Justified: The Complete First Season

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Based on Elmore Leonard's written work, Justified revolves around the US Marshal Rayland Givens. Rayland is the lead character in the books 'Pronto', 'Riding the Rap', the short story 'Fire in the Hole' and is best described as a cowboy sheriff thrust into the modern age. Timothy Olyphant stars as Rayland in Justified, bringing the character to life with a great deal of ease; as Timothy is, of course, no stranger to playing the part of a sheriff - his performance as Seth Bullock on Deadwood is an integral part of that phenomenal series.

After a semi-controversial shooting of a button man named Tommy Bucks and the ensuring bad publicity Rayland is reassigned back to Lexington, Kentucky, a place he swore never to return to. There he's placed under the command of Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy) working alongside Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) and Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts), reconnects with his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) - who also swore never to return to Kentucky - and becomes involved with the Crowder family in various degrees after Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) shoots her husband Bowman Carter, while Ava's ex-brother-in-law Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and past friend of Rayland proves to be an exceptionally dangerous individual after blows up a church and then shoots his accomplice dead.

Justified is a mixture of old west philosophies and modern day life, Rayland has many of the traits of the old classic small town sheriff, the most obvious of which are his hat and his ability to quick draw, he also shows a great deal of old school ethos in his dealings with criminals and civilians alike. So it is more than fair to draw comparisons between Justified and the western genre as a whole - it's not just Art Mullen's poster of the fantastic movie Tombstone that evokes the feel of the old west.

Timothy Olyphant is magnetic as Rayland Givens - he's had a great deal of practice playing a forceful and strong lawman in the past and in some ways his portrayal of Rayland is a natural extension of his past experiences as Seth Bullock - I know if you've enjoyed watching him in Deadwood you'll enjoy him here. The remainder of the cast are all solid, they give believable supporting roles - Erica Tazel is wonderfully understated and Joelle Carter is just adorable as the sweet-but-tough Ava. But the strongest performance amongst the cast belongs to The Shield alumni Walton Goggins, watching his abilities as an actor go from strength to strength on The Shield was a delight and I'm pleased to say he's a great fit here in Justified as Boyd Crowder as he's given an interesting and challenging role as one of the primary antagonists.

Structure-wise Justified is a mixture of standalone episodes and a serialised storyline that is built during the pilot episode and builds momentum in the latter part of the season. The pilot episode is fantastic, but the standalone episodes vary in quality, the earlier ones are only middling to decent at best but the later ones are pretty great and when the show gives way to its serialised story in the final few episodes and everything comes to a head it's just fantastic, ending with poise and grace that is almost poetic at times.

Justified is the very definition of a grower, at the start it's a solid, thoughtful piece with some great dialogue and fun moments but as the series progresses it becomes an elegant take on the modern western with characters who evolve and grow as the series does. As such, I'm certainly looking foward to the second season.
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DVDs in Review: Chuck: The Complete Third Season

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Chuck is one of those shows that I'm glad is around, in part because it's nice to have a light-hearted, semi-serious spy show on the air and in part because Adam Baldwin should always be on our screens as some angry individual with barely contained violence inside him. John Casey isn't as great as Jayne Cobb, but he'll do in a pinch (hey, they both share the same initials!)

The third season picks up after Chuck downloaded the Intersect 2.0 and spouted that famous line from that film with the two terrible sequels "I know kung fu." I did note at the time that Zachary Levi's martial arts skills weren't really up to the job, there was plenty of camera trickery to try and conceal this, but as long as the show took the time to train him up in time for the third season I wouldn't have a problem with it.

Good news everyone! They did, and Chuck's action sequences are now tighter than ever, they're not quite at the standard of say - Kung Fu Hustle, but they're believable and high energy. They're also tight enough that when there is a deliberate punch/kick being pulled 'in character' you can identify the difference immediately - that's as close as I'm going to get to writing about that moment.

I'm also glad to report that there is plenty of character development for just about everyone in the cast, Devon (Ryan McPartlin) and Morgan (Joshua Gomez) become privy to some huge secrets while Sarah's (Yvonne Strahovski) past is expanded on a bit further and we get some resolution to the will they/won't they between her and Chuck. Brandon Routh joins as the newest member of 'Team Bartowski' and even Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) gets to do more than just look put upon and bewildered.

There are also some exceptional guest stars, including the brilliant Scott Bakula back as Stephen J. Bartowski and the superb Swoosie Kurtz has a star turn in one episode as half of the super spy couple team, Brandon Routh is also pretty good as Agent Shaw, his performance being a key element of quite a few scenes and he's admirably up to the task.

The pacing in this season is a little off, but it's no more so than any of the seasons, Chuck often seems to have a ponderous and slow start to the season before it kicks up into a decent gear. The third season is no exception, but once it is rolling the episodes become phenomenal and the final stretch of them is something to behold as everything on the show comes together in a perfect blend of action, romance, emotion and comedy.

If I had one other complaint it's that the Buy More sections of the show are quite lacking this season, as the show has evolved the Buy More has faded in importance to the point where it feels a little superflous to the plot, it should be an entertaining distraction from the spy action part, and at times - like the Fight Club incident - it is, but also quite often it feels a little like padding. In particular the character development for Morgan and the loss of Anna as a regular has made the Buy More less significant and that's left the weight of the Buy More sequences on Big Mike along with Jeff and Lester. They're two admirable creeps and a source of a lot of laughs, but they're too shallow to hold things up by themselves.

The set is pretty much a Chuck DVD by the numbers, the case is significantly easier to use than the horror that the original first season set came in (I still have problems opening that box) and the extras are relatively spartan in their quantity but enjoyable. It's not going to wow you, but they are interesting to watch.

The issues of the season are little compared to the glorious whole that is Chuck, it's not the most intelligent show on television right now, but it is one of the most fun and it's for that reason I'm giving Chuck's third season two thumbs up.
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Nikita - "Pilot"

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The French thriller film Nikita was one of those great films I still have fond memories of watching, while it's not quite as brilliant as its cousin Leon it's only a small whisker behind the latter film. Likewise I also have positive memories of La Femme Nikita, a show that managed to have sophisticated plotting and dialogue driving behind it when it could have simply fallen into the pattern of brainless action/thriller. So when I was given a chance to check out and review Nikita's pilot episode I was quite happy to do so.

"Nikita" is a show that takes a slightly new slant on the classic story of the female assassin, instead of dealing with Nikita's induction, training and development the pilot episode sets Nikita (Maggie Q) as a fully fledged, rogue agent on the run from the agency that created her (known as Division). The episode also chooses to follow a young street girl named Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca) who is 'recruited' by Division after her involvement in a robbery homicide where it is presumed by the police (and Division) that she is the shooter - in truth her partner, who escapes, is the shooter.

It's an important thing for any remake of a story, especially one that has been told three times previously, to have an interesting and fresh take. Nikita's pilot episode certainly seems to deliver on that front, we're thrown straight into the middle of a blooming situation with a fully capable and confident Nikita on the loose. I think if the show had attempted to retell the training of Nikita yet again I probably wouldn't have been as favourably disposed towards it, so this new slant on the tale - with the added 'learning character' of Alex is an excellent mix and one that I believe will work.

The pilot episode on the whole is a solid affair with occasional sparks of brilliance, it comes together very well by the end of the episode and the hook that occurs there is enough to make you want to come back and find out what's next. But the setting as a whole feels a little unformed at this point, yes it's an early show, but for something that is designed to have so much history as part of it's plot it doesn't feel like there's a weight of time behind the characters. There's a little bit too much tabula rasa involved, but this is something that time and later episodes should address.

The nature of exposition that is present is also of a concern, on occasion it's done quite well and there is signs of a deft touch behind a few of the plot points and reveals, but more often than not it's a little bit to heavy-handed and on-the-nose. As I'm looking at just the pilot episode here that's a forgivable sin, Nikita doesn't have an extended pilot to work with so they do have a lot of ground to try and cover. It's just a shame that for an episode that is almost entirely exposition and set up it's not more polished. But, as I mentioned previously this is something that can be forgiven given time to grow.

The cast in particular shows great potential, Maggie Q as Nikita is every bit as great as you'd expect her to be after seeing her various film performances; but Maggie is only shouldering half of the lead plot - the remainder laying with Lyndsy Fonseca as Alex. Lyndsy I've previously seen briefly as 'Ted's Daughter' in How I Met Your Mother and I've wanted to see her in a bigger role outside of HIMYM and The Young and The Restless. Fortunately for Nikita both female leads are superb, Maggie is confident and believable as the rogue assassin Nikita in action scenes (thanks to her background in martial arts courtesy of Jackie Chan) and she has great presence throughout any dramatic scenes. Lyndsy on the other hand is just magnetic as the street child rescued by division and I feel is one to watch in the coming episodes - I'm confident that given time she'll end up being a break out character and a firm favourite.

Speaking of favourites, ex-24 cast member Xander Berkeley is also a great casting, I really grew to appreciate his performance as George Mason on 24 and he's well cast here as Percy the head of Division. And amongst others I was pleased to see memorable Firefly guest star Melinda Clarke as Division trainer Amanda. Both of them are great and the cast as a whole seems solid.

Nikita looks like a great television show in the making, while the pilot episode is a little empty in places and occasionally the exposition is a little too full on there's a lot of potential locked up and waiting to be unleashed. As The CW have committed to airing a full 22 episode season along with great female leads, strong action and solid dialogue that means Nikita is a show worth investing time in watching.

Nikia is being broadcast in the UK on Living
Nikita's official site is located here: http://www.cwtv.com/shows/nikita
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Big Bang Theory: Early Season Four

I just recently had a chance to check out a few of the fall American shows that are beginning to grace the shores of Blighty, frankly I'm thrilled that more and more legitimate ways to watch these shows are being set up quickly via platforms like iTunes. The world certainly is, as the cliche goes, a smaller place and the electronic world is even smaller again.

The Big Bang Theory is one of the shows that's having its latest season promptly shown on E4 (airing started November 4th) and I've had a chance to see the first four episodes. What follows is a series of mini-reviews about each episode and then some thoughts on what's to like and what's improved in comparison to the earlier seasons.

Episode One: The Robotic Manipulation

"Howard, slow down, the robot hand is stuck on your what?"

Carrying events on from the Sheldon/Amy (or "Shamey") incident The Robotic Manipulation is a solid opening episode with some great moments. In particular I'm glad that the writers decided to put some work into the character of Amy, The Big Bang Theory - like Chuck Lorre's other show Two and a Half Men, suffers from interesting secondary characters being brought in and then dropped without explanation. This could still happen to Amy, but at least she's being given a chance as a character to grow and explore.

Some of the funniest moments in the episode don't entirely rest on Sheldon, while I adore Jim Parsons and his character I do think it's important that the rest of the cast get their fair share of the light and laughs. Howard gets a huge slice of them here with his "theft", use and then horrific misuse of a robot arm. It ends with him having to experience one classic trope in the form of a hospital visit and the classic line "I slipped and fell" that is resolved with another equally classic trope (without giving too much away, think I.T. Crowd) - the nurse in the scene is so great that I hope she'll make later appearances on occasion. There are also some superb Penny/Sheldon interactions, including a fruitless discussion about the triple knocking habit Sheldon has and her interest in Sheldon's relationship with Amy is equally endearing (especially when Sheldon begins to speculate and calculate Penny's romantic bedroom entanglements over her lifespan.)

Episode Two: The Cruficerous Vegtable Amplification

"For your convenience I disassemble into four pieces."

The largest part of the episode's humour rests on the shoulders of Sheldon and his "robotic manipulation" which occurs when he decides to try and expand his lifespan (with the intention of reaching the singularity and thus potential immortality) by sheltering his physical form from the outside world by interacting with it via a "virtual presence" (effectively a monitor, camera and microphone on tracks.) This is without exception the funniest episode of the entire show to date, Jim and Johnny Galdeki's interactions reach a new level of comedy throughout this - Sheldon's overjoyed expression on the monitor is sidesplitting in itself, but his obvious joy in experiencing the outside world without having to actually be in it is comedy gold.

Needless to say the episode culminates in a suitable form of hubris for Sheldon, and although the situation is resolved I do find myself hoping that virtual Sheldon makes another appearance at some point in the future.

Episode Three: The Zazzy Substitution

"You should lend him your copy of Bombay Ba-donk-ba-donks!"

This is the episode I was worried about, the one where the promise of "Shamey" is dropped in favour of returning to the status quo. Sure enough, after discovering irreconcilable differences (due to the equally massive egos of Sheldon and Amy) the pair split up and Sheldon transforms into a terrifying cat person.

I shouldn't have worried, things are resolved in a more than satisfactory fashion (and a neat closing gag), due to Sheldon's ability to consistently underestimate his mother's intelligence and shrewd understanding of all things Sheldon.

In addition, this was a fantastic episode for Rajesh - the situations where he manages to interact with Penny are always hilarious (mostly because he's drunk and offensive). In fact the entire four episodes have a lot of great moments for Rajesh - Kunal Nayyar is an understated piece of brilliance in The Big Bang Theory and it feels like he's been given stronger lines in these episodes and he's risen to the occasion.

Episode Four: The Hot Troll Deviation

"An entire subcontinent where cows work in the street and nobody has had a solid bowel movement."

Penny's willingness to embrace all four of the guys and try to assist them is something I've enjoyed watching as time progressed, in particular the subtle change in relationship between Howard and Penny - since he's stopped continuously sleazing at her and showed a little emotion the dynamic has improved a lot.

The Hot Troll Deviation is a welcome episode on this front, but it's also exceptionally welcome for another reason, the return of Melissa Rauch as Bernadette. Bernadette's appearance and involvement with Howard was a great leap forward for the show and heralded a great deal of promise. Howard needs something else to move him beyond the hormonally imbalanced semi-stalker that he is and Bernadette was a great fit. It also helps that Melissa Rauch is just adorable in every aspect and perfect for the show. I'm hoping her return results in many more appearances.

Rajesh's work relationship with Sheldon also pays off dividends when Rajesh decides to turn the screws onto Sheldon with an audacious piece of furniture. The tit-for-tat that follows is hilarious and Kunal plays them beautifully, but it's nothing compared to the superb guest starring roles George Takei and Katie Sackhoff take as icons of Howard's fantasy and manifestations of his unconscious mind. Katie is pretty good, she is limited by the role of 'cheesecake fantasy figure' in this situation (I can't wait for the episode where she actually plays herself and Howard mistakes her for another fantasy) but she plays what she has with gusto. George Takei on the other hand grabs his part with both hands and shakes all the awesome out of it everywhere. Just about everything he says is hilarious and serves as additional insight into the usually one dimensional Howard.

I've enjoyed The Big Bang Theory ever since the writer's strike managed to get the show to kick itself into a different gear, and while the show has now embraced Sheldon as the primary character I'm pleased to be able to say that everyone else is getting a fair share of the plot and the funny (though Leonard is a little sidelined at the moment due to the post-Penny fallout removing a lot of his character motivation, he's no longer chasing after Penny so he's left to just observe and snark at Sheldon. I'm sure that'll change given time.)

In particular the continuation of more supporting character incidents, especially endearing ones like Bernadette and Amy; along with Penny taking a stronger interest in Sheldon and Howard's relationships and an expansion of comedic stories for Rajesh means that the fourth season of The Big Bang Theory feels stronger and fresher than ever.

(Image originally from the most excellent "The Televixen" check her out here)
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The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes

Recently I had a chance to check out the The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes (Here by shortened to Avengers:EMH) mini-series, a 20 part series that provides the back stories for each member of the line up and the creation of the super team. The Avengers is a pretty well established team, existing as the analog for DC's Justice League (and vise-versa). As the animated series Justice League and it's continuation into Justice League:Unlimited are two of my favourite cartoons (especially the latter Unlimited series) I thought I owed it to myself to try out the mini-series so I could decide if I wanted to plunge into the complete show when it starts airing.

The Avengers is (as I'm sure most people will know) the big boy league for Marvel, containing all of the greatest heroes from the Marvel universe of comics. Avengers:EHM is set up with the classic line-up for the team - containing Thor, The Hulk, Iron-Man, Wasp, Ant-man/Giant-man, Hawkeye, Black Panther and Captain America. The mini-series provides an episode for each of these, but The Hulk shares his with Hawkeye and Ant-man shares his with Wasp and Black Panther.

The Avengers are formed when a series of simultaneous prison breaks occur in the four S.H.I.E.L.D. prisons for super heroes, this frees a whole host of top level villains (and other minor ones), including one particularly dangerous master of gravity named Graviton. SHIELD themselves play a major part in the series, especially Nick Fury, often interacting in antagonistic ways with the various members of The Avengers.

At this point comparisons to the Justice League cartoon are inevitable, the two shows share a very similar art style and they're both about the same core concept, albeit with different brands. The art style in particular is a surprise, it is animated by Marvel Animation, but at times it's almost indistinguishable from Justice League. This is actually a bonus; because Justice League's art style, while exceptionally stylised, is without a doubt fantastic. So Avengers:EMH is an exciting and beautiful show to watch, I don't completely appreciate Wasp's look, there's a little bit too much of the Wapanese anime style creeping in where she is concerned but look of The Hulk, Thor and Captain America more than make up for any shortcomings elsewhere.

One of the areas I felt that Justice League came up short in the first two seasons, was the way that the show felt like it took place in isolation from the rest of the DC mythos. Many different villains made an appearance but on the whole the show felt like it was about the Justice League and almost every other superhero in the DC universe just didn't exist. This was addressed with Justice League:Unlimited and the added weight of all those extra heroes helped make the show feel more weighty and interesting. Characters like Green Arrow, Booster Gold, The Question and Doctor Fate were superb additions to the rotating roster and in many cases more interesting than some members of the original line up (although Hawkgirl was made far less one dimensional once JL:U started, which helped).

Avengers:EMH takes on the the entire weight of the Marvel universe from the very start, and it achieves it in quite a subtle fashion. Much exposition and explanation of who the various heroes/villains are is passed over, if you happen to recognise people like Constrictor, Blizzard and Wonder-man then fantastic, but if you don't it's not spelt out who they are. This even applies to more prominent characters from the Marvel universe; Wolverine makes an appearance that's wonderfully understated and references to characters like The Punisher are genuine Easter Egg 'blink-and-you'll-miss-them' affairs. It's this acknowledgement that there is a larger world beyond just the immediate characters and their own stories that helps cement the realism.

Avengers:EMH has also decided to make an exceptionally bold move by introducing multiple, long-term and over arcing villain plots; HYDRA, The Masters of Evil, Loki and Kang are all present and each one seems to have a long game scheme in mind. I for one always applaud serialisation of TV shows, I think the mix of stand-alone episodes and long term stories is a great compromise for viewers. I prefer shows that tell long, involved stories that draw you in and hold you (like that perennial classic The Wire), but I do appreciate that shows need to be 'dippable' in order to catch and hold the attention of the attention span deprived channel swapper that has become an ever increasing issue. Standalone episodes, which can be picked up and then discarded, combined with multiple episode (or even season) arcs is a good compromise and one that might perk up the interest of the casual viewer enough to get them to want to watch the next episode.

Ultimately Avengers:EMH is a children's show, it's aimed at kids and comic book fans (big kids!) primarily, but for someone like myself, who has a moderate to passing interest in superheroes there's plenty of good characterisation, fun moments and solid dialog to keep you interested. The action in the show in particular is building shattering in it's scale, the fights really do feel quite epic (even if a little ridiculous at times) and this makes every action moment great fun to watch. When Graviton makes the erroneous error of claiming to be 'The strongest one there is', even a layman like myself can't help but perk up and think 'You've made a mistake now sir!'

As a consequence the mini-series was a complete success for myself, it's drummed up enough interest that I want to watch the upcoming episodes and see where this show goes, because if it carries on as it's started then it'll become one of my favourite cartoons alongside other greats like Justice League, Frisky Dingo, TMNT 2K3 and Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law.

A promising start for the Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
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