Underrated TV

Ever heard this one before? A Sarah, an Alison, and a Helena walk into a bar...                                 

WHAT: Orphan Black

Orphan Black has started to carve a nice little place for itself in TV lore. As more and more people catch up on the first season, this Little Engine That Could is becoming quite the beloved show. The first season recently wrapped up and has been one of the most refreshing series on TV. Police procedural? No. The next reality TV show? No. Another show about vampires? No. Clones baby! Clones, clones, and more clones! The premise of Orphan Black has been a nice diversion from the TV landscape of today which seems to shamelessly regurgitate the same themes over and over again. Just think about it. We endure a TV landscape where there are four different vampire shows (not counting an awesome appearance by Vlad III Dracula on Da Vinci's Demons), about 1,000 reality shows (a number which could easily be halved when you realize there are three Project Runways and about six different chef shows, although MasterChef Junior was fun and enough of a twist to warrant a different show), and like 500 CSI and Law & Order iterations. Orphan Black is not only a show with an entertaining premise, it also raises fascinating questions about cloning including the idea of humans as intellectual property.

Orphan Black has been gripping since the very beginning. Literally from the very beginning. From the moment Sarah was at that train station. When Sarah saw the other woman (who looked exactly like her) jump to her death in front of the oncoming train, I was hooked. Why did that woman look just like her? Who was she? What connection do they have? I needed to find out these answers. Surprisingly enough, we found out all of these answers by the end of the first season. This was a nice touch since most shows would have stringed the audience along and stretched things out over a few seasons. Nope, not Orphan Black. The writers are thinking long term and big picture when it comes to the show. They are not afraid to give the audience monumental moments since they are in microcosm to the overall grand narrative. Orphan Black is also the kind of show that has the specter of "Is there more to the story than we know?" looming over it. Perhaps everything is not as it seems. The show constantly keeps the viewer on their toes via an exercise of thrilling twists and turns. The first major twist was that the dead woman (Beth) and Sarah were both clones. The beauty of the show is that once one question is answered, several more questions pop up like some sort of regenerating Hydra head. Not only are we introduced to Beth, soon Sarah encounters Helena, Alison, and Cosima. They just happen to have the exact same face as Sarah but they could not be more different. These clones serve as the impetus of Sarah's journey. The question of how they are related to Sarah only scratches the surface of an incredibly deep and compelling story. 

When you hear people talk about Orphan Black they go on and on about how brilliant Tatiana Maslany's performance is. It is impossible not  to go on and on about how brilliant Tatiana Maslany's performance is. One actor playing multiple roles isn't exactly a novel idea on TV nowadays (Nina Dobrev as Elena Gilbert and Katherine Pierce on The Vampire Diaries comes to mind). Yes, it has been done before, but never on such a grand scale like this with such distinct characters. I really got sucked into Maslany's performances. Each character is so different. Physically they all look different and also have different accents, hairstyles, etc. You can tell Maslany is so invested in becoming these characters and portraying them as separate entities, something she does masterfully. She has studied their innermost motivations and is keenly aware of how they differ from one another. You really get drawn into the performances and literally forget that Maslany is playing all of the clones. They really did become entirely different characters which was quite an amazing feat. Who can forget Helena's impersonation of Sarah's impersonation of Beth? The main clones, Sarah, Helena, Cosima, and Alison have been a delight to get to know. Sarah, The Clash T-shirt wearing punk rebel. Helena, the creepy blonde zealot complete with her vampire complexion and apocalyptic ramblings. Cosima, the bespectacled science nerd complete with dreadlocks (her character was based on the actual science consultant of the show named Cosima). Last but not least, Alison, the wired suburban soccer mom. Talk about getting into character, Tatiana Maslany makes separate playlists to get into the mindset each character. The show really is a veritable showcase for the talents of Maslany, but that's not to say she doesn't get a little help from her friends.

Jordan Gavaris' Billy Idol styled hustler Felix was a real treat. Felix was always ready with a quick retort like when he is discussing nature versus nurture with Cosima. "Okay, let's talk nature. Out of nine so far, one's a psycho who killed four others, one committed suicide, one is a bloody soccer-mum, and then there's you. My crazy sister is sane by comparison." He definitely gets the best lines on the show like Pam on True Blood or Tobias on Arrested Development. I really liked how, despite his reluctance, he always did everything he could to help his foster sister. This resulted in some very funny situations including when he played bartender at Alison's way out of control house party. Speaking of the 1980s and Billy Idol, Max Headroom actor Matt Frewer played Dr. Aldous Leekie whose intentions always seemed shrouded in mystery. Michael Mando who played Vic was also the voice of Vaas Montenegro in Far Cry 3. Vic was the wild card of the bunch and constantly turned everything on its ear. He always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just when he started to turn things around (as evidenced by his presence at some sort of rehab meeting), he was interrupted by some very quizzical cops. He was the master of poor timing.

Mrs. S is played by Maria Doyle Kennedy. I first saw her on The Tudors as Catherine of Aragon. In a court that indulged Henry VIII's every whim (or plotted behind his back), Maria Doyle Kennedy's Catherine was a treat as one of the few people brave enough to stand up to him. As the foster mother of Sarah and Felix, she was always there to give them advice and watch over Kira when Sarah was off galavanting. Maria Doyle Kennedy is a joy as Mrs. S. In a show where it seems everybody is suspicious or has their own agenda it was nice to have a seemingly uncompromised character. This made her disappearance (and Amelia's warning) all the more shocking, and full of all sorts of juicy possibilities for next season. In regards to The Tudors, there seems to be some sort of renaissance of actors from The Tudors landing prominent TV and movie roles: Maria Doyle Kennedy on Orphan Black and in the movie Byzantium, Jonathan Rhys Meyers on Dracula, Alan Van Sprang and Torrance Coombs on Reign, Henry Cavill in Man of Steel, Nick Dunning in Da Vinci's Demons, Natalie Dormer on Game of Thrones, and James Frain on The White Queen.

Detective Arthur Bell surely must have been named after Art Bell, broadcaster and the host of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM. Art Bell was recently hired on Sirius XM Satellite Radio doing Art Bell's Dark Matter but the show only lasted six weeks. Detective Arthur Bell's badge number on Orphan Black is 1025. A station in Nyack 102.5 runs Art Bell's show...coincidence??? Yeah, it's probably a bit of a stretch. The show does give us neat little nuggets here and there such as naming every episode after a quote from Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. In addition there are several clever nods to science and literature including the character Dr. Aldous Leekie whose name is an amalgamation of Aldous Huxley (whose death along with the death of C.S. Lewis was widely overshadowed by the Kennedy Assassination) and paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey. Going back to Detective Arthur Bell, he was a welcome sight on TV. A revolutionary character by some measures. A TV detective that was not TOTALLY INCOMPETENT. I mean, Miami Metro Police Department spent eight seasons on Dexter largely chasing their tails. The cops on Pretty Little Liars were just as useless. I was thrilled when Liz from Nip/Tuck (Roma Maffia) showed up in Rosewood. Liz is no fool and I knew she would start getting to the bottom of things, and she did...for a time. As soon as she started getting somewhere it was as if the writers said, "If she figures everything out we have no show!" She hasn't had much screen time since then. Don't even get me started on the cops on Veronica Mars who were routinely scooped and preempted by a five foot nothing high school girl. Although in their defense she had moxie...lots of moxie, and she was scrappy too. She would not be denied. Not even a whole season in and Detective Arthur Bell has started to piece things together on Orphan Black. Kudos to you. 

In addition to the wonderful characters, the writing has been top notch all season and the writers certainly deserve their own accolades. In less capable hands some of the storylines could have been cliched or even an outright disaster. In particular, the whole "monitor" storyline was handled extremely well. The clones were all being watched by a monitor that was reporting back on their every move. I knew that at some point one of the clones would suspect the wrong person as their monitor. Well, that did indeed happen but it led to some really funny moments and also gave us swerve after swerve that kept us guessing until the very end. At this point I am still not convinced that there isn't more going on as far as that aspect of the story is concerned. In addition to the writers, the showrunners also chose directors that are well versed in working on TV shows with strong female lead characters. Just to name a few, T.J. Scott and John Fawcett (co-creator of the show as well) have both directed episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, Spartacus, and La Femme Nikita, shows known for interesting (and butt-kicking) female characters.

Orphan Black is not just some sci-fi extravaganza. The show raises interesting questions regarding cloning and other issues in scientific and technological advancements. In regards to cloning, most of us probably still envision some mad scientist in a lab shouting "It's Alive" (as he resurrects his favorite pet) but these things are actually not that far off. In fact, goats, horses, camels, cattle, dogs, and cats are just a few of the animals that have already been cloned. Human cloning is more of a hot button topic and the show puts an interesting twist on the whole issue by revealing each clone is restricted intellectual property. The ramifications of humans as restricted intellectual property are certain to be as horrific as the term "restricted intellectual property" sounds. In an era where you can patent a piece of styrofoam that prevents you from dropping your keys between your car seats (I do love me some Shark Tank), is it that much of a stretch to think  human clones can be registered property one day? OK, it still seems a notion as distant as teleportation but there are certain parallels we can see to controversial issues today such as stem cell research, and that whole healthy baby predetermination thingy. Orphan Black is a show that is also cognizant of the rapid advancement in technology which is quite fitting given the recent 60 Minutes piece on Amazon. Amazon has designed drones that can fly your online orders right to your door! (Sure, the FAA will probably oppose this vehemently and there is that whole issue of hacking bots a la Bioshock but it is a really cool idea). Technology is here now and the Orphan Black showrunners embrace that.

Orphan Black is a show that is so rife with potential heading into its sophomore season. There are all sorts of questions raised from the first season and it will be interesting to see how season two unfolds. The aforementioned status of Mrs. S comes to mind. Has she been monitoring Sarah as well? Has she taken Kira with her or were they both abducted? Surely we will be seeing more clones, right? It will be interesting to see how they incorporate the clones into the show. Season one was great at introducing clones that were so different from one another. I'm sure by season seven the whole clone thing may actually turn into a detriment. How long until we start saying, "Isn't this new clone Amisoc too similar to Cosima?" For now though, the clones have their own identity and it is a treat to see a new clone and how its personality and look differs from the others. Will Sarah find out what is going on with Cosima? Are the cops going to pose more problems for Sarah? I'm hoping somehow that Helena is still alive because she was deliciously twisted. Her impression of Beth was the stuff of legends. What I do know for sure about season two is that there are several new characters joining the cast. I am very excited to hear that Peter Outerbridge will appear next season in a recurring role. Peter Outerbridge is the awesome Canadian actor who played Ari Tasarov on the CW show Nikita. He is terrific and a wonderful addition to any cast. The show is filmed in Canada and has shown a propensity for casting some supremely talented Canadians so I am hoping they will cast one of my favorite Canadians (no, not Toronto Mayor Rob Ford), I am referring to none other than the great Stephen McHattie!

Orphan Black is a wonderful little show that is dripping with potential for season two and beyond. A clone of the week format could get stale after a few seasons (especially if it becomes Attack of the Clones) but the writers are clever enough not to use the clones as a crutch. They have so far seamlessly integrated the clones into the overarching plot. The show is praiseworthy for numerous reasons including a phenomenal central performance by Tatiana Maslany, a fresh and interesting premise, and its discussion of topics such as cloning and evolution. Orphan Black is one of those rare "can't miss shows" that truly lives up to the billing.

CHECK THESE OUT: Orphan Black: Season One on DVD and Blu-Ray

Article by CJ Ramirez

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                Pill Poppin' Drama       One Bad Mama          Nerd Nirvana

WHAT: Nikita

Nikita is an action/spy thriller which premiered on The CW Television Network in September 2010. The show stars Maggie Q in the title role as a rogue agent out for revenge on the mysterious organization that trained her. They are called Division and they work in the shadows to perform highly classified missions for the government . Nikita is an exciting roller coaster ride of a show with many intriguing plot twists, yet it never forgets to have a sense of humor. The show is so consistently good despite playing to very small audiences. The third season has concluded and has only cemented the idea that this may be one of the most underrated shows of all time.

Nikita originated as a French movie directed by Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element). Nikita is a lost soul who spends her nights running around with a gang of drug addicts. They plan a heist that goes awry and Nikita ends up incarcerated as a result. She is rescued by a mysterious organization that offers to give her a new identity and a second chance at a highly trained hitwoman! The character of Nikita in the movie has a bad case of the crazies. She likes to scream a lot and dance some kind of cyberpunk slam dance at the most inopportune times. As broken as Maggie Q's Nikita is, she seems slightly less eccentric and a little more in control. The character of Michael on Nikita (called Bob in the movie) is almost exactly the way he is in the TV show. The stern Michael/Bob acts as a protector for Nikita, is always very serious, and likes to pace about a lot. Division (called the Centre in the movie) itself looks very similar with its rows upon rows of computers and cutting edge technology. In the movie Nikita, Jean Reno plays a cleaner Victor (anyone who has seen The CW Nikita will know how awesome a cleaner is, especially Owen as portrayed by Devon Sawa). A cleaner is a highly trained assassin who basically cleans up dead bodies and such so as not to leave a trail. Reno plays a similar role in another Luc Besson pairing, The Professional. The French movie Nikita was remade in the US as the movie Point of No Return and Harvey Keitel plays the cleaner role. He would later go on to play The Wolf in Pulp Fiction as a cleaner (ah, I love it when things come full circle). The French film Nikita and its American remake spawned a USA Network (the beloved or dreaded "Blue Skies Network" depending on your perspective) series La Femme Nikita which ran for five seasons. La Femme Nikita was much closer to the movie in terms of storyline as the pilot already had several near shot for shot scenes that were in the movie. The scene when Michael gives Nikita the worst birthday present ever was taken straight from the movie right down to the brick wall barring Nikita's escape. Nine years after La Femme Nikita ended, Nikita was adapted for The CW Network.

Nikita has somehow survived four seasons on The CW despite getting very low viewership ratings. I always saw The CW as a peculiar choice to air Nikita as it has an image ("the beautiful people network") that just does not fit the show. Most shows on The CW are teen dramas, some good (One Tree Hill, The Vampire Diaries), some bad (90210 reboot) and Nikita just never seemed to fit as an action/espionage show. It would have fit quite nicely following 24 on Fox or Alias on ABC but those shows were extinct by the time Nikita premiered. The shows official marketing slogan was, "Looks Do Kill." The show was always marketed as a program with ridiculously beautiful women that happened to have some awesome action and an intriguing plot. This confused many viewers that saw the commercials and thought the show looked like Gossip Girl with guns which could not be farther from the truth. The show in reality is so much smarter than that and was always about the spy shenanigans and impressive action sequences. Nikita in fact should have been marketed as a show that has awesome action and an intriguing plot that happens to have ridiculously beautiful women (which it most certainly does). "Never underrate a fatal weapon" would have been a more appropriate slogan and a nice nod to one of the lines in the movie. Whether it was the network or the marketing, or the fact that it was moved to Friday nights (when many people are out) not many people watched and it was always on the brink of cancellation. This is a damn shame because the show rocks and is probably the closest I will ever get to a television show capturing the idea of Xena meets Metal Gear.

The main story of Nikita centers on the mysterious government organization Division. Division takes convicts, erases their identity, and trains them to serve the government as covert operatives. The head of Division, Percy, has black boxes that contain sensitive government information on them that can change the course of history. The show focuses on the black boxes, who has them, who wants them, who needs them...or so it would appear.

One of the greatest strengths of the show is that it is never afraid to completely alter its premise at a given moment. The tagline to the show could have been, "and now for something completely different." I always liked to refer to it as a Bowser Revolution (if anyone gets this reference please pat yourself on the back). You see, there was this game called Mario Party (you know, that mustachioed plumber) and it basically played like Monopoly. If you landed on a Bowser Revolution space, Mario's sworn enemy Bowser would land on the game board and turn the whole game upside down. This is what Nikita does best, it is constantly doling out major game changers on a consistent basis...and they always worked! It is quite a risky proposition to take a show and alter it to the degree that it is so far removed from its essence. Rescue Me tried this one season ever so briefly. Denis Leary's Tommy Gavin started to work at a different fire department and I hated it. This is not the show I watch! These are not the characters I love! Thankfully it only lasted a few episodes before they hit the reset button and everything went back to normal. Nikita never took the easy way out and hit a reset button. It constantly turned the show on its head with big game changers, and always followed through. This forced the characters to evolve in new and exciting ways and it also forced us, as the viewers, to see things from a new perspective. In fact, another one of the biggest strengths of the show is that it always follows through with story arcs and does not drop plot threads. You may hear something mentioned and wonder whether or not the writers forgot about it and then a whole season later it will come back to smack you in the face. The plot consistencies are so amazing considering other shows drop story arcs all the time (sometimes for the better though). I remember on Rescue Me that the daughter of one of the firemen was taken out of the country by his crazy girlfriend and placed in a boarding school. I was excited for the big showdown as he attempted to get his daughter back and he just decided, out of the blue, that he was now OK with that scenario and the storyline just abruptly ended. One season on Dexter there was this group doing ritual killings dubbed Santa Muerte. It was a really exciting side story and they wrapped it up just two seconds after it started and never explained why Miami Metro Police (the geniuses that they are) never decided to look for the other killer who was still on the loose. The show went on for three more seasons and that guy was never mentioned again! If something is mentioned on Nikita you will get a resolution in due time, especially with regard to The Shop. 

Actress Maggie Q portrays Nikita on The CW show. Maggie Q is an expert in martial arts, was trained by Jackie Chan, and does her own stunts (which is impressive in its own right but becomes extremely impressive since she walked up a ceiling and choked a guy out midair in the season three finale). Nikita is a very emotional character who has gone through a great deal of tragedy. The tragedy makes her who she is but has also given her a bit of a messiah complex. Nikita's greatest weakness is her friends. She will do anything to protect them and this makes her quite vulnerable. Maggie Q does a fantastic job of portraying Nikita as both a broken soul and a brave warrior. She can switch her emotions at the drop of a hat. When she breaks down and cries you will be holding back tears because she will get to you. She does a great job of conveying deep feelings to the audience. Nikita is also an awesome covert agent and will leave you in awe with how tough she can be. She is charming, funny, and will make a great mother one day because she is so nurturing.

Lyndsy Fonseca plays the role of Alex. She is a drug addict who is recruited by Division to become a covert agent. Alex comes from a long history of abuse. Alex's drug abuse is a continuing narrative throughout the show and is one of the best depictions of drug addiction on television. It is one of the best depictions precisely because it is a continuing narrative. You are never truly cured of your addiction and you have to take things one day at a time (a sentiment I never really understood until hearing comedian Artie Lange discuss it in depth). It is a delicate subject matter that could have come off as disingenuous in less capable hands but Lyndsy Fonseca nails it. She also has fantastic chemistry with Maggie Q. Alex's relationship with Nikita is fascinating as they are best buds one minute, then at each other's throats the next. It is one of the most fulfilling relationships since Xena and her little friend Gabrielle. Like Gabrielle, Alex is not to be underestimated.

Michael is played by Shane West. Michael is an idealistic agent at Division and is in charge of training the new recruits. Michael is quite serious and is always careful to guard his emotions. He is reluctant to show weakness and will often choose instead to suffer in silence. Michael is the one character that is written very similarly in the movie, the USA show La Femme Nikita, and The CW Nikita. Shane West is able to infuse a little bit of his own charm while being true to the stoic nature of Michael, which is not always an easy thing to do when playing "Mr. Serious." West has great timing with his delivery and his biting sarcasm hits twice as hard because of it. Michael is such a guarded person who builds immense walls around himself and when he does let his walls down, and lets us into his world, we feel privileged because we know how guarded he is. Whenever Shane West gives us that reluctant smile, we smile with him. His chemistry with Maggie Q is off the charts (I mean, what characters chemistry isn't great with Maggie Q's Nikita?...Alex, Michael, Owen, Birkhoff...she is just awesome when paired with anybody).

Seymour Birkhoff is played by Aaron Stanford. Birkhoff is an expert computer hacker extraordinaire. He thinks highly of his skills and has thus dubbed himself Shadow Walker. Seymour Birkhoff is also a bit of a nerd, OK, he is King of The Nerds. He is an avid Star Wars aficionado, and also likes to decorate his desk with various action figures including Hermione Granger (Harry Potter) and Ezio Auditore (Assassin's Creed). It became a game of mine to try and spot what science fiction or video game reference he would come up with next. Birkhoff provides the primary comic relief and has some of the best quotes in the history of the (any) show. In the episode Tipping Point he states that, "In six months we will all be fighting the T-Virus," which is a reference to Resident Evil the video game. When examining a mini computer chip tracker he states, "It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing," a direct quote from Lord of The Rings. During a heated interrogation he states, "Mini Ethan Hunt, you need to worry about where you're headed because you have no idea who you're dealing with and not only have I always wanted to say that, it's true," a reference to Mission Impossible. As stated before, he really loves Star Wars. "Star Wars? This thing worked as well as The Phantom Menace. May the force be with you." "We'll rendezvous on Tattooine. Or, wherever the hell I set up the next rebel base. You know how to contact me." One of the funniest quotes was, "How was I supposed to know that Lex Luthor was in the building," when he was referring to a bald henchman. Last but not least, my favorite quote (as comic relief nerd becomes brave nerd), "You might as well ask me where Carmen Sandiego is, bitch, 'cause I'm not giving up Nikki!" That is not even half the great Birkhoff quotes. Nerd gonna nerd. 
Aaron Stanford is a fan favorite and you will get no arguments against that here, I mean just look at the size of this paragraph!

The role of Amanda is played by Melinda Clarke who played Marissa Cooper's (Mischa Barton) mother on The O.C. I first saw Melinda Clarke on Xena as the evil Amazon Queen Velasca. Clarke is adept at playing a great villain. She knows just how to be downright evil. As Marissa's mother she was self-serving and manipulative. As Velasca she was crazy, ambitious, and powerful. As Amanda she is all of these things and more. Clarke looks perfect for a villain role with her piercing eyes and sly smile yet she also has the acting chops to add depth to her characters. She portrays Amanda as cold, calculating, manipulative, and meticulous. She is consumed by revenge and will not rest until she teaches her enemies a lesson. Amanda trains the recruits at Division but not in the way that Michael does. Michael trains them in hand to hand combat and battle strategies. Amanda trains them in etiquette, charm, psychology, and how to resist torture and interrogation. In a way she is sort of a life coach, and is definitely the scariest life coach since Famke Janssen's Ava Moore on Nip/Tuck. Amanda is a major cog in the shows twisted Frankenstein allegory. Oversight made Percy, Percy made Amanda (well, you could argue she was twisted way before Percy), Amanda made Nikita, and Nikita made Alex. In The CW series Alberta Watson plays Madeline Pierce of Oversight. On the USA series La Femme Nikita, Alberta Watson played Madeline which is the equivalent of the role of Amanda on the CW series, a nice homage to the shows roots.

Percy is the head of Division and is portrayed expertly by Xander Berkeley. Berkeley is a veteran of another espionage heavy show 24. He is cold, calculating, charming, and always convincing. He wears expensive suits and looks like the consummate professional, your bosses boss. Percy created the black boxes as an insurance policy in case the government tried to cross him. The man is always three steps ahead and is always thinking of his next move. He says it best himself, "There is nothing common about me," in the episode Homecoming. Percy is driven by ambition and is empowered by control. He uses Division as a breeding ground for more mindless automatons that he can manipulate; he is the ultimate puppet master. Xander Berkeley is excellent in this role and has to be one of my favorite antagonists...ever. He is just so slimy and shady and untrustworthy yet always can come up with a convincing excuse that makes sense. Percy can get into people's heads with the best of them. He has such a natural gift of persuasion, I mean the man can sell ice in the winter, fire in hell, and water to a well. 

So many amazing characters to love, so little time. I would be remiss not to at least mention the Terminator-like stone cold cleaner Roan, super soldier cleaner Owen (they need a lot of cleaners, lots of messes over at Division), the super soldier regimen Guardians (especially the Irishman Miller who first appeared in the episode London Calling and can also be seen on General Hospital sans accent), ambitious CIA analyst Ryan Fletcher (Flip Flip Flipadelphia), fearless marine Sean Pierce, Peter Outerbridge's criminal mastermind Ari Tasarov (Outerbridge appeared on La Femme Nikita briefly as did Harris Yulin who played a member of Oversight on Nikita), arms dealer Cyrus (who is selling guns when he is taking a break from selling Old Spice), and second best (bow down before Shadow Walker) computer expert Sonya. Division itself even becomes its own character in a way. It shapes the very lives of the characters and is always in the back of their minds. Its influence is never easy to dismiss and its hold causes some characters to make drastic choices. 

I was always a season to half season behind when it came to watching Nikita. I never watched the show live and was always trying to catch up to it via the DVD's. The show was always on the cancellation bubble and fans were left agonizing over whether or not the show was going to come back the next season. I cannot imagine how frustrating this must have been for fans (as The Clash said), "all three of 'em." In all seriousness, kudos to the fervent fans that stuck with the show through these turbulent times and tweeted and wrote letters to the network and watched religiously every Friday. Thanks for allowing a slowpoke like me a chance to catch up on this wonderful little show. I am all caught up now and will be there with the die-hard fans when the final six episodes air starting Friday November 22 at 9PM on The CW (Talk about timing! This was just announced today right before this article was published).

Nikita is an intense non-stop thrill ride with so many twists and turns your head will be spinning more than Linda Blair in The Exorcist. You will fall in love with the Super Friends: Nikita, Alex, Michael, and Birkhoff. You will marvel at the awesomeness of Percy and Amanda. You will bow down before Shadow Walker. Nikita comes to an end this winter after a truncated six episode final season. It is a shame the show did not have a bigger audience but anyone who is a fan of the show knows how awesome (The word awesomesauce was made for this show) it is and new viewers will be in for a treat. Nikita is the epitome of underrated television. 

CHECK THESE OUT: Nikita: The Complete First Season, Nikita: The Complete Second Season, Nikita: The Complete Third Season on DVD and Blu-Ray

Article by CJ Ramirez

 Sid Jenkins-The Constant Screw Up           Effy Stonem-The Fragile Beauty          Franky Fitzgerald-The Enigma

WHAT: Skins (the original UK version)

Skins is a unique British teen drama created by Jamie Brittain and Bryan Elsley. The series originally aired from 2007 to 2010 on the British channel E4 while an abbreviated seventh season aired in the summer of 2013. E4 is unique in and of itself because it airs many US shows like the underappreciated Veronica Mars and (guilty pleasure) One Tree Hill in addition to original British shows like The Ricky Gervais Show, Shameless, and The Inbetweeners (all of which have been remade or adapted for US audiences). Skins tells the story of a group of teenagers attending sixth form college (similar to high school in the US) and the many problems that they face. It is an unflinching look at adolescence, done in a gutsy and entertaining manner.

The show tackles a number of controversial topics including (but definitely not limited to) sex, drugs, anorexia, religion, gender identity, depression, death, alienation, and cultural assimilation. It is not so much that the subject matter is new (surely we have encountered these themes somewhere else), but rather the way in which it is candidly presented through the eyes of real teenagers. That is right, the producers of Skins decided to take a huge gamble and cast actual teenagers for their lead roles. Only a few of the teens had done any professional acting before (Nicholas Hoult who plays Tony Stonem was the little boy in About a Boy, and Dakota Blue Richards who plays Franky Fitzgerald, after initially trying out for the role of Liv, was in The Golden Compass as Lyra). These are not your typical thirty-year-old actors playing high schoolers. These are real teenagers who add a certain authenticity and vulnerability to their roles, pimples and all. They allowed the viewers a distinctive lens with which to view various issues that many teens encounter on their way to becoming adults. The incredibly creative Skins writing team was also comprised of numerous teens. The producers took an enormous risk with the casting and it ended up paying huge dividends. You would be hard- pressed to find a better collection of young actors than the Skins casts.

The series follows a specific format that is very different from other TV shows. There were three different generations of characters over the shows first six seasons. The first generation covered seasons one and two. The second generation (of entirely new characters besides Effy and Panda) covered the third and fourth seasons. The third and final generation of new characters covered seasons five and six. The two season format followed an entire generation of students through their two years of sixth form college. This decision was another risk for the producers since they were essentially replacing the cast after every two years. Viewers had to now get used to an entirely different set of characters after becoming attached to the previous generation. This was as seamless a transition as it could be for me from first to second generation (which was unexpected since I loved the first generation so much). The second generation quickly carved their own identity and had many fascinating personalities. The transition to the third generation was not as smooth, although I did enjoy their two seasons. There were still some great characters to enjoy (Grace, Rich, Franky, Mini) but some of the other characters just did not resonate with me as well as the previous two generations did. It also did not help that some of my favorites from season five had less screen time than I would have liked in season six.

The first season of any generation always tended to be more lighthearted and had a more comical tone. It was kind of the season where they partied and slacked off. The second season for each generation was always much darker in tone (while masterfully maintaining Skins trademark humor) and usually dealt with the consequences of their actions. They always had a little growing up to do during the second seasons whether they were ready or not. There was always a dramatic, yet entirely believable, shift in tone.

The way individual episodes were handled was something I had not seen before, but have seen since (the fourth season of Arrested Development). Each episode was focused on one character and we were able to see things from their perspective. Using the first season as an example, the first episode was entitled Tony, the second was entitled Cassie, which was followed by Jal, Chris, Sid, Maxxie and Anwar, Michelle, Effy, and the final episode was entitled Everyone. In the Sid episode we will see things from Sid's perspective and he will get the bulk of the screen time. We get to see Sid interact with his family and friends and we are immersed in Sid's world (a truly frightening proposition). During the second season he also gets another episode all to himself (which is not to say no one else will be in it, he is just the focus). Some characters like Maxxie and Anwar did share episodes but that was the exception and not the rule. The episode entitled Everyone focused on the gang (sorry, I think that term is pretty much trademarked by It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia)...the group as a whole. The fantastic opening Skins theme music (which was great the first two seasons, great the second and third seasons despite being slightly remixed, but became largely unrecognizable from season four onwards) also added a nice little touch. The intro graphic was altered slightly and the last character we saw before the music stopped would be the focus of the episode, kind of like some sort of wacky musical chairs.

The show is about characters and how they interact with one another. Skins has given us some of the most memorable characters in TV history. They are all so different and form the most complex relationships. Most importantly, the show is about how you as the viewer interact with each of the characters. Some of them will make you laugh, some of them will make you cry, one of them will make you laugh and then cry, some of them will make you scream at your TV at their asinine decisions, one of them you will loathe, then pity, then love, some of them will scare you, and many of them will break your heart. Whether you love them or hate them, you won't soon forget them. 

First Generation of Characters (Season 1 and 2):

Tony - Tony is the man. He is the most popular guy at school and dates the popular Michelle. Sid is his best friend and has had a long-standing crush on Michelle. Tony is the anti-Sid, who is probably Tony's best friend because he is the easiest to manipulate and Tony is a master manipulator. Tony is selfish, craves attention, and thrives on drama. He is confident and incredibly cocky. Tony is very close to his sister Effy and will do anything to protect her. She is his one vulnerability. All the girls love him, all the parents love him, all the guys want to be him.

Sid - Looks up to his best friend Tony. Has a knack for screwing up everything royally. His father sees him as a major disappointment. He is Tony's punching bag. Has had a long time crush on Michelle, his best friend's girl. Has surprising chemistry with Michelle's friend Cassie. Likes to wear a talking Mega Dog shirt that says "Mega Dog to the Rescue Attack! Attack! Woof Woof" which goes off at the most inopportune times. Sports a trademark beanie which is probably pretty grimy.

Chris - Magnetic personality. The clown of the group. Affectionately referred to as "Monkey Man" due to his unorthodox dance moves. In love with Angie, his psychology teacher. Repeatedly threatens to use "reverse psychology" on her. A real slacker, has the worst drug addiction of the bunch. Trying to avoid ghosts from his past. Pill pops to avoid dealing with them. Abandoned by his parents. Constantly teases Jal. Jal and Chris bring out the best in each other. They form a pact where she will try to have more fun and he will try to be more responsible.

Cassie - Suffers from anorexia. She is an oddball yet is utterly charming. Likes to say, "Oh wow", and "You are so lovely". She has been in and out of treatment facilities for various issues. Friends with Michelle. Forms an immediate bond with Sid. Often underestimated yet very perceptive. 

Jalander - Called Jal by her mates. Blames her father for their parents separation. The perfectionist. The (relatively) responsible one. A great instrumentalist, proficient in the clarinet. Best friends with Michelle. Meshes well with Chris despite being opposites. Her father is a famous musician, she thinks he does not value her and that he is consumed by his celebrity status. Has two brothers who are hoping to become the next rap stars.

Michelle - The "it girl". Tony's girlfriend. Constantly obsessed with how she looks. Extremely insecure. Best friends with Jal. Her mother has been dating a parade of losers. Continuously has to deal with Tony's wandering eye. Adores Sid, but like a brother. Fluent in Spanish and French.

Anwar - Struggles to find a balance between his hard partying ways and his religion. Parents are strict Muslims and expect Anwar to be a good Muslim boy. He is best friends with Maxxie who is gay, another thing Anwar struggles with. Proficient in karate. Comes from a very large family and has a real creepy uncle. His father gives the best advice.

Maxxie - Anwar's best friend and tap dancer extraordinaire. Constantly bickering with his best friend Anwar who wavers in his acceptance of Maxxie because he is gay. A free spirit who is pursuing his dream of being a dancer. Worried about telling his parents he wants to drop out and pursue dancing full time.

Elizabeth "Effy"- Called Effy by everyone. Silent sister of Tony. She doesn't say much but is a real clever one. As my grandma always said, "still water runs deep and dirty". She sneaks out every night and her brother covers for her. Very close to Tony. Coddled by her parents. She is daddy's little girl although her father has no clue as to her self-destructive ways. When she does speak, she has profound insights. Mysterious.

Second Generation (Season 3 and 4):

Elizabeth "Effy"- She speaks! Well, she has found her voice and is pretty candid. Bewitching. Captivating. She is a fascinating person. People cannot resist her. Cook, JJ, and Freddie fall in love with her almost immediately. She has some serious emotional issues going on. Prone to panic attacks and depression. Effy is like a drug. No matter how things get you can't quit Effy. She "gets under your skin and lives inside you and there is no escape".

Katie - Twin sister to Emily. Bosses Ems around as she is the older sister. Concerned with boys and how she looks. Feels threatened by Effy who the boys are gaga for. Very possessive of her sister.Threatened by Naomi who has a hold on Emily. Has a precocious little brother James who she is constantly beating up. Father runs Fitch Fitness with the motto "Don't get fit, get Fitch". 

Emily - Twin sister of Katie, Ems follows Naomi around like a little puppy dog. She is almost the polar opposite of her sister and they do not get along. Like Katie she beats up her little brother James as well (he had it coming). Her parents are having problems due to financial issues. Not obsessed with dresses or being popular like her sister. Speaks twin (a made up language) with her sister Katie. Adept at the twin switcheroo.

Pandora - Also known as Panda, Panda Pops. Inadvertently says the filthiest things a la Tobias from Arrested Development. Best friends with Effy solely because she will not "surf and turf" Effy's boyfriends. Gets hyper from too much sugar which her mother regulates. A lovable odd duck. Usually greets people by saying, "Hey, I'm Pandora and I'm useless". Gullible.

JJ - One-third of the three musketeers along with childhood friends Cook and Freddie. Diagnosed with a form of Aspergers. In therapy and overmedicated. Fears what will happen if he stops taking his pills. Does magic tricks to break the ice. Gets locked on. A sci-fi enthusiast. Drools over Effy.

Cook - Outgoing, friendly, the life of the party. A real bad boy and habitual troublemaker. Has the worst father ever who abandoned him and his younger brother. Obsessed with Effy. Calls himself Cook in third person when awesomely meting out justice by bashing skulls. Fearless. Sometimes affectionately called Cookie by friends. Refers to himself as The Cookie Monster and all the girls can't get enough.

Freddie - Cook's conscience. Bails his best friend out of trouble regularly. Fights regularly with his vapid sister since she is only concerned with material things. Tension with father, since Freds believes he did not do enough before his mother passed away. Skater boy. Serious (was called a "fun sponge" at one point by Cook and JJ) yet not opposed to partying with the rest of them. Goo goo for Effy. Hangs out with his boys Cook and JJ in his shed. Very sensitive. Brooding.

Thomas - From the Republic of Congo. A million miles from home. The only character born outside of Britain. 
Gets really cold in Britain, typically wears three coats which comes in handy. He is a fabulous runner. Shoes make him uncomfortable which also comes in handy. Fluent in French. His mother is a devoutly religious woman. Disapproves of his English friends. They struggle to assimilate to the British lifestyle. His little brother suffers from cystic fibrosis. Bonds with Panda over donuts. Always tries to do the right thing. Often greets new people with the phrase, "Hello, I am Thomas, so glad to meet you".

Naomi - Independent, witty, seems more mature than the other teens. Can trade barbs with the boys without missing a beat. Very sarcastic. Forms a friendly rivalry with Cook. Her full name is a running gag (Naomi Campbell). Steely demeanor but has many emotions bottled up inside. Friend to Emily, enemy to Katie. Her mother is running some sort of a hippie commune household. Class president material.

Third Generation (Season 5 and 6):

Grace - Adorable. Just the sweetest girl you could ever imagine. Best friends with Mini and Liv. Forms a bond with Rich despite their different personalities. Accused by him of being a chameleon, in that she has no essence of her own. She tells others what they want to hear so they do not get upset. Trying to find her voice in the world. A ballerina. A real dreamer.

Franky - The enigmatic transfer student. She was bullied at her old school relentlessly. Many do not understand her. Very vulnerable. People are confused by her androgynous appearance. Is she a boy? Is he a girl? Has a magnetic personality. People are drawn to her. Very creative. Has wooden dolls that she uses to make stop motion animation videos. 

Rich - The consummate metal-head. Eats, sleeps, and breathes heavy metal music. Has an interesting early morning ritual where he wakes up to blasting music. He befriends Grace who could not be any more different. Best friends with Alo. A slacker when it comes to his school work. Has problems approaching girls. Uncompromising.

Alo - Lives on a farm with his parents. Extremely awkward and unconventional. Best friends with Rich. They are the outcasts at school. Places an emphasis on partying instead of getting good grades. Parents disapprove of his lackadaisical attitude towards school. Irresponsible. Called "farm boy" disparagingly by Mini.

Liv - Mini's right-hand mean girl. Has a complicated family life. Serves as caretaker for her little sister. Her older sister is incarcerated.  Gives off a hard exterior but pretty fragile inside. Clashes with Mini from time to time. Can down vodka with the best of them. Impulsive.

Matty - He has been in and out of trouble his whole life. Has a tense relationship with his brother. His father disapproves of him, and favors his brother, which causes a rift. Has a chance meeting with Franky and they have an almost psychic connection. Matty has a wide-eyed stare, "The Matty Stare", where he looks as if he can see directly into your soul. Mysterious.

Nick - Mini's boyfriend and henchman. She passes the sentence and he swings the ax. Nick is a star player on the rugby team and is extremely popular in school. He is frequently fighting with his brother as they have a love-hate relationship. His father, a self help coach, is unbearable. There is more to Nick than meets the eye. Confident.

Mini - The queen bee and head mean girl. Best friends with Liv and Grace. Mini is the aggressive good looking girl that everyone is afraid of. She says the most horrible things (which also happen to be some of the best lines delivered on the show). Measures out her food right down to the ounce (more appropriately to the gram). Has severe body image issues. Feels threatened by new girl Franky. Insecure of her relationship with her boyfriend Nick. Comes off as real arrogant and not so nice. In reality she is just a scared little girl.

It was really a joy getting to know the parents and teachers as well. They were just as flawed as the teens and getting to know them also opened a new window into better understanding their children and students. There are a number of great performances including Harry Enfield as Jim Stonem, Tony and Effy's parents. Mr. Stonem is so self-absorbed that he cannot even see the problems going on with his children and wife. His wife Anthea (Morwenna Banks) is so self-medicated that she is oblivious to the world falling apart around her. There is a very funny scene where Anthea is reading the paper and her daughter tries to get her attention by making up outrageous stuff (she's pregnant, etc.) and her mother basically just says "that's nice dear" without paying attention to anything she says. Peter Capaldi (the new Dr. Who) gives an outstanding performance as Sid's father Mark Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins is constantly yelling at his son and calling him a failure. His most hurtful insult is when he asks Sid why he can't be more like his best friend Tony. We think he is unloving until we find out that he is just terrified Sid will become like him. Chris was abandoned by his parents so he acts out by doing copious amounts of drugs. Jal blames her father for driving her mother away. They have a strained relationship which leads to her being wary of others. Cook has the worst father ever who has neglected him since he was a child. Cook forms a hard exterior (often acting as a juvenile bully) but he is a deep and complicated man on the inside. David Blood (Chris Addison) becomes the new headmaster of the school and uses intimidation and expulsion as his primary weapons. Doug (Giles Thomas) is a biology teacher and takes a different approach. He tries to be friends with the students, although his Oggy Oggy Oggy chant confuses rather than excites. Doug is always ready to fill in for another teacher and presides over Osama: The Musical, a music number as offensively entertaining as Springtime for Hitler. In fact, the show has done several clever things with music numbers including the song Wild World which is unfortunately not on the DVD due to licensing costs.

The occasional antagonists on the show are usually portrayed as over the top and cartoony. Madison Twatter PHD or simply Mad Twatter is played by Stephen Walters. Mad has a circus quality mustache, cackles like a fiend and is not to be taken too seriously although his threats are very real. He is a drug dealer who deals drugs on "credit" and goes on an unintelligible rant on the concept of credit terms. He is one zany character. Johnny White is a gangster portrayed by Mackenzie Crook (Gareth Keenan from the original Office series). Johnny White is a bit of an ignoramus. He has a penchant for Ali G tracksuits and "talks dangerous" to intimidate adversaries. He has two stooges who are just as incompetent as he is. His showdown with the kids is hilarious and has the perfect ending that was just so out there yet worked perfectly for the character.   

The seventh season of Skins changed the format drastically and opted for three two-part self-contained story arcs focusing on Effy (Generation 1 and 2), Cassie (Generation 1), and Cook (Generation 2). I really enjoyed the episodes centered on Effy entitled Skins Fire: Part 1 and Skins Fire: Part 2. Emily and Naomi also take the journey here as well and have some epic moments. Skins Fire was entertaining and the new characters were excellent as well especially Dominic and Jane. It had that Skins balance of comedy and drama that the show does so well, despite a very dark and sobering part 2. Cassie had Skins Pure: Part 1 and Skins Pure: Part 2. It was decent, just not as focused and with less compelling characters than Effy's story. Skins Rise: Part 1 and Skins Rise: Part 2 were all about bad boy Cook. I think I enjoyed it a little more than I should have because it played out like the plot of a horror film despite not really feeling much like Skins. I appreciate what they did, depicting the teens transition from their hard partying ways into responsible adults. I still would have liked to find out what happened to the other characters. Other than veiled references to Sid and Freddie there is nary a mention of the past. Perhaps they could have just done a final montage of the other characters which would flash their picture onscreen and contain a snippet of what they are now doing with their lives. When I initially heard there was going to be a seventh season I was hoping they would do a new generation with Emily and Katie's little brother James Fitch. Despite being about ten years old, the kid stole every scene he was in. It would have been hilarious to follow him and his friend Gordon McPherson (we never see Gordon onscreen but hear so much about him) now that they are more grown up.

Skins launched a US version (crikey!) which aired on MTV in 2011. To say that the show was lacking would be an understatement. I am embarrassed to say that I did see the entire US series before it was cancelled. Many of the characters were the same as in the UK version although some were tweaked slightly. Several of the episodes were almost exact replicas of the UK version although they were inferior due to poorly delivered dialogue and the fact that many of the actors lacked the panache the UK kids had. There were some fine performances mainly from the characters of Sid (now named Stanley) and Michelle. Definitely for extreme fans only. If you still need a Skins fix, fortunately many of the actors have gone on to other high profile projects.

Game Of Thrones has to have the greatest former Skins characters to characters ratio. Mackenzie Crook (Gangster Johnny White) is now wildling Orell. Hannah Murray (Cassie) is one of crusty old Craster's daughters Gilly, Joe Dempsie (Chris) is apprentice blacksmith Gendry, even Paul Kaye (Cook's lawyer Duncan) is on the show as Red Priest Thoros of Myr. Freya Mavor (Mini) will have a role on the series The White Queen (similar to the Tudors but with the women causing heads to roll). Jack O'Connell (Cook) was in the Death Wish-esque Harry Brown, and will appear in 300: Rise of an Empire. Sebastian de Souza (Matty) and Luke Pasqualino (Freddie) had recurring roles on The Borgias. Nicholas Hoult (Tony) plays Beast in X-Men: First Class and will reprise the role in X-Men: Days of Future Past. He also recently played Jack in Jack the Giant Slayer. Kaya Scodelario (Effy) was in Wuthering Heights as Catherine Earnshaw and also in the Clash of the Titans remake in a cameo role. Dev Patel (Anwar) played the lead in Slumdog Millionaire and is on HBO's The Newsroom (not too shabby Anwar). British mini-series The Fades has plenty of Skins alumni as well including Daniel Kaluuya (Posh Kenneth), Lily Loveless (Naomi), and Joe Dempsie (Chris). 

Skins was a groundbreaking series due to its unique format and use of an authentic teen cast that allowed viewers a direct insight into adolescent life. The producers took some big chances by using teen actors in very crucial roles and also replacing the cast after every two seasons. Their gambit was a success as Skins has been one of the most honest and fearless shows, striking the right balance of comedy and drama. In case you were wondering the name Skins refers to rolling papers used in making cigarettes. Skins however always had a deeper meaning. It is about relationships and growing up. Love, friendship, and death. The show, much like the character of Effy, is mesmerizing. It "gets under your skin and lives inside you and there is no escape".

CHECK THESE OUT: Skins: Volume 1, Skins: Volume 2, Skins: Volume 3, Skins: Volume 4, Skins: Volume 5 (coming soon), Skins: Volume 6 (coming soon), Skins: Volume 7 (Coming Soon) on DVD 

Article by CJ Ramirez

WHAT: The Borgias

The Borgias has just wrapped up its third and final season on Showtime. Showrunner Neil Jordan had been planning on four seasons but Showtime opted to cancel it and instead renewed Californication and Nurse Jackie for their 999th and 555th seasons respectively. Showtime is also supposedly planning a new show about the Vatican but wasn't The Borgias already "The Vatican Show"? All bitterness aside, The Borgias was an exciting show which revolved around the Borgia family and their rise to power in Rome. Jeremy Irons portrays Rodrigo Borgia who rapidly ascends to the top of the Catholic hierarchy and is consecrated as Pope Alexander VI in the premiere episode through treachery and political machinations. 

The two major themes of the show are that of family and power. The Borgias represent these themes best but there are a number of other characters as well who also exemplify these themes. The characters of the Borgia world are quite fascinating and many were so controversial that my school textbooks must have edited them out. We did learn about Machiavelli and his manifesto on power and the ideal ruler entited The Prince, but I never knew it was about Cesare Borgia nor even heard of any of the other Borgias. Jeremy Irons plays Cesare's extremely ambitious father, Pope Alexander VI and will stop at nothing to place his family at the head of Rome. His overt power plays anger the College of Cardinals, in particular Giuliano della Rovere who had his own lofty ambitions and was incidentally consecrated a cardinal by his uncle Pope Sixtus IV (The Pope on the Starz series Da Vinci's Demons). Colm Feore plays the role of Cardinal della Rovere and is the perfect foil for the Borgia Pope. Nepotism was quite rampant and once Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI he immediately installs his son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) as a cardinal and his son Juan (David Oakes) as Gonfalonier of the Papal Army. Despite all of the wealth and titles the sons now possess, they are constantly at odds with one another. Cesare wants to be a soldier and envies Juan's position, and Juan doesn't help matters as he is brash and prone to episodes of drunkenness. Holliday Grainger plays the daughter of Pope Alexander, Lucrezia, and is used like a pawn by her father through strategic marriages that will benefit the safety of the Borgia family. She eventually becomes more confident in herself and her abilities and is able to exert her own bit of power. The Borgias are despised by the College of Cardinals and have many other enemies in Rome. Accusations of lechery, incest, and the fact that they are Spaniards do nothing to help sway favor towards them. 

The show was initially billed as The Borgias: The Original Crime Family in print and TV ads (to grab the attention of fans of The Godfather and The Sopranos-requiescat in pace James Gandolfini). Oddly enough, I think this is the first TV show that I started watching due to a video game (well, maybe with the exception of the Super Mario Brothers Super Show-remember that?). If anyone has played the Assassin's Creed video games they will be extremely familiar with many characters and relics in the world of the Borgias. Cesare Borgia, Rodrigo Borgia, Caterina Sforza, Machiavelli, and even some of Da Vinci's inventions are common to both the show and the game. I loved the games and wanted to explore some of the characters even more. Wait, there is a show on TV that has all of these things and more? Sign me up! Speaking of Da Vinci, I had a far-fetched theory that the producers of Game of Thrones, Da Vinci's Demons, and The Borgias all watched each other's shows and periodically made subtle hints of this. One episode of The Borgias featured the Spear of Longinus so much that it was almost as if it was a supporting character. On the next episode of Da Vinci's Demons, Da Vinci ends up in what can only be referred to as the Pope's treasure room, and lo and behold the Spear of Longinus is sitting right there. Coincidence? In the finale of The Borgias, Caterina Sforza exclaims "We are under siege already and winter is coming" (Winter is Coming being the motto of House Stark on Game of Thrones). Coincidence? Most Certainly not. While the Borgias was cancelled prematurely we did get three fantastic seasons from 2011-2013.

The first season of The Borgias introduced us to the wonderful costume department over at Showtime which had previously scored a home run with the Tudors. The costumes on the Borgias were strikingly elaborate and beautiful while also remaining consistent with the period. They also used very impressive sets as you really got the sense that you were right on the steps of the Vatican around the turn of the sixteenth century. The main story arc revolves around the events of Pope Alexander VI's election and his struggle to maintain power while keeping his family united. His children do not make this an easy task and are constantly bickering. We see the internal struggle of Cesare who cannot come to grips with the fact that he must remain a man of the cloth while his brother is galivanting around as a soldier. Cardinal della Rovere is the main opposition to Pope Alexander and he schemes to depose him along with the fanatical friar Savonarola. With all of these threats the Pope must form alliances with the Medici's of Florence, and marries off his daughter Lucrezia to the brutish Giovanni Sforza. Cardinal della Rovere attempts to persuade King Charles VIII of France to invade Rome and this culminates in the final episode of season one entitled Nessuno (Nobody). What should have been an exciting and intense showdown ended quite anticlimactically and left me feeling quite disappointed. However, with all things Borgia, there is more to the story than we think (those sneaky Borgias) and we don't see their true intentions until season two.

Cardinal della Rovere was one of my favorite characters on the show. He is a man of fervent belief and will do anything to accomplish his goals. He was the perfect match for the ambitious Pope Alexander. Cardinal della Rovere's zeal knew no limits and he was not above the use of poison, assassins, or murder. He was quite bold and in a show with many backstabbings, and secret plots he was one of the few characters who wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was not afraid to tell Pope Alexander that he is outraged by his transgressions and he will do anything in his power to stop him. it was nice to see someone so open about the carnage they were about to unleash on a show full of people who scheme and plot in the shadows. Even if I didn't always agree with his methods I did appreciate his cunning and resoluteness.

The second season, Cardinal della Rovere makes a big power play with a plot to poison the Pope with cantarella. Caterina Sforza (anyone that watches Da Vinci's Demons will get a kick out of the fact that historically, Caterina Sforza was married to Count Riario!) becomes a central figure as well when she refuses to support an alliance with the Pope. Gina McKee gives a wonderful performance in this role. The Borgias and the Sforzas clash over allegiances and also the mistreatment of Lucrezia. Lucrezia's husband Giovanni Sforza abuses her and she ends up falling in love with one of his slaves, Paolo (Freddie from the British show Skins). Her love for the commoner angers her brother Juan who sees it as an embarrassment for the family. Cesare takes her side and it creates further tension between the two brothers. There is a great scene where Lucrezia tries to squash her brother Juan with a chandelier. He had previously purchased a panther for her which he knew would bite her. I really liked the head games between the two, and felt the show could have spent more time on them. The focus however is on the rivalry between Cesare and Juan which culminates in the penultimate episode "World of Wonders".

In three seasons of The Borgias my favorite episode was "World of Wonders". David Oakes' portrayal of Juan Borgia was always one of my favorite parts of the show and he really nailed it during season two. Oakes does a brilliant job of portraying Juan's downward spiral so well. He portrays Juan as a desperate man who has allowed jealousy and his vices to reduce him to a shell of his former self. Juan has alienated both of his siblings (yet his father still holds him dear) and can only find solace in the various opium dens. Cesare continues his ambitious climb and he knows that he has to resolve the Juan situation and do what is best for his family. Cesare and Juan have some extremely strong scenes together throughout the episode. As Cesare's assassin Micheletto rightfully says "I stand in awe your eminence", and we do too as an audience. The episode also has some other big moments when it comes to friar Savonarola. Savonarola is punished as a heretic by having to walk through the flames of judgment. It is an impressive visual scene captured perfectly, as we can feel the heat of those flames as they engulf him. Many of the biggest moments on the show happen in this episode and it also sets up della Rovere's big gambit to poison Pope Alexander in the season two finale.

The third season has a fantastic opening episode where the Borgias very existence is threatened by Caterina Sforza and her own assassin Rufio. It was a thrilling premiere that had me on the edge of my seat throughout. I was really excited to think that each episode there would be another attempt to destroy the Borgias. However, the Sforzas like many others on the show do a lot of plotting and all of these schemes take time to unravel. I found the next few episodes were a bit slow but things picked up quickly especially with the expanded role of Cesare's assassin Micheletto. 

To call Micheletto merely an assassin is an understatement and a gross miscarriage of justice. He was a babysitter for Lucrezia! He was a lover! He was even a novice book reader! Sean Harris does a great job of playing the role of Micheletto Corella. At first we see him as a cold blooded killer with no remorse. Harris' icy stare and silent ways accentuate this persona. He is forever loyal to his master Cesare and follows him around like a puppy. As the layers are slowly peeled back we see that he is much more than he seems. His storyline with Pascal was the highlight of season three and he becomes one of the deepest characters on the show. His loyalty to Cesare is admirable, and their bonds only deepen as they realize that they can only truly trust each other. If Micheletto was merely an assassin he would have still been pretty high on my favorite characters list, but being that he was such a complicated character with so many layers made him my favorite character on the show. 

The rest of season three includes Lucrezia's marriage to Alfonso of Aragon (Matty from Skins!) and the power struggles between his brothers. Pope Alexander still seems to love Juan more than Cesare and there is tension between father and son as Cesare does not understand why his father cannot fully love him. In an emotionally charged scene, Jeremy Irons tells Cesare that he cannot love him because he is a perfect reflection of himself to which Cesare asks him, "Do you not love yourself?". It is an exceptionally poignant scene where Pope Alexander finally breaks down and gives his son his blessing to do whatever he needs to thwart the Sforza threat. 

The finale entitled The Prince was another stellar episode on par with some of the best the show has offered. The siege of Forli was a particularly exciting sequence. Cesare has his cannons strategically fire on the foundation so they can topple one of the towers. It was a genius move to mark the weak spot with a white flag after he offered Caterina Sforza false terms of surrender. It was nice to see Micheletto return once more to help his master with some invaluable advice. Gina McKee is great once again as the infinitely defiant Caterina Sforza. She just will not kiss that papal ring under any circumstances. I would love to see her asked to "bend the knee" to King Joffrey on Game of Thrones because she would tell him exactly where he could stick it. Her assassin Rufio has some really interesting scenes which end up going nowhere. I always felt he was grossly underutilized on the show and spent too much time on the sidelines. I believe Micheletto referred to him as being extremely dangerous, and if "the baddest assassin on the planet" says that about you, it is the highest praise. I really wanted to see more of Rufio and was hoping for an eventual showdown with Micheletto. Did Rufio even get to kill anyone? I also would have liked to have at least seen a brief appearance from della Rovere who had been so brilliant on the show. The finale does an admirable job of wrapping up as many storylines as it possibly can but it still ends rather abruptly. The show deserved a better fate and showrunner Neil Jordan should have gotten one more season or at least a movie to give the show its proper conclusion. 

The Borgias was able to give us three thrilling seasons about a family, its rise to power, and its struggle to maintain that power. Jeremy Irons gives a tour de force performance as Pope Alexander VI and anchors an immensely talented ensemble cast. I only wish that we would have been blessed with a fourth season which surely would have been some explosive TV. Historically Cardinal della Rovere becomes Pope Julius II and I would have loved to have seen how Cesare Borgia allowed this to happen right under his nose. A fond farewell to the original crime family. Ave atque vale.

CHECK THESE OUT: The Borgias: The First Season, The Borgias: The Second Season, The Borgias: The Third Season (coming soon) on DVD and Blu-Ray

Article by CJ Ramirez

WHAT: Spartacus

WHY: Wow, it's April 19, 2013, a week after the series finale of Spartacus and I am missing the show already. I thought I would be distracted by all the other excellent fantasy and period piece shows on the air like Game of Thrones, The Borgias, Vikings, and new show Da Vinci's Demons but I still miss me some Spartacus. It was able to carve out its own identity and introduce characters that will forever reside in our hearts. Spartacus was an impressive blend of great characters, truly cunning villains, and epic battles, which made it one of the best shows on TV.

I started watching the show when the inaugural series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, first debuted. However, I almost dropped it from my DVR box. It's not that it was bad by any means, it just started off a bit slow for my liking. There was a lot of exposition, which while necessary felt a little too much at times. It also took a while to get used to its 300-esque visual style and odd mix of ancient dialogue with modern vulgarities. These early weaknesses eventually became a strength of the series and gave it its own signature style. You will eventually be quoting the dialogue on a regular basis and embracing the exaggerated visual style. It certainly took a few episodes to get going but once it hit its stride it did not let up and became captivating TV. 

The first season introduces us to a number of interesting characters. Crixus is a gladiator champion who hazes Spartacus when he first arrives to the arena. Varro, a gladiator who is fighting in the arena so he can settle some outstanding debts and provide for his family, quickly befriends Spartacus. Ashur is a sneaky gladiator wannabe who has a hand in many of the events that occur. The fierce gladiator trainer Oenomaus crafts Spartacus from an undisciplined savage into a true warrior. Last, but certainly not least is the ambitious Batiatus, owner of a gladiator training academy, and his manipulative wife Lucretia. 

Spartacus was portrayed by Andy Whitfield in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Andy WAS Spartacus. His portrayal of the Thracian slave turned champion of the arena was simply captivating. He played the character of Spartacus to perfection. He showed so many sides of Spartacus, he was a fearless, hot-headed, warrior with a tender soul who longed to be reunited with his wife. One minute he was a beast causing carnage in the arena and the next moment he was weeping for a fallen comrade. Andy was able to bring real emotion to the character from the very beginning. The way he mourned his fallen brother in the episode Party Favors was truly emotional. We could feel the torture that he was feeling by looking at his face, wracked with pain. He is able to portray a vicious gladiator in one scene yet the next scene he can be like a whimpering child. Andy made the fans care about Spartacus because he gave an extremely passionate performance. Before the second season started filming, Andy had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The producers of the show decided to make a prequel entitled Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, to delay the filming schedule, hoping Andy would get better and return for a second season.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena was another fantastic season even though it spanned only six episodes. The show was able to continue without Andy because of the great supporting cast from Spartacus: Blood and Sand, a staple of Robert Tapert produced shows like Xena (Bruce Campbell as Autolycus!) and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (Michael Hurst as Iolaus!). There were so many interesting stories to tell in Gods of the Arena and it really elaborated on events from the first season. Crixus, Ashur, and Oenomaus return and become more than just supporting characters. The story for the most part revolves around the excellent Batiatus and his wife Lucretia,  how his ludus developed, and his rivalry with fellow lanista Solonius. Batiatus and his wife Lucretia steal many of the scenes they are in. The prequel also introduced us to the character of Gannicus. The role of this wandering swordsman was cooly played by Dustin Clare. Gannicus is a reckless drunkard with a sharp tongue, who just happens to be the greatest warrior on the planet. I was immediately drawn to his character and he continues to be one of my favorites. Sadly, after the prequel Andy Whitfield passed away from lymphoma. It was devastating news to hear, made even more difficult knowing he had children and a wife. I didn't think there was any way the show could continue because he truly gave a once in a lifetime performance. 

The show would go on with the recasting of Spartacus, and the role went to Liam McIntyre. I was willing to give him a chance as Spartacus but I knew in the back of my mind I would have a hard time accepting it. This was indeed the case. I found the second season, entitled Spartacus: Vengeance, to be quite uneven. There were some great episodes mixed in but there were also several that were just merely OK. I also was having a hard time with Liam as Spartacus, constantly comparing him to Andy. It was just too soon for me. As a result, I found his performance a bit stiff and emotionless compared to Andy's warmth. The recasting of Naevia also bothered me, and affected my enjoyment of the once great undefeated Gaul Crixus. Once a titan of the arena, he was now bewitched and became like a little puppy that followed Naevia's every whim. Also, the great contrast between Crixus as a savage gladiator with a heart and delicate yet wise Naevia was something I really enjoyed. Now, Naevia was reduced to being just another reckless and savage warrior. The new villain Glaber just never resonated like Batiatus did. Ashur however continued to be an intriguing character and was definitely worthy of being called show MVP.

After the unevenness of Spartacus: Vengeance I really had lowered my expectations. Well, what happened was truly surprising. The next and final season, Spartacus: War of the Damned introduced two awesome villains in Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar. It also gave Crassus' son Tiberius a mega heel push where you were just waiting for someone to kill him the whole season. The level of, "Wow, these villains are so amazing", which was sorely lacking during Spartacus: Vengeance was reached once again. And something even more remarkable happened during the season. Liam McIntyre gave an inspired performance this time as Spartacus. I don't know if he got more comfortable with the role or if it was just that it had now been a long time since Andy played the role. Liam truly becomes a leader on screen. He shows real emotion, and gives a dynamic performance, making us feel exactly what he is feeling. He is himself, and does not try to replace the irreplaceable Andy Whitfield. Bravo sir. This invigorated performance along with a breathtaking finale, and new exciting villains helped make this final season a great one.

Speaking of villains, the show has had some of the best villains ever portrayed on the small screen. They keep you coming back for more. Any discussion of villains must begin with that of John Hannah's portrayal of Batiatus. His expert portrayal as gladiator owner Batiatus is the stuff of legends. He gave a commanding performance stealing scene after scene. Batiatus was one of the most cunning villains in television history. He was a master manipulator who would stop at nothing to achieve his lofty goals and protect his own skin. He also has the best phrases of anyone in the series, especially his signature lament of "Jupiter's Cock". The show in fact has a knack for creating great phrases that just get stuck in your head. My sister and I find ourselves quoting them nonstop. "Let us break words" and "Yes, Dominus" just to name a few.

Other villains on the show include former gladiator whipping boy Ashur, who is the slimiest of the bunch, and Roman general Glaber. Ashur is a true snake and even though you are just begging for somebody to kill him, you admire his ability to survive. The man cheats death more times than a cat with nine lives. He does some horrendous things during the course of the show and it seems as if he is never going to get his comeuppance. He truly carries Spartacus: Vengeance and outshines the weaker villain Glaber.

Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar are the main antagonists of the final season. These two formed a sort of two headed beast which I dubbed Crassaesar and proved to be the most formidable foes yet. Caesar is a brash, skilled warrior who proves a very vexing foe for Spartacus and his rebels to handle. He also has a great rivalry with Crassus' son Tiberius which plays out expertly over the course of the season. Crassus is a brilliant strategist who attempts to understand his enemy Spartacus so that he can exploit his weaknesses. His devotion to Rome is unwavering even if it means hurting those he loves. His showdown with Spartacus in the series finale is epic.

The men are not the only ones capable of being great villains. Oh, the women of Spartacus! In particular, Lucy Lawless as Lucretia and Viva Bianca as Illithyia. These women play the politicking game to perfection. As the wife of Batiatus, Lucretia shares many of his cunning traits. She has an intense rivalry with Illithyia and the two are constantly playing psychological mind games with each other. Their rivalry gets real down and dirty and reminded me of the brutal rivalry of Atia and Servilia on HBO's Rome series. Illithyia in particular does some horrible manipulating of Spartacus that is so wicked your jaw will drop.

In addition to the great villains, the action on the show is consistently the best sword fighting on TV. Limbs go flying, blood erupts forth as if from a volcano, and the shows signature camera style exaggerates this to dazzling effect. The contests in the arena are brutal life and death contests that keep us on the edge of our seats since a character can die at any moment. Later on the series depicts many large scale battles with intense ferocity.

The final battle in the series finale is an intense and meaningful affair. The stakes have never been higher since you know that this will be the final battle winner take all. It is not just mindless brutality, not that there is anything wrong with that. It plays out like a chess match between Spartacus and Crassus where each player makes some big moves to checkmate their opponent. It is a fascinating depiction of the strategy of war and a microcosm of the whole season which has been one big chess match between Spartacus and Crassus.

Spartacus will always be Andy Whitfield's show but a great supporting cast, great villains and a brilliant performance by Liam McIntyre in his second go-round make this a truly remarkable show. If you stick with this show to the very end, and I mean like the very very end, like after the credits roll, you too will be shedding a tear and shouting, "I AM SPARTACUS!"

CHECK THESE OUT: Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Spartacus: Gods of The Arena, Spartacus: Vengeance, Spartacus: War of the Damned on DVD and Blu-Ray

Article by CJ Ramirez

WHAT: Banshee

WHY: Banshee is the story of a thief, recently released from prison, who flees to the imaginary town of Banshee Pennsylvania (yes, indeed I had to look up if it was real or not , alas it does not exist much like the town of Twin Peaks) to escape a Ukrainian gangster. It is an exciting action-packed show with many twists and turns and fits perfectly with the other Cinemax original series shows Strike Back and Hunted. It is filled with great characters, multiple interesting villains, and top-notch action sequences. The executive producer of the show is Alan Ball of Six Feet Under and True Blood fame, which practically guarantees the show will be taking place in a small town with big secrets.

The town of Banshee Pennsylvania is indeed a small town located in the heart of Amish country. The show masterfully depicts the divergence between the Amish lifestyle and the modern lifestyle of the rest of the town. There is a rich history there, especially referring to the origin of villain Kai Proctor who used to be a member of the Amish community but was shunned for his crimes and desires to break away from tradition. There is an interesting dynamic here between Kai (and later his niece) and his Amish ancestors. Proctor is trying to take over the entire town of Banshee and he is a very powerful and in some cases respected figure. However, the people around Banshee have heard stories of his transgressions and many of them fear him. Proctor is not the only one with things to hide in the town of Banshee. The recently incarcerated thief flees to Banshee in order to keep a low profile and evade the Ukrainian gangster known as Rabbit. Through an auspicious sequence of events he is able to assume the identity of the local sheriff Lucas Hood and obscure his real identity from the town. Several other characters living in Banshee are also living double lives. 

Alan Ball has also always associated himself with shows that have unique characters, and great supporting casts. Banshee is no exception. Two of the most interesting supporting characters are Job and Kai Proctor's right-hand man Burton. Job is an Asian drag queen who moonlights as a hairdresser but is also an expert computer hacker. He helps Sheriff Hood escape from danger on numerous occasions. Burton looks like an accountant with his glasses, suit, bowtie, and extremely unassuming demeanor. However, we soon find out that he is much more capable than he looks.

The hero of the show is Sheriff Hood, perhaps more appropriately referred to as the anti-hero. Hood was a former thief and convict who had done numerous bad things in his past. After being released from prison he is still not afraid to bend the rules. First off, he steals the identity of the sheriff of Banshee without thinking twice. Second, he kills numerous people, and assaults others in broad daylight while being an officer of the law. His penchant for sex in public restrooms can either be viewed as a crime or pastime depending on your views. We are often unsure of his true motivations and the lines between good and bad remain blurred. Is Hood a good guy? Did he do this all for love? Is he just a selfish thief looking out for his own life? Hood is a very complex character that we root for, despite his flaws, yet we remain simultaneously suspicious of his motivations.

As I always say, good villains make heroes better and subsequently make the shows they are on better as well. Banshee has two such villains. First up is Kai Proctor whose goal is to acquire every piece of property in Banshee Pennsylvania as if it were some sort of monopoly board. His methods are usually very underhanded and he is not afraid to use violence as a means to an end. Like Hood, Proctor is a multidimensional character who exhibits qualities of both a hero and a villain. Kai Proctor grew up as part of the Amish community but was shunned for his actions. He is an ambitious man who now uses all of the technology the world has to offer, and is also well trained in martial arts. His relationship with his beautiful niece best exhibits the blurring of good and bad. He takes her in after she is shunned herself by the Amish community and he looks out for her, and even has the local bar owner Sugar call him when she shows up at the bar and gets into trouble. He genuinely cares for her but sometimes we can't tell if he is just being a protective uncle, since other times, based on his actions, it looks like he is attracted to her. We never can tell if he is really being a genuinely good person since his motivations are hard to read like Hood.

The second villain is the Russian gangster who is pursuing Hood known as Rabbit. He is more of a traditional villain in that the lines between good and bad are not particularly blurry here. He is willing to murder, maim and hurt his own family in order to get revenge on Hood for past transgressions. Rabbit is expertly portrayed by Ben Cross as a cold and calculating individual. He may come off as a common brute but he is certainly no fool.  Besides his violent streak, he is able to get in the head of Hood and other enemies of his. In fact, Hood knows he is in over his head when Rabbit pursues him that he is forced to ask for help from the most unlikeliest of sources.

These two villains are a joy to watch and it is also interesting to see the similarities and differences between their methods. A third group, the Kinaho tribe leaders also get in on some of the villainous action as the season progresses. Speaking of action, the Banshee has some of the best action on television.

Banshee in my opinion has the best fights on television today. Let me clarify that, the best fight scenes that don't involve a sword like Spartacus (Apologies, Dominus) or Game of Thrones (Blackwater!). The fights are extremely well choreographed. The creators really took the time to flesh out detailed moves for all of the combatants. And speaking of time, these are not just quick thirty second fights. In terms of TV time, these are some lengthy contests. There are many fights on the first season of the show but the four major ones are Hood vs the Albino which is over two minutes, Hood vs Kai which is about two and a half, Hood vs the mixed-martial arts fighter at a little under four minutes and last but certainly not least Anastasia vs Olek which clocks in at a little under four and a half minutes. As pro wrestling fans know, time can be the difference between a good and great match. It is nice to know the producers allowed enough time for the participants to truly cut loose. Kicks, punches, elbows, and triangle chokes are all fair game. Not to mention chairs, knives, and using the environment as a weapon. These are all brutal close quarters contests with blood, broken limbs, and even dismemberment par for the course. 

The hand to hand/foot contests are not the only fights on the show. Gangsters tend to like their firearms and there are plenty of them as well. In fact, the huge gunfight at the end of the season is quite impressive and would make Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pretty jealous. 

Banshee is a great new show that perfectly complements the other original Cinemax action shows. It is an action-packed thrill ride in a small town that is hiding many secrets. Complex heroes and villains, an interesting supporting cast and the best damn hand to hand fighting sequences on TV today make Banshee a show that should not be missed.

CHECK THIS OUT: Banshee: Season One on DVD and Blu-Ray

Article by CJ Ramirez

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