Hulu Review: Difficult People (Season 1)

difficult-people-15.jpg

Where to watch: Hulu exclusive series

Best for: Fans of Billy on the Street, people that have finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale and are wondering what else is on Hulu

Difficult People is a show about a gay man and his female best friend that is a bit like a grumpier, drunker, more down-to-earth version of Will and Grace. Both of the main characters are aspiring comics in New York City. There’s Billy Epstein (played by Billy Eichner) and Julie Kessler (played by Julie Klausner) who are characters that would each be rather grating in real life but can be appreciated on their own merits behind the safe comfort of your television screen (or computer screen … or tablet … or phone … you get the idea).

The show finds its humor by appealing to some of the worst things about ourselves and the people we interact with on an everyday basis in the narcissistic world that is the 21st century. Billy and Julie are like caricatured versions of the modern man and woman on their worst days- they relentlessly judge other people and then wonder why they can’t seem to hit it off with anyone, they express their extreme distaste for children and then wonder why kids don’t seem to like them, and constantly seek attention while scolding millennials for being too self-absorbed. It’s rather unfortunate that these elements of the show are relatable, but whether or not we admit it to ourselves, this is where the show achieves is humor.

Difficult People is produced by Amy Poehler and features a line of guest stars that is a bit like an Avengers-style team-up of current comedy icons. Seeing Amy Sedaris or Kate McKinnon show up on any show is always a welcome addition for me. The show is a witty and smartly-produced series that tackles some of the most annoying elements of the, ahem, difficult people in our lives in a humorous way. While the main characters are at times a bit hard to cheer for, the show never stops being an entertaining and funny addition to Hulu’s comedy lineup.

I give it: 3.75 stars (out of 5)

YouTube Red Review: Squad Wars

squad-wars-SquadWars_Vertical_en_27x40_130_v2join_rgb.jpg

Where to watch: YouTube Red exclusive

Best for: Fans of the Try Guys from Buzzfeed

Sort of like the McDonald’s of all things viral, Buzzfeed has perfected the art of manufacturing superfluous quizzes, listicles about cats, and humorous videos that you first saw when your friend’s sister’s cousin posted them to Facebook. Their YouTube videos have been a staple of the YouTube community for the past few years, so it makes sense that the powers that be behind YouTube Red decided to give Buzzfeed a shot at making their own original series for the premium streaming service.

Squad Wars is hosted by the “Try Guys” that you might recognize from such viral classics as “The Try Guys Try Korean Cooking” and “The Try Guys Get Prostate Exams.” Each episode has them teaming up with two “squads” that usually include a trio of minor celebrities or reality stars. The two teams compete in a rather random competition that varies each episode. One episode featured stars from Rupaul’s Drag Race participating in a ranching competition against three female UFC fighters.

The winner of each competition is decided by a panel of judges that rotates with a new celebrity guest judge every episode. Their criteria for the winners seems entirely subjective and is heavily influenced by the charm of the contestants rather than their technical skill, creating what seems to be a very lifeless competition with little at stake. The show is entertaining enough to warrant a watch if you have absolutely nothing else to turn to, or if you are just really obsessed with The Try Guys or any of their respective squads.

Otherwise, the episodes feel like overstuffed YouTube videos that should have been approximately 20 minutes shorter.

I give it: 2.5 stars (out of 5)

Netflix Review: Castlevania Season 1

castlevania_netflix.jpg

Where to watch: Netflix exclusive

Best for: Fans of the video game series, people who regularly watch anime

Based on the long-running video game series by Konami comes Castlevania, a gruesome and dark animated show for adults that is currently a Netflix exclusive. The story takes place in fifteenth century Romania and begins with a story of Dracula’s love for an intelligent young researcher named Lisa who comes to Dracula’s castle seeking advanced scientific knowledge. They are eventually married but when church officials find science equipment in Lisa’s home they accuse her of witchcraft and burn her at the stake.

Dracula in his anger warns the townspeople that he will unleash an army of demons to kill them in one year. The townspeople remain undeterred and a year later celebrate the death of the “witch” rather than flee, so as promised Dracula unleashes his wrath. The rest of the show follows Trevor Belmont, the last son of a noble family the townsfolk blame for Dracula’s wrath as he teams up with a group of mystics that have been demonized by the church called the Seekers. The Seekers believe they can find a legendary “sleeping solider” that can defeat Dracula and his army.

The animation itself is skillfully done and is on par with what one would expect from a popular anime series or perhaps the direct-to-video DC Comics films. One should approach the series with an expectation that much like the video games, there will be a gratuitous amount of violence- there’s blood raining from the sky, mutilated bodies, gouged out eyeballs, and the like throughout the show’s four-episode first season. While I was never a huge fan of the Castlevania series (but am still keeping my fingers crossed for the rumored Legend of Zelda Netflix show), I’d imagine this works well as a supplement to the video games and will perhaps satisfy the diehard fans of the series to see their beloved characters in animated form.

For everyone else, however, there is little to offer in the way of engaging plot lines or characters to empathize with. At no point did I feel seriously invested in any of the character’s wellbeing. The show seems reliant on pointlessly unsettling imagery that has no redemptive qualities. The downside of adapting video games into films or TV shows is that while they appeal to a highly devoted fanbase, they offer very thin storylines when you take out the interactive action sequences from a game. Castlevania, unfortunately, fails to reverse course in what has been an endlessly disappointing line of video game adaptations.

While the quality of animation was at times very impressive, I can’t recommend the show to anyone outside of the most loyal base of fans for the Castlevania games. Even among those devoted masses, however, this series might feel like an overlong, bloated cutscene that you wish you could press “a” to skip so you can get on with your button-mashing video game adventures.

I give it: 2 stars (out of 5)

Now Streaming: Supergirl TV Show Review

supergirl.png

Currently Streaming On: Netflix, The CW’s website

Please note: This is current at the time of publishing in July 2017. Shows come and go from streaming services all the time so visit justwatch.com to see where (or if) it’s currently streaming)

Episodes Available: Netflix, 42 episodes (2 seasons) The CW, 5 most recent episodes (no sign-in required)

Best For: People who enjoyed seeing Gal Gadot kick butt in Wonder Woman, fans of the various shows in the Arrowverse on The CW (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow)

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No! It’s Supergirl streaming on Netflix. This series, which originally aired on CBS before switching to The CW in its second season, is a lighthearted, upbeat show that harkens back to the old days when superheroes fought for truth, justice, and the American way rather than starred in morally ambiguous tales that attempt to reboot their “cheesy” earnest qualities with gritty realism (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman).

I’ll admit I was skeptical when the show was first announced and they released the first trailer back in 2015. As this show predated this year’s excellent Wonder Woman, Supergirl had the distinction of being the first major female superhero on-screen outing, big screen or little screen, to come about in the modern cinematic universe era. This could be perceived as a preview of the female superheroes to come, and the first trailer unfortunately made it look like they were trying heavily to give it a Devil Wears Prada-esque romcom feel in order to pander to female audiences. Many compared it to the parody trailer Saturday Night Live had made for a fake Black Widow movie with Scarlet Johannsson.

Rest assured that Supergirl is safe from such romcom-washing attempts. While it does focus some time on Kara (aka Supergirl’s) relationships, there are plenty of other plot elements to supplement this.The story follows Kara, played by the charming Melissa Benoist, who is the cousin of Superman that was sent to Earth from Krypton to protect him after their home planet was destroyed. While traveling to Earth in a space pod she got stuck in a black hole that caused her to delay her journey from Kypton and thus age slower than Superman due to the time warp, explaining how she’s younger than him (I know this seems like a lazy plot device but it’s borrowed from the comics).

While on Earth, Kara is taken in by an adoptive family with ties to the study and protection of alien life. Her sister, Alex (played by Chyler Leigh), who works for an organization called the DEO (or Department of Other-Wordly Affairs), makes for one of the series’ most compelling characters and their sisterly bond helps ground the show in relatable and sincere elements that help balance the fantastical world of aliens, superpowers, and space travel. Similarly, the DEO agent known as Hank (played by David Harewood) provides a multi-dimensional character with some engaging, albeit at times a bit convoluted, plot lines.

The special effects used in the series look excellent for a TV show and lack the tacky characteristics one might associate with a “made-for-TV” movie. Even the transition from CBS to The CW in the second season didn’t seem to cheapen the appearance or scope of the series’ scale. There are certain parts of the show that may seem a bit jarring- the “bad guy of the week” plot lines used towards the middle of the first season seem to get a bit old after a few episodes, the completely wooden performance from Helen Slater (the original Supergirl) in a performance as Kara’s adoptive mother ruins some otherwise dramatic scenes, and certain political references in the plot seem like a tacky attempt to be topical (hey guys, we’re talking about “aliens” seeking citizenship- get it?!)  that would have worked better in a more nuanced way.

Still the series has one thing that many superheroes stories of late, at least in the DC Comics world, do not. It has warmth, humor, and a genuine sense of heart that help ground the series. Melissa Benoist’s performance as Kara, a girl who is at times nerdy and bumbling but still manages to realize her power, is an anchor of the show. Her character has flaws and makes some serious mistakes throughout the series whose gravity is portrayed in detail. A complaint many might have of Superman and Supergirl is that they are TOO powerful, but the show successfully manages to neither make Kara an inaccessible goddess nor a weakened “Superman-lite.”

Like Tobey Macquire as Peter Parker in 2002’s Spider-Man, the producers of the show have made a character whose mild-mannered alter-ego makes you truly want to root for them when they don their tights and cape. That’s what truly makes this series, well, super.

I give it: 4.25 stars (out of 5)

Netflix Review: Ultimate Beastmaster

maxresdefault.jpg

Currently streaming on: Netflix (exclusive series)

Episodes Available: 10 episodes, 1 season

Best for: Fans of American Ninja Warrior, live sports

This series builds upon the formula established by the likes of Ninja Warrior and Wipeout by adding a more complex obstacle course, and international teams from six countries (The U.S., Germany, South Korea, Mexico, Japan, and Brazil). The obstacle course itself that the athletes traverse through feels more like a live-action video game with spinning platforms to jump onto, moving conveyer belts to run over, and a design that resembles the inside of a giant “beast” complete with water that’s been dyed red to resemble the “blood of the beast.”

Fans of the Olympics will find the international competition a welcome change over Ninja Warrior, and it’s fun to see the hosts from the different countries banter with each other. Netflix opted for a unique approach to the localization of this series as all six versions of the show are filmed concurrently with two hosts from each nation speaking in their own language in side-by-side booths. Some of the obstacles seem slightly more risky than Ninja Warrior (one episode featured multiple male contestants falling crotch-first on a platform), so that does raise the stakes a bit.

A drawback to the series is something that ironically benefits many other shows on streaming services- all of the episodes were released at the same time. While it may be enticing to the diehard fans of the show to watch every minute of each episode I’d imagine most viewers would find themselves skipping ahead since most of the episodes feature the same stages. Releasing a series like this one episode at a time gives shows like Ninja Warrior an edge over Beastmaster, in that you perhaps have slightly more motivation to watch every episode when the competition comes to you in one small piece each week.

I found myself watching this show when I needed something to turn my mind off for a bit or was multitasking when working on my laptop. It has all of the thrills (perhaps even more) of Ninja Warrior, but seems a bit less exciting when I know I can skip ahead to a later stage of the competition with a few clicks of my Roku remote. For that reason it may have worked better as a 5 to 8 episode series rather than a 10 episode one.

I give it: 2.75 out of 5 stars*

*that’s right Netflix, I’m still using stars!