Saturday, August 30, 2014

THE WALKING DEAD SEASON FOUR: TV'S BEST DRAMA REMAINS UNRECOGNIZED

So the Emmy awards have come and gone for another year and once again the best drama to be found on television has been snubbed. I'm talking about THE WALKING DEAD which is indeed the best drama found right now. Don't poo poo me and suggest that I don't know what I'm talking about or bypass this show simply because of the title and the horror filled storyline on display. That's the same mistake the Emmy folks continue to make year after year. Instead they should focus on what the real story is here. Not zombies but people.

If you haven't seen the previous four years of the show then stop reading and go back and do so. If you have then know that the release to DVD of Season Four holds so many great items for you to see that as they unfold you'll find yourself both screaming at the TV because of what's happening or tearfully sitting on your couch joyous that you do not have to live in the world portrayed here. The series picks up with the survivors getting along fine in the world they've created for themselves in the prison having defeated the Governor at the end of season three. But things are a bit different.

Series centerpiece Rick Grimes continues to feel the need to protect the people he's taken in but his friend Hershel has convinced him it's time to lay down his sword and take the time to raise his family now. This works for a time but the inner beast set loose upon the world by Grimes remains just beneath the surface ready to come forth should the need arise. Unfortunately for Rick that need comes up more than once in this season.

The first half of the season takes place mostly in the prison as people begin to adapt. And then problems begin when a simple virus nearly wipes them out. As one group goes off to find the medicines necessary to save them all the rest eventually have to contend with the long lost Governor who returns to seek vengeance. While he gets plenty of air time for his own adaptation to the world around him, the pure evil that drives him remains and he sets his sights on Rick and his people. But again, that's just the first half of the season.

I hate to reveal much of the second half because it would spoil one of the biggest events in season four. Suffice to say that things change leaving Rick wounded both mentally and physically. It also places his son Carl in the role of adult having to take care of Rick. The relationship between the two is put to the test in the second half here. More than that the caged animal that has long resides within Rick breaks out once again as it has in the past revealing an opponent that you would not want to be on the bad side of.

As I said at the beginning, most people only see the name of the series or hear that it involves zombies and turn their noses up at it. The truth of the matter though is that while there are some amazing special make up effects to be viewed here, the amount of screen time actually given to the zombies and mayhem that surrounds them is rather small. Instead the story here revolves more around the various characters and how they interact with one another. It's not just how they behave because of the zombies but also how they act with one another given the circumstances around them and between each other. There are jaw dropping moments, moments that will make you shed tears and moments where you will feel frustrated as you realize that there is no other course for them to take but the one they do.

There were moments in this season as with the previous three where I just sat stunned as I watched the story unfold in a direction I never saw coming. There were also moments when I yelled in anger at the screen as characters were wrung through the ringer by the situations around them. And then there was that moment of joy near the very end when Rick sums up what we all felt from the start concerning the group. Split apart due to circumstances I haven't revealed they come together once again. Now all we can do is wait till season five to find out the results of their reunion.

As if the act of storytelling here wasn't enough to make this the best drama on television the combination of directing and acting make this must see TV. There isn't a single performance that doesn't ring true here. I constantly say that the best actors are the ones where I don't even notice that they're acting. Instead I completely buy into their performance as being that person I see on screen. My mind may know different but the way they work here makes the suspension of belief quite easy to do.

Don't let yourself be fooled that this is a simple horror tale that comes on every week. Don't let yourself be led to believe that the show is about nothing but zombies. Realize that it has more to do with the characters and their interaction with one another more than anything. Many of the best moments are ones that involve no creatures or effects at all, just two people talking to one another. When you realize this and watch, you'll find that the show is as I've said the best drama on TV. Now if only those in charge of the Emmys would take notice.

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THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE: THE 2ND GREATEST HAUNTED HOUSE MOVIE EVER MADE

So my guess is the immediate question is what is number one? That is reserved for, and always will be in my mind, Robert Wise' THE HAUNTING. That movie set the stage for haunted house films. The great thing is that this movie tips its hat to that film in the extras. This is not to say that his film doesn't deserve great rewards though. It stands out as an amazing movie in the genre, filled with enough scares to haunt your dreams and enough great moments to deserve a spot in the horror hall of fame.

If you've never seen the movie this is your chance. Shout Factory has gone out of their way to present the film in all of its eerie glory with a transfer that doesn't overly clean up the print but allows it to retain that fog shrouded walk to the house as it was first seen and presents it much as I recall seeing it that first time as a second billed film at the drive in. Too bad they didn't realize that the better film that night was this one, so good that I can't even recall what the first movie was after all these years.

The story takes place in the Belasco house, a home said to contain the most evil of spirits. The current owner employs Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) to give him conclusive proof that there is or is not life after death. To do so he gives him one week inside the house with all expenses to get his equipment there. He also insists that a select team accompany Barrett including a psychic named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and the only survivor of a previous effort to the house, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowell). If they make it through the week and return with the answers he seeks, each will be paid handsomely.

Joining the group is Barrett's wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt). While Barrett thinks she should sit this one out, she insists on accompanying him to help. As the four enter the grounds of the house the surrounding area is covered with fog. Opening the door they find the area prepped for them already with electricity running and the house prepped with food and needed supplies.

Once they settle in they have a séance. During this whatever spirit resides in the house manifests itself through Florence, first with ectoplasm emanating from her fingertips and then speaking through her. Warned to leave they fail to follow the advice of the spirit and things go from bad to worse.

Through the first part of the film Fischer stands or sits tentatively saying very little, choosing his words carefully. Eventually he tells them the story of what happened before and how he was fortunate enough to survive. Through it all Barrett disbelieves the existence of a malevolent spirit, a man of science who believes this is nothing more than trapped energy within the house. But Fischer and Florence try to tell him that there is more here than energy, a presence that once lived here is at work. Florence believes it to be someone in need of help. Fischer knows it is something more, something that is pure evil.

That should be enough story to set up what you will experience when watching this movie. More happens, trust me, some of it frightening and much of it thought provoking. For being made in 1973 the effects are quite well done and the movie, much like THE HAUNTING, doesn't overly rely on the effects to frighten or move the story forward. Instead it lets the actors move about freely in their characters with each ones quirks and beliefs as they are manipulated by the spirits that haunt this mansion, evil spirits that are not fully revealed until the end.

Based on the novel by the late Richard Matheson, the movie tones down much of what the book contained. The amount of sexual depravity the book's Belasco brought in to the house is extremely lowered and yet the film contains enough hints at this and that to make you realize how depraved he truly was. While watching I felt that it had enough of that part of the story to make the movie not one for young impressionable children and yet at the same time not enough to offend sensitive adults. . It retains enough of the story to make it a truly scary film.

At the same time you must consider that this film was made in the seventies. Had it been made today I'm certain that there would be gratuitous amounts of nudity and debauchery witnessed on screen. Perhaps the fact that it isn't included here makes this film better. Rather than rely on the latest hot actress with the newest implants this movie focuses instead on the actual haunting going on and the effect it has on these four and that's what makes it both believable and frightening.

For fans of the film the extras are limited but good ones worth paying attention to. Included is, of course, the original theatrical trailer. But you also have an audio track during the film done by Franklin which gives some insight into the process of making the movie and an interview with director John Hough that is filled with some wonderful information as well. Once again Scream/Shout Factory has done a tremendous job in bringing to life a movie that got a lackluster release prior to this one, a first time blu-ray edition. For movie fans and horror fans alike, this one is worth adding to your collection.

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GINGER SNAPS: MOVIE AS METAPHOR

Movies as metaphors (that is a movie whose plot discusses a topic while not exactly using the original idea as the plot) work either extremely well or fall flat on their face. I can't recall a movie as metaphor ever just sort of working. When they fail they do so miserably. When they succeed they just make the movie that much better. Such is the case with GINGER SNAPS.

While most teen movies discuss the problems they all face (i.e. acne, dating, peer pressure) it is rare that they discuss things like puberty, especially the monthly changes that women experience. Sure it was touched on in CARRIE but never to the degree that it gets in this film. And here it combines the literal changes right beside the metaphorical ones.

Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) are two awkward sisters, outcast among the teens in their school. Obsessed with their kinship, given to that dark and brooding teen sensibility and a fascination with death, the two have made a pact to die together at 16. Ginger is there, Brigitte is a year away.

One night when they sneak out of the house, they are attacked by something that has been killing animals in their neighborhood. It turns out the creature that attacks them is a werewolf and while Brigitte survives intact, Ginger has shredded limbs and bite marks. As they run to escape the attacking werewolf they cross a street in front of a van that smashes the werewolf.

Returning home they notice immediately that Ginger's wounds have already begun to heel themselves. As the days progress more changes in Ginger become apparent: a sense of empowerment, a confidence that was lacking before, an aggressive nature against the bully that constantly taunted Brigitte and a certain amount of sexual appetite heretofore unseen. Unaware of most of the changes their mother (Mimi Rogers) explains it all as her daughter "becoming a woman". But Brigitte knows the truth of the matter.

As the bond between sisters begins to weaken while Ginger slowly changes, Brigitte finds a friend in Sam (Kris Lemche), a weed selling greenhouse owner whose van was the vehicle that killed the werewolf. He wants to know exactly what it was he killed and a picture Brigitte dropped has given him a clue. Their friendship grows while the sister's bond lessens, all in the hopes of finding a cure for Ginger before it is too late.

All of this is the meat and potatoes of the story but it is the garnish that makes this film work on all levels. The usual werewolf concepts are turned on their head in some cases and explored by the sisters in their search for a cure. An incredible amount of humor is mixed with the cautionary tale here that works so well that you find yourself fearful one moment and laughing in the next. Not since SHALLOW HAL has a tail garnered this much screen time. All of it jells to make a movie that is both frightening and fun at the same time.

Isabelle's performance here as the changing Ginger is wonderful as she transforms not from human to monster but from backwards semi-Goth to high school temptress. It's not just the make up and appearance that makes the change work so well it's the performance combined with that.

Equally up to the challenge is Perkins as the backwards Brigitte. The make up department had to work equally well to give her a plain Jane look, not quite homely but an appearance that doesn't give her a chance to stand out. Here too if it were not for the performance she offers the make up would not have worked.

I remember seeing this long ago when it first came out and not thinking much of it. I'm glad I had the chance to revisit this film. I found myself captivated by the movie drawn into the story and enjoying it much more than I did the first time around. Scream Factory has outdone themselves with the quality of the movie, offering a clean yet not overly done print that surpasses any offered before. The extras give us a glimpse into what the director, writer and crew were attempting here (and succeeding at) and are as enjoyable as the movie. In the end this is one to add to any growing horror fan collection and worth watching for all others. You won't be sorry you did so. Now it's time to see if Scream Factory will do the same with the sequel.

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HEAVEN IS FOR REAL: THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE



I'll be up front with this review in stating that I am a Christian and do believe. Knowing that will give you the opportunity to know where I am coming from in what I choose to say about HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, the movie based on the best selling book. That being said know that the answer to the question is Heaven real or not isn't exactly spelled out for you in this film. Instead it allows you to come to your own conclusion. Believers will believe and doubters will continue to doubt. I just hope rather than walking in without an open mind you consider the possibility.

The story revolves around the Burpo family. Todd (Greg Kinnear) is a hard working father of two and a minister in a local church. Sonja (Kelly Reilly) is his ever loving wife. Their children are Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum). The family has the normal trials and tribulations that all families seem to have except that they seem to have more of them lately. The one that changes their lives though is when Colton takes ill.

It turns out he had a burst appendix and they may not have gotten him to the hospital in time. While Sonja calls church members to send out a prayer request, Todd retires to the hospital chapel where he raises his voice in anger at God. When all is said and done, Colton makes it through surgery and is fine. But he has something a little extra.

It seems that while Colton was undergoing surgery he says that he heard angels singing and followed them into their church. Instead of the normal building he entered Heaven where he met with Jesus who set him on his lap and talked with him before showing him around. Todd is fascinated by Colton's story. Unlike most he believes there is some truth in it. Why? Because Colton tells him he saw his mother sending out the phone call for prayer and he saw his father yelling at God.

The film then follows the quest of answers that this poses for Todd. While he's been a wonderful minister and done well with his parish, increasing attendance, he begins to question his own faith. He looks back at the words he's preached week after week and begins to wonder if he truly believed all that he said. But is it really a question of faith? What Colton tells him makes him believe more deeply in God. What it also does is make him realize that there was some pride involved in his preaching, some bit of himself that made the words more superficial than real to him. Just how Colton's visit to Heaven affects not just his father but the entire congregation makes for a fascinating movie.

It is also a movie that is sure to spark controversy among believers and non-believers alike. Some may think this is the story of a young toddler with an over active imagination. Others will consider it a blessing in the guise of a child's observation of what lies beyond. Until we pass on we will never know the definitive answer to the question posed by this film. For those who believe faith is enough to know that it's real.

The movie is extremely well made with some of the most gorgeous scenery captured on film in recent years. It moves along at a steady pace, never becoming boring or slow but revealing the story in a way that holds your interest from beginning to end. Each and every performance meets what I consider the markings of the best. That is that at no time do you ever think that what you are seeing is actors acting. Instead you believe that each is the character they portray. The movie will touch you like few movies do these days.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this movie is the backlash it and the book have already received. Interestingly enough those who do not believe in faith seem to be much more vocal than those who have it. They claim anyone with faith is intolerant while ranting about how those with faith should be silenced. Those who do not believe have accused this story of being fabricated by a con artist of a minister intent on telling tall tales rather than a man offering proof of his faith as seen through the eyes of his child. I often wonder why it is those who do not believe feel the need to attempt to take down those who do.

In the end I will say again that your own personal beliefs will in no doubt affect the way you view this movie. There is also the chance that for those who do not believe it might make you at least consider the possibility that there is indeed a Heaven. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could at least consider that notion? For me I'll continue to believe. And once in a while I'll pull this movie down off the shelf and watch it again for a bit of renewal when needed. It's worth adding to your collection and watching more than once.

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CURTAINS: PERFECT EXAMPLE OF 80'S SLASHER MOVIE

Those of us old enough to remember can recall a time when slasher movies were everywhere back in the 80's. It seemed like they made a quick visit to the local theater and then filled the shelves of video stores left and right. Some were good, some were bad, but most were similar in content and were not too terrible to watch. It was a time when horror was beginning to become a normal staple of film having been subjected to a once every five year cycle. That has played out to a time now when nearly every week we see several horror films arriving on the DVD shelf.

Among the films being released now are those classic slasher films from the 80's, including the release from Synapse of CURTAINS. Following the formula of a masked killer taking out multiple characters it's actually not a bad film even though it was surrounded by controversy when it was released. That controversy had nothing to do with people being offended by the content but with the film itself, originally directed by Richard Ciupka but taken from his hands and re-edited and shot by producer Peter Simpson. Simpson had a reputation for being difficult to please and that story is best told here in the extras portion of the disc.

The story revolves around a group of actresses gathered at a country retreat to audition for the part of Audra, a role and film that's the pet project of director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon). When the film opens we witness Stryker help admit actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) into a mental hospital supposedly disguised as a patient. All of this is a way for her to get deeper into the motivations of the character of Audra, to gain insight into what it means to be a mental patient. The problem is that the longer she's there, the closer she becomes the patient she is to play. But is she really becoming that insane character or is it acting on her part?

Suffice to say that years go by and eventually Stryker decides to make the film using a new lead actress. Sherwood hears about this and escapes from the mental ward determined to retake the role intended for her. The problem is there are several other actresses all heading to a remote country estate with that same goal in mind. One is a fading star, another a sexpot, one an ice skating star, a hopeful stand up comedian and more. Each actress is willing to do almost anything to get the part.

As the weekend progresses Stryker tests each actress for the role in various ways. At the same time the girls suddenly begin being killed by a mysterious murderer wearing an old woman mask. Just which one of them is the killer so determined to get this part that they're willing to take out the competition in such a drastic way? Did Sherwood really snap while in the mental ward? Or is it one of the other ingénues seeking fame and fortune?

While the extras talk about the fact that the film was taken over by Simpson who had a completely different take on the material and how it would look, the combining of the two different shoots on the film is relatively unnoticeable. Had I not know that it was going on I probably wouldn't have noticed. When you're aware of this fact sure you notice. Otherwise you just enjoy this as another 80's slasher movie. That's what Simpson wanted where as Ciupka was going for a more stylish film in the vein of DON'T LOOK NOW. This combination of different movies plays well rather than suffer from the melding of the two different takes on the same story.

The acting on display here, from major stars towards the end of their careers to new actresses hoping to ride the wave to stardom, is actually quite good. It's actually a step above what most films of this genre tended to offer. Vernon also does a great job as the director obsessed with a movie that means everything to him. How each brings their character to life here shows they were up to the challenge of making the film believable.

That being said the movie is no high handed drama. It remains a slasher film. This genre was all about finding ways to kill off characters in various means while at the same time keeping the viewer unaware of just who was doing the murders. Consider it a who-dun-it filled with more gore than those stories contain. At the same time realize that the gore factor for 1983 when the film came out is far tamer than we see now. TV series like THE WALKING DEAD have more gross out scenes in one episode than this entire movie. And still it all works.

Synapse has done a great job with the release of this movie to blu-ray. The quality of the transfer is wonderful. The extras included are great as well, giving more background to the making of this film than most features receive. It's interesting to go back and watch the film again after watching that background information. If you're a fan of those 80's slasher films then you'll not only want to watch this film but add it to your collection as well. It's a quality release of a genre that needs to be remembered.

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DIVERGENT: THE NEW TEEN FRANCHISE

One thing is certain when it comes to movies being made in Hollywood. If it's at all possible any movie made will come down to marketability and the chance to spin it off into a series if at all possible. Now when someone can find a series of books to turn into movies it just makes that so much better for them. Does it mean movie goers will get something special? Well, some times yes and some times no. The first two major franchises in the teen/action genre, TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES, have both been pretty good. But what about DIVERGENT?

After the great wars things changed and people were segregated into five factions, groups that all contribute to the greater good of the whole by performing tasks set for each faction. Abnegation believes in public service for the greater good and taking care of others. Erudite are the intelligent group built upon knowledge. Amity is the peaceful group that takes care of food. Candor handles legal matters and deals with total honesty. Lastly is Dauntless, the warriors and protectors of the whole. There is actually a sixth group, Factionless, composed of people who fit into no group.

Shailene Woodley stars as Tris, a teenager in the future living in this world, what is left of Chicago. Her family is part of the Abnegation faction but she dreams of being in Dauntless. As teens reach a certain age they are tested to see what faction they naturally belong in. The woman giving Tris her tests is stunned at the results and tells her to let no one know what they were. Tris is divergent, meaning she possesses skills in all five groups and is considered dangerous to society.

When the chance to choose arises, Tris picks Dauntless and begins life as a trainee in the group. The challenges they go through are incredibly physical and demanding but she carries on. She catches the attention of two very different leaders: Four (Theo James) who attempts to help in her training and Eric (Jai Courtney), the main leader of the band who tries to find ways to eliminate her when she displays leadership skills that might one day rival his own.

The storyline here runs down two paths, the first being the training of Tris and her trying to hide what her true nature is. To show she has too much aptitude would be to reveal herself but if she doesn't make the cut when the final test comes about, she could be eliminated altogether and sent out into the Factionless group. The second story line runs alongside this one with the Erudite planning something big that is revealed near the last 45 minutes of the film. I won't spoil it by letting you know what that is. How Tris handles both paths as they converge into one makes for much of the drama here. How she handles Four and falls for him inserts the romance that these teen franchises crave.

So does it hold up in the long run? I would say yes it does. The movie offers and entertaining action film in a world of the future. Like both TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES it features young people in roles once populated by middle aged males. Instead the action becomes theirs as do the romances between characters. With teens making up the major portion of the movie going audience this should make it a guarantee to fill seats. But don't let that prevent older movie lovers from enjoying this film as well. It delivers the goods from start to finish and you'll find yourself cheering for Tris before the end of the movie.

While I sometimes think the whole concept of franchise films has potential the fear that Hollywood will exclude anything else remains. Thankfully the star of this film, Woodley, has been given several great roles in the past few years including starring in THE FAULR OF OUR STARS and THE DESCENDANTS. It shows that there is some faith in her ability to not only star in a series but in independent storylines as well. As long as that continues I'm all for the franchises to carry on. With three more movies already in the works for this series I'm sure we'll be able to see what happens down the road.

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ELEMENTARY SEASON 2: HOLMES CONTINUES TO AMAZE

I reviewed season one of this series before and spoke of how wonderful it was. One would think it would fall far short of continuing that ability in its sophomore slump. It's a delight to let you know that the series continues to be a great series that continues to do the character well.

For those who missed season one add it to your collection, watch it and then make sure you purchase this one as well. If you missed it, the series plants Sherlock Holmes into the 21st century in the form of Johnny Lee Miller. Miller's portrayal finds Sherlock an ex-drug addict trying to remain sober by involving himself in the solving of crimes in New York City. Accompanying him through these adventures is his sober coach Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) who not only helps him through each case but becomes a student of his crime solving techniques with the hope of one day becoming a certified sleuth in her own right. Each week another crime calls upon them to assist local chief detective Captain Thomas Gregson (Aidan Quinn).

So what works in this series? Everything. Miller's Holmes isn't always the purest of heroes at times but he is still the ever self assured character that those who loved to books and earlier incantations that we have come to love as seen on screen. He's quirky as all get out, always seems on edge and ready to jump and is almost never wrong in any and all solutions that he brings about in the cases he investigates. At the same time the characters edge here is seen in his boredom felt when there are no new cases or cases that actually give him the rush he needs in being difficult rather than simple. Helping him through those times this season is Joan's interest in becoming his pupil. Mentoring her to become his protégé gives him new meaning.

This season also offers some glimpses into Holmes past beginning with a case taking place in London and involving another protégé of Holmes, Inspector Lestrade (Sean Pertwee). It turns out that Lestrade used Holmes to help solve cases while taking credit for them himself. Now he finds himself in a jam since Holmes move to NYC has left him alone. All he needs is Holmes assistance in another high profile crime. It seems Lestrade has demons of his own, an addiction to fame and fortune. How Holmes aids him here sets the stage for another appearance of the same character later in the season and Pertwee does a tremendous job here.

We also get to see more of Holme's brother Mycroft as played by Rhys Ifans. It seems that Mycroft, a restaurateur, has opened a new restaurant in NYC much to the displeasure of Holmes. Sherlock views this as an attempt to plant Mycroft there to watch over him by his father. In truth, Mycroft does indeed hope to make a success of the new place and to give him a chance to romance Joan, something else that displeases Sherlock. The interaction between the three characters gives them more depth than on display in season one.

While the entire season is filled with various cases that call upon Sherlock to solve them, we are also moved along in watching Watson develop her own skills as a detective at the same time. This is not the bumbling Watson as seen in the old Rathbone/Brice movies of the past, this is a self assured woman who at times doesn't live up to Holmes brilliance and at others equals his abilities. She is learning quite well but still falls a tad short of his abilities, forcing him to grow fonder of her as time passes.

The season ends with a two parter involving Mycroft that offers a few surprises for all involved.  When it ends no one will be left untouched by the events that unfold and things will be set for more surprises next season. That's a good thing because through it all the series entertains from start to finish, something many shows these days fail to do.

There are no bad performers here. Miller is fantastic as Holmes, Liu is amazing in what could have been a much smaller role, Quinn is believably baffled by some of the cases and yet not the bumbling Lestrade seen in the old films and Ifans as Mycroft becomes one of the most tragic character seen on TV. All of these performances do nothing but elevate this series above most.

If you're a fan of Sherlock Holmes, or even if you're not, then by all means you should be watching this series. Season two moves the series forward in so many ways, all of them positive. As I said earlier, this is one that you not only need to see but to add to your collection. It remains one of the best shows on TV. Purchasing both season 1 and 2 and watching them also gives you a chance to get on board before season 3 begins.

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