April 21, 2021

“Away” with Hilary Swank on Netflix

You can add “Away,” the Netflix tv series about a manned mission to Mars, to the list of passably entertaining shows about space travel. Hilary Swank plays Emma Green, the NASA commander of a five-person international team on space ship Atlas headed for the red planet. A freak accident at the beginning of the journey makes the other four astronauts doubt Green’s ability to be an effective leader.

Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”), Green’s husband back on earth, is a failed astronaut due to a hereditary and life-threatening illness. He continues to advise NASA however, trouble-shooting engineering problems on the space craft containing his wife. Emma Green has also left her teenage daughter, Alexis, behind to deal with hormones and her husband’s health issues during this three-year voyage.

The program also delves into the back stories of other astronauts and staff. Lu Wang (Vivian Wu) is a Chinese astronaut and chemist who has a clandestine affair with a female Chinese NASA translator. Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir) is a veteran Russian cosmonaut and engineer who has sacrificed his family life for space travel. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh) is a botanist from Ghana who was raised by Jewish-British adoptive parents. Second-in- command, Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki) is a medical officer estranged from his family in India. It is a bit of a soap opera plot with all the characters, but the episodes are engaging and Swank is fantastic.

The series was cancelled after one ten-episode season, but I would have liked to see how the story played out on Mars and whether they would make it back to earth. Some reviews took the series to task for putting too much emphasis on the personal lives of the people back on earth, but I liked this fresh take on how astronauts put their personal lives on hold while they are “Away.”

Years and Years on HBO vs. Leverage on Sundance Now

In my quest to find both escapist and thought-provoking things to watch, let me recommend two wildly different shows.

Years and Years, a joint television production between the BBC and HBO premiered in the U.S. June 2019. To be honest, I found it by accident perusing my HBO offerings just recently. The estimable Emma Thompson is Vivienne Rook, a businesswoman turned politician with outrageous and dangerous ideas that are gaining a foothold with the British public.

Warning: this series has some painful correlations with current news. Immigrants are herded into prisons where a communicable disease is running rampant. A financial debacle causes people to lose their jobs, money and homes.

Focus is on the Lyons family with siblings who include an anarchistic sister who suddenly comes home after time abroad, a gay brother who as a city manager falls in love with an incarcerated immigrant, the sassy youngest sister who is in a wheel chair due to spina bifida and a brother who is a seemingly strait-laced banker. Their children include a daughter who wants to download herself onto the cloud and a half-Chinese son who dresses like a girl.

Muriel Deacon, played by Anne Reid of Last Tango in Hallifax, is the matriarch who periodically invites the whole clan to her large home for family occasions.

The series received good reviews and award nominations, but it does challenge the viewer in quick time jumps, futuristic predictions and plot twists that are a little too close to the bone for today.

If, however, you want to see fine acting and experience a production that is certainly like no other, you may want to tune into the six-episode limited series currently streaming on HBO. Emma Thompson is a marvel as she turns herself into a female version of you-know-who and Boris Johnson.

On the opposite side of the entertainment spectrum is Leverage, an action crime drama series which aired on TNT from 2009 to 2012. Timothy Hutton is Nathan Ford, a straight-arrow insurance exec turned into a corporate Robin Hood after an insurance company denied paying for his son’s medical treatment.

Every episode features Ford and his team outwitting crooked politicians, greedy corporations, dirty cops and bad guys and gals of every persuasion.

Team members include Sophie Deveraux (Gina Bellman), a grifter who has accents and personas galore, Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a hacker extraordinaire, Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), a martial arts specialist and Parker (Beth Riesgraf), cat burglar, pickpocket and safe cracker. Hutton also tries on different characters and accents as he and his team set up their invented scenario for the mark.

There is an over-arching story line as Ford battles alcoholism, runs into his ex-wife, does a romantic bob and weave with grifter Sophie and continually encounters arch-nemesis Sterling played by the devilish Mark Sheppard.

I find comfort in every episode as the Leverage team helps an underdog best the fat cats. Throw in a little humor and visual action and you have the perfect dessert after more serious streaming fare.

Tim Hutton is the 21st century Jim Rockford. If you know the reference, you are definitely analog.

CBS All Access with Picard, The Good Fight and Evil

The Good Fight, an exclusive streaming spin-off series from The Good Wife was what got me to sign up for CBS All Access initially, but the catalogue has much more programming that might be of interest.

Initiated as a streaming service October 2014, CBS All Access has original programming, day later availability of CBS network broadcasts and vintage tv series like Twin Peaks, Cheers, CSI:Miami, Frasier, Taxi, Happy Days, I Love Lucy, Perry Mason and even Gunsmoke.

This is trekkie central for those who like the various versions of Star Trek since its debut in the 1960s. Being a Kate Mulgrew fan, I am currently watching Star Trek: Voyager. But then again, I could choose from Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Short Treks, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or even Star Trek: The Animated Series. Patrick Stewart has signed on to reprise his role as starship commander Jean-Luc Picard in the 8th Star Trek series, Picard which premiered on CBS All Access in January 2020.

You can even bounce between old series and their new versions like Hawaii Five-O or MacGyver.

Current well-reviewed comedies include Young Sheldon, The Unicorn and Mom. Alas, the entire series of The Big Bang Theory is not available on CBS All Access.

I do have two “guilty pleasure” dramatic series on the CBS streaming service, the cancelled Salvation and Evil, a fantasy created by Michelle King and Robert King who gave us The Good Wife and The Good Fight. Hey, I can’t live by PBS alone.

The streaming world is a huge smorgasbord and for now, I am sampling the fare at CBS All Access. For simplicity’s sake, I added the channel to my Amazon Prime Video package. As famed CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite used to say, “And that’s the way it is.”


The Iron Giant, an animated classic

I was nosing around for a movie that might appeal to family members of varied interests. The Iron Giant, a 1999 animated film hit the jackpot.

This was Brad Bird’s first directorial outing and was not deemed a financial success at the time. Thankfully, he continued working and has added movies like The Incredibles 1 and 2, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to his catalogue.

Due to DVD distribution and streaming, this almost 20-year-old animated work has arrived at cult status and rightfully so. The animation looks like it was done by a Japanese manga artist and a really quirky comic book illustrator. The voice-over actors include the late John Mahoney, Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald, Harry Connick Jr., Eli Marienthal and Jennifer Anniston. Even Cloris Leachman has a bit role.

There are definitely two tracks to the production, one a basic “boy helps monster” plot line for kids, and an adult deeper examination of prejudice, fear of the Russians, secret government doings, guns and war. Brad Bird manages to entertain both age groups with wit, artistry and heart.

The Iron Giant deserves wider acclaim. This 1999 animated feature is currently streaming on Netflix.

Wool by science fiction author Hugh Howey

Dystopian novels have started to bug me so I had vowed to take a break from them. My teacher brother-in-law got me to relent one more time with the highly recommended Wool Trilogy by Hugh Howey.

Book One is actually 8 books that depict life in an enclosed Silo, seen from the perspective of Holston, the Silo’s sheriff, Jahns, the Silo’s mayor and Juliette, the new sheriff after Holston chooses to leave the protection of the Silo. Juliette becomes friends with Lukas, an IT guy who is interested in astronomy. Bad guy Bernard, head of IT, engineers a coup that causes a revolt led by workers from “down below.”

Author Hugh Howey

Howey has created an unusual world filled with fascinating characters who get caught up in power trips, tradition and deception. While working at a bookstore, he wrote the first installments of Wool and self-published the science fiction piece on the internet. It was not until the work took off that he signed a print-only deal with Simon and Schuster. Twentieth Century Fox has purchased the movie rights.

The trilogy continues with Shift and Dust. I have copies of them waiting for me at the library. Hey, science fiction buffs, wanna meet me at the Silo? Let’s just say that I’m glad I made an exception for one more dystopian story.

The Shape of Water by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro

Mexican film director, Guillermo del Toro has created another dark fantasy world, this time set in 1962 Baltimore in his most recent film, The Shape of Water.

Sally Hawkins is cast as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor in a secret government science facility. Along with her fellow cleaner, Zelda Fuller (the inimitable Octavia Spenser), they watch a creature from South America being violently transferred to a tank in their place of employment. Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland is the cruel handler of this living asset.

Elisa and the amphibious man develop a connection, shall we say. She recruits her neighbor Giles, a closeted gay artist played by Richard Jenkins, along with friend Zelda to kidnap her aqueous paramour. Did I mention that the Russians are also interested in the fate of this seemingly sentient water being?

The Cold War, racial segregation, cruelty to living creatures and the subjugation of women all figure into the film’s setting. Despite the heavy references, this movie should satisfy the horror and romance date crowd, as well as serious film buffs.

If you enjoyed del Toro’s 2006 film, Pan’s Labryinth, you will love The Shape of Water. You may not see much sun or anything sunny in this dark work, but there is beauty, humor and emotion nonetheless.