By John Ruberry

When season one of Ozark concluded last summer, the Byrdes, a drug money laundering family from the Chicago area, decided to put roots down at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), is the number-crunching erstwhile financial planner struggling to keep all of the balls he is juggling up in the air. He’s aided, for the most part, by his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), a former Democratic political operator.

Click here to read my review of the first season of Ozark.

In season two, which takes place in November, off-season in the Ozarks, the Byrdes are again plotting their escape from Missouri, but first they must open a casino on the lake built on land owned by Jacob (Peter Mullan) and Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), who manufactures heroin for the same Mexican drug cartel Marty is indebted to. Getting a casino up-and-running of course means obtaining a license, so the Byrdes scheme with conservative powerhouse Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein) to smooth over the numerous blemishes and scars the power laundering couple have.

The sins of the parents taint the Byrdes’ children, high-schoolers Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), who initiate their own criminal enterprise.

The Byrdes are reminiscent of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, while not “careless,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald described them, the Byrdes, to paraphrase his words, smash up things and creatures. And I’ll  use Fitzgerald’s exact prose here, the Byrdes “let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Those messes include arson, child abduction, suicide, waterboarding, and murder.

The sins of the Byrdes visit the Langmores, a small-time criminal family, who in the first season served as stereotypical redneck foil. Yes, they live in trailers. The de facto leader of the family is Ruth (Julia Garner), who is about 20 years old. She has transformed, maybe, from being a thief preying upon the Byrdes to being the utility infielder and perhaps more for the Byrde operations.

Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), plays a tormented FBI agent, who, like just about every other Ozark character, has no moral compass. He’s a law unto himself.

Hmm…an FBI agent who is unaccountable. That doesn’t happen in real life, does it?

There are many lessons in Ozark. Not only do drugs destroy lives, so does drug money. Ten years before the Byrdes fled Illinois Marty and his business partners made a deal with the devil when they started laundering money for that cartel. And that’s a job that no one can quit. And dismissal by the cartel does not entail being escorted by human resources out the door with a severance check in your hand.

As the second season of Ozark was released only a week and a half ago there is no word about a third. I expect there will be one with many more messes created by the Byrdes. When the Byrde family is asked by a photographer to smile at the conclusion of the final episode–they can only come up with grim grins.

The future appears to be an unhappy one for them.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

“It [the Thames River] had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

Last Monday I completed watching AMC’s ten-episode masterful series, The Terror, a telling, with many needed embellishments to fill in the missing details, of John Franklin’s Lost Expedition of 1845-1848.

The voyage was a British Navy attempt to navigate an ice-free route through the Canadian Arctic, the Northwest Passage, an envisioned shortcut to China, that to this day, is a rarely navigable by large ships. The expedition was led by Sir John Franklin, who was also the captain of the Erebus. Francis Crozier captained the Terror. The ships were last seen between Greenland and Baffin Island in 1845. After wintering off of Beechey Island, where three crew members died, the ships became trapped in the following year, it’s believed they never sailed again. Franklin died in 1847, and the last communication from the expedition, a note left in a cairn on King William Island, reported that an astounding 24 men died before the ships were abandoned in 1848. The crew of the ship totaled 134 when it departed the Thames. Only a few bodies and some bones–some of which betray evidence of cannibalism–and a smattering artifacts were discovered after an exhaustive series of rescue missions. Over the following decades it was ascertained that the men may have been debilitated, both physically and mentally, by lead poisoning from shoddily soldered cans of food.

There were no survivors.

That’s the essence of what is known of the expedition.

The Terror series, based on a novel by Dan Simmons, imaginatively fills in the details of what might have happened to the crew.

Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) ignores the advice of Crozier (Jared Harris) and they get stuck, well you already know that part of the story. The ships are menaced by a mysterious creature, Tuunbaq, which appears to be a polar bear. An Eskimo woman (Nive Nielsen) becomes their only human connection to the Arctic, of which Crozier says, “This place wants us dead.”

True, very true.

About Tuunbaq: Is it real, or an elaborate exaggeration where Inuit legend melds with lead-poisoned induced dementia?

The most compelling character is a young petty officer, Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), who in a role reminiscent of George Segal’s in the Japanese prisoner of war movie, King Rat, uses the catastrophe to recreate himself as a leader. As so often happens, when order collapses cunning operators such as Hickey move in. Something bad becomes something worse.

Of course they don’t realize it right away, but the crew of the Franklin Expedition are imprisoned just as the inmates in King Rat were.

Crozier finally decides to abandon the ships–and the crew embarks on an 800-mile journey by foot to a remote mainland Canadian outpost–pulling many of their belongings, including unneeded books, in lifeboats refashioned as sleds.

The situation becomes dreadful for them as the series gets even better.

The Terror was filmed in Hungary, superbly done CGI replicates the ice-bound ships and the rocky terrain of Beechey and King William islands. If you perform a Google image search of these forlorn islands, you’ll swear the series was filmed on location.

Paul Ready’s portrayal of surgeon Harry Goodsir, who remains kindly even while he gently declines the request of a dying man that he not perform an autopsy on him, is also praiseworthy.

I enjoyed the series, although I have to call out an overdone flogging scene that devolved into sadomasochistic torture.

Then again, like Conrad’s steamboat in his novella, the Terror and the Erebus sailed “into the heart of an immense darkness.”

AMC is still showing The Terror and it’s available where I live on Xfinity On Demand.

This show is not for the squeamish.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

“When I came into office I took an oath, alright,” the mayor of Portland (Kyle MacLachlan) proclaims in Portlandia. “The oath was to keep Portland weird.”

And so he did.

The final episode of Portlandia, a sketch comedy series focusing on the hipsters who have taken over Portland, Oregon, aired on Thursday. The IFC show stars Saturday Night Live alumnus Fred Armisen and former Sleater-Kinney singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein.

Over the last couple of decades Portland has become one of America’s most liberal cities. Do you remember the left-wing talk radio network from the 2000s, Air America? Its strongest market was Portland.

Most of the skits center on Armisen and Brownstein, including their Fred and Carrie characters, easily the least quirky of their Portlandia personas, who are also the best friends–“my favorite Portlanders”–of MacLachlan’s “Mr. Mayor.” Nina and Lance (He plays her she plays him), struggle in their relationship because they have almost nothing in common. Chin-bearded Spyke (more on him later) and Iris look to me to be the archetypal Portland couple. The Weirdos, Vince and Jacqueline, a goth couple, a kind of a Portland version of Fred and Lily Munster, face their own conflict. How do they get noticed in an increasingly freaky Portland? They choose a trip to the beach as their solution to this problem, which is delayed after their hearse breaks down. In another episode, they are falsely accused of a torching a taxidermy store. Their lawyer is another weirdo, Paul Reubens, better known of course as Pee Wee Herman.

But my favorite characters, and the most developed, are the owners of the Women & Women First book store–Toni and Candace, with Armisen playing the latter. The couple seems to have reached “lesbian bed death” years ago. It’s difficult to see what the well-adjusted Toni sees in the caustic Candace, who at a diary reading at the store barks at a late comer, “We’ve already done our journals–hers was abysmal, she refuses to contribute anything, and of ours, of course I think we won.”

Can a conservative enjoy Portlandia? Well, this one did.

Three years ago I briefly visited Portland where I discovered on my own that yes, it is weird, and it is filled with passive-aggressive people, just like these two Subaru drivers in the below clip. That make of car is enormously popular in Portland, by the way. They are afraid to offend but they do just that when they can’t decide who should proceed first at a four-way stop. “You, go,” one says, “No, you go.”

During that Portland sojourn I encountered some goofs, who were probably stoned, reclining inside a van at a gas station–I had to return my rental car with a full tank of gasoline before I dropped it off at the airport and I was in a hurry. They were blocking both sides of a lane of gas pumps. After I asked politely for them to move a couple of times, unlike the characters in the above clip, I quickly threatened to bash them if they didn’t immediately make room for me. They did indeed go.

Portlandia offers viewers a dazzlingly eclectic roster of top tier guest stars and cameos, including some who appear more than once, including Ed Begley Jr., Jeff Goldblum, Steve Buscemi, and Kumail Nanjian.

Others who show up once or twice include Aimee Mann (as herself trying to make ends meet as a housecleaner because of the difficulty of earning money as a musician in the era of streaming music), Matt Groening (a Portland native), Michael Nesmsith, Penny Marshall, the B-52s, Tim Robbins, Heather Graham, Martina Navratilova, k.d. Lang, Jason Sudekis, Paul Simon, Brigitte Nielsen, Greg Louganis, Henry Rollins, Jeff Tweedy, Louis C.K. (eww!), Andy Richter, George Wendt, the Flaming Lips, Andy Samberg, Eddie Vedder, Seth Meyers, Sarah MacLachlan, and Laurie Metcalf.

Special mention needs to be given to Roseanne Barr, who stars in two episodes as Portland’s interim mayor–she is hired from a temp agency. Yes, Barr is an actress, duh, who takes on roles, but Barr’s turn to the right may have been foreshadowed in Portlandia because she attempts to govern Portland pragmatically, in contrast to the loopiness of Mr. Mayor. After all, I believe it was radio talker Dennis Prager who said, “Common sense is conservatism.”  As mayor, Barr suggests having fewer bike lanes, coffee outlets that sell only coffee, movie theaters with more than one screen, not as many stores for dogs, but more big box outlets. In short, she wants Portland to be a practical city.

“I’ve been to a lot of places, but nothing’s like this,” she complains. “Everybody’s just lost in a dream world.”

And finally, I’d like to acknowledge the regular but all but anonymous supporting performers on the program who live in the Portland area, IFC calls them the Citizens of Portlandia. They are the show’s answer to the John Ford Stock Company. These actors, who arrive like old friends, include Henry Cottrell, Kristine Levine, Angel Bouchet, Jedediah Aaker, and Sam Adams, who plays Mr. Mayor’s assistant. He was the real mayor of Portland from 2009-2012.

Season 8 was the only batch of episodes filmed during the Donald Trump presidency and I expected Portlandia to skewer what liberals, and yes, conservatives, see as low-hanging fruit ripe for the plucking. Amazingly, the Portlandia universe remains a Trump-free zone. Although Spyke–remember him?–reforms his old punk band, Riot Spray, fronted by the aforementioned Rollins with Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic playing bass, as a protest gesture against unspecified corruption in government. But he does so after first threatening to Iris to move to Canada.

In a jab at those dozens of celebrities who vowed to move north of the border if Trump won the presidency, Iris replies, “Spyke, no one moves to Canada.”

Seasons 1-7 of Portlandia are available on Netlfix, all of the episodes can be found on Comcast’s On Demand. This program is not for the little ones as there is some brief nudity here and there and some foul language.

John Ruberry, who has never had a chin beard, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Early in Episode One of Flint Town, an eight-entry Netflix series that debuted this month, we discover a murder victim lying in the snow. And we see snowflakes resting unmelted on his hand–the only warmth he will offer can only come from memories from his loved ones.

Such is life and death in Flint.

Few cities of its size in the United State–probably none–have endured as much devastation as Flint has in the last thirty years. The population of  Flint, which was once Michigan’s second largest city, peaked in 1960 at just under 200,000. But the wide scale exodus began in the 1980s when General Motors–it was founded in Flint–began its rapid downsizing of operations in what is still called “the Vehicle City.”

Now fewer than 100,000 reside in Flint–with 40 percent of them living below the poverty line.

Flint is Detroit’s smaller cousin–sharing most of the same problems. But Flint’s water crisis–lead poisoning spawned by switching the city’s water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron facilities to that of the Flint River–added a tragic dimension to its suffering.

“It used to be cars were made in Flint, and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico,” Donald Trump remarks at a campaign appearance shown here. “Now the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.”

Flint Town is a project of directors Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper, and Jessica Dimmock. It takes a surprising choice of its focus, the under-resourced Flint Police.

“The police officers on the Flint Police Department and underpaid and understaffed, wearing five or six hats, [and] using primitive equipment,” Police Chief Timothy Johnson tells the city council in the final episode. Earlier in the series the dashboard on a Flint police car shows the odometer at 105,000 miles. The man who sits in the cubicle next to mine in my real job, a retired cop from a Chicago suburb about the same size as Flint, says that the cruisers on his force were surplussed at about 50,000 miles.

We see Devon Bernritter, a captain, lament that he was compelled to send three officers on foot patrols because no police cars were available for them. Cops are sent on calls by themselves in Flint in many situations that in other jurisdictions, because of perceived danger, two officers are sent.

Johnson utilizes the same type of resourcefulness that Soviet citizens used when facing problems with inadequate or missing equipment. Volunteers are hired to assist his officers, although unlike everywhere else these aides are armed, including a warm-hearted 65-year-old retiree whose trainer bends over backwards so he pass his marksmanship test. Guns seized in crimes are typically destroyed by most police departments. In Flint they are auctioned off.

Election Day comes to Flint Town. While not ignored, the presidential race–where the white cops favor Trump and the African American ones back Hillary Clinton–takes a back seat to a vote to extend a millage, a property tax, to provide what is of course badly needed funding for law enforcement. In the past those monies were spent, despite promises to voters, elsewhere.

Flint has a well-deserved reputation for corruption and incompetence. The latter point was something not even Michael Moore in his Roger and Me documentary could ignore. While its elections are non-partisan, Democrats dominate Flint politics.

“I always wondered why this city was in the position it was and now I see why, it’s at the top,” Chief Johnson boldly tells the city council in a budget hearing.

Blogger last autumn in Michigan

Yet the rank-and-file Flint cops deeply care about the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect, despite toiling in the atmosphere of the cold-blooding killings in 2016, assassinations really, of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Is the love returned? For the most part, no.

Flint Town is rated TV-MA for graphic violence and foul language. While Netflix is promoting this batch of shows as Season One, there has been no announcement that a second season is coming. I’d like to see another helping.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

The Netflix neo-western Longmire has ridden into the sunset after six years. The final season started streaming on the network nine days ago and the results should please its fans. I enjoyed it.

My Da Tech Guy review of the first five seasons of is here.

Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor), a widower, is a sheriff in the fictional county of Absaroka in Wyoming. He and his three deputies patrol an area that is larger than Delaware. While Walt, an old-school lawman who knows the difference between right-and-wrong and who rarely crosses the ethical line, at first glance appears to be an anachronism, he still has the smarts and the brawn to set things straight.

If you haven’t watched Longmire but think you might, I suggest you skip the next paragraph as there are some series spoilers.

At the end of Season Five, Walt’s personal and professional life are in shambles. The smartass mayor of Durant (Eric Lane) wants Longmire to resign, and he gets in a brutal knock-down bar fight with his best friend who has turned into a vigilante, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips). Henry’s situation gets worse after he is kidnapped by corrupt former Bureau of Indian Affairs police chief Malachi Strand (Graham Greene) and his goons. Walt faces a wrongful death lawsuit from the estate of a businessman who also happened to be the father of one of his deputies and the brother of Longmire’s predecessor as sheriff. (Hey, not many people live in Absaroka County.) Walt’s most trusted deputy Victoria “Vic” Moretti (Katee Sackhoff) is pregnant–no one knows who the father is. And the Native American casino in Absaroka, run by the compromised Jacob Nighthorse (A Martinez), is fostering the crime Walt predicted would result, although I’m pretty sure that he didn’t expect Irish mobsters from Boston being part of it. Walt’s daughter, Cady (Cassidy Freeman) is running a free legal aid clinic on the Cheyenne reservation, but she’s being paid by Nighthorse.

Season Six kicks off a new story thread about a serial bank robber known as “Cowboy Bill.” A stereotypical blogger–who is bearded, overweight, and shoves iPhones into people’s faces while garnering minuscule traffic on his site, causes another headache for Walt when he reports that the sheriff  “ambled in” to the robbed bank long after Cowboy Bill made off with his loot. Of course that infuriates the mayor. As for this blogger, I’m thin, clean-shaven, I own a camcorder, and I have many more hits daily on my blog than that other guy has received in the life of his blog. Da Tech Guy of course crushes the traffic of that fictional blogger’s site too.

Anyway…

John “Lee” Ruberry of Da Tech Guy’s Magnificent Seven

The lawful death lawsuit against Walt begins. Cady continues to face difficulty striking an equilibrium between the law, her ethics, Native American culture, and Nighthorse. As for the casino operator, his juggling act becomes even more difficult, as it does for Walt’s pal Henry. And we learn that the Irish mob doesn’t take “no” for an answer from a Wyoming sheriff.

The series ends with a surprise twist, one that is satisfactory too.

The first three seasons of Longmire ran on A&E, and while the ratings and the critical response were favorable, the network cancelled the show because the demographics favored older viewers. A&E is run by dopes. Thank you Netflix for rescuing the program.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Last night I ended another binge-watching venture, this time it was Ozark, a Netflix original series starring Jason Bateman. Season one, consisting of ten episodes, was released in July and Ozark has already been renewed for a second run.

Marty Byrde (Bateman) is a financial planner who makes a deal with the devil, actually a Mexican drug cartel, to launder its cash. So, Byrde quietly toils away and the cartel graciously thanks him for his efforts and all is well?

Uh, no.

Byrde and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) are the typical smug Chicago area couple who I interact with regularly. Wendy is proud of her political activism, she even worked on Barack Obama’s state Senate campaigns, although it’s difficult to say why she was needed as Obama ran unopposed in all three of his Democratic primary races and the district he represented was far more Democratic than Wyoming is Republican. Perhaps Wendy was the scoundrel behind knocking all of Obama’s primary opponents off of the ballot. If so, it fits her character. Interestingly, there is an early scene of Marty inspecting office space Chicago’s Trump Tower.

Bryde’s handler, Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales), discovers $8 million in cartel cash is missing. After Byrde’s co-workers are well, liquidated, in an act of desperation Byrde convinces “Del” that Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, which has “more coastline than the state of California,” is a far better place than Chicago to launder his dirty money because it’s not crawling with federal agents.

So seemingly quicker than it takes me to check out of a hotel room the Byrdes and their children, 15-year-old Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) do a reverse-Beverly Hillbillies and relocate to the Lake of the Ozarks, one of several places in America known as a Redneck Riviera.

The Byrdes nearly immediately confront a family of small-time criminals, the Langmores, who live in–wait for it–run-down trailers. They are raising two bobcats. Just inside the door of one of the trailers is a a poster of a topless woman.

And like Brewster in the several Brewster’s Millions movies, Marty finds that quickly spending millions, or laundering it, is harder than he thought it would be, particularly in the rural location he chose. An even greater challenge for the Byrdes is a mysterious family of big-time criminals we meet later on. For comic relief, mostly, is the dying old man who lives in their basement–he is convinced Obama is a Muslim.

Even before the move the Byrde’s marriage is on the rocks–and the tension of a disintegrating family operating an illegal enterprise is reminiscent of Breaking Bad. The graphic violence is reminiscent of Sons of Anarchy. And while no genitalia is shown, the sex scenes are also quite graphic. So this family drama is by no means appropriate family viewing. Jason Bateman has come along way since his NBC sitcom Silver Spoons.

Blogger outside Chicago’s Trump Tower

I don’t expect there to be a tourist boom to Lake of the Ozarks because of the show, as the redneck cliches and the rampant lawlessness of Ozark will serve as a definite buzz-kill for travel-minded families. The Northwoods region’s vacation dollars are secure. Although outside of a few scenes in downtown Chicago, most of the show is filmed in a reservoir area in northern Georgia. And some of the Chicago scenes are laughably wrong–where do all of these hills come from? And there are no hills in Morris, Illinois either–a wonderful town I’ve visited many times, by the way. Here’s another inconsistency: The Byrdes’ suburban home was in Naperville. So why does their Honda Odyssey have an expensive Chicago vehicle sticker? An astute financial planner wouldn’t waste $136 on a useless decal.

Yes, I’ll be back for the next season. By then end of that one Ozark may have shed the shadow of Breaking Bad.

John Ruberry regularly blogs in the Chicago area at Marathon Pundit.

Characters in Broadchurch

By John Ruberry

A few days ago I finished watching season three of Broadchurch, a British mystery series which is broadcast in the United Kingdom on ITV–and here on BBC America–starring David Tennant as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Olivia Colman as Detective Inspector Ellie Miller.

Tennant of course is best known as the Tenth Doctor–and the second one of after its revival–in Doctor Who. Except for the first half of the “Tooth and Claw” episode, Tennant uses an English accent as the Doctor, here his natural Scottish accent is utilized for his Hardy character. One of the supporting characters in Broadchurch is Jodie Whittaker, who will accede to the Doctor’s role in the next Christmas episode of Doctor Who and become the first female Doctor, to the horror of some longtime fans, including the founder of the blog you are reading now.

The creator–and sole screenplay writer, save for one episode that he had a co-writer for–of Broadchurch is Chris Chibnall, who has been executive producer of Doctor Who since last year and who will be showrunner for the feminized edition next season. Chibnall was a co-producer and screenwriter for Torchwood, the sexualized “grown-up” spinoff of Doctor Who.

The fictional town of Broadchurch is where this particular show is set, it sits on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset in southwestern England. Broadchurch is a tightly knit–perhaps too much so–small town that, in season one, is wracked by the murder of 11-year-old Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara). Whittaker portrays his mother, Beth, and Andrew Buchan plays his father, Mark. The suspects are numerous and there are plenty of plot twists to keep you on the edge of your couch for all eight episodes. Season two, which also consists of eight episodes, splits time between being a courtroom drama and the re-opening of the investigation of a murder and disappearance in Sandbrook, which presumably is near Broadchurch. The botched handling of that investigation is what led Hardy to take the DI position in Broadchurch, which Miller assumed was already hers.

In the third season, which is said to be the final one, Hardy after time away from Broadchurch, returns and again is teamed with Miller. Their relationship has always been tense–but by this time they carry on like elderly spouses, albeit there is no physical side of it. When Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondhalgh) calls the police a few days after being raped at the 50th birthday party of a friend and co-worker, Hardy and Miller oversee another investigation that tears the town apart. This season is just six episodes long.

There are many fabulous performances in Broadchurch, beginning of course with Tennant and Colman, but also by Hesmondhalgh, Eva Myles (Gwen Cooper in Torchwood), David Bradley (Walder Frey in Game of Thrones and the new First Doctor in Doctor Who), Arthur Darvill (a onetime Doctor Who companion), who portrays a vicar attempting to heal the town of its wounds while preaching to mostly empty pews, as well as Carolyn Pickles. She plays a rarity–an honest journalist searching for the truth who goes out of her way not to hurt anyone.

I didn’t include Whittaker in that list, but perhaps not much was asked for her by directors of Broadchurch, although as the mother of a murdered child, that doesn’t make very much sense. Based on what I saw in the program, all the performers listed in the previous paragraph would have been better choices as the Thirteenth Doctor, not that I would expect Tennant to return to Doctor Who. My choice would have been Bradley as the next–the first shall be the latest–Doctor. But perhaps a septuagenarian as a lead character in a classic television show is too broad of a bridge to cross for our youth-worshipping culture to cross.

All three seasons are top-notch, but I’ll give my nod to the first one, which was re-done as Gracepoint for Fox in the United States. I haven’t seen that one and from what I’ve heard, it isn’t worth my time or yours, despite Tennant reprising his role as Hardy and Chibnall’s involvement.

Broadchurch is available on DVD, on Amazon, and Xfinity On Demand. Seasons one and two can be viewed on Netflix.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Netflix binge watching just brought me to Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands for the BBC crime drama Shetland, a series that is based upon books by Ann Cleeves.

Stoic Director Inspector Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall), a Shetland native who moved back to the islands from Glasgow after the death of his wife, calmly investigates the archipelago’s murders–and as with many crime shows with a rural setting, such as Longmire, if added up the murder rate in Shetland would rival that of Baltimore. But who will tune in to watch a series about sheep rustling? Besides sheep rustlers, of course.

There have been three seasons so far–a fourth is currently under production. The first season, a two-episode entry entitled “Red Bones,” the series pilot, involves a World War II secret uncovered by an archeological dig, while Shetland’s annual winter celebration, the Nordic-inspired Up Helly Aa, takes place. “Red Bones” was released in 2013, amazingly there is a Donald Trump reference in it.

There are three two-episode storylines in Season 2. There are many, I suspect, in the Shetlands, so not surprisingly an eccentric hermit drives the action in “Raven Black.” The islands’ energy industry inflames tempers and worse in “Dead Water.” The final two-parter, “Blue Lightning,” set mostly on Perez’ boyhood home of Fair Isle, tells us that not even avian research centers are immune from homicide. This is the weakest effort in the series; the story seems stretched out, like a mediocre rock double album that would be a great one as a single disc release. And for much of “Blue Lightning” everyone on Fair Isle is stranded there because of a storm. Except viewers see no evidence of a storm. The BBC doesn’t have stock footage of crashing waves on rocks?

Fortunately Shetland bounces back for for a six-part episode for Season 3, its best. Just as I was wondering why the narcotics trade–a major blight in all European rural areas, particularly far-northern ones–was absent from the series, there it is. An incident on the Shetland ferry brings Henshall and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Alison ‘Tosh’ MacIntosh (Alison O’Donnell) to Glasgow–where much of Shetland is filmed–where they untangle a nine-year-old sexual assault that is linked to organized crime, obstruction of justice, and a senior citizens home.

Rounding out the cast is Steven Robertson as Police Constable Sandy Wilson, Erin Armstrong as Perez’ daughter, Mark Bonnar as her biological father, Anne Kidd as a forensic pathologist, and Julie Graham as Perez’ boss.

The accents are thick–so be prepared to use the rewind button on your remote or to switch on the closed captioning feature on your television while viewing Shetland. Unless of course you are Scottish.

Henshall is not just the lead actor but also the most accomplished one in Shetland. For his efforts he received the 2016 BAFTA award for best actor in television.

As expected, the cinematography is splendid, even though other parts of Scotland, those with treeless hills, often substitute for the Shetland Islands. Watching the series has me pining for a trip to Scotland and of course, the Shetlands.

But watching Season 4 will happen first for me.

In addition to Netflix, Shetland is also available on Amazon.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

“So you’ll be paying yourself to build a railroad with government subsidies.” Sen. Jordan Crane to Thomas “Doc” Durant.

“These are exciting times. You and I are opening the way for the greatest nation the world has ever seen.” Major Augustus Bendix to Cullen Bohannon.

“See him driving those golden nails
that hold together the silver bars
That one day’s gonna take us to the stars
cos he’s the man who built America.”
Horslips, from their song, The Man Who Built America.

“A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our nation. And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit.” President Donald J. Trump to Congress last week.

Last week I completed my latest binge-watching endeavor, Hell on Wheels, an AMC show that ran from 2011-2016 that is available on Netflix and on Amazon.

The building of the American transcontinental is the driving force of the plot of this series–the Union Pacific heading west from Omaha and the Central Pacific heading east from Sacramento.

The transcontinental railroad exemplified America at its best–getting the job done 16 years before Canada and 36 years before Russia. It also exemplified America at its worst. Racism and corruption–the Crédit Mobilier outrage was one of our nation’s worst political scandals and it forever tainted this monumental achievement.

The Civil War purged America of slavery, the nation was no longer “a house divided against itself,” but in 1865 the United States was in a way like an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle, the east and west coasts, the easy part, were settled but much of the middle–the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, still needed to be filled in.

Hell on Wheel’s main character is Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former slaveholder and Confederate cavalry officer who travels to Nebraska Territory to hunt down Union soldiers who murdered his wife and son in Mississippi. Despite that ruthlessness–make that because of that ruthlessness–Union Pacific president Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) takes him under his wing, although their relationship is mostly turbulent throughout the run of the series.

Bohannon isn’t the only character scarred by the turmoil of mid-19th century America. Elam Ferguson (Common) and Psalms Jackson (Dohn Norwood) are freedmen who quickly learn that freedom from slavery doesn’t mean equality. The Reverend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) and his daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski), suffer from pangs of guilt remaining from Bleeding Kansas. The Rev. Cole’s most prominent convert to Christianity, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), is estranged from his father, a Cheyenne chief. The most compelling character on the show, Thor “The Swede” Gunderson (Christopher Heyerdahl), is a Norwegian immigrant and former Union army quartermaster–a man who says he is good with numbers, but after his barbaric incarceration at the notorious Andersonville prisoner of war camp, he ascertained that “I had to control people like I control numbers and I learned to practice a sort of immoral mathematics.”

The Swede is Hell On Wheels’ principal villain and if there is ever a Villains Hall Of Fame built, then he belongs as a charter member.

Another intriguing HoW character is Irish immigrant Mickey McGuinnes (Phil Burke), who like Durant, finds a way to make himself a success after starting with nothing. One of his workers is a tattooed former prostitute and a Jack Mormon, Eva (Robin McLeavy). She was captured by Indians after her family’s wagon train was waylaid.

The final season of Hell on Wheels brings in the storyline of the Central Pacific. Movie posters for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly boasted, “For three men the Civil War wasn’t hell. It was practice!” The Chinese laborers on the Central Pacific can be forgiven for having a similar dismissive view of our Civil War, which killed 600,000 Americans. Emotional scars from the Taiping Rebellion plague many of the Chinese characters. That conflict, which was actually a civil war between Imperial China and a man claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ, probably killed 20-30 million people–after the famine deaths are added in. Some estimates bring the death total as high as 100 million. If that last figure is correct, then the Taiping Rebellion was the deadliest war ever.

Life is cheap in both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific camps–both are served by brothels, although opium is offered at the latter instead of whiskey.

Durant was a real person, although his portrayal in Hell on Wheels is largely fictional. Other historical figures appearing include Wyoming’s territorial governor John Campbell (Jack Weber), President Ulysses S. Grant (Victor Slezak), and Brigham Young (Gregg Henry). Eva’s character was based on an actual woman, as was the man in the show who survived a scalping. He carries his scalp in a bottle of alcohol–and offers paid listeners a recounting of his ordeal. The phrase “Hell on Wheels” is a real one in this context, it’s what the tent cities that followed the construction of the Union Pacific were called.

Blogger walking the rails

In the penultimate HoW episode, there is a prescient moment as black and Chinese workers rush to finish the road in 1869. Above them you see the moon. One hundred years later, yes, in 1969, “the greatest nation the world has ever seen” reached the moon. No country has repeated that feat or even attempted it.

Yes, American exceptionalism is real.

If you enjoy westerns, you’ll find Hell on Wheels worth your while. But if you are looking for romance–then look elsewhere. Mount is a fine actor but love encounters are not his long suit. And what was the point of his sex scene on top of a table with fused nitroglycerine on it?

As with most westerns, the cinematography is first-rate–with Alberta filling in capably for Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and California. It would be better if movies about America would be filmed here, but that’s another subject for another time.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

A couple of weeks back I completed my latest television binge-watching quest, in this case it was the neo-western Longmire.

Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) is the Rainier Beer-drinking, unshaved sheriff in the fictional county of Absaroka in Wyoming. He’s a widower putting his life and career back together after the recent death of his wife. It’s easy to imagine Gary Cooper paying this role. His deputies are the loyal Victoria “Vic” Moretti (Katee Sackhoff), Jim “the Ferg” Ferguson (Adam Bartley), and not-so-loyal Branch Connally (Bailey Chase), who runs against Longmire for sheriff.

The series is based on the Walt Longmire mystery books by Craig Johnson.

Originally an A&E show, the network, despite high ratings for the show, cancelled it after the third season. Netflix picked it up, airing the next two editions. It has been renewed for a sixth and final season. The books are set in Buffalo, which is coincidentally in Johnson County, Wyoming. In the show Durant is the county seat of Absaroka. So assuming that Johnson is Absaroka, that would give Longmire’s county 8,500 residents. And since, especially in the first four seasons, there is a murder in almost every episode, that could give this rural county a homicide rate higher than that of Chicago, perhaps, yes, even higher than the small Maine town where the television series Murder, She Wrote, was set. Recurring Longmire character Louis Herthum, has experience with this scenario, as he played a cop in Murder She, Wrote.

Also in Absaroka is a Cheyenne Indian reservation, which isn’t in Walt’s jurisdiction. But just as Captain Kirk was never supposed to violate the Prime Directive in Star Trek, circumstances often force Longmire to pursue police work on “the rez,” which for the most part annoys Mathias (Zahn McClarnon), a Bureau of Indian Affairs police chief. His predecessor, Malachi Strand (Graham Greene), was jailed after Longmire busted him for extortion.

By the third season the murder-a-week package is less relied upon as the events surrounding the death of Longmire’s wife, the release of Strand from prison, the building of a Cheyenne casino, and development projects in Absaroka driven by Deputy Connally’s father, Barlow (Gerald McRaney), collide with Walt and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), the owner a local bar and restaurant. A Native American Longmire regularly tangles with is casino operator Jacob Nighthorse (A Martinez). Also captured in this web is Longmire’s daughter, Cady (Cassidy Freeman), an attorney who is more like her father than either character realizes, as she also discovers that doing the right thing is often an insurmountable challenge in a flawed world.

John “Lee” Ruberry of the
Magnificent Seven

I thoroughly enjoy Longmire and I’m eagerly awaiting season six, as season five concluded with things in a very complicated state. As a western, the cinematography is of course superb, although the show is filmed in New Mexico, not Wyoming. Starting of course with the lead character, the acting is superb, and the story lines generally contain much depth. Although I am curious why Phillips’ Standing Bear character, like the young heroine in True Grit, particularly in the Coen Brothers remake, never uses contractions in his speech.

If you prefer westerns that aren’t “neo,” I still recommend that you give Longmire a look. Just imagine cowboy Walt riding a horse instead of driving a Ford Bronco, and replace moonshine with narcotics. And after all of these years there is still conflict between whites and Indians. And vigilantism is also a welcome plot development in any western.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.