Tuesday, February 28, 2017


David Pearse as Lawrence.
Lawrence doesn't just play trivia with his mates at the Blue Swan. He lives for it.

His goal is for The Team With No Name to be crowned trivia night champs for 52 consecutive weeks. That lofty ambition is in sight when we first meet Lawrence and his three teammates: his friend Adam (who owns the pub), Cathy (who recently lost her job), and Tony (the pub's chef). However, things become suddenly unsettled when Lawrence "fires" Tony for missing a sports question. Never mind that Lawrence answers 90% of the questions; his expectation is for his mates to know the few answers that he doesn't.

Janet Moran as Molly.
With the team in need of a fourth player, Cathy brings her friend Molly, a single mother whose boyfriend was literally eaten by a shark. To Lawrence's surprise, Molly is his equal when it comes to trivia. Admiration soon turns into something more. Could it be that the socially awkward Lawrence has become smitten with Molly?

Part comedy, part character study, Trivia is an addicting half-hour Irish TV series that aired in 2011-2012. There are other plotlines during the stellar first season, such as Cathy's crush on Adam--which is obvious to everyone but Adam. However, most of the six episodes focus on Lawrence, an intelligent young man with low self-esteem and social challenges that almost rival Doc Martin. Lawrence lives with his parents (who constantly compare him to his "successful" brother) and works as the sole clerk at The Flick Shack (which is almost always empty). His joy at winning trivia night is short-lived; as soon as he gets home, he starts studying again for the next game.

Keith McErlean as Adam.
David Pearse brings Lawrence to life, making him compelling, sympathetic, and cringe-worthy all at the same time. His greatest accomplishment is that he makes the audience root for this shaggy-dog character. Damien Owens' strong writing helps immensely, of course, especially his brilliant idea to forge a bond between Lawrence and Molly's daughter Aisling.

The first season ends on a high note with an unexpected, but very satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, it sets too high a bar for the second season, which deviates from the weekly trivia contests and eliminates Cathy (who was winningly played by Olivia Caffrey). The series struggles to find its way for the first three episodes, but starts to improve during the latter half of its short season. The second season concludes with a cliffhanger that is never resolved--since the show was cancelled. (Writer Owens has stated it was intended to be a three-season series.)

It's a shame that Trivia lasted for just 12 episodes, but sometimes it's better to leave fans wanting more than for a show to overstay its welcome. Besides, I can just imagine Lawrence answering this question on trivia night: What was the name of the short-lived Irish comedy that took place at a pub called the Blue Swan?

Trivia can be streamed on Acorn TV and Hulu.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

One of the frightening Kabane.
Set during the Industrial Age in Japan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress presents a dark world in which a virus has transformed corpses into human-devouring creatures known as the Kabane. The unaffected humans have built fortresses that are connected by steam-powered trains. Periodically, the Kabane, who may be growing more intelligent, mount attacks. They are difficult to kill with conventional weapons, for their only vulnerable area--their glowing hearts--are protected by a layer of iron. Ikoma, a young steamsmith, invents an iron-piercing gun and uses it to kill one of the Kabane during an attack.

The young hero Ikoma.
He is still bitten, though, which means he's destined to transform into one of the creatures. Desperate to prevent the virus from spreading through his body to his brain, he nearly chokes himself to death with a metal collar around his neck. However, he does stop the virus from total infection and unknowingly becomes a Kabaneri--who is half-human and half-Kabane.

He teams with up with another teenager, a girl known only as Mumei ("nameless"), and they help Princess Ayame and other survivors escape from the fallen fortress. They travel by train to other destinations, seeking help and answers.

The mysterious Mumei.
This 12-episode anime series debuted in the U.S. in 2016 on Amazon Prime's streaming service. It's an exceptionally intelligent, well-written series in which each episode reveals new insight about the characters and their motives. We learn, for example, that Mumei became a Kabaneri in a very different way from Ikoma.

The series, written by Japanese author and screenwriter Ichirō Ōkouchi, also benefits from strong relationships among the characters. Initially, the humans distrust the Kabaneri, who must consume blood to survive. But their understanding of them evolves through a series of adventures to the point where some of the humans willingly donate blood to keep Ikoma and Mumei alive.

Fireworks during a moment of peace.
Director Tetsurō Araki paces the half-hours extremely well. The animation is not very fluid, but the color palette is breathtaking and creates a vivid atmosphere. Araki was also responsible for the popular manga-inspired 2013 anime series Attack on Titan, which shares some plot similarities with Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.

The title song for Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is performed by a duo known as Egoist. They released the song as a single and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100 chart.

A release for season two of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress has not yet been announced.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Place to Call Home

Marta Dusseldorp as Sarah.
Mislabeled by one critic as "Australia's answer to Downton Abbey," this 1950s-based drama has an altogether different vibe. Whereas Downton was an ensemble affair, A Place to Call Home is centered around one character: an independent-minded nurse named Sarah Adams (Marta Dusseldorp). That's not to say that other characters don't figure prominently. There's the wealthy Bligh family, a ruggedly handsome physician, a lovesick young Italian, and the colorful residents of Inverness (which include a gossip and a bully).

In the opening episode, Sarah meets George Bligh (Brett Climo) on an ocean liner when his mother requires medical attention. There's an instant attraction between Sarah and George and his mother Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst) doesn't like it. Elizabeth's dislike of Sarah grows when the latter discovers a secret involving George's adult son James.

Noni Hazlehurst as Elizabeth Bligh.
Sarah reveals that the purpose of her journey from England is to care for her ailing mother. Alas, her reconciliation with her mother does not go well. When Sarah refuses to renounce her Jewish faith, her mother rejects her. With nowhere to go, Sarah accepts George Bligh's job offer to work at a hospital in the rural town of Inverness.

Initially, Sarah finds it hard to fit in, but her pluck and nursing skills help her gain acceptance--with everyone except Elizabeth Bligh. Meanwhile, George's daughter Anna gets serious with a young blue-collar worker named Gino, son James tries to keep a big secret from his wife, and the sister of George's deceased wife pops up unexpectedly to cause trouble.

A Place to Call Home is an engrossing drama, with much of the credit going to Bevan Lee. He created the show and penned many of the plot-packed scripts. His greatest gift, though, is how he gradually reveals pertinent details about his characters' pasts. For example, it's evident that Sarah is a woman of strength and perseverance from the moment she's introduced. However, Lee takes several episodes to unveil the incidents from her past that made her that way. Likewise, the viewer gains insight--over time--as to why other characters, such as Elizabeth and her estranged daughter Carolyn, act the way they do.

Brett Climo as George Bligh.
The setting and time period may also appeal to American viewers (like me) who know little about Australian history. Like another Aussie TV series, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, the wounds of World War II are still fresh for many of the characters in A Place to Call Home. Physician Jack Duncan lives with memories of being tortured in a Japanese POW camp, while George's wife Elaine died in a bombing raid. Thus, there is plenty of friction when Japanese businessmen visit Inverness during a season one episode.

A strong cast is grounded by Marta Dusseldorp as Sarah Adams and Noni Hazlehurst as Elizabeth Bligh. Dusseldorp may be the better known of the two for most viewers, having starred as a barrister in The Crownies (2011) and as the title character in its spinoff Janet King (2014-2016). Hazlehurst, who reminds me mightily of Kathy Bates, hosted a popular home and garden show in Australia for many years.

Jenni Baird as the nasty Regina.
Among the rest of the cast, acting honors go to Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood and Jenni Baird. Parkes-Lockwood, who plays James Bligh's bride Olivia, transforms her character from a timid mouse to a fierce woman who stands up for her husband when his life crumbles around him. Baird joins the series midway through season one and spices up the proceedings as a bigoted villain who wants to discredit Sarah and claim George for herself.

A Place to Call Home has run for four seasons, a total of 45 episodes, since its debut in 2013. It's available on DVD in the U.S. and can be streamed on Acorn TV.