” as they are marked off the list (including their religion–oddly irrelevant but humorous).  Even if it’s a little spoliery (yes, that’s the correct spelling) to know it, if it helps get people to see the movie then it’s worth knowing that Neeson’s character is not a criminal type or tough guy, but calls forth that familiar guy from the Taken movies to open ample six-packs (several) of whoop-ass on the bad guys.

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It’s time for borg′s annual look at the Best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines in film and television.  This year we selected 26 characters that rose to the top.  Again the studios gave us more to cheer about than ever.  We’re highlighting the very best from a slate of fantastic heroines, with characteristics to learn from and root for.  Determined, decisive, loyal, brave, smart, fierce, strong, you’ll find no one here timid or weepy, but all rely on their individual skills to beat the odds and overcome any obstacle that comes their way.  Over the years we have expanded the list to include any tough, savvy, gritty character played by a woman, so villains are welcome here, too.  Some may be frazzled, put-upon, war-weary, or human, but all have fought, some against difficult circumstances, others against personal demons (literally, figuratively, or both), and some against gun and laser fire.  And they all showed what a tough, kick-ass character is about.

Several characters who made previous years’ kick-ass heroine lists returned to TV and film and could very well make the list again, but we’re looking for new recruits.  So we’re not forgetting Lagertha in Vikings, Liv Moore from iZombie, Trish Walker in Jessica Jones, and Juliana Crain from The Man in the High Castle, all in their final seasons of their series, plus Eleven in Stranger Things, Juliet Higgins in Magnum PI, Liz Dudley in Lodge 49, the 13th Doctor in Doctor Who, Betty Cooper from Riverdale, and Sabrina Spellman and Ms. Wardwell from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.  At the movies Valkyrie, The Wasp, and Okoye were back, this time in Avengers: Endgame, Martha/Ruby Roundhouse returned in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Rey was back one more time in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.  This year we add a mystic, a former Russian operative, a DHS agent, an adventurer, an undercover cop, a bounty hunter, a general, a gang leader, superheroes, martial arts masters, special agents, survivors, former soldiers, resistance fighters, gelflings, warriors, witches, a bride, an emperor (not empress!), and even a cyborg–with a roster evenly split between television and movie characters.

Credit goes to both the writers and other creators of the characters and the actors and performers that brought them all to life.

These are the Best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines of 2019:

Aughra (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance).  If there was a greater woman character in the history of fantasy film, we don’t know who that would be.  We first met her 37 years ago thanks to Jim Henson in the original movie, and she hardly changed at all for the prequel series that arrived at last this year.  Voice actor Donna Kimball and Muppeteer extraordinaire Kevin Clash perfectly replicated the witchy sorceress whose wisdom, savvy, and mystic powers were stealthily used this season.  She went to death and back again, and was key to defeat the Skekses once again. (Henson/Netflix)

Black Widow (Avengers: Endgame).  After a decade of being the only superheroine in the Avengers, Scarlet Johannson’s Natasha Romanoff finally took center stage this year as the bravest of the entire bunch, giving her life to save not only everyone on Earth, but everyone across the universe destroyed by Thanos.  And yet she still didn’t get the fanfare that Tony Stark did.  We’re hoping she gets the solo film she deserves when she’s back one more time next year in her own movie. (Disney/Marvel)

Hattie Shaw (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw).  As part of a big bad assassin family, whose mother was played by Helen Mirren and brother by Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby’s Hattie might be the toughest of them all.  If you need to track down a missing deadly virus in the hands of a cybernetically enhanced superhuman, who else are you going to call to team up with Statham and The Rock?  (Universal)

Agent M (Men in Black: International).  Valkyrie Tessa Thompson is back on the list again, this time as the first movie lead Woman in Black, earning her nebulizer with the help of her Thor-world partner Chris Hemsworth.  As a little girl, Molly witnessed an alien as her parents were zapped by Men in Black, and she worked her entire life to be able to get into the CIA or FBI, hoping one would be the entry point into the secret organization.  Agents O and High T would recognize her value to the team, as she saved the planet from the latest menace. (Columbia/Sony)

Cyclone Mei (The Legend of the Condor Heroes).  Even as an evil witch, Viola Mi’s master of the Nine Yin White Bone Claw and Heart Destroying Palm techniques became a sympathetic villain after her husband died at the hands of young Guo Jing and she became blind.  Even blind she used internal techniques to defeat anyone she perceived as a threat.  Master of the whip with fearsome claws, beautiful and fierce Mei Chaofeng once joined her husband as the “Twin Masters of the Dark Winds” to possess a forbidden manual of martial arts, and would leave mountains of bodies in their wake as they sank deeper into the dark teachings.  (iQIYI)

Sarah Connor (Terminator: Dark Fate).  We were excited when we heard Linda Hamilton would return to the franchise 27 years after she had a major transformation from waitress into the woman who would save 3 billion lives.  One of Sci-Fi’s two best-known kick-ass heroines (along with Ellen Ripley), original terminator target Sarah Connor lost none of that drive and determination to continue to kill Terminators into the 21st century.  As a grandma surrogate and mentor to the next generation of leadership, we’ve no doubt the future is safe again.  (Paramount/20th Century Fox)

Special Agent Dinah Madani (Marvel’s The Punisher).  For the entire second season, Amber Rose Revah’s DHS agent was hot on the trail of taking down Billy Russo’s villain Jigsaw.  Who knew she’d need to get through his psychiatrist first.  She was always tough and good at her job, but proved herself in the final two episodes of the series.  (Netflix)

Leia Organa (Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker).  Princess or General, Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa was one of the 1970s brand of kick-ass heroines, although we still wish she’d had the opportunity to show her stuff just as Rey was able to in the third trilogy movies.  We prefer seeing her as she continued after the original trilogy in Timothy Zahn’s novels, the Dark Empire comics, and the 20 years of the Expanded Universe stories, where we saw her realize power as great as Luke and the rest of the Jedi Order.  (Disney/Lucasfilm)

Captain Marvel (Captain Marvel/Avengers: Endgame).  Brie Larson’s take on Captain Marvel was an end-to-end story about being tough and taking charge.  An entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that didn’t fit the mold of past films, it allowed audiences to meet her for the first time and ramp up our appreciation for all she could do in short order.  Soon enough she’d be integral to relocating Thanos after The Snap, and she’d return one more time in the final battle to try to turn the universe back to the way it was.  (Disney/Marvel)

Cara Dune (The Mandalorian).  A master of hand-to-hand combat as well as crack sharp-shooter, the latest Star Wars heroine (played by Gina Carano) helped the Mandalorian take down an AT-ST in their first go. Once a shock trooper with the Rebel Alliance and a fighter after the Battle of Endor, Cara is just the help the Mandalorian and The Child need going forward in the series.  (Disney/Lucasfilm)

Sue Lynn Blackbird (Stumptown).  Always the smartest person in the room, and ten steps ahead of everyone else, Tantoo Cardinal’s Sue Lynn runs the local Tribal Casino, but she does much more.  She’s a businesswoman who always negotiates from the power position.  Her leadership role means she has the power to excommunicate anyone who isn’t acting in the best interests of the tribe–or give them another chance.  She’s also tough enough to forgive and mentor younger walking disasters she encounters from time to time. (ABC)

Emperor Philippa Georgiou (Star Trek: Discovery). We’ve always loved Michelle Yeoh, but the series writers for her latest character held back in the first season of the series. At last viewers got the full monte when the mirror version of the series lead character’s captain returned not only to help her, but to eliminate any who got in her way, and proceed to take over the secret spy agency of the prime world timeline. Up there with Jaylah from Star Trek Beyond, “Mirror Georgiou” is one of the new breed of badass Star Trek character.

Christine Gavin (Wu Assassins).  Vikings star Katheryn Winnick makes her second showing on the list, this time as San Francisco undercover police officer Christine Gavin.  Expecting to find the ringleader of a major crime syndicate, she began her work gaining the trust of a man in a local chop shop, only to discover a larger world existed beyond the world we see every day.  Possessing some major martial arts skills and a street fighting manner, she didn’t lose a fight all season long, and helped battle evil in both dimensions.  (Netflix)

Grace (Terminator: Dark Fate).  Sent from the future to save a young woman who has the potential to go forward and lead a rebellion against a new technological apocalypse, Mackenzie Davis’s Grace stepped up to fight a new brand of Terminator.  A human that volunteered to undergo enhancements to make herself into a full-fledged cyborg, she would fulfill her mission, giving the ultimate sacrifice for the future of humanity. (Paramount/20th Century Fox)

Huang Rong (The Legend of the Condor Heroes).  Quick thinking with a photographic memory, Yitong Ling’s Rong’er met her future husband on one of her outings in beggar garb disguised as a man, practicing her skills as a thief and 13th century grifter.  Young and easy to underestimate, with the witty banter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and an almost supernatural ability to coerce anyone to do her bidding, her charismatic traits were only matched by her mastery of enough schools of martial arts to prevent anyone from learning who taught her.  Raised on Peach Blossom Island by her father, she learned how to confuse an enemy, and is able to convince Hong Qigong to teach her even more, all in exchange for her cooking–hey, you can be a badass and also a master chef.  (iQIYI)

Maudra Fara (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance). Refusing to recognize Seladon’s claim to the position of All-Maudra, she’d challenge her for the Living CrownFara assumed the title of Maudra after Vala, her mother, had been killed during the First Battle of Stone-in-the-Wood, and she would prove to be the fiercest of all the Gelflings, male or female.  Who wouldn’t follow her into harm’s way?  Alice Dinnean was the puppeteer behind the scenes, with Lena Headey supplying her voice.  (Henson/Netflix)

Grace (Ready Or Not).  Samara Weaving’s character Grace made for the perfect bride on her wedding day… who married into a family of psychopaths that required she first beat them in a wedding night game of hide and seek–to the death.  A horror movie that was also a suspense thriller, Ready Or Not ran circles around the similar Knives Out from an entertainment and excitement standpoint.  Grace had to shoot though her in-laws and extended family to survive the night, somehow finding the mettle to defend herself when the unthinkable became the thinkable–and for audiences it was so much fun!  (Mythology/Vinson)

Vedek Kira Nerys (Deep Space Nine: What We Left Behind).  In this year’s Deep Space Nine documentary, the creators of the series returned to give viewers a glimpse at what Season 8 would have looked like had they been able to continue, complete with Kira as Vedek, in charge of the space station and taking her seven year character arc into new places.  It’s the same grit Nana Visitor gave to her performance, and the spirit of the original shown through as she joins with her former Starfleet colleagues at the show’s cliffhanger.

Agent Francesca “Frankie” Trowbridge (Whiskey Cavalier).  Lauren Cohan’s Frankie had it all, and unfortunately for fans the show was canceled after only one season.  But what a season!  This agent was every bit 100% James Bond but she also used her looks and smarts to double as “Bond girl” when the mission called for it.  In hand-to-hand combat or with a weapon, whatever bad guys the writers threw at her, nobody could get past her for long. (ABC)

Zan Hui (Wu Assassins).  Cold and near emotionless, Hong Kong movie star JuJu Chan’s Zan was ruthless as henchwoman to the leader of the Triads.  But she was also ambitious, and at her first opportunity she didn’t hesitate to act.  Incredibly skilled in kung fu and street fighting as well as weaponry, she didn’t need the supernatural skills of the other characters to make an impact.  (Netflix)

Two (6 Underground).  Melanie Laurent’s Camille was ready to join One and his secret force of ghosts, undoing some of the damage she’d done while CIA operative.  Quiet and saying little most of the time, she reveals to the squad’s hitman she knows all she needs to navigate international politics.  Take down a government led by a murderous villain and replace him with someone better?  Count her in.  (Netflix)

Gunnhild (Vikings).  An entire series could be written around Ragga Ragnars’ strong and proud warrior.  As shield-maiden, she doesn’t hesitate to lead the fight with her sword onto the battlefield.  Also kind and humble, she also doesn’t hesitate to make sure her niece and nephew are protected when she has a dream that they are in danger.  As Queen of Kattigat she proves she’s the right person at the right time in history.  (History)

Dex Parios (Stumptown).  Taking a character from the comic books to the screen, Cobie Smulders made ex-Marine Dex her own.  Her P.I. is a walking disaster, always “this close” to succeeding, and always trying to claw her way back from the last worst decision she could have made.  Somehow she is able to look after her brother.  She makes Jessica Jones look like a lightweight, always her own worst enemy.  But if she keeps fighting back in this city, she may just make it after all. (ABC)

Amelia Wren (The Aeronauts).  Nobody else on the list had to climb to the top of a balloon in freezing cold temperatures with frostbitten, unusable fingers at a height of more than 30,000 feet.  And Felicity Jones’s Amelia Wren was based on a real person.  Does it get more badass than that?  That she was a composite character doesn’t matter–she’ll make audiences breathless as she performs one death-defying feat after another in her two-hour flight. (Netflix)

Bell Mallory (The Man in the High Castle).  In the series’ alternate histore, while the Eastern United States was still being fought over by the Nazis and a small band of resistance fighters, Frances Turner’s Bell Mallory rescued San Francisco and led a revolt that removed Japanese occupation from the entire west coast.  Undercover op?  Whatever it takes.  A strategist and brains behind taking out a slew of leaders, she knew who to trust and who not to, and her decisions helped put the U.S. back into American control. (Amazon Studios)

Deet (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance).  The nicest gelfling of the Grottan clan you could ever meet, she befriends plant and animal alike.  Once she experiences a vision by touching Vliste-Staba, the Sanctuary Tree located in the Mountains of Grot, the nature loving soul joins the resistance.  And when the Skekses are ready to destroy Thra, she is the only one who can muster the power to stop them.  An unlikely hero, we don’t yet know the extent of the price she paid for restoring the balance of Thra.  Performers Beccy Henderson and Nathalie Emmanuel couldn’t have created a better heroine.  (Netflix)

And that’s this year’s list.  Keep coming back the remainder of this month as we reveal the rest of our Best in Film, Best in TV, and Best in Print, and our borg Hall of Fame inductees for 2019.

Want to see previous years’ kickass genre heroines?  Here are 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg

Review by C.J. Bunce

Sometimes a movie is exactly as advertised and exactly what you want.  If you love a good John Carpenter movie and are intrigued by a director’s ambitious attempt to create a worthy homage to Carpenter’s most memorable early work, then Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is for you.  With pacing, cinematography, music, and characterizations found in Carpenter’s Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, The Thing, and Escape from New York, writer-director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) delivers more mood than scares, but it’s the perfect beginning to a video game franchise movie series and a fantastic throwback 1980s-style horror romp.  Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is available on physical media here at Amazon and currently has a $9.99 sale price for digital streaming at Vudu.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Cobie Smulders has enough street cred playing badass leads, including co-starring opposite Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, serving as the most powerful non-superheroine of the Marvel movies as Maria Hill, and she’s the perfect Wonder Woman, although we only hear her voice as the character in The Lego Movie series.  So why head back to television?  Maybe after 200 episodes of being part of a hit ensemble cast on How I Met Your Mother, she wanted her own series?  Whatever the reason, it’s a win for TV viewers.  Her new project is Stumptown, and the first episode aired this week on ABC.

Smulders is promising as Dex Parios, an army vet with PTSD, who takes care of her brother and has a gambling problem.  Happily for her, everyone, including the head of the gambling house, seems to be on her side.  In her first case, she’s trying to locate the missing daughter of her deceased college boyfriend, in exchange for having a five-figure tab written off at the local Portland casino (yes, evidently Portland has had casinos since 1988).  Initially she fails, but before she’s totally written off by everyone except her brother (played by the engaging Cole Sibus), the writers skillfully show viewers why she might be a character to return to each week.  Dex is a fighter, while also a mess and a bit snarky, but hopefully that’s not all she is.  Her old red Ford Mustang and its broken cassette tape deck that offers up the right song at the right time is a nice throwback to Philip Glenister and his red Audi Quattro on the classic detective series Ashes to Ashes.

Along with good writing in its opener, Stumptown boasts a supporting cast that brings plenty to the show.  Jake Johnson (New Girl, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Jurassic World) as bartender pal Grey demonstrates again why he’s the best at playing the best friend.  If you missed Michael Ealy as a great cop on Almost Human (or as Slap Jack in 2 Fast 2 Furious) you’ll appreciate him back with a badge on this series.  Even better, it looks like Donal Logue (Gotham, Vikings, Life, Zodiac, Sneakers) will join the cast in next week’s episode.  The only thing the series could benefit from is tapping all those local Portland actors like NBC’s Grimm did so well.  Unfortunately, other than some establishing shots, it doesn’t look like the series will be filmed there.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

After more than a decade watching our all-time favorite series take place in Korea (M*A*S*H), it’s refreshing to at last to see in wide U.S. release a quality series set in Korea.  That series is the first South Korean series released by Netflix, a fantastic medieval historic mash-up with zombies called Kingdom, which began streaming this past weekend.  Sprouting from a well-documented, mysterious plague that killed tens of thousands of people in Hanyang (present-day Seoul) during the 16th century Joseon dynasty, this story nestles the viewer in a fully realized Korea of the past, complete with opulent sets, costumes, and production values said to have cost nearly $2 million per episode.  The result matches a stunning script (based on a web series by Kim Eun-hee, who counts herself a zombie aficionado and proves it with this series), top acting from a slate of South Korea’s most award-winning actors, and cinematography showing locations most Westerners have never seen, with an exciting Braveheart of the Far East meets The Walking Dead genre action feast.

The region’s king comes down with smallpox, and on his sick bed his latest wife, a young pregnant queen (played by Kim Hye-jun) schemes with her father and the king’s supposed confidante, Lord Cho (Masquerade’s Ryu Seung-ryong), to seize control of the throne, conspiring with Cho’s embedded clan of thugs to shun the true heir, the Crown Prince, played by Ju Ji-hoon (The Spy Gone North) as an earnest, Henry V-inspired leader.  But is the king really dead, and what other secrets does the queen keep?  Father and daughter bar access to everyone outside their circle, and so the Crown Prince escapes with his trusted and fierce lieutenant Muyeong, played with equal parts grit and humor by Sang-ho Kim (Octopus), conjuring the versatility of Japan’s Toshiro Mifune.  They set out to discover the source of the spreading plague, meeting up with a doctor played by Sense8 and Jupiter Ascending‘s Doona Bae, and (in a twist worthy of a Tom Clancy novel) the realization fosters the Crown Prince’s viability as a real leader against an unthinkable threat.  Rounding out the main cast is a mysterious warrior named Yeong-sin, an angry, defensive villager who buries a group of the dead against local traditions, played by Kim Sung-kyu.  His character is cloaked in his own secret past.

Deception.  Murder.  Conspiracy.  A prince who above all else looks to protect his father the king and be a good leader.  A heroic race to a stronghold via horse cart.  A mother infected who turns on her own child.  Swords and bow and arrow, and early rifles, as the only means of defense.  Gorgeous, truly cinematic imagery.  Western viewers get an incredible look at a beautiful island, forests, waterfalls, bubbling brooks, palatial estates, lakes and mountain views probably never captured for a wide modern audience, thanks to some stunning cinematography.  Fog, night, and fire eerily presented among cinematic storyboarded action sequences.  The music is a blending of traditional, medieval, Eastern themes, and sweeping programmatic action movie cues.  Costume designs in exquisite fabrics and designs at first may seem odd to modern viewers, but their similarity to the garb of Akira Kurosawa films (that Western audiences have had greater access to over the decades) should ease in most viewers.  The production sets and artistry are probably matched only by History’s Vikings of the current historical and fantasy TV series available.  And the expected horror of the zombie genre–sword beheadings were never filmed so believably.

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The streaming channel Peacock arrived in a free, ad-supported edition this summer, and it’s pretty much like having a full cable TV line-up for only the one-time price of an Amazon Fire Stick.  The Fire Stick is typically available here at Amazon for between $30 and $50, depending on the options you want, and it’s a great portal to a variety of streaming platforms, from Netflix to YouTube and Disney Plus to HBO Max, as well as all the series and movies on Amazon Prime and the streaming platforms already available via that service, like BritBox.  Named for NBC’s classic trademark logo, the Peacock channel is bigger than it sounds, incorporating the giant NBC network of historic programming, content from channels like Bravo, USA, Syfy, History, Nickelodeon, Fox, The CW, MSNBC, lots of XXXII Olympiad 2020 sports coverage, and more.  On Peacock you get a variety of movies and series, much more than is supported on other TV network-based streaming providers.  Like 46 seasons of Saturday Night Live, plus great fan-favorites like Psych, Monk, Parks and Recreation, six seasons of Vikings, Heroes, Eureka, Charmed, Sliders, and Battlestar Galactica, several seasons of the different flavors of Law and Order, classics like The Carol Burnett Show and Good Times, Cheers, and Columbo.  But what should you watch first?

We suggest bingeing the first season of Stephen J. Cannell’s 1970s detective series, The Rockford Files

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So many continuing genre TV shows!  CW’s iZombie, Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, and Riverdale.  Then we have all the fantasy genre shows like Vikings, Outlander, and Game of Thrones.  There’s The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, and The 100.  HBO’s sci-fi series Westworld.  And new superhero shows–Black Lightning, The Defenders, and Gifted.

What do they all have in common?

All 16 were featured in panels this weekend at San Diego Comic-Con.  And each has a new trailer or special Comic-Con video recap leading into the next season.  The winner?  Check out yesterday’s exciting trailer for Stranger Things, season 2, (shown here at borg.com) which seems to eclipse them all.  But from today’s list make sure you watch Netflix’s The Defenders–if you liked any of the other Netflix Marvel series, this will be a must-see.  And the four minutes of iZombie is a great recap of fun TV.

So let’s get on with it.  Watch your favorites or check out all of them, straight from Comic-Con 2017:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The three 90-minute episode television series is one of those staples of the BBC that is both refreshing and infuriating.  It’s refreshing because it avoids all the padding that is so commonplace among those direct-to-binge, 10-episode shows premiering regularly now on Netflix and other streaming providers.  But it’s infuriating to find a series that is so well written and produced, you love the characters and wish there was more.  Much like another great 4.5 hour series we loved, BBC’s 2011 series Zen starring Rufus Sewell (reviewed here at borg), in BBC’s Quirke, Gabriel Byrne inhabits his lead character in one of his best performances, leaving viewers wishing the series would have continued for a few more seasons.  First airing in the UK in 2014, Quirke is now available on the BritBox streaming service, along with Zen.

Byrne (Vikings, Assault on Precinct 13, The Usual Suspects) plays Dr. Quirke, the chief pathologist of the Dublin city morgue in the 1950s.  He has an affinity for alcohol, his brother’s wife, and solving murders, partnering on- and off-the-books with the local police inspector played by Stanley Townsend (Ashes to Ashes, Sherlock, Zen, Galavant).  In what feels like three gritty Irish noir movies, we learn about the doctor’s family struggles as his past and future collide, as he investigates an orphanage siphoning babies from Ireland to Boston, as he connects the deaths of two women found dead from suicides, and as he tracks down the whereabouts of a missing friend of his daughter.

The focus of Dr. Quirke’s life is the well-being of his niece, played by Aisling Franciosi (Game of Thrones, Vera), who is really his biological daughter, raised by his step-brother and his wife when the girl’s birth resulted in the death of Quirke’s wife 20 years ago.  Quirke was adopted into his family, and years later his father (played by Michael Gambon (Harry Potter series, Doctor Who, Cranford)) continues to treat him with disdain, but he hides his own secrets.  Along with the Professor Dumbledore actor, look for the actress behind Harry Potter’s mother (Geraldine Somerville) as Quirke’s sister-in-law, and the actress behind Batman’s mother in Batman Begins (Sara Stewart).  Other genre actors include Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story’s General Dodonna (Ian McElhinney) as an influential politico, Ella Enchanted and Mr. Selfridge’s Aidan McArdle as the politico’s nephew, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Life on Mars, and Master and Commander’s Lee Ingleby as one of the men attracted to Quirke’s daughter, and Merlin, Doctor Who, and Humans’ Colin Morgan as a journalist.

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