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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

ROOTS (1977) (Blu-ray)

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RootscoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
1977, 587 min. (8 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be TV-14 for nudity, adult themes, and violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Snoop Dogg recently slammed Oscar-winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave and the 2016 remake of the iconic miniseries Roots because “they just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But, guess what? We taking the same abuse. Think about that part.”

The “they” the rapper is talking about—12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and Alex Haley, the author of Roots—just happen to be black, though, and they’re coming at it from a different, “lest we forget” angle. The four-episode remake of Roots has gotten all the attention, but for my money the original 1977 series is still the best. As the box of the 25th anniversary edition proclaimed, “200 years to unfold. 12 years of research to discover. 2 years to create. 8 nights to make television history.” And that’s not hype.

When the final installment of Roots aired in January 1977, some 130 million viewers—then, roughly half the entire population of the U.S.—gathered around their TV sets to watch. Even the Las Vegas gaming tables slowed when it aired. Adapted from Haley’s novel about his search to unearth information about his African ancestors, the groundbreaking mini-series remains the most-watched dramatic show in television history. Everyone everywhere seemed to be talking about it, and the series was such a phenomenon that People’s Choice Awards were presented to every individual cast member, while Haley received a special citation Pulitzer (of which only nine have ever been awarded). Roots was the first mini-series to be aired on consecutive nights rather than a single episode per week, and at a time when there were few black actors in serious prime-time offerings, it featured a virtual Who’s Who of African-American actors.

The show pulled down nine Emmys, including Best Limited Series, acting awards for Louis Gossett, Jr., Olivia Cole, and Edward Asner, and awards for editing, writing, and directing. It also won the Golden Globe that year for Best Drama Series and top honors in the same category at the Television Critics Circle Awards. Hard as it is to imagine, few Americans thought much about their ancestors prior to Roots, and the show sparked a national interest in genealogy that continues to this day. But the show also generated controversy–and not because of the National Geographic-style bare breasts in early episodes, or because of the frequent use of the inflammatory word “nigger” that television viewers weren’t accustomed to hearing.

It was the white-on-black enslaving, rape, and mutilation scenes that caused all the fuss, and the rerelease of Roots has already rekindled those same heated debates about race and what Haley called his “faction” (a blend of fact and fiction). When it first aired in 1977, ABC executives feared it might incite race riots or that southern stations might refuse to broadcast the show. But there was just one mild incident at a single school, and the series was broadcast not just on every ABC affiliate in America, but in every country that syndicated American shows—including South Africa. Despite the “faction,” the series remains as powerful now as it was then, which is why John Amos and other African American cast members think it should be shown in every school in America, ad infinitum.

Rootsscreen1The mini-series tells the story of four generations of a single family, beginning with the birth of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton, who produced the remake), son of Omoro (Thalmus Rasulala) and Binta (Cicely Tyson), on the West Coast of Africa near the river Gambia. Just as Haley’s search for his roots began with the words “Kunta Kinte” and “gambi balongo” that he heard from his aunts, and the story they told him about Kunta’s enslavement, Episode 1 chronicles Kunta’s capture while he was seeking a log suitable for making into a drum. Viewers follow Kunta’s odyssey across the Atlantic in the holds of a slave ship captained by a Christian first-time slaver (Edward Asner) and his sadistic and seasoned mate (Ralph Waite). If it’s strange seeing Asner and Waite in those roles now, it was even stranger when the series first aired and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Waltons were still on prime time TV. Roots was an amazing production that still holds up today, but it’s even more amazing if you consider that back then miniseries were like variety shows in that recognizable TV actors from other shows were often cast. And in this one you saw a bunch of familiar faces, both black and white.

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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

THE BOOK OF NEGROES (DVD)

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BookofNegroescoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2015, 265 min. (6 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-14 for disturbing content)
Entertainment One/BET Networks
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer/Amazon link 

The Book of Negroes sounds like a politically incorrect Golden Book, but it was really a 150-page document recorded in 1783—a list of black loyalists who escaped being returned to slavery after the Revolutionary War because the British evacuated 3000 of them to work as freemen in their colony of Nova Scotia. In 2007, Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill tweaked and embellished that history to write The Book of Negroes, a still-cringeworthy title that was changed for U.S. audiences to Someone Knows My Name. He invented a central female character and a plot line loosely inspired by historical accounts, and Canadian director Clement Virgo adapted the book into a six-part TV miniseries that premiered first in Canada, then on the BET network in February 2015 for Black History Month.

That’s the background of this excellent miniseries, which rivals Roots for its character development, plotting, and production values. It’s a little more melodramatic than the 1977 Alex Haley miniseries and features a more upbeat (and, many would say, unlikely) story. There’s more idealism here than realism, but that also means it’s not as difficult to watch—though any depiction of slavery doesn’t exactly make for a cheery evening in front of the TV set. Still, for families who are into history and who want their children to gain some understanding of the baggage that many North American blacks carry, The Book of Negroes is a good place to start.

It covers slightly different ground, too. Roots tended to demonize whites and focus on the cruelties that the slaves had to endure and the things they had to do to survive, whereas The Book of Negroes strives for slightly more moral balance. As with every slave movie or miniseries, we see bad slave owners and good. But in Negroes the rapes and consensual sex aren’t nearly as graphic, and neither is the violence. Negroes primarily spotlights a strong heroine, whose journey we follow.   More

THE ORIGINALS: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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OriginalscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2013-14, 929 min. (22 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Rated TV-14
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features: B
Trailer

The Twilight novels and films opened the floodgates for a vampire resurgence, and in The Originals: Season 1—a spin-off from the popular CW series The Vampire Diaries—we get more vampire drama . . . and violence.

Like The Vampire Diaries, this spin-off is rated TV-14, which means that the ratings board thinks American 14 year olds are cool with seeing heads lopped off, hearts ripped from chests, and vampires biting off fingers and pieces of flesh. It’s an ultraviolent show that will probably still give young teens more than a few nightmares. So don’t let the TV-14 label fool you. While there isn’t nearly as much sex in this first season of The Originals as we saw in the original series that inspired it, it seems as if people (or vampires or werewolves) are constantly being brutally butchered and tortured.

At least it’s not as soapy as The Vampire Diaries. There’s melodrama and stand-and-talk monologues, but the situations aren’t nearly as cheesy—maybe because romantic entanglements are deemphasized.   More

PRETTY LITTLE LIARS: SEASON 4 (DVD)

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PrettyLittleLiars4coverGrade: B-
Entire family: No (way)
2013-14, 1046 min. (24 episodes), Color
Not Rated (would be TV-14 at least)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B-
Season 4 preview

“All of my friends watch it.”

Every parent gets that at some point, and Pretty Little Liars is exactly the type of show that will draw such comments, because its central characters are teens—though they look, dress, and act more like twenty somethings. And they’re all beautiful people . . . even the corpses.

I haven’t watched the entire series, only Season 4, but Warner Bros. makes it possible for people to jump right in and get up to speed by screening a full recap episode that takes you through the first three seasons. It automatically kicks in if you select “Play All.” And from what I’ve seen in recap and this season, the writers treat the girls as if they are twenty somethings.

We don’t see any parents or family life to speak of, except for brief turns involving Alison’s mom, another “skanky” mom who sleeps with a cop to get her delinquent daughter off the hook, and few more siblings. The emphasis is all on these four girls and their little individual dramas that interweave with one very large one. Meanwhile, for high school students, this group of teens sure has a light schedule. The only scenes involving school or classes come from one girl’s illicit relationship with her English teacher. Yeah, not a lot of role modeling going on in this show.

Still, Pretty Little Liars, now in its fifth season, is a popular series that inspired the spinoff Ravenswood. As with The Hunger Games, this ABC Family show is loosely based on a series of young-adult novels (in this case, by author Sara Shepard), and there’s plenty of killing—though not as graphic as in The Hunger Games films. Part murder mystery and part soap opera, it’s what you’d get if you created a teen version of Desperate Housewives and concentrated less on relationships and sex than on the mystery of the group’s “frenemy”—in this case, Alison, the clique’s leader, who disappeared in Season 1.

Alison (Sasha Pieterse) knew all of their secrets and had been using that information to get artsy Aria (Lucy Hale), brainy Spencer (Troian Bellisario), athletic Emily (Shay Mitchell), and loser-turned-popular girl Hanna (Ashley Benson) to do whatever she wanted. And after she’s gone, the girls start receiving text messages from someone who seems to know all of those same secrets and signs each note “A.” Is it Alison? Someone Alison knew? Someone who killed Alison?   More

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