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Review of SHARK WEEK: SHARK ‘N’ AWE COLLECTION (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Possibly
2015-16, 1355 min. (32 episodes), Color
Documentary
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Teaser/trailer
No online purchase link available

Sharks are to the Discovery Channel what Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney Studios. And every year the cable network celebrates their viewers’ fascination with all things shark with a special televised Shark Week that has all the hoopla of a Super Bowl. This past year’s theme was “Shark ‘n’ Awe,” and you can pick up the Shark Week: Shark ‘n’ Awe Collection on DVD now—but only at Walmart and only in-store, no online sales.

What you’ll get in this six-disc, 32-episode collection is the usual blend of episodes: some of them documentaries about scientific studies (including one, pictured, where scientists and shark experts devised a way to accurately measure sharks underwater), some “in search of” adventures, some of them attempts to capture certain shark behaviors on film for the first time, some spotlighting acrobatic aerial attacks, others chronicling an increase in shark attacks worldwide, others habitat-centered, and a bunch of them dealing with Great White Sharks, whose popularity skyrocketed with the summer 1975 release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. As clichéd as it sounds, there’s literally something here for everyone, and tastes will vary. I found the Mythbusters episode to be the most boring of the bunch, but that won’t be the case for everyone.

I mostly enjoyed the scientific studies, many of them focused on the tagging of sharks so they can be monitored via satellite. Such episodes were largely pure research-based, but one of them sought to pinpoint the movement of enormous Great Whites along beaches in order to alert officials to keep human-shark contact at a minimum when they’re in the area—kind of like a sophisticated cowbell. The most interesting of these may have been “Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba,” because it involved a collaboration between Cuban and U.S. shark scientists working frantically during the limited window that both governments had given them.

But the daredevil episodes were also pretty engaging, including ones where shark chasers experimented with new underwater cages and methods of goading the sharks to strike so they can study their behavior. And there’s a train wreck factor to episodes where shark attack victims are interviewed . . . or we see them go back into the water again because they’re as addicted to sharks as many viewers.

I could have done without the clip shows with their teasers, because the networks already run so many sequences over again when they return from commercial breaks that it can get a little old. Though some might want to start by watching an episode like “Sharktacular 2016” to get some idea of which episodes they want to watch first, I would imagine that most fans would just pop these in one disc at a time and watch them from beginning to end.

Best way to watch? Rig up a backyard screen and use a projector. Invite the neighbors over to a pool party where everyone floats in innertubes as you run through the most harrowing episodes!

Some episodes—like “Blue Serengeti” with its limited shark footage—may disappoint, but for sheer volume, you can’t beat this set if you’re a shark lover (or fearer). Below are the episode titles, separated according to discs:

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ARROW: SEASON 4 (Blu-ray)

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Arrow4coverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2012, 972 min. (23 episodes), Color
Unrated (would be TV-14 for violence)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Arrow is by far the most popular DC Comics series on television. It’s also the darkest, the most complex, and the most violent—which means it’s strictly for families with teenage children.

The creators were clearly fans of Lost, as they incorporate the same kind of flashback structure over an arc that spans a number of seasons, with each season offering new flashbacks and new revelations. The problem with Season Arrow4screen14 is that those flashbacks seem a little more disconnected from the main narrative and often are so brief that they also feel annoyingly interruptive. That’s one thing that sets this season apart from the rest. Another is that a villain called Anarchy wasn’t terribly popular with friends, though I found him to be just as interesting as the others, all of whom take a backseat this season to Damien Darhk. I can’t imagine this season without Darhk, who has all the fascinating charisma and on-screen presence of a James Bond villain. The last things that distinguish Season 4 from the first three is that Arrow becomes Green Arrow and magic and supernatural elements take center stage.

Unlike a few other DC series—Supergirl or Flash come instantly to mind—you can’t just pick up a later season of Arrow and start watching. Too much is predicated on your knowledge of revelations from the previous seasons, and you’ll sit there in confusion without an Arrow fan nearby to tell you plot points you may have missed.

The show’s premise is this: In Season 1 billionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) went out on his father’s boat with his girlfriend’s sister (whom this spoiled rich boy was also “dating”) when a storm hit. She was sucked out to sea, but the men survived (yeah, this is why the series appeals mostly to males). The father makes a huge sacrifice so his son can live and atone for his mistakes, which are all chronicled in a book of former business partners and “like” minds. Queen was marooned on an island for five years, and he wasn’t alone. There were people there who wanted to (and DID) hurt him badly, and others who were tough on him because they wanted him to survive. Other things happened, and flashbacks tease viewers the way Lost did with its disjointed narrative. One thing is certain: he’s no longer the irresponsible bad boy he once was. Like Bruce Wayne/Batman, Queen assumes a dual identity as himself and The Vigilante (as the media first calls him), with plenty of tension on the work and home fronts. That dualism gradually breaks down over the course of several seasons.

Arrow4screen2In Season 4, Green Arrow and his crew fight against Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), who has decided humanity needs a “reset” and is determined to wipe everyone out, starting with Star City. This season Oliver as Oliver runs for mayor and Oliver as Arrow comes up against a villain who pulls playing cards off his skin and flings them like lethal weapons in very cool sequences. Those are the easy plot lines. More complicated twists involve the League of Assassins and a Pit that can bring people back to life, an old enemy of Arrow’s named Ra’s al Ghul (Matthew Nable) who coaches his daughter in her “bloodlust,” Arrow’s bodyguard-turned-helper-turned-Arrow-turned-helper-again John Diggle (David Ramsey) and Diggle’s concern over a brother who might be involved with Darhk, Arrow’s complicated relationship with Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), and a revelation of paternity for Oliver.

If all of that sounds a bit sudsy, Arrow does feel like a stylish, action-filled, dark, and violent soap opera at times—but with better acting and production values, great special effects, and a pleasing superhero-fantasy structure. Season 4 may have a few weak spots, but it’s still superior to most of the dramas on television. If you’re interested, though, do start with Season 1!

Language: Lots of minor swearwords, but no f-bombs
Sex: Nothing here, surprisingly
Violence: Lots, and bloody as well; shooting, stabbing, hand-to-hand
Adult situations: Beloved characters die; characters are tortured; characters smoke, drink, and do drugs
Takeaway: If Neal McDonough isn’t cast as a future Bond villain, I’d be flabbergasted

LUCIFER: SEASON 1 (DVD)

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Lucifer1coverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2015-16, 566 min. (13 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be TV-14 for violence, adult situations, sexual innuendo, and language)
Aspect ratio: Letterboxed widescreen “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

In the ‘60s, novelty sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched proved that shows with positively ridiculous supernatural premises could still be popular if the situations were interesting enough, the cast likeable enough, and the writing clever enough.

That lesson was not lost on the creators of Lucifer: Season 1, a series that’s based on a character from the DC Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman and Sam Kieth. Could there be a crazier premise for a male-female police procedural than to pair the real Lucifer (aka Satan, who’s taking a vacation from hell by running a nightclub in L.A.) with a detective who was a former actress known primarily for posing topless in Hot Tub High School?

Tom Ellis stars as the suave ladies man Lucifer Morningstar, who runs a trendy nightclub called Lux. He had grown bored and restless in hell and often did a deliberately poor job of punishing the people who were sent there because his Father assigned him to that as a punishment for his rebellion. All these Lucifer1screen1millennia later he wanted out, so much so that his L.A. vacation turns into a permanent abdication. When he witnesses a murder outside his club, he finds himself becoming curiously involved and decides to help Det. Chloe Decker (Lauren German) by using some of his powers. In Touched by an Angel Michael Landon gave people warm fuzzies; Lucifer has the power to get people to speak the truth about their deepest, most secret desires, and to admit their sinful urges—including, in an opening scene, a cop who decides to take the bribe after Lucifer exposes his loose relationship with the law. He’s like truth serum, and in extreme situations he shows his real satanic form to those he wants to shock.

Now, why would a good, dedicated cop pair up with Satan? Good question, since one would guess the LAPD would have certain rules about a non-force partnership. Though Lucifer Morningstar comes right out and tells her who he is, she thinks he’s speaking metaphorically, until his character and his immortality is gradually revealed to her. His fascination with her is more believable: she’s the only human who is impervious to his powers—which, by mid-season, like Samantha’s nose-twitch and Jeannie’s head-blink, start to get a little old. But the situations and clever writing are enough to compensate.

This first season Chloe and Lucifer investigate the slaying of a movie star’s son, a girl that turns up dead in a football star’s pool, a woman who’s killed at a fashion show, a biker gang that’s into nasty stuff, a murdered therapist, an underground drug ring, the murder of a prominent restauranteur, a philanthropist that was found dead, and a girl who may have been murdered by a group of Satanists.

Rounding out the cast are Scarlett Estevez as Chloe’s precocious daughter, Trixie (“You do know that’s a hooker’s name, don’t you?” Lucifer says upon first meeting her); Lesley-Ann Brandt as Mazikeen (aka Maze), an assistant of sorts who accompanied Lucifer to L.A.; DB Woodside as Amenadiel, Lucifer’s “brother” who is intent on getting him to return to hell; and Rachael Harris as Dr. Linda Martin, whose sessions and relationship with Lucifer will remind viewers of Tony Soprano and his therapist, especially since both men run clubs that are highly sexualized.

Lucifer1screen2Fans of forensic shows won’t be impressed that no attention is paid to that aspect of criminal investigations. Even when we see a body with bruises we just get a coroner’s pronouncement of  “strangulation,” and it’s left to Chloe and Lucifer to find out whether the attacker was male or female, how tall or heavy, etc. And though the writers try to make sense of why and how Chloe is working on her own, it’s not totally clear why, after she clashed with the LAPD over a cop shooting, she’s still able to work on her own while ostracized by her homicide detective ex-husband Dan Espinoza (Kevin Alejandro) and the rest of the detectives. But the show’s writing is clever enough, with laugh-out-loud moments, where you tend to shrug and overlook such things.

Any positive messages that the show might offer (Lucifer’s gradual enlightenment, for example, or anti-bullying, or the always available possibility of reinventing oneself) get lost among the Satanic elements that the writers clearly favored. It’s like a Satanic version of Touched by an Angel meets Remington Steele, with a little Dexter and The Sopranos thrown in for good measure. No wonder the website One Million Moms launched a petition drive to keep the show from airing—though far short of a million signed it by the time the show first aired (165,643). The irony? The show airs on Fox, the network most identified with the GOP and their emphasis on “family values.” Lucifer is a stylish and entertaining show, but it won’t be for many church-going families. It’s also every bit a TV-14 series. Given the soundtrack and special effects, you might want to pick this up on Blu-ray instead. The 5.1 Surround and standard definition, while strong, do have their limitations—especially, with the visuals, in low-light situations.

Language: A bunch of it, mostly male-female slurs like “bitch” or “dick”
Sex: Lots of innuendo, some scantily clad females, implied sexual coupling
Violence: Jerry Bruckheimer produced this, so you’ll see a bunch of crashes and explosions and high-concept stylized violence, some of it bloody
Adult situations: Drug-use, smoking, drinking
Takeaway: Despite the ridiculous premise, Lucifer is surprisingly entertaining

SUPERGIRL: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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Supergirl1coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes (except for preschoolers?)
2015, 877 min. (20 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-TV for violence
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

There are two DC Universes, and Melissa Benoist really brightens up the television one. She has the kind of charisma that propelled Lynda Carter to stardom as TV’s Wonder Woman during the seventies and the kind of girl-next-door likeability and warmth that inspired the writers of Supergirl to refer to her “humanity” after otherwise drawing a distinction between humans and aliens.

Then again, alienity just doesn’t cover it when we’re talking about Benoist as Kara Danvers, aka Supergirl. In this winning 2015 CW series she’s the “girl” you want to be friends with, to confide in, to rely on, to have fun with, and, if you’re a guy, to date. Though Supergirl comes from the planet Krypton, with Benoist wearing the costume she embodies everything that’s good in humanity.

Supergirl1screen1Supergirl offers a less dark DC Universe in which characters have down time, bond, laugh, share food and drink, and grapple with problems that audience members face—like questions about identity, body image, relationships, glass ceilings, and juggling career and personal life. The series’ feminism and “stronger together” theme is even reflected in the Hillary Clinton campaign, and who knows? Maybe this is the year that a female who is dedicated to the prospect of helping people is finally able to be accepted as a hero. That’s certainly Kara’s main focus in Season 1.

Kara Zor-El was sent to Earth to look after her younger cousin, but because her pod strayed off-course she arrived after Kal-El, who’s grown up and already accepted as a hero in Metropolis. Instead of her taking care of him, he’s the caretaker who whisks her her off to foster parents. The series begins when Kara, who had been experimenting with her powers off-camera all this time, is now 24 and working in National City as an assistant to media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart).

Kara’s boss reminds her that things come easier for men, and that women have to work twice as hard in order to be accepted. That’s no truer than for Kara, who is still feeling the burden of role reversal. She was supposed to take care of her cousin, and instead, once a disaster forced her to reveal herself as a superhero before she felt ready, the unseen Superman continues to be her protector. In fact, Superman even asked his good friend Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) to move to National City and work at the same media corporation so he could keep an eye on Kara. Who else knows her secret identity? Aside from her foster mom and an older sister (Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers) who works for the DEO (Dept. of Extra-Normal Operations), just tech expert and good friend Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan). Well, and Alex’s boss, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), who eventually allows the sisters to work together. And her Kryptonian mother’s deceased sister Astra, who escaped destruction because she was on a prison transport full of hundreds of aliens that also crashed on Earth—which she now wants to conquer.

Supergirl1screen2The Supergirl writers do a nice job of withholding information and adding characters along the way in order to keep the series fresh, and a reviewer with no spoiler scruples could go on and on about plot twists and the numerous thematic threads. Relationships are also a focus, as unrequited love seems as abundant as the number of Kryptonian criminals who either surface or break out of prison. Winn likes Kara who likes Jimmy who likes Lucy Lane (Lois’s sister, played by Jenna Dewan Tatum). In the DC movie universe the focus seems to be on creating a puzzle that readers can piece together, Marvel-style. But Supergirl is all about the female hero and the many challenges she faces—both physical and emotional.

If all this estrogen starts to make Supergirl sound like another Gilmore Girls for women only, rest assured: The action and special effects are decent and there are plenty of DC villains to interest a broader audience. This season you’ll encounter the insectile Hellgrammite, the bio-electric Reactron, the newly electrified Livewire, the wonderfully rendered Red Tornado, the Toyman, a plant known as Black Mercy, the Martian Manhunter, the Master Jailer, Myriad, and a not-so-nice human industrialist in the Tony Stark vein named Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli). Sometimes the villains are rendered in a way that it reminds you vaguely of Power Rangers, but for the most part they’re villainous enough. Just.

Bottom line: Supergirl hooks you quickly and Benoist holds your attention until the writers can toss in a new wrinkle every now and then to keep things interesting. She’s even a strong enough hero to where you don’t mind if she battles a villain that seems a bit hokey. But you can’t help but wonder, as Cat Grant’s mother does, “Why Supergirl? Why not Superwoman?”

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Battles between good people and bad, superheroes and villains, elite fighters and worthy opponents; not much in the way of violence to everyday people
Adult situations: There is drinking, but no intoxication
Takeaway: This series has a lot going for it, but the big plus is Melissa Benoist, who was also one of the few charismatic replacement characters Glee brought in when the main cast changed

THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 5 (DVD)

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WonderYears5coverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No, age 10 and older
1992-93, 721 min., Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Rated TV-PG for smoking, drinking, and some adult situations
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Season 5 opening
Amazon link

The Wonder Years is a rarity among TV sitcoms because it’s both original and authentic. You’ll find few familiar or recycled sitcom plots here, and a voiceover narration by an adult Kevin replaces a laugh track because in addition to being funny The Wonder Years also provides a poignant account of one boy’s coming of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The focus may be on Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), and the time period may be nostalgic for some and mythic for others who watch, but the situations, emotions, and outcomes are universal. It’s why the show still works, even though it aired from 1988-1993.

You don’t have to have seen the first four seasons to appreciate Season 5, which offers the added bonus for Friends fans of featuring David Schwimmer in four episodes as the serious boyfriend of Kevin’s sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo)—both of whom appear in bonus feature interviews.

Though The Wonder Years six-season arc charts the on-again-off-again relationship between childhood friends and sweethearts Kevin and Winnie (Danica McKellar), they’re on “break” Season 5, which finds a 15-year-old Kevin experimenting with other girls. Though the series remains as innocent as ever, this age pushes the writers into territory that includes never-used condoms hopefully carried in wallets. This season Kevin gets his driver’s license, but that episode is followed by one in which Grandpa Arnold needs to give up his license because of aging. The writers for this show have always looked for ways in which a single idea could resonate or how a simple concept could be expanded into the kind of complex situation that most often mirrors “real life.”

WonderYears5screenThis season Kevin crushes on a young smoker while on a family vacation, he endures a first day of high school that turns into his worst nightmare, he wrestles with a first job and first boss, he gets in the middle of a Grease-style high school couple’s problems, he and three friends talk an older boy into trying for his driver’s license so they can all go “cruising” for girls, he finds himself kissed by his older brother Wayne’s (Jason Hervey) girlfriend, he joins a losing soccer team, he tries to treat his father to a dinner that’s ruined by Dad’s (Dan Lauria) annoyance with his sister, he tries to get out of attending the annual Christmas party his family throws for the neighborhood, his family friendship with Paul’s (Josh Saviano) family is threatened when the latter comes into money, a popular black teacher gets in trouble for her unorthodox methods, Wayne decides to join the Army, Kevin becomes friends with the school’s basketball star, he stumbles through dates with different girls, he and friends plan to sneak into an R-rated movie, he hosts a poker party when his parents leave town for the weekend, and the whole family is drawn into Karen’s pre-marital drama. By season’s end, Kevin is thinking hard about getting back with Winnie.

This four-DVD set (single sided discs on plastic non-overlapping “pages”) features 24 episodes, and there isn’t a single one I’d rate lower than a B-. Most fall in the A- range, and this season the series, known for its vintage music, features music by The Archies, Frankie Avalon, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Joan Baez, Bread, James Brown, The Byrds, Canned Heat, Patsy Kline, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, The Platters, Linda Ronstadt, Sly & the Family Stone, Sonny & Cher, Ringo Starr, The Stylistics, Traffic, The Turtles, Muddy Waters, and Andy Williams.

THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 4 (DVD)

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WonderYears4coverGrade: A
Entire family: No. Age 10 and older.
1988-89, 520 min., Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG because of mild language, content)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Amazon link

As I wrote in my review of the complete series, this coming-of-age TV comedy-drama gets it right. Lots of things can shape a person, and just as WWII defined a generation, so did the ‘60s—which historians date from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 resignation. The Wonder Years managed to capture the perfect storm of events that were always in a family’s consciousness—even as the father tried to put food on the table, siblings fought and sought to find their place in the world, and the mother tried to hold them all together. And Season 4 is the absolute best of the six seasons.

Like Leave It to Beaver, the series’ episodes were seen from the point of view of an adolescent, and you knew you were in for an interesting ride when this 1987 series shunned a laugh track and introduced the kind of voiceover narrator that we got in A Christmas Story—an adult version of the main character. And you knew that the series would meet the ‘60s head-on when the pilot called for the girl-next-door’s older brother to be killed in Vietnam, and for our hero to comfort her in a scene that would culminate in a first kiss for each of them—both as characters, and as actors.

WonderYears4screenFred Savage was perfectly cast as Kevin, who at 13 became the youngest actor ever nominated for a Primetime Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series Emmy. His doe eyes reflected innocence, while his impish smile was a sign that he could say or do something impulsive or mischievous at any moment. The girl next door, Winnie Cooper, was also well cast with Danica McKellar perfect as someone who would be both a best friend and love interest over the course of the show’s six seasons. And for comic relief and guy-to-guy matters there was bespectacled Paul (Josh Saviano), a brainy pal who was also Kevin’s best friend. The tone was wink-wink as this group navigated the halls of junior high, then high school and all of the problems that seem so major to this age group: crushes, dates, tormentors, cliques, and run-ins with teachers and coaches.

On the home front, older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) was obviously fond of his brother but lived to torment him, while much older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) was so caught up in the ‘60s that she was a flower child from the very first episode. The parents were extremely well cast, with Dan Lauria returning from work each day grumpy and feeling chewed up and spat out, and Alley Mills deferring to him while also trying to act as mediator when he got on the kids.

Then there’s the music. I don’t know how they got the permissions, but Season 4 includes songs by Joan Baez, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Nat King Cole, Judy Collins, Lee Dorsey, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, Randy Newman, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Sam & Dave, Bob Seger, Edwin Star, The Ventures, The Who, and Hank Wilson.

Season 4 has the highest number of fan-rated classic episodes. This season the family goes to Jack’s company picnic—no one more reluctantly than Kevin, who’s afraid of seeing a girl who used to have a crush on him. This season his first girlfriend Winnie moves and changes schools, then finds a new boyfriend and breaks up with Kevin. No matter, because Kevin has also found someone else and is juggling two relationships. Never a show to shy away from reality, The Wonder Years: Season 4 also features an episode in which Kevin and his friends try to crash a 10th-grade girls pajama party thinking beer will be their magic pass. This season Kevin runs for student council against his nemesis, Becky Slater, and also discovers his coach moonlighting as a mall Santa. Kevin and Wayne argue over who’s going to take over Karen’s room when she goes off to college, Kevin and his father have another disastrous time of it when they go off to buy a suit for Kevin, and the up-and-down Winnie and Kevin saga culminates in an “I love you” moment and sets up the group’s graduation from junior high.

Though The Wonder Years may shock young girls who probably don’t want to believe that this is the way young boys think about girls, it remains one of TV’s most honest family coming-of-age comedies. And Season 4 catches the show at its apex. All 23 episodes are included on four single-sided DVDs and housed in a standard-size keep case with plastic “pages” holding the discs.

Language: Lots of junior-high insults (butthead, scrote, dork) and hells and damns
Sex: Lots of kissing; masturbation is referenced, as are nudie magazines and talk of orgies
Adult situations: There’s both smoking and drinking in the series, and some pretty intense family fights
Takeaway: When a show is this honest, it’s no wonder that it still informs and entertains, as it gets to the heart of male adolescence, families, and interpersonal relationships

MANHATTAN: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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ManhattancoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2014-15, 622 min. (13 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-14 for sexual situations, brief nudity, language, some violence)
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B+
Trailer/Amazon link

Fact: On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped a pair of atomic bombs—each with the force of 10 million tons of dynamite—on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 130,000 civilians but also abruptly ending the war and its daily body count. It was a morally questionable decision then, when the U.S. was racing a team of German scientists to become the first nation to develop a nuclear weapon that would guarantee victory, and it remains so many years later.

Fact: Under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves and physicist J. Robert Oppenhemer, the Manhattan Project had components scattered across the U.S., but its main facility was located at Los Alamos National Laboratory in a remote part of New Mexico, where top minds were recruited to work on the design and construction of the bombs.

Fact: Because it was top secret, Los Alamos was never referred to by name, only as “Site Y” or “the Hill.” Recruits and their families went there with only a post office box to guide them and found a primitive, heavily restricted community of Quonset huts and wood frame buildings. The birth certificates of children born there list only P.O. Box 1663 as their place of birth.

Fiction: Manh(a)ttan, an original WGN period drama, has a Mad Men vibe to it, not only because it drops you so believably into a different era, but also because of its similar use of music and camera angles, its emphasis on old guard vs. new, and a cast of characters that all seem to face moral dilemmas. It also has a West Wing feel because of the high stakes, crisp dialogue, and scenic constructions that somehow manage to squeeze tension out of seemingly “normal” conversations. Director Thomas Schlamme is a veteran of The West Wing, and Manhattan is just as strong of a series.

ManhattanscreenWe don’t know if it’s fact or fiction that the Army created a competition at Los Alamos between a better funded “A” team of scientists under the direction of Dr. Reed Akley (David Harbour) and a “B” team run by the maverick Dr. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey). But we don’t care, because the situation itself is rooted in history and it’s believable, given the urgency of the situation and the U.S. Government’s practice of making sure that no one knows more than what their compartmentalized section is working on. Loose lips sink ships. And atomic bomb projects.

Manhattan is a taut drama because so much is in play, often at the same time. The Americans are racing the Germans and an imaginary clock, the A team of scientists is competing with the B team and their alternate vision of what will make an A-bomb work, newcomers like wiz kid Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) are competing with jealous colleagues, the scientists are sometimes at odds with the military establishment responsible for maintaining security and secrecy, the scientists find themselves facing new tension and resentments from the suddenly bored and “captive” women they brought with them to the base, those who feel the project should forge ahead at all costs are at odds with those who want to exercise some caution because of the contaminants they’re working with, and when it’s clear that a spy is among them more tension ensues when a government official (West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) conducts his own version of a McCarthy witch hunt.   More

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