13 Reasons Why: Shedding Light On Bullying And Mental Illness Or Glorifying Suicide?

13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why is a controversial three season long Netflix original directed in part by “Tom McCarthy” stirred the pot across the nation.  From previews and trailers, what was a seemingly twisted teenage drama at an initial glance panned out to be a much darker and deeper storyline.

13 Reasons Why Justin

The three part series begins succeeding the suicide of key character, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). After experiencing the utter shock from both Hannah’s parents and classmates the story begins to unfold in a rather unexpected manner. Main character Clay Jenson (Dylan Minnette) has a connection with Hannah that is somewhat elusive as it slowly builds throughout the season. He receives a shoebox containing audio cassette tapes recorded by Hannah leading up to her death – relaying a promise to explain why she did what she did and the events leading up to the tragedy.

As the story builds and we gain insight to the devastatingly traumatic events that Hannah withstood leading up to her death, we start to form this empathetic love towards her and a desire to know her more. The show has a way of making us feel deeply connected to the characters as if we are experiencing the events alongside them. The series brings up issues that arise in teens and schools such as struggles with sexual orientation, invasion of privacy and corruption among leaders. But more explicitly revealed to us is a world of graphic rape/nudity, severe bullying, brutal murders and tragedy that all took place among a group of teens within a high school.  Aside from the extreme issues portrayed that at times can be hard to view, you still have your standard teenage drama to smooth the surface and allow you to breathe in between scenes.

Now that you have a brief overview of the series “13 Reasons Why” let’s get down to the nitty gritty and talk about the controversial chatter that flooded the internet, news and radio stations – was this series a solid, light-shedding depiction of issues amongst teens or was it an unjust glorification of suicide? If you were like most people you were swamped with a gluttonous amount of bias information before you had the chance to pop some frigg’n popcorn and make your own observations and opinions (yes, I was a victim of this unfortunate overload of opinions if you were wondering).

13 Reasons Why TylerI didn’t hear many opinions favoring the idea of the show being a positive depiction of mental health issues and teen bullying but was indeed overwhelmed by the outpouring of shell -shocked parents and teachers along with local news stations extreme opposition to the racy content. Many were completely turned off to the idea of even viewing the series after the word got out about the plot revolving around teen suicide and the graphic depictions of the act. Understandably so, the somewhat disturbing truth behind the matter can be a tough pill to swallow and even harder to view.

The idea of the show somehow glorifying taking your own life was derived from the ongoing scenes of Hannah Baker living a sort of “afterlife” by watching her friends listen to her pre-recorded tapes and re-living her traumatic memories. The show plays this out in such a way that it takes on the look of an “unconventional murder mystery” which translated to some that once you’re dead you can somehow become vindicated by your acts of self-harm by pushing blame on all who harmed you (which unfortunately is not the case). Contrary to some beliefs, once you decide to take your life, you are gone. Not temporarily, not until you’re ready to resurface, but gone forever.  Hannah Bakers’ presence lingers to those who were prompted to listen to the tapes In order to hear her truth, feel her pain and in ways seek revenge to those who wronged her.  This is where the issues of an unrealistic portrayal of suicide and the afterlife came into play, deifying an act that is permanent and harmful to many more than just the victim.

13 Reasons Why Season 2Now, let’s take a look at the opposition. I’m not sure that there is a positive way to depict the raw truth about mental illness without doing it in such a way to save face”.  Sure, the show could have told the story of a severely traumatized, bullied teen that was struggling with negative feelings of self-worth and depression after being violently raped in a more graceful way… But that would defeat the purpose of what the show embodies. Truth. Whether ugly or pretty, tasteful or raw, truth is truth no matter the form it reveals itself in.  Though, more graphic than some people prefer the direction that the producers chose to take was not intended to tread lightly on people’s feelings or not offend the highly-offended (heaven forbid). The show was created to provoke emotion and to show things that are hidden in a dark corner and not talked about. The stigma attached to mental illness hinders anyone affected. Though “13 reasons why” offers some added shock value the intention is to allow the stigma to be broken.  They decided to show graphic details that are rarely portrayed in order to reveal what these issues truly look like and how they come in all different shapes and forms. Bullying is not just being teased for your weight or your physical appearance – it can be slut-shaming a young girl because she chose not to put out. Depression doesn’t always look “sad or helpless” it can be roaming the halls amongst hundreds of others smiling on the outside but dying on the inside.

This is what the producers of “13 Reasons Why” intended to do. Create thought provoking content that made people see these issues in another light. Recently, the Creator of the show, Brian Yorkey, removed the entire suicide scene from the first season in order to “do the most good for the most people while mitigating any risk for especially vulnerable young viewers”.  He continued with stating “No one scene is more important than the life of the show, and it’s message that we must take better care of each other”. That’s a good message to take with you.

Regardless of the backlash the show received for the heavy content, if you can get past some graphic, real-life scenes I would rate this show 100 percent binge worthy approved.

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The Most WTF Moments of Season 7 of “Game of Thrones” That Nobody Saw Coming

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” continues to be one of the most entertaining shows on TV. The show’s creators have not been afraid to kill off some of our favorite characters, and the many plot twists related to the Lannisters, Starks and other family dynasties of Westeros can be head spinning. Alliances keep shifting overnight, and nobody is really safe. With that in mind, here are some of the most WTF moments of Season 7 of “Game of Thrones” that nobody saw coming.

#1: Arya poisons the Freys in an act of coldhearted revenge

Remember back in Season 1 when we thought young Arya was going to be sweet and pure? Well, something clicked on inside her when members of her family – including both Robb Stark and Catelyn Stark – were slaughtered at the infamous Red Wedding. Ever since then, she has vowed to wipe the Frey family off the face of the Westeros map. At the end of Season 6, for example, she cut the throat of Lord Walder Frey and displayed her willingness to exact coldhearted revenge.

And things get nasty real quick in Episode 1 of Season 7, when the entire Frey clan has assembled at the site of the original Red Wedding. “Lord Walder Frey” hands out wine to everyone gathered in the hall to celebrate – and, of course, within minutes, everyone is clutching at their throats, vomiting blood and keeling over. They’ve been poisoned! At this point, “Lord Walder Frey” rips off his mask – and it’s actually Arya! She has just used a death mask to impersonate her most hated rival, using that as a way to get her highly anticipated revenge against the entire Frey clan.

#2: Olenna Tyrell gets her sinister revenge on the Lannisters

We always knew Olenna Tyrell was bitter and scheming. They don’t call her the “Queen of Thorns” for nothing. But we had absolutely no idea of just how cold she was until Episode 3 of Season 7. The Lannisters have just destroyed her home at Highgarden and killed all of her men. She has nothing left, and implores Jaime Lannister to let her die quickly by ingesting poison in a glass of wine.

However, as soon as she drinks the wine, she turns to Jaime with a maniacal glint in her eye and tells him that it was she who had poisoned his son Joffrey. Not only that, she tells Jaime that he should tell Cersei this as well. If you’re going to die, it’s best to take down everyone else around you as well! In Westeros, revenge is a dish best served cold.

#3: The full-on spectacle of fire-breathing dragons attacking

Season 7 was the season that the dragons came fully into their own as stars of “Game of Thrones.” For years, we’ve seen the dragon eggs, and heard all the dragon prophecies. Now, they are coming true! Episode 4 was just epic, with a battle scene unlike any that we have ever seen on “Game of Thrones.” Daenerys swoops down on the back on a dragon, and the mighty Dothraki army marches on the Lannisters. There’s chaos, fire and destruction everywhere. And just when we think that these dragons might make Daenerys invincible, Bronn almost manages to take down one of these fabled beasts with a scorpion bolt crossbow. That’s not a good sign for the dragons – and we quickly find out why in Episodes 5 and 6.

#4: Viserion dies and is resurrected

We’ve already seen the fire and fury of the fire-breathing dragons. We’ve seen all the destruction and chaos they can cause – and then the unthinkable happens – Viserion goes down in battle, the victim of the Night King. He used an ice spear, so Viserion dies.

But the action doesn’t end there because the Night King wants Viserion to fight on the side of the White Walker army. So he resurrects Viserion, ensuring that he can spread death and destruction on the armies of the North. The scene where the dragon’s eyes open back up will chill you to your bones. The eyes are blue, and it’s clear what has happened – Viserion has been resurrected as part of the evil White Walker army! From now on, it will not be Daenerys who controls him, it will be the evil Night King.

#5: Littlefinger dies a horrible, wretched death at the hands of the Starks

For the first six seasons of he show, Littlefinger has been a lying, conniving and manipulative force. Deep down, he has always coveted the power of the Iron Throne, and he has done everything in his power to control the destiny of the throne. Some have considered Littlefinger to be the greatest player in the Game of Thrones.

So it was only natural, given the inherent dynamic of the show, that he must die a horrible, nasty death. The ones who make it happen are Arya and Sansa, who plot to kill Littlefinger. By the end, he is groveling on his knees for mercy, but they don’t care – Arya cuts his throat with a dagger. The full range of emotions on display here is just terrifying.

#6: The Wall protecting the North falls

If there was a way to end Season 7, it was this – the collapse of the Wall protecting the North from the White Walkers and the Night King. And the way it happens is just epic – you have the marching army of the undead headed to the Wall, and then out of nowhere, the Night King flies in on Viserion. The dragon is breathing blue hell-fire everywhere it goes, and the Wall falls. You know what happens next – the army of the undead now has full access to all of Westeros. It’s time to be very afraid.

As a result, Season 8 is going to be even more epic. Will Jon Snow and Daenerys be able to combine forces to hold back this mighty army? Who will finally win the Game of Thrones? Season 7 just showed us how crazy things can get on “Game of Thrones,” and it looks like Season 8 is once again going to deliver everything that we’ve loved about this show with plenty of action-packed adventure and drama.

Movie Review: “Darkest Hour”

There is a good reason why “Darkest Hour” has already started picking up major film award nominations. This new Hollywood blockbuster is one of the best films of the year, offering a new and entertaining look at one of the most dramatic moments in world history. Not to mention that it features an epic performance by Gary Oldman in the role of Winston Churchill.

“Darkest Hour” is driven forward by Gary Oldman’s riveting performance as Winston Churchill

The starting point for any review of “Darkest Hour,” of course, starts and ends with Gary Oldman. He gives the performance of the year as Winston Churchill, perfectly capturing every inflection, every mannerism and every eye movement of this legendary historical figure. He steals every scene that he’s in, and none more so than the final, climactic scene of the movie, when he gives a rousing, uplifting final speech, imploring Britain to “never surrender.”

In fact, if you’re like most movie audience members, you’ll probably be standing and cheering by the end of the film. You know how it ends and you know that Britain will rally and find the self-determination and courage to defeat the evil Nazis, but the cinematic journey is a thrilling one nonetheless. You can thank Gary Oldman for that – he is simply captivating as Winston Churchill.

“Darkest Hour” captures the riveting story of a brave nation at war

Looking back at the annals of history, it’s easy to remember only the single, glorious moments – the final victory on the battlefield, the rousing speech that unites a nation, or the individual acts of courage and heroism that occur during wartime. What “Darkest Hour” reminds us is that war is a horrible, wrenching reality filled with ups and downs. There are “dark hours” when even the bravest and most courageous find it difficult to push forward. And, of course, there is the “darkest hour” of them all – the moment when surrender actually seems possible.
As a result, “Darkest Hour” has been almost universally applauded for its depiction of the full epic sweep of war – including all the moments of self-doubt of Britain’s most noble leaders. In fact, as we learn from the film, even Winston Churchill himself was plagued by notions that he might have made the wrong choice about standing up to Nazi Germany. And yet, to the world around him, he had to project an attitude of perfect self-confidence and unflappable courage.

Many of the most gripping moments of the film, in fact, are those moments when we see the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the British government. We see the tiny moments of weakness when the thought was that Britain could not possibly carry on its wartime endeavor against Nazi Germany. Of course, that required Winston Churchill to marshal all resources possible to pull together the British nation to persevere.

“Darkest Hour” has an uplifting message that the whole family can enjoy

Part of the reason for the film’s box office success (nearly $100 million on a budget of just $30 million) has been the mass appeal of the film for everybody. This is wartime, as we’ve never seen it before. There are dramatic action scenes of the war that occur in the film, but the core focus of the film is the inner workings of the British government. We see how statecraft is made. This elevates the film from just being a “war movie” or just being a “biopic.” It is thrilling drama as well.

And in the process, we learn new details about the war and the brave British citizens who rallied against the threat of Nazi Germany. It’s a stirring, uplifting message and certainly one that all generations can enjoy. Quite simply, “Darkest Hour” is a film to be shared with young and old alike. The story of heroism is timeless, and one that fathers and mothers can share with their children.

“Darkest Hour” features a stellar supporting cast

While Gary Oldman rightfully takes top billing as the legendary historical figure of Winston Churchill, there are plenty of other cast members who help to flesh out this cinematic tale of riveting humanity. For example, there is Churchill’s wife Clementine (played by Kristen Scott Thomas), who plays a necessary rock and refuge for her husband throughout the film. And don’t forget about Churchill’s secretary (played by Lily James) or King George (played by Ben Mendelsohn). All these cast members help to round out this timeless story of Britain during World War II.

“Darkest Hour” is more relevant than ever for American movie audiences

There is something distinctly timeless about this stunning new biopic by director Joe Wright. Many of us grew up reading about Winston Churchill in our history books. We might have even listened to the voice of Winston Churchill, imploring his nation to stay the course during wartime. But we never perhaps visualized what was actually happening in Britain at the time.

As the film shows us, Britain was very internally divided at the time. At the outset, even the British king was not supportive of the new Prime Minister, thrusting Churchill’s role into doubt from the very outset. Add in all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and the constant efforts to undermine Churchill by members of his government, and a very different picture emerges than the one we are traditionally shown in the history books.

In short, war-torn Britain during the 1940’s very much mirrors the current situation in America right now, making the film more relevant than you might expect. We see that even a proud, resilient nation can suffer from infighting, and that even the bravest amongst us can feel challenged when things are not going right. That might, indeed, be the major takeaway message for U.S. movie audiences: never surrender, never give up, even in the darkest hour.

Will there be an Oscar for “Darkest Hour” in 2018?

It will be interesting to see how “Darkest Hour” fares at the Academy Awards this year, and whether or not a fascination with World War II will once again take hold in this nature. After “Dunkirk,” we now have “Darkest Hour.” It’s clear that Hollywood filmmakers have tapped into something very real and important in the national ethos. If there was ever an actor deserving of an Oscar in 2018, it is the inimitable Gary Oldman. In short, “Darkest Hour” is movie making at its very finest, and needs to be on the radars of any movie critic thinking about the best movies of 2017.

Netflix’s “Mudbound” Receives Strong Critical Acclaim


Ever since the historical drama “Mudbound” started streaming on Netflix on November 17, positive word-of-mouth buzz has been building about this film. Director Dee Rees – already an indie film darling for the 2011 movie “Pariah” – is back with another film deserving of critical acclaim. “Mudbound” is inspiring, lyrical and even majestic – and often all three at the same time.

“Mudbound” breaks down the racial tensions in 1940’s America

At its core, “Mudbound” is a story of the black-white divide in the 1940’s Mississippi Delta. The action is focused on two families – one black, one white – showing how their intertwined lives on a run-down farm are emblematic of broader changes taking place within the Deep South. Both families are consumed by the same desires – to create a better world for their children and to deal with the reality of their sons being sent off to fight in Europe during World War II – but the outcomes are different for both because of race.

What is so masterly by director Dee Rees is how every detail seems to echo the broader narrative. Take the colors and tones found in the family homes – the white McAllan family has soothing, neutral colors while the black Jackson family has darker, more ominous colors. That helps to reinforce the broader idea that the issue of race relations influenced every aspect of daily life. The very term “Mudbound,” for example, is a reference to the idea that some classes of society should be kept down in the mud raised than being raised up.

And, to be sure, “Mudbound” shows us the various permutations of bigotry, hatred and prejudice that often played out in the Deep South. Most obviously, you have Pappy McAllan (played by Jonathan Banks), the outwardly racist patriarch of the family, who is none too happy to have to deal with his black neighbors. But there are more subtle forms of racism and prejudice as well, such as the implied notion that a black family must always be somehow subservient to a white family.

The treatment of the sons sent off to war only help to highlight these themes. For example, Ronsel Jackson, the young black son of Hap and Florence Jackson, is sent off to war to serve in a segregated tank unit. In Europe, he is treated with courtesy and respect – but when he returns home, he sees that ideas and perceptions have barely budged back in his home state of Mississippi. In short, despite being a war hero, he is still a second-class citizen in his own country.

“Mudbound” gives an unflinching, modern look at issues like sexism and PTSD

As much as this film is about race relations and the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South in 1940’s America, it’s also an illuminating look at the rampant sexism of the era. It was a time when women were inferior to men. The best example here is Laura McAllan (played by Carey Mulligan), who is raising children on a beaten-down farm. She is used to living in the city, but decides to marry Henry McAllan and settle down with him in the beginning of the movie. Mid-way through, we realize what has actually happened – she has accepted a life of domestic servitude, obeying his every command, even at a time when daily farm life was already hard enough.

And another issue that the film is willing to take on is the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The returning troops from World War II also suffered from PTSD, even if the historical literature of the time didn’t reflect it. It’s an important point that director Dee Rees is eager to make. In this case, Jamie McAllan (played by Garrett Hedlund), the younger brother of Henry, is haunted by memories of serving in a B-24 unit in the war. He may be charming, handsome and warm on the outside, but there is something very dark and disturbing happening inside.


“Mudbound” has the sweep of a Western, but the detailed feel of a novel

Critics have been falling all over themselves to describe why “Mudbound” is so moving. What’s fascinating is that, while New York Magazine’s Vulture blog points out the movie has the “expansive majesty of a Western,” other critics have picked up on the detailed “novelistic” feel of the work.

Perhaps the best way to reconcile these two competing views is to realize that “Mudbound” is actually an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. And the film is actually faithful to the structure and layout of this novel, including the way it treats the main characters.

For example, the film focuses nearly equally on six main characters, three from each family. On the McAllan side, there is Laura, Henry and Jamie. And on the Jackson side, there is Hap, Florence (played marvelously by the music star Mary J. Blige) and Ronsel. We see their intersecting stories and dialogues, and it’s fascinating to see the two families’ stories, juxtaposed as they are next to each other.

The result is, as critics have also pointed out, that “Mudbound” feels like a “an old-fashioned epic drama.”  Events play out the way they would in a novel, with new details reinforcing and retracing older narratives – and all in the span of just over two hours.

It’s easy to see why critics have been raving about “Mudbound” ever since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. At that time, Netflix swooped in to purchase the film, with the idea that such a remarkable film should have the benefit of a much larger audience.

Despite all the prejudice, rancor and bitterness of 1940’s America and despite all the pain and suffering of World War II taking place in the background, there is an undercurrent of optimism throughout the film. Just as America emerged from the War more confident, more powerful and more energetic, so will these families. All the old sins of the past will be expiated, and in their place, will rise a new, stronger and more fair society. If you’re currently discouraged by the bitter divisiveness taking place in America right now – director Dee Rees gives us reason for hope.


Movie Review: “Murder on the Orient Express”


Even if you’ve already read Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel and watched the 1974 film from Sidney Lumet, you’ll want to watch Kenneth Branagh’s $55 million remake of “Murder on the Orient Express.” This new film, released on November 10, features an amazing, all-star cast as well as new and interesting takes on this classic murder mystery. Clearly, Kenneth Branagh, who both directs and plays the role of legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, is at the top of his game with “Murder on the Orient Express.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” features a world-class ensemble cast

Kenneth Branagh has assembled a veritable who’s who from Hollywood for this movie. There’s Johnny Depp, who plays the scandalous American businessman Samuel Ratchett, who is murdered while on the train. There’s Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays a very flamboyant Mrs. Hubbard. There’s Judi Dench, who plays the Princess Dragomiroff. There’s Penelope Cruz, who plays Pilar Estravados. And that’s just the beginning – there’s also Daisey Ridley (as the ingénue Mary Debenham), Josh Gad (as a whisky-drinking personal assistant to Ratchett), and Willem Dafoe (who plays a slightly off-kilter Austrian professor).

Thus, one good reason to go see this film is simply to see this all-star cast in action. Johnny Depp deserves special mention here, primarily because the drama in “Murder on the Orient Express” revolves around his mysterious murder. Clues seem to point everywhere – and nowhere – at the same time. And Depp, always up for eccentric and entertaining character roles, pulls off his Samuel Ratchett character with great dexterity. In this film, he is sporting scars and a thug-like accent, and it’s clear that his character has led a very checkered life. But is it enough to murder him? That’s for Hercule Poirot to figure out.

Of course, the inspiration for having such a talented ensemble cast comes from Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film. Lumet gathered together a similar set of Hollywood luminaries – Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery – to star in Agatha Christie’s acclaimed murder mystery. What makes this casting decision work, of course, is that nearly all the action takes place within the tight quarters of the train itself. Having all of these stars in such proximity while on screen is a real moviegoer’s delight.

We see a new kind of Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express”

For Agatha Christie fans, the character of Hercule Poirot has always been somewhat troublesome. His character is filled with so many tics and pet phrases that it’s hard to pull off this role on the big screen without making his character appear campy. And this is where Kenneth Branagh really succeeds – his character of Hercule Poirot is a new kind of Poirot that hasn’t been seen yet.

Yes, Poirot is still filled with odd little mannerisms and pet phrases, but the focus here is much more on his aversion to disorder. For Poirot, solving a mystery is all about bringing order to the world. And the film illustrates this is in the very beginning, when Poirot inadvertently steps into a pile of manure. For anyone else, the next step would be to furiously wash off all the manure and perhaps change into a new pair of trousers for good measure. But Poirot takes a different approach – he proceeds to step with his other foot right into the manure. Why? As he tells the audience, it’s all about bringing order to the world. If the left shoe is soiled, then the right shoe must be as well.

This insight into the mentality of Poirot is essential to the film – and not just an excuse to show the strange mannerisms of this beloved Belgian detective. When he is solving the murder mystery, it is this sense of “order” that dictates his thought process and how he eventually decides to deal with the case.

“Murder on the Orient Express” updates the classic murder mystery

Some critics have noted that this remake has nothing new to say that the first three adaptations of the book – including the 1974 film and the 2001 TV film – didn’t already cover. But that’s not entirely true. If anything, Branagh’s film provides a welcome update to the classic murder mystery.

Here’s just one example: in earlier versions of the story, Poirot assembles all the train passengers into a dining car on the train to tell them his final conclusion. In this film version, though, Poirot leads all the passengers out of the train and into a dark railroad tunnel.


“Murder on the Orient Express” brilliantly integrates CGI effects

This new film also is noteworthy for the way it is filmed. First and foremost, it means providing some stunning visuals. Some critics, in fact, have gone so far as to describe the cinematography of the film as “opulent.” Part of this, no doubt, is the result of shooting the film with a 65mm camera. This is a camera usually reserved for epic, sweeping films – think “Lawrence of Arabia – but here the camera is deftly used to shoot the surrounding landscape of the moving train. It all adds up to making this film feel much “bigger” than one might assume. In short, this is not just a “train movie” – it feels much more cinematic and sweeping.

“Murder on the Orient Express” will keep you guessing until the very end

The hallmark of any great murder mystery, of course, is the ability to keep the suspense going until the very end. Usually, there are plenty of plot twists and assumptions laid bare along the way. And that’s why this new film from Kenneth Branagh is so extraordinary – even when you know the ending to the book – you’re kept guessing until the very end. You keep asking yourself: “Yes, but what if Branagh decides to mix things up a bit?”

In short, this is an excellent film: five stars out of five. It boasts an incredible, all-star ensemble cast, a talented director with a real vision for bringing classic stories to life, and first-rate cinematography. This is a film that will appeal to more than just Agatha Christie fans. In fact, it is quite likely that this film will help to create a whole new generation of Agatha Christie fans!


How the National Anthem Controversy Is Reshaping the World of Sports TV


The national anthem controversy is reshaping the world of sports TV for one simple reason: it has muddied the waters between the political world and the sports world. A hot-button issue like the national anthem controversy forced people to choose sides – and it’s now clear that sports TV networks are unwilling to take a principled stand if it means taking a direct hit to their pocketbooks.

As long as cable TV networks like ESPN were literally minting money, they could afford to take sides. But now, at a time when subscribers are down and cable TV viewers are cutting the cord forever, sports TV networks are doing everything in their power to hold on to all and any viewers. In short, ESPN and other sports networks are willing to compromise on the type of content they offer and how they present it, all in the name of ratings and subscribers.

The national anthem controversy goes from sideshow to national debate topic

Starting in 2016, the national anthem controversy – sparked almost entirely by the decision by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the national anthem instead of standing – had been bubbling over. A handful of other athletes took the similar step of kneeling instead of standing during sporting events, but it was mostly a sidelight – not the main course. These acts of defiance received attention from networks like ESPN, but these networks could take a neutral stance on whether it was good or bad for professional sports.

However, when President Donald Trump weighed in on the matter, encouraging NFL owners to bench any players not standing for the national anthem during the season, the issue took on a life of its own. Suddenly, it was all over the news. It was front-page news, and people had to take sides. Sports TV networks began building up the drama of any sporting event they televised by pondering aloud, “Who’s going to kneel this week?” And people started debating what the act of kneeling really meant: Was it a sign of solidarity, a sign of protest, or a sign of disrespect?

NFL-national anthem

The Jemele Hill controversy: ESPN vs. the White House

To understand how deeply the national anthem controversy has started to reshape the world of sports TV, Exhibit A has to be the Jemele Hill controversy, involving the African-American host of “SC6,” the 6pm version of Sports Center featuring her and Michael Smith. The two are paid to have strong opinions about the world of sports – but not necessarily to have strong opinions about the world of politics and culture.

Jemele Hill pushed the limits of how far an on-air host could go by publicly tweeting that President Trump was a “white supremacist” who surrounded himself with other “white supremacists.” That, of course, did not go over well with the White House, with President Trump’s press team suggesting that such a comment was a “fireable offense” for ESPN. The strong insinuation was that ESPN should simply fire Jemele Hill.

As if that did not go far enough, Jemele Hill continued to push against the boundary of the permissible. Her next act was to go after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after he suggested that any Cowboys player not standing for the national anthem would be benched.

Jemele Hill punched right back, suggesting that outraged fans should start going after Jones’s advertisers – the way you’re going to hit hard against a member of the Top 1% of society is by going after their pocketbooks. Forced to clarify her tweets, Jemele Hill admitted that, yes, she was calling for a boycott to put pressure on Jones. In other words, she wanted consumers to boycott any company doing business with the Cowboys.

That, of course, set off the equivalent of a neutron bomb in ESPN HQ. ESPN has lucrative deals with professional sports leagues – including a $15.2 billion (billion!) deal to broadcast NFL games – and there was absolutely no way that the network could let its on-air talent get away with calling for a boycott via social media. ESPN promptly suspended her for 2 weeks. Moreover, ESPN went on record, saying that the network was “all about sports” and that it was not a “political organization.”

The national anthem controversy and the financial condition of cable TV

So why did ESPN take these extraordinary steps? The first thing you have to know is that the biggest name in sports TV has been hemorrhaging viewers for years. From 2015 to 2017, the number of ESPN subscribers has dropped 7.4%, to below the 88 million mark. In the world of cable TV, that’s a precipitous drop. Things got so bad, in fact, that the parent company of ESPN, Walt Disney, started looking for ways to cut costs at the vaunted sports network. That led to a much-publicized purge at ESPN, during which the network let go of expensive on-air and production talent, all in the name of protecting the bottom line.

So, at the very moment that the national anthem controversy was reaching its apex, ESPN and other sports TV networks were facing a dilemma: they were bleeding subscribers, and could little afford any new controversy that would result in even more losses. And they certainly didn’t want to wade into any Twitter war involving President Trump and the White House. ESPN suddenly had a very strong incentive to stop the politicization of sports.

Owners vs. players: Time for cable sports TV networks to take sides?

Even more awkwardly, the big sports networks (and especially ESPN) have always been first and foremost about the sports personalities – and not the owners. In the world that existed pre-Trump, ESPN actually defended the right of players to take the knee. Popular ESPN sports host Stephen A. Smith, for example, has largely been given carte blanche to say whatever he wanted about the Colin Kaepernick controversy. He publicly came out against the NFL owners, suggesting (or, at least, insinuating) that they were colluding to prevent Kaepernick from ever getting another job in the NFL. Every time a star QB went down with an injury, there was Stephen A. Smith, suggesting that Kaepernick might be a very nice fit.

But those days may be coming to a close. The last thing these cable sports networks want is to be portrayed as liberal and biased. Why? It has to do with the dollars involved. Is the NFL really going to sign another broadcast deal with ESPN if it constantly gets beaten up on the air, day after day? Are sports viewers really going to stick around if they sense that ESPN is pushing a non-patriotic agenda on them?

When it comes to the national anthem controversy, there are a lot of gray issues. There’s nothing black and white about it – except the players involved. What this huge controversy has done is reshape the media landscape, setting up clear “Do not trespass” signs around certain hot-button issues. At a time when people are cutting the cord, and a time when a single tweet can set off a media firestorm that reaches the White House, these are very interesting times indeed for sports TV broadcasters.


Chris Hemsworth Shines in “Thor: Ragnarok”


After a long and much-anticipated wait, “Thor: Ragnarok” is finally arriving in movie cinemas on November 3. This third installment in the “Thor” franchise is bigger and better than ever, and a key reason for that is Chris Hemsworth in the role of the mythical Thor. In this $180 million blockbuster from Marvel, Chris Hemsworth really shines.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is the funniest and most enjoyable Marvel film yet

The very best Marvel films are known for their superhero characters, the fantastic plot lines, and their wonderful CGI special effects. But one thing that they are not known for are their humor. In short, Marvel films have seemed to follow a very defined template, and a key part of that template has never been humor. That’s what makes “Thor: Ragnarok” so much fun and so enjoyable –it’s perhaps the funniest and most enjoyable Marvel film yet.

Critic after critic has praised “Thor: Ragnarok” as a “breath of fresh air in the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]” and as “the funniest Marvel film so far by no small margin.” And a big reason for that is the comic prowess of Chris Hemsworth. If you are only thinking of him as a huge, hunky Thor figure, then you’re in for a real treat. It is Hemsworth who gets some of the funniest lines of the entire movie.

For example, there is one scene on the planet Sakaar, where the imprisoned Thor must fight to the death with a rival in a gladiatorial combat arena. When he finds out that his rival will be the Hulk, his longtime friend, he bursts out laughing with a huge “Yessss!” and delivers one of the funniest lines of the whole movie, “We know each other… we’re old friends from work.”

Chris Hemsworth shines in “Thor: Ragnarok” by giving us a fresh, new Thor

This is the third “Thor” film (and the fifth film in which the character Thor has appeared), so we’ve gotten pretty used to what to expect from the character. This character has flowing blond locks, a buff body, and a magical hammer. So Chris Hemsworth has decided to shake things up for this film – he’s cut off his hair, changed his costume and, oh yes, he’s lost the magical hammer that made him so powerful.

In interviews, Chris Hemsworth has commented on the new-look Thor. In collaboration with director Taika Waititi, Hemsworth decided that Thor needed to be freshened up for movie audiences. On “Good Morning America,” for example, he told a live studio audience that he wanted to “change things up.” And, oh boy, does it work for “Thor: Ragnarok.” This is a sequel and a franchise film, but it feels fresh and new. No wonder people are talking about Chris Hemsworth and his shining role in this new Marvel film.

Chris Hemsworth shines as the leader of a team trying to save Asgard from the Goddess of Death

“Thor: Ragnarok” is more than just a blockbuster film filled with lots of great action sequences – such as the gladiatorial “Contest of Champions” on the planet Sakaar – it’s also a quest movie in which a band of heroes – Thor, Loki, the Hulk and Valkyrie – must do battle with Hela, the Goddess of Death (played by Cate Blanchett).

And it’s here, with all the interactions between this group of heroes, that Chris Hemsworth as Thor really shines. First of all, there is a friendly, brotherly-like competition with his stepbrother Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston). There is real humor in there. And there is also Thor’s friendship with the Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo), which allows Chris Hemsworth to become a lovable, hunky character who’s not-so-bright but charming. A generation ago, he’s what movie reviewers would have referred to as a “lovable lunk.”


Chris Hemsworth has some of the best action scenes in a bold and outrageous action movie

What Marvel fans want, of course, is plenty of action and glorious CGI special effects, and it’s here that “Thor: Ragnarok” really delivers. There are scenes in which Thor wields his fabulous hammer, and others in which he wields equally awe-inspiring swords. There are plenty of action scenes of him flying through the air, and doing everything in his power to save his home planet Asgard from almost certain extinction.

The one action scene, by far, that is going to delight fans is the gladiator scene involving Chris Hemsworth (as Thor) and Mark Ruffalo (as the Hulk). This is big-time, over-the-top Marvel fun, and it’s all presided over by the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum)

And there are plenty more elements of this action quest movie that need to be mentioned – like Hela the Goddess of Death and her unbelievable powers of destruction. And don’t’ forget about Valkyrie (played by Tessa Thompson) or the Hulk – all by themselves, they are scene-stealers

Chris Hemsworth is the biggest star in an all-star cast

As you might have noticed by now, Chris Hemsworth is hardly alone as a big-name Hollywood movie star in this film. In addition, you have Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Tom Hiddleston, and Jeff Goldblum. And yet, despite the presence of all these Hollywood luminaries, the one star who shines brightest is Chris Hemsworth.

Whether he is traveling to the Nine Realms in search of the Infinity Stones, trapped on the planet Sakaar, or saving his home planet Asgard from near-certain destruction, Chris Hemsworth really shines. Before this movie, it appeared that the “Thor” movie franchise might be running its’ course, but now, a completely new narrative is emerging: “Thor” is one of the most dynamic franchises in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In short, we need more Thor, and we definitely need more Chris Hemsworth (preferably with his shirt off). Marvel took a big risk by bringing on the New Zealand director Taika Waititi, until now previously known mostly for small indie films and comedies, but it looks like this gamble really paid off. He’s injected some real humor into this film franchise, and Chris Hemsworth is a big reason why: he really shines in “Thor: Ragnarok.”


TV Review: HBO’s “The Leftovers”


HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which recently completed its third and final season in June 2017, continually challenged fans to figure out the true meaning of the show, especially when each new episode seemed to challenge what we thought we already knew. Even when you didn’t actually know what was happening in the show, though, it was clear that you were watching great TV. As one TV critic suggested, HBO’s “The Leftovers” will go down as a “masterpiece” and “one of the all-time greats.”

HBO’s “The Leftovers” was a grand attempt to make sense of this world

The reason why “The Leftovers” was so challenging to watch – and why so many dedicated fans have created “explainer” YouTube videos trying to sort out all the clues and signs – is because the HBO show was really an attempt to make sense of this world that we live in. Why did “The Sudden Departure” take place – and how should humanity try to make sense of its aftermath?

In the show, viewers are seemingly given two very stark choices: either you are on the side of science and rationalism, or you are on the side of faith and mysticism. The cult-like Guilty Remnant, of course, was the belief in faith and mysticism that many adopted to help make sense of why 140 million people died with no apparent reason. It all had to be part of a grand design by some higher being, right?

If you think about it, this is the same choice that has been faced by humanity throughout civilization – do we trust our scientists and rational thought, or do we trust our prophets and organized religion? Somehow, we need to decide on how and why this world was created, and what are the rules for its existence. So you either believe in the Big Bang and the birth of the cosmos developing according to scientific principles, or you believe that the Earth was created by a higher being, with man being made in the image of that creator.

For that reason, so many fans have speculated that Kevin Garvey, Jr. – the protagonist at the center of “The Leftovers” – might be a symbol for the messiah that people are waiting for. Is he a Christ-like figure? Was he meant to die in order to prevent a further apocalypse? So many questions like that have been asked by fans and ardent viewers of this show.


HBO’s “The Leftovers” kept challenging our notions of “normalcy”

In the wake of the Sudden Departure, in which 140 million people disappeared without a trace, the goal of humanity was to restore some sort of normalcy in the world. And, yet, again and again, the show’s writers kept us searching for that elusive normalcy. Things continued to happen for inexplicable reasons.

The show reminded us that everyone wants to feel “in control” of their own life. Normalcy, then, can be defined as a condition in which we feel like we’re in control, that the Earth is not tottering away in some random direction that we can’t grasp.

And, again, “The Leftovers” resonates so strongly with viewers because, often, the world seems to be losing its sense of normalcy, and that’s when people struggle the most. During the Cold War, for example, people accepted as “normalcy” the fact that two great powers could destroy themselves overnight in a matter of minutes with nuclear weapons – and that it was perfectly normal to keep building more and more of those weapons. Our new normalcy is that an extremist radical might walk down any street in the West and try to blow us up.

In “The Leftovers,” one of the major themes seems to be that “you can lose anyone at any time.” Again and again, we are reminded of that in the show. Over the course of three seasons, it is this sense of loss that continues to stay in our minds and imaginations. We’re shown that characters can’t trust their emotions, and they can’t even trust the way their senses perceive the world around them. So they want an explanation, or something to hold on to, even if the option is not a good one. That is why people embrace false prophets – they are simply looking for an answer.

Along the way, “The Leftovers” made us question the difference between “death” and “departure.” A death gives you a sense of finality, a way to get closure. A departure, on the other hand, is not about finality because there is an expectation of a return. For every “departures” lounge, there is an “arrivals” lounge. And so, by naming the global cataclysm “The Sudden Departure,” the characters in the show told us that they were unwilling to accept the loss of their loved ones as an act of finality. There was a chance that they would return.

HBO’s “The Leftovers” was a brilliant rumination on religion and cults

It’s hard not to bring religion into the picture when analyzing “The Leftovers.” The cult-like Guilty Remnant is surely one of the most memorable creations on TV. In fact, the Guilty Remnant (or just “The GR” for true fans) was such an indelible part of the show that when HBO threatened to terminate the show, fans dressed up in all white just like the members of the cult, created signs similar to the ones created by the GR, and marched on HBO headquarters in New York City.

And there were so many great scenes that made us re-think everything we thought we knew about organized religion and cults. The two, in many ways, are the same. And we see that in “The Leftovers” – the same people today who might join a church and attend service on Sunday are also the same people who might panic and join the Guilty Remnant.

And the show did not waver in taking on concepts like purgatory, resurrection, the after life, or the feeling that someone must eventually suffer for all of our sins on this Earth. It made us realize that part of what makes us human is the fact that we must grope with “loss” in our lives.


Through it all, HBO’s “The Leftovers” gave us some brilliant flashbacks, many of the completely without dialogue – like the flashback in Season 3 of the impending apocalypse in the year 1844. The show gave us some completely unexplainable signs, symbols and clues – and asked us to make sense of it all. Were the flashing red traffic signals some kind of sign sent from above – or just a random, unexplained occurrence?

And here’s the thing – even after watching all three seasons, and then re-watching them again, it might just be the case that your analysis of what it all means will change again. That’s the mark of a great show, and one that has elements of true profundity. It’s clear that HBO’s “The Leftovers” was one of the best TV shows ever.


Categories TV

Why Viewers Love “The Good Place”


With every new TV season, there seems to be one new show that’s so fresh, so original and so thought-provoking that it immediately wins over audiences. In 2016, that show was NBC’s “The Good Place,” a fantasy-comedy series involving four characters trying to figure things out in a version of the afterlife. And now in 2017, Season 2 of “The Good Place” is shaping up to be just as good – if not better – than Season 1. Here’s why viewers love “The Good Place.”

“The Good Place” is a startlingly inventive TV show

The fundamental premise of “The Good Place” is that four human characters are stuck in a form of the afterlife that is modeled on a pseudo-utopia (and which looks just like suburban California). What these characters find out at the end of Season 1 is that they have actually been tricked into thinking that they are in “The Good Place,” when they are actually in “The Bad Place.” To put that into religious terms, they thought they were in heaven, but wake up to find out that they’re in hell.

“The Bad Place,” though, doesn’t look at all like what you’d expect. There is no fire, no brimstone, and no tormented souls, as you might expect after spending a Sunday in church. Instead, there’s a sarcastic, self-serving demon named Michael (played by Ted Danson) who has created “The Good Place” as an even more fiendish version of “The Bad Place.” He keeps working on versions of it, to get it just right.

You see, what he has figured out is that what is hellish about our existence on earth is “other people.” And he has figured out exactly the right combination of “souls” who will make each other’s lives miserable. Thus, he has figured out that the key to making the life of Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) miserable is by pairing her with her eternal soulmate, a Nigerian ethics professor named Chidi (played by William Jackson Harper) who loves to talk philosophy and toss around the names of great thinkers. In contrast, Eleanor describes herself as “an Arizona dirt bag.”

“The Good Place” features a wonderfully talented cast led by Kristen Bell

The star of the show, of course, is Kristen Bell. She’s a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed gal who winds up in “The Good Place” by mistake. It turns out that someone else with the same name was supposed to get her place, but she was selected instead. In Season 1, she then makes a vow to stay forever in this (apparent) utopia.

But it is not just Kristen Bell who is wonderful on “The Good Place.” Her eternal soulmate, Chidi Anagonye (played by William Jackson Harper), is also amazing. What is so fascinating about the show are all the levels involved – in many episodes, the two appear to be fighting and feuding. But then in another, they appear to hook up and have a relationship together. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening, because the demon Michael (played by Ted Danson) keeps re-booting “The Good Place” to get things just right.

If there’s mega-star power in “The Good Place,” it’s Ted Danson, who plays the bowtie-wearing demon. In Season 1, he was amazing. But in Season 2, he’s really taking things to a whole new level. Now that the audience is in on the big plot twist from Season 1, he’s able to take on a new, more deceitful role. He’s basically an evil scam artist masquerading as a basically well-intentioned good guy. Which is why the four humans in his sector of the afterlife fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

“The Good Place” is intellectually challenging and thought-provoking

Can a 30-minute primetime sitcom really be thought-provoking? NBC’s “The Good Place” proves that it is possible. Just the whole premise of the show will stretch your mind. This premise is actually inspired by a famous French play, “No Exit,” by Jean-Paul Sartre. In that play, three characters find themselves trapped together in a room. They get on each other’s nerves, and by the end of the play, the verdict is clear: “Hell is other people.” You’ll recognize this basic concept immediately in “The Good Place.”

And there’s one more thing – the creator of this show, Michael Schur, is also the creative genius behind “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” He has said in an interview that he was always inspired by the show “Lost,” and was looking to create a similar type of show, with plenty of cliffhangers, plot twists and meta-level storytelling (stories inside stories inside stories).


Thus, Season 1 basically followed the template created by “Lost” – it featured cliffhangers in every episode, it included a major plot twist in the finale of Season 1 (what has been called “one of TV’s best finale twists ever”), and it includes plenty of clever scriptwriting that some critics have interpreted as being a form of meta-storytelling. In short, the show’s creators are having a second, private conversation with the show’s fans, at the same time as a casual TV watcher has no idea of what’s really going on.

Here’s just one example: at the beginning of Season 2, the demon Michael explains the rules of the road to his group of helpers: “We’re keeping everything from version one (of “The Good Place”) that made them miserable, but adding a whole bunch more that’s new.” You can read this on two levels – as a way of explaining what’s happening on the show, or as a form of coded communication with fans (“we’re going to make Season 2 even better, just wait”).

“The Good Place” never crosses the line with religion

As the show’s creators have pointed out repeatedly, this show is about ethical behavior, not religious dogma or religious salvation. The show is non-denominational, and does not explicitly take on religion. And that’s been a key to the show’s success: it’s more about ethics and doing the right thing, and less about trying to be preachy.

Thus, “The Good Place” has quickly become one of the most original and inventive shows on TV. It features an engaging cast, it has plenty of twists and cliffhangers, and it’s fun to watch on several different levels. Those are all the reasons why viewers love “The Good Place.”