I got Netflix! Squid Game, Ozark and The Queen’s Gambit reviewed

You would think the author of a well-read television blog would have Netflix. You’d be wrong. My relationship with it (and all the streamers except Paramount+) has been full of one-month stands. Get caught up, get my clothes, get out by breakfast. That’s how we’ve been. But over the holidays I mooched my brother’s subscription and ended up getting my own so I could finish the list of shows I started.

Here then are my thoughts on three of Netflix’s most popular shows in recent years: Squid Game, Ozark and The Queen’s Gambit.

Squid Game

Squid Game is, without a doubt, the most difficult show I’ve ever watched. Not because it was hard to understand or bad (it was neither) but because I had to work so hard to find pleasure in it. 

This show is built around death. Rampant, unrepentant, graphic death. No one is coming to save the 456 players who bet their lives on a chance claim the $38 million prize. Misery is everywhere. Death awaits for all but one. 


There are no heroes in Squid Game. But there are sympathetic characters. It was seriously failing my who are these people and why should I care test for the first few episodes until I understood the characters were experiencing the same misery and dread I was as a viewer. Marvelous! I never felt stuck on an island during Lost or fighting for the crown on Game of Thrones. Knowing I would be hit with scene after scene of violent death gave me something in the characters I sympathize with. Not just that there would be more death, though. That there would be death for every character except the one who won the final game.

Squid Game’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, said expanding the story from a movie to a TV show let him “focus on the relationships between people [and] the stories that each of the people had.” That’s what made the show work. You watch players form relationships knowing they might have to look each other in the eye and kill each other in the next game. Building bonds with other humans is supposed to be joyful and exciting. Being in the Squid Game wouldn’t allow participants or viewers to experience any such thing. Even winning does not bring relief. How could you be elated to have all the money you could ever dream of if you got it this way?

Squid Game wants you to think the financiers who watch the players (quite ridiculously, I might add. Easily the low point of the series.) are the show’s villains. They certainly are awful people. But I nominate a different character: Oh Il-nam. This bastard played the game knowing they wouldn’t let him die. For that, I hate him. 

One last note: I recommend watching with the original Korean dialogue and English subtitles. That way you get the emotion the actors intend in their performance.  


Marty Byrde is the most pragmatic of bastards. Nothing phases this guy because he’s never thinking about what just happened, as if The Langoliers wipe the past from his memory. In Ozark’s first episode, he watches a Mexican drug lord shoot a woman through a bathroom door simply for knowing her boyfriend—Marty’s business partner—launders drug money. Does Marty Byrde dwell on this? No. He takes her murder, and the subsequent execution of his partner’s father and his partner, in stride. Instead of becoming the fourth victim of the night he convinces the drug lord to let him move to the Ozarks and continue to launder narcotics money by investing in unsuspecting businesses. 

Marty Byrde concocts this plan on his knees with a gun to his head. 

But it’s not a desperate plea. Jason Bateman is too good at this role to make you believe anything other than Marty Byrde had this plan in his back pocket for years to use in this exact situation. In reality he never heard of the Ozarks until his partner showed him a travel brochure earlier that afternoon.

And Marty is, by any measure, a bastard. He has no remaining affection for his wife, Wendy, after finding out she is sleeping with another man. But in an interesting and appreciated twist, Wendy knows Marty’s dirty deeds. In fact, she signed off on his initial decision to start laundering money for the cartel. 

I loved this, and it made me start to see Ozark in the style of House of Cards. Marty and Wendy do not have a romantic marriage. Maybe they once did, but his affair and the strains of money laundering squelched it. They are Frank and Claire Underwood now. It’s easy to envision Marty and Wendy as what Frank and Claire would have become if they children to worry about.

They also solve problems the same way the Underwoods did. Which is to say they don’t solve them at all. Instead of fixing whatever is wrong they patch over it with a new problem that itself will get “solved” with yet another problem. Marty launders money and Wendy manipulates politics but their real skill is managing this Ponzi scheme of problems they build around them. That was one of my favourite things about House of Cards and it’s my favourite thing about Ozark. The train goes off the track and keeps tumbling down the hill, picking up speed until it hits the ground with the force of a shot to the head. *wink wink*

Wendy is no slouch in the bastard department either. She spends zero time wallowing in having her life uprooted and gets right to work keeping her family alive. She turns on both of her children and her brother at different points in the story. Laura Linney deserves the awards. 

I suppose of the Underwoods had children they would be a lot like Charlotte and Jonah Byrde. Angry. Rebellious. Whip smart. Resigned to the destiny their parents’ poor choices fated on them. 

The rest of the show is just sharp. Hollywood is often guilty of reducing “rural” characters to being dumb as rocks so the “smarter” characters can coach them up or save them. Not Ozark. It gives its rednecks credit for the lives they’ve led and makes them the ability to control their own storylines. Introducing Jacob Snell first before revealing his wife, Darlene, as the true queen of their local drug empire is a fantastic misdirection. There is no such sleight of hand with introducing Ruth Langmore. You know from her first scene to be on guard anytime she cocks her shotgun at you. They’re women, they’re strong and along with Wendy Byrde they push the story forward just as often as the male characters. Good for Ozark. 

I’ve heard people compare Ozark to Breaking Bad. I sort of see it. Marty gives in to the temptation to use his brilliance at a very pedestrian skill for a life of crime; Wendy decides to go bad when it means keeping her family safe. But I think the comparison misunderstands Breaking Bad more than it understands Ozark.

To me, Breaking Bad was the story of what a proud father would do to provide for his family if fear was not an option, and it explored that question through Walt’s relationship with Jesse. Every aspect of its story was downstream from those two characters coming together. I don’t feel the same foundation with Ozark. Heisenberg was absolutely fearless, but the Byrdes live under the constant specter of what happens to their family if they fail. (I think this article makes a solid point about Wendy being more like Walt than Marty, but she’s not the protagonist of her own story until life forces her to be.) And while it’s true the events of Ozark are downstream from Marty and Wendy’s joint decision for him to begin working with the cartel, they do it initially out of simple greed. It’s a conscious decision less forced on them than Walt’s decision to go into business with Jesse Pinkman after realizing what losing him would mean for his family. To the extent anyone is really forced to become a drug kingpin, I suppose.

The Queen’s Gambit

If you fictionalized the real-life story of Tiger Woods I think it would come out looking like The Queen’s Gambit.

That’s what I kept thinking watching Elizabeth Harmon’s addiction lay in wait to derail her meteoric chess career. From the first moment 8-year-old Beth sat down at the chess board with basement-dwelling janitor Mr. Shaibel, she was destined to be the greatest in the world. She beat everyone older than her, better than her and especially everyone who underestimated her. She devoured the art and science of the game to become invincible. 

But like Tiger, Beth teetered on the edge of ruin for too long to avoid falling. The same obsessive personality that made her a chess prodigy made her an addict. It nearly cost her everything. 

All of that comes together because Anna Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast. It’s tremendous to see an actor and a role unite this well. My interest in the show waned as Beth’s arc became clear, so this is what kept me on the couch past the halfway point. She deservedly won a shelf full of awards. 

One last note: I would watch the spin-off with Beth’s friend Jolene. 

Winter 2021 quick hits: Big Bang Theory, The Undoing, Dexter

Big Bang Theory

I’ve struggled with comedy shows for the longest time. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. “I’m funny,” I would say. “Why would I want to watch other people be funny?” Except my viewing habits kept proving this wrong. I loved everything about Silicon Valley, devoured The Good Place with total enjoyment and stuck with Veep all the way to that weird ending.

So I tried more. I had a brief fling with Man With a Plan, but later realized the bond I felt from attending a taping was no bond at all. 30 Rock and I carried on a summer fling that grew stale when we tried to go steady. How I Met Your Mother gave me vibes before I ghosted it, though we may find our way back to each other in the someday. Insecure’s “broken pussy” had me rolling on the floor until that, too, grew stale. 

Now I have HBO Max (for Succession) and gave Big Bang Theory a shot. Like Insecure, the first episode was fantastic and earned legitimate laughs. Sheldon, the only character I really knew about going into it, was hilarious and wonderfully acted. It was evident why this became the biggest network sitcom since Friends. 

Except after watching the first 12 episodes I couldn’t stand it…because of Sheldon. His humor didn’t so much wear out as it transitioned to outright bullying his friends on every decision they make. He’s so loathsome I flat out hate him as a person and feel sorry for his friends for being his friends. Most of the time the show indulges in how awful he is, and there’s little enjoyment when it does.

That seemed to abate in season two, as if the writers realized this guy was literally the worst and had to soften him. I also enjoy how they haven’t made Penny into a stereotypical TV doofus. For her character to work—and in a way for this early version of the show to work—Penny has to be more intelligent than the men across the hall. 

Succession is over now, so I cancelled HBO. But I’ll pickup BBT again when I have it back. 

The Undoing

Have you ever felt like a TV series is cheating? That’s how I felt watching HBO’s The Undoing. Murder mysteries are supposed to come with rules about how key facts are revealed so viewers know we are watching a legitimate piece of storytelling. Good shows play into a shared set of rules, great shows establish their own. Bad shows run on showrunner’s whim. 

The Undoing is on showrunner’s whim. There was no mystery about who dunnit after the end of the first episode, but subsequent “reveals” seemed more like outright lies meant to make viewers think there was any actual mystery here. Nicole Kidman’s talents are mostly wasted. Hugh Grant is actually decent as a bad guy. Lily Rabe dominates every scene she’s in (like always). If you like marquee actors you’ll like The Undoing. But it’ll also piss you off. 


I binged the first two seasons of Dexter a long time ago when that was all they had on Netflix. With it being on Amazon Prime now I figured I’d try reconciling. We really hit it off. Season two ended the Bay Harbor Butcher storyline, so I didn’t have to remember much besides Dexter is a serial killer and his sister hasn’t found out yet. That’s the show.

Season three’s self-contained storyline made good use of Jimmy Smits as Dexter’s first partner (in serial killing, not forensic analysis). I think that was a smart move at this point in the series because it opened a new avenue to explore its main character and sidestep the Criminal Minds “how many different ways are there to kill a guy?” Problem. It’s easy to imagine a version of Dexter that ran out of steam trying to re-run the same formula that succeeded in its first two seasons. Getting married and having a baby will bring the same fresh energy to his character in season four. I’ll get to that eventually. 

I hope Kendall Roy is dead

No offense to him personally, but I hope Kendall Roy stays underwater long enough to drown. Why would I say such a mean thing?

Because Succession’s third season has been an almost total bore. It took four episodes to get to the vote that determined who would control Waystar Royco, and only when episode five was solely devoted to the shareholder meeting did we get an episode that lived up to this show’s high standard. So did the next week when the characters decamped to a political gathering where Logan anointed the next Republican presidential candidate. Okay, Succession is back!

Wrong. The next episode brought the FTC investigation to a whimpering end. Then we got Kendall’s birthday party, which was a total bore. This week’s episode took the whole family to Tuscany for their mom’s wedding and ended with Kendall passing out in a pool. Is he really going to drown or is this just a big tease?

I hope he’s going to drown. 

The only redeeming quality to this season is if the purpose to everything I found boring is to drive Kendall so deep into depression that he commits suicide. Every issue I have with the show would be solved if that’s what happens:

Kendall was exposed as an empty suit. Kendall triggered the Roy family nuclear option at the end of season two, and it turned out to be all he had. When he tried to play Mr. Big Balls Businessman all he could do is spew bro cliches to a team of yes-men who didn’t fear or respect him the way people do his father. He couldn’t get the FTC to bite on an investigation and couldn’t recruit his siblings his side against Logan. He couldn’t throw an epic birthday bash and couldn’t even get his brother, Connor, to take off his coat. He couldn’t even get through a conversation with his father about disinheriting himself without Logan utterly destroying him. That’s boring as a character arc unless its purpose is to drive him to such a drastic outcome.

Logan never loses. It’s okay for Victor Newman to always come out ahead because The Young & The Restless is a daytime drama. Succession is primetime on a premium channel and should make its characters endure failure. Tom puts this into focus at the end of Kendall’s failed attempt to get him to jump ship when he tells Kendall he’s never once seen Logan Roy get fucked. It’s time for Logan to get fucked, and the only people who can do that are Kendall, Roman or Shiv. The later two are still too busy jockeying for their father’s affirmation. It has to be Kendall.

The Roys never face real consequences. The Roys are that ultra-rich family who rolls in pig shit and comes out smelling like a rose. Protect a child molester? Cover up sexual assaults on cruises? Cover up your drug-addicted son killing a waiter? Doesn’t matter. The Roys lose nothing. I want to see them deal with the fact that none of them recognized their brother’s descent into suicidal depression because they were so focused on “the firm”. I want to see them suffer the consequence of their actions for once in their miserably wealthy lives. 

What would Succession look like without Kendall? I don’t know. I’ve always thought the show was told from his perspective, so it would have to be fundamentally different. It would certainly suffer from losing Jeremy Strong’s outstanding acting. 

But this season has proven we need a new way to explore these characters. We’ve learned all we can from watching them fight for control of the company. Let’s see how they react to the irreversible outcome of Kendall’s death. 

La Brea & YOBO: You Only Broadcast Once

When a new majority takes over in congress its members fret about how hard to go after their agenda. They want to deliver what they promised their most ardent supporters but don’t want to go so far that they alienate the swing voters who decide elections. My response to this fear is “YOGO: You only govern once.” No one’s guaranteed a second term, so govern the way you want to govern and don’t hold back thinking you’ll get this chance again.

The same philosophy can apply to telling your story television. YOBO: You only broadcast once. Don’t leave a story in your pocket for a second or third season that may never air. La Brea is definitely following that mindset. It’s inaugural 10-episode run on NBC is plowing through at least two seasons worth of reveals. Here are two that stand out:

1. Finding the survivors’ camp site in present-day Los Angeles. This is such a huge thing and possibly my favourite development in the first season. Discovering where the survivors lived allowed potential rescuers to know the people who fell down the sinkhole were still alive, but more intriguingly allowed the survivors to communicate back to the present day. How cool is that? 

This reveal could have been held for the end of the season, and maybe it would have carried more of a punch if they did so. It’s certainly what Lost would have done. (Imagine if the Flight 815 survivors discovered the hatch in episode four!) La Brea’s faster pace meant it had to be established early so Gavin could find the note from Eve and save them from crashing the rescue plane. But still, investing more time building characters early on could have pushed this back to the end of season one.

A slower show could have also used this to send more messages back to the present. I would have loved to see Eve write more letters to Izzy and Gavin, or a B-story with every character writing a letter to their present-day loved ones (who, by the way, we really haven’t seen for anyone else). La Brea doesn’t seem interested in tugging that hard on our heart strings.

2. Gavin is Isiah. This does way more than reveal Gavin’s visions are actually memories. It establishes someone, or at least Gavin, can be alive in both timelines—at different ages. That’s a huge shift in the foundation of the story because now we aren’t “just” dealing with a mystery time portal. We’re in a world where there are two Gavins. Actually, we might not be in “a” world at all and instead be dealing with a multiverse. (Fringe!)

Or they could just be playing with what time travel means in La Brea’s universe. I hope not, and they should have established that better by now with a “Whatever Happened, Happened” kind of episode. The closest they’ve come is showing that preventing the rescue plane from trying to take off in 10k BC magically removed its wreckage from the present-day dig site. Maybe that was it the explainer episode, actually. It didn’t really land that way for me (pun…intended) though they have two more episodes in season one to sort it out.

There have been other reveals I consider softer, or more character based: Ty’s terminal illness, Veronica being Lily’s kidnapper instead of her sister, Marybeth saving Lucas from his dad’s plan to rat him out to the feds, and Eve and Levi having a romantic past. I probably sound like a hypocrite for discounting character reveals after writing so much about the show glossing over character development. I’m okay with that. The emotional resonance of these reveals was lighter than it could have been.

La Brea’s speed is probably dictated by only having 10 episodes. If it had 23 the way Lost did maybe it would be letting things unfold more slowly. Given the business reality of broadcast television now, I’d be surprised if we ever see a primetime serial get 23 episodes in its first season ever gain. So be it.

With all this in mind, it’s time for an accountability session.

My La Brea pilot review laid out four reasons why the show would fail. But NBC announced a second season, so clearly the show isn’t failing. Let’s see how my original thoughts have held up and explore what the show has done to improve.

NBC’s new fall drama La Brea shares [the possibility to be “the next Lost” label] as well. Which is why after watching the pilot twice I am so frustrated. Like so many other failed network dramas, La Brea runs right past its characters and into the arms of what it thinks is a tremendous mystery. That gets the formula backwards. Any show looking to be TNL has to embrace its characters and let them walk us to the mystery.

I still think this is mainly true but like I said earlier, with 10 episodes there’s really no time to settle in and tell stories.

This shows up most in the episode ending in Gavin trying to fly a drone into the sinkhole with two fighter jets ready to shoot him down. Were you scared for Gavin? Even though we know the show isn’t killing him we should at least feel tension. I didn’t. To do so I would have to either love him so much I can’t bear the thought of him dying or hate him so much I hope he does.

Other characters are getting better treatment. Ty’s terminal illness makes him sympathetic, Rohan’s comic relief is timely and informative, and Marybeth’s strained maternal relationship with Lucas all make for characters we want to latch onto. So that’s good. But Eve, Gavin, Izzy and Josh aren’t interesting at all. It’s like the show settled on one main family but only wanted to give depth to the supporting characters. Weird.

An almost laughable reveal about the hole’s location. Eve is standing by the ambulance and happens to notice the outline of the Hollywood hills painted on its back door exactly matches the hills she’s staring at. Putting two and two together she tells Ty and Sam she thinks they’re still in Los Angeles. To my previous point, the show could have had the characters spend their first day in the hole facing a drama/adventure/obstacle that led to them realizing where they are in a heart-stopping way. That would have been compelling.

That was still bad, but it’s doing better at its reveals.The woman on her death bed telling Eve about Gavin/Isiah is a good example. It wasn’t jaw-dropping but it was at least not so ridiculous.

The hole wasn’t a character. For a show set in an alternate world to be compelling, the world itself has to be its own character. It has to have the same presence the lead characters have. It has to be put under a microscope and revealed the same way a character is. No sign we’re going to get that here.

This is getting a little better. The hole’s main role in the story should be putting the characters’ lives in danger or placing a challenge between them and what they want. Both will give them something to react to over the course of an episode. The first several episodes overlooked this, but since then the mysterious hole closed and a snowstorm blew through (a weak snow storm anyway). I hope to see more of that during the rest of this season.

The least interesting ending you can imagine. A saber-toothed tiger (or something like it) emerges from the jungle. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

This is getting better in tandem with the improved reveals. I’m curious how they’ll end the season finale. I’m sure it will have a cliffy.

So there it is. La Brea has given us a lot of twists and turns through its first eight episodes, and it’s holding up better than I thought it would. I’m interested to see how they bring season one home.

Quick thoughts on HBO’s Hacks

I struggle with shows like Hacks where what seems like the main thing is really just the car for the main thing to ride in. Hacks’ main thing is the relationship between a Las Vegas comedy legend, Deborah Vance, who’s resisting the end of her career and a young comedy writer trying to save hers after being canceled over a Twitter post. Their relationship plays out in the course of the writer, Ava, being thrust into the role of Deborah’s first writing partner. Ava’s job is the car in my tortured analogy.

It’s not that I don’t like shows setup this way. I actually do. But it takes a while for me to get there, and that’s the bumpy part. After the characters come together in Las Vegas (Ava begins in Los Angeles) and Deborah accedes to having a writer for the first time in her 40-year career, I’m expecting Hacks to be an office comedy with plots driven by what they need to do during the course of their work. Deborah’s got a show tonight? Something weird happens to Ava and they work it into the act.

Hacks could probably do good at being that show. The writing is sharp and there’s enough chemistry between the two actors to make it enjoyable. Instead it moves the work into the background so the relationship can take center stage. Because of that, it shines.

One episode has the pair going to a spa retreat for Deborah to get a touchup on her eyelids, only for Ava to end up in the hospital with an exploded cyst. By the time the episode ends they are no closer to refreshing Deborah’s act or saving the weekend gigs keeping her career alive, but their bond is stronger through the shared experience. I complain a lot about shows that sacrifice character for plot—La Brea cough cough—so I was delighted to see Hacks be all about its two lead characters.

If I had any bone to pick it would be that Ava doesn’t seem to be a very good comedy writer. She is funny. Her and Deborah have thoroughly enjoyable fights with each insult eclipsing the last. But when Ava has to write for Deborah she can’t come up with anything, and we don’t see much of Deborah’s act at all so we don’t get a real sense for if Ava is actually helping her. I’m fine with that not being in the show’s background but I would like to see that Ava’s hope for a career in comedy is at least somewhat justified. The joke that got her canceled wasn’t even that funny. In fact the first episode closes with her and Deborah spitballing on what offensive jokes would have been better.

That said, Hacks is an easy watch and I recommend it as a show that can fill your pre-bedtime streaming slot.