Blindspot: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) is the signature high concept network show of the 2015-2016 TV season. It opens with a doozy of a hook—a mysterious bag is left in Times Square, the cops clear the normally crowded spot (which gives us one of those eerie images of an urban ghost town), the bomb squad approaches, and then the bag suddenly jitters once, twice, and a hand reaches out and forces the zipper open for a naked woman, her body covered in enigmatic tattoos, to crawl out. Called Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander) by the FBI, she has no memory, doesn’t know who or where she is, or why she’s covered in tattoos (all applied within the last few weeks), but she has the name of Special Agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton), the head of an FBI strike force, etched across her back.
A great start to a show that quickly falls into a pattern familiar in modern TV conspiracy shows like Person of Interest and The Blacklist. Each tattoo is a puzzle or hides a clue that, once deciphered, leads Weller’s team to an unsolved crime or hidden conspiracy. Jane discovers she has the reflexes and training of a Navy SEAL and becomes a member of his team, hunting down each clue in hopes of discovering who she is and what has happened. So each episode sends them on a single case, which offers a sense of closure, while adding pieces to the larger story, providing new questions to keep us checking in to get answers: a mix of episodic procedural and serial thriller, with a crack unit of professionals tossed into dangerous situations and violent battles while hidden agendas and covert government agencies complicate their investigations and secrets and suspicions complicate the trust they need in one another. Jane herself finds that she herself had a hand in the big conspiracy she’s trying to crack, and it splits her loyalties between her new team (the closest things she has to a family in her state of tabula rasa) and the shadowy figures who say that they are her real colleagues pressure her to use this access to help them spy on the intelligence community.
In some ways it plays like a network TV version of a Cinemax action show, with a big budget for elaborate action scenes and military-like conflicts with criminal outfits, with another of those absurdly elaborate conspiracy plots with deep mysteries, complex puzzles, and obscure clues that has become so popular since Lost. The impressive action scenes and production values help overcome the more arcane clues and unlikely twists, and the cast matches the material with seriousness, intensity, and impressive physical commitment to the action spectacle, which is finally the most entertaining part of the show. Their private lives aren’t that interesting, but they sure click as a team in action. The action scenes only get better as the season goes on, not simply in terms of visual spectacle but in the way they have one another’s back. It’s the reason I stuck through the puzzlemaster gimmick.
23 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, with commentary on the pilot episode and eight featurettes.
Underground: Season One (Sony, DVD), produced for the cable channel WGN, is a historical drama about the culture of slavery in America and the creation of the Underground Railroad which helped escaped slaves get to freedom. It is also a sometimes difficult show to watch because it reminds us that the sanctioned medieval brutality presented in such historical (and historical fantasy) shows as Vikings and Game of Thrones did not disappear with the formation of the United States, where the promise of freedom and equality was limited to only a portion of the population.
Aldis Hodge stars as Noah, who has grown up as a slave working the fields of a Southern plantation and acts the loyal servant while plotting a break for the North and Jurnee Smollett-Bell is Rosalee, who works in the manor house and becomes a target for sexual assault as she becomes an attractive young woman. They form the core of the group that Noah leads through dangerous territory, led by a map written in cryptic verse. Alano Miller plays the black overseer, a slave who has earned the trust of the white plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), who was born in the north but adapting to the culture of terror and abuse with a disturbing lack of qualms. Marc Blucas is Macon’s brother, a die-hard abolitionist, and Jessica De Gouw his wife and partner in crime (because it is a crime) when they commit to helping the Underground Railroad. Christopher Meloni’s farmer-turned-bounty hunter is the most complicated of the white characters, a man who shows no outward bigotry but has no compunctions about making his living as a slave catcher or bringing his son into the family business. It’s the law and it’s a job and that’s all that matters for a man desperate to raise the money to treat his ill wife and save his farm from bankruptcy.
It’s an escape drama—bounty hunters track them as the reputation of “The Macon Seven” spreads through the South—with all the tension and action-show drama that comes with i. But it’s also about the lives of African-American slaves, the brutality of an existence that treats them as property, and the class system among the captives themselves, with the house slaves segregated from the field slaves and the tensions between the groups keeping them from uniting in rebellion. The show addresses the social politics of slavery and cultural racism, which has deep roots in Southern society. There’s a lot of violence and most of it (but not all) is perpetrated by whites against blacks, which makes the show difficult to watch at times. The balance of history and politics and TV thriller in the fictional show is tricky but for the most part successful. Be aware that though the show was produced for a commercial cable channel and thus meets broadcast standards, it features brutal violence, sexual situations, and bigoted language.
10 episodes plus three featurettes and a gag reel. Also on Hulu.
The Magicians: Season One (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) is based on Lev Grossman’s an ingenious melding of “Harry Potter” and the “Chronicles of Narnia” books with a real-world setting where troubled, anxious, and sometimes petty young adults discover that magic exists and they have the potential to master it. SyFy turned the popular book series into a TV series, an American answer to the British take on magic and fantasy, and if the first season tips a little much into familiar young adult melodrama and college movie clichés, that also helps ground the fantasy.
In place of C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books, we have “Fillory and Further,” a fantasy series about a group of children that travel to a magical world that turns out to be based in truth, only tamed and sanitized for young minds. Best friends Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) grew up obsessed with “Fillory” and discover that the reality is much less fun than the adventures in the books when they are invited to take the entrance exam to this world’s answer to the boarding school Hogwarts. The exclusive academy Brakebills is basically an American graduate school of magic, complete with all the drinking, drugs, and sex that young adults on their own for the first time explore between classes.
Quentin is accepted and joins a kind of co-ed frat of flamboyant students. Stella is rejected and joins a reckless group of rogue magicians (where she finds just how deadly magic can be). Pursuing magic independently, they both discover that the “Fillory” adventures were based in truth, only tamed and sanitized for young minds. Part of the fun of the series is how it challenges the idealized portraits of young heroes in fantasy literature with characters plagued by the same bad decisions, hormonally-charged emotions, and selfishness and pettiness of any college kid on their own for the first time. But the charge of learning to harness and use magic is tempered by the realization that “Fillory” is real and there is a dark, dangerous power behind the children’s tale presented in the books, a power that is coming to kill them.
13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette and deleted scenes.
The Girlfriend Experience (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t so much a remake as a rethinking of Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name. Soderbergh produces this one, handing the premise over to independent filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz to develop into their own project. They collaborated on writing every script and traded off directing the episodes and Seimetz (who is also a superb actress) even takes a supporting role.
Their Experience stars Riley Keough as Christine, a strong, smart, confident, and beautiful young law student begins an internship at a powerful Chicago law firm while starting a shadow career as an exclusive escort who specialized in catering to the emotional as well as physical needs of her (wealthy) clients. She has no illusions that it is anything but a commercial transaction, a theme that carries through her work at the firm, where she discovers her boss (Paul Sparks) involved in an unethical and illegal breach of contract with a client, and the lines between these worlds blurs.
The filmmakers use a very spare and streamlined visual style, cool, neutral colors, and anonymous, open professional setting: offices, lecture halls, hotel rooms, upscale restaurants and bars. It creates an alienated, impersonal atmosphere that reflects the pose of intimacy and emotional connection in every human contact and perfectly frames Keough’s performance as an ambitious young woman who understands that she’s putting on a performance whether she’s at the law firm or with one of her own clients. It plays more like an American independent film than a serialized TV show, playing down the emotional collisions (Christine is careful to hide her emotions from everyone) and the melodramatic twists to focus on the experience of Christine and the unexpected lessons she learns about business ethics and trust. Though it has not been officially announced, Soderbergh wants to do a second season with an all-new story and creative team guiding it, adding yet another variation on the recent resurgence of anthology TV.
13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with short promotional featurettes.
The much hyped revival X-Files: The Event Series (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) reunited David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, working together again for the first time in more than 15 years, thanks to the efforts of FBI Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and a TV journalist (Joel McHale) who has evidence of government complicity in alien abductions. The brief six-episode “event series” plays like a digest version of a season of the original show. It’s bookended by a vast conspiracy involving government experimentation with alien DNA in unwitting human subjects, features one very funny episode about a “were-monster” written by fan favorite Darin Morgan and another personal story involving Scully’s family, and introduces a pair of young agents (played by Lauren Ambrose and Robbie Amell) whose opposing personalities and mix of science and skepticism reflect the chemistry and partnership of Mulder and Scully. At least in theory.
Creator Chris Carter writes three episodes himself and he tries so hard to cram so much in the abbreviated format that he sacrifices the character and cleverness of the show at its best to rush through an epic take that is shortchanged conceptually, narratively, creatively, and visually. The final episode ends on a cliffhanger of apocalyptic dimensions but there is no confirmation on whether another series will follow, so this could be the end of the legend. I hope not. The chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson is actually quite good even when the stories are not but the show deserves a better send-off. At least we got another Darin Morgan episode. I would put Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster up with the best comic episodes of the original series.
6 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary, substantial documentaries, featurettes, and deleted scenes.
More first seasons (reviews to follow on some of these):
Supergirl: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Ash vs Evil Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
Lucifer: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow: The Complete First Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Superstore: Season One (Universal, DVD)
Narcos: Season One (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Tunnel: The Complete First Season (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD)
Code Black: Season 1 (Paramount, DVD)
More superhero, supernatural, and high-concept TV:
Gotham: The Complete Second Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Once Upon a Time: The Complete Fifth Season (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Seventh Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Walking Dead: The Complete Sixth Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Strain: The Complete Second Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Blacklist: The Complete Third Season (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD)
Orphan Black: Season Four (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD)
The 100: The Complete Third Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
More TV on disc:
Roots (2016) (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
11/22/63 (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Endeavor: The Complete Third Season (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD)
Scandal: The Complete Fifth Season (ABC, DVD)
Elementary: The Fourth Season (ABC, DVD)
Castle: The Complete Eighth and Final Season (ABC, DVD)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Season Three (Universal, DVD)
Clean Break (Acorn, DVD)