*TV SERIES RECAP: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

You don’t have to care, like, or even understand chess to be fascinated by it and to admire those who have mastered it. There are only two chess-related movies that I have thoroughly enjoyed: Pawn Sacrifice (2014) and Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993). They are both based on real-life characters.

There is also an excellent book that I love; The Eight (1988), a beautifully written novel by Katherine Neville, about the quest to track down a chess-set that belonged to King Charlemagne — it remains one of my all-time favorite works of historical fiction.

And it is safe to say that I can now include The Queen’s Gambit as a new personal all-time favorite when it comes to chess-related works of historical fiction.

The Queen’s Gambit is based on the 1983 Walter Tevis novel by the same name. I have never read any of his books, but I’ve been searching for a mass market paperback copy of The Steps of the Sun by Walter Tevis for a while now. Original editions of Tevis’s books have become very popular and expensive as of late — even used and somewhat worn down paperback copies are selling at higher prices than average. But I’m not complaining; I’m glad they are in high demand — Still, I’m planning to hold off until prices come down a bit.

This Netflix 7 episode series is about a Kentucky orphan on a quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. We follow Beth (Anya Taylor-joy) from the moment her mother kills herself by driving straight into oncoming traffic with young Beth in the backseat. She is placed in an all-girls 1950s orphanage where the children are given a daily diet of tranquilizers until Beth develops a pill addiction, which she carries into adulthood.

She meets the school janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who teaches her chess and becomes an early mentor and father figure. Bill Camp is always great in everything he does, and he is great here also. Beth Eventually gets adopted by a childless couple, and her journey into chess competitions begins soon after.

There is an extremely high level of quality to the production of this show. The set designs, costumes are all well put together. The chess competitions and chess matches are smartly portrayed. The tension is palpable in just about every chess match. The speed-chess scenes were remarkable. There is engaging and precise world-building that will make you want to become part of the world that these characters inhabit. However, this show is much more than only chess competitions and the mental stress of chess. It is about addiction, childhood trauma, feminism, and communism. Plus, it tackles mental health issues and the thin line between genius and madness.

The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother, Alma (Marielle Heller), is crucial to the plot. Alma’s self-discovery journey late in life after her husband leaves her is parallel to Beth’s journey. Marielle Heller is outstanding here playing this functioning alcoholic, coping with 1950s housewife life, while at the same time abusing alcohol and cigarettes.

The casting of all the supporting characters is on point here. The young Russian chess prodigy is a scene-stealer played by Louis George Ashbourne Serkis (Andy Serkis’ son). Young Beth (Isla Johnston) is just about identical to older Beth — easily could be the same person. Jolene (Moses Ingram) is solid as a fellow orphan and Beth’s closest friend. The two chess-head brothers who travel from tournament to tournament are hilarious. Even all of the cold war era Russian chess champions that Beth plays against are well cast.

Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) is praiseworthy as Beth’s first tough tournament competitor and eventual friend/lover. Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is exceptional as this weird and eccentric US chess champion; he competes against Beth and later befriends her. Her platonic relationship with former chess competitor turned photojournalist Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is another critical component of Beth’s personality and psychology. There is plenty of symbolism in the type of relationships she has with all the men in her life.

Anya Taylor-Joy is unbelievably good here, in a captivating and soulful performance. This is a complex character with deep psychological issues. Beth has an amazing mind, but alcohol and pills fuel her strategic vision for chess. Her psychological dependence on pills and alcohol are an intricate part of her process of finding focus and finding clarity when envisioning chess techniques and strategies. But at the same time, they are also threatening to become her undoing. Beth can be sweet, charming, and messed up all at once, and Anya Taylor-Joy captures all the complexities of this character beautifully.

The Queen’s Gambit gets better and better with every single episode. The writing, acting, and directing are brilliantly brought together. I felt like it could have been two episodes longer. Nevertheless, Netflix has once again delivered another excellent limited series.

Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿

The Queen’s Gambit (2020). Streaming on Netflix.

*TV SERIES RECAP: COBRA KAI (Season 3)

First of all, I’m a true O.G. fan of this series — I watched the first season the same week it initially dropped on YouTube Red way back in 2018. I think it took me a couple of nights to watch the whole thing; I would watch it late at night after getting home from work — I pretty much did the same thing when the second season moved over to Netflix.

Needless to say, I binged the fuck out of season 3 the same day it dropped on Netflix. I watched the whole thing in one sitting on New Years Day — it was an excellent way to start 2021.

Season 2 ended with this insanely well-choreographed High School fight scene between the rival Dojos of Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai. Which ended on a cliffhanger with Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) going over a stairwell down a few stories and landing on a railing, leaving him paralyzed and in a coma.

Robby (Tanner Buchanan) is on the run from the cops for kicking Miguel over the stairwell and leaving him in a coma. Robby is more of an outsider in this season; He feels betrayed by all the people he once trusted.

Season 3 is darker than the first two seasons, and all of our favorite characters are in a state of disarray, but the rivalry between the two Dojos is the one true constant throughout season 3. Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel La Russo (Ralph Macchio) are still beefing with each other just like in the previous two seasons.

Here is where our three main characters and the rest of the Karate Kids find themselves:

DANIEL LA RUSSO:

Daniel is in a tough spot with his car dealership — His top competitor is making deals with Daniel’s Japanese business partner, threatening to shut Daniel off from his Japanese car importer. And in a desperate attempt to save his dealership, Daniel goes back to Japan to try to work things out with his car distributor, Doyona International. While in Japan, Daniel decides to visit Mr. Miyagi’s Tomi village in Okinawa. Tomi village has completely changed to how it looked in Karate Kid II, and now it resembles a typical American town center, full of name-brand American retail shops.

Here Daniel reunites with Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) and Chozen (Yuji Okumoto). This Karate Kid II reunion perfectly nails the Karate Kid franchise’s essence, and it filled me with warm nostalgia for these characters. Chozen teaching Daniel new techniques and pressure points was one of the highlights of season 3. Chozen should return in season 4; maybe this time around, he can visit Daniel in the States.

JOHNNY LAWRENCE:

Season 2 ended with Jon Kreese (Martin Kove) taking back control over Cobra Kai Dojo, casting out Johnny and leaving him in a bad spot. Also, Johnny received a notification on Facebook that Ali Mills (Elizabeth Shue) had accepted his friend request….more on her later.

Johnny is still trying hard to make amends with Robby, but Robby wants nothing to do with him. The relationship between Miguel and Johnny continues to be central to developing his character and the overall plotline, especially as Johnny attempts to help Miguel with his recovery— Johnny’s rehab techniques are ridiculous and outlandish. Still, you have to suspend disbelief and go along with it for the sake of the story. There are some bizarre scenes, like when Johnny sets fire to Miguel’s feet to see if he feels anything or when he dangles an old porn magazine from the 80s over Miguel’s head so he can reach out and grab it.

We also get more of Bobby (Ron Thomas) in this season. Bobby’s expanded role in season 3 is great; he provides a bridge to the original Karate Kid film and to Johnny Lawrence.

Johnny’s relationship with Miguel’s mom Carmen (Vanessa Rubio), continues to grow this season. Carmen begins to sees that Johnny is a good man underneath it all. However, Ali Mills (Elizabeth Shue) returning to the Valley and to Johnny’s life throws him for a loop. He seems conflicted between Ali and Carmen — I think this whole love interest conflict stuff is critical for the growth and development of the Johnny Lawrence character and his road to redemption.

I’m happy to see Carmen given more screen time this season — I still believe that she might be connected to Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) or Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) from The Karate Kid III movie. She did say that Miguel’s father was “a very bad man.” And those two are both very bad dudes indeed.

JOHN KREESE:

Now back in charge of Cobra Kai Dojo, Kreese reverts to his original philosophies of the Karate Kid Movies with “Strike Hard, Strike First, No Mercy,”…. and the whole idea of the “Enemy” is out there type of stuff.

However, Kreese gets his moment in the sun here — he gets to be humanized a bit with flashbacks to his younger days. We get to see John Kreese’s origin story and his time in the Vietnam War. We learned that his mother was an alcoholic and committed suicide. We get to see where Kreese got his initial Karate training and philosophies and how those philosophies are rooted in his military experience. We get hints of a young Terry Silver as one of the members of his military team. The whole Vietnam flashback stuff is full of easter eggs and teasers for season 4… I think.

Also, Kreese is planting seeds of deception with Robby, turning him against both Daniel and Johnny. This plot twist is setting us up for something big on season 4.

ALI MILLS:

The return of Ali Mills is beyond crucial here…She brings both Johnny and Daniel together beautifully. She tells them hard truths, like telling them that they are both very much alike and that they have a hard time admitting it. It was pure magic watching Ali return to the Karate Kid extended universe.

MIYAGI-DO VS COBRA KAI:

The power of mentorship continues to be the central theme here. We see how the passing of wisdom and knowledge can have both negative and positive influences on all these young karate pupils’ lives.

Samantha (Mary Mouser) continues to grow and develop as a character. In season 3, she is dealing with a rollercoaster of emotions and personal conflicts. This Samantha character is a compelling one, and I feel like the Miyagi-Do legacy rests on her shoulders.

Eli/Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) has some dark scenes but seems conflicted throughout this whole season. His rivalry with his former best friend Demetri (Gianni Decenzo) is still going strong.

Tory (Peyton List) gets a lot more screen time, and we get a small but better glimpse of her background. I initially thought that she was connected in some way to Terry Silver or maybe even Mike Barnes (the villains from Karate Kid III). We got to hear Tory’s mom speak off-screen, but we never got a chance to actually see her or find out her name. There is a good chance that Tory might be related to Julie Pierce (Hillary Swank) from The Next Karate Kid movie or Jessica Kennedy (Robyn Lively) from Karate Kid III. And now that we know a little more about Tory and her home life, I get the sense that she is in some way related to a character from Karate Kid III…. In any case, Tory is slowly becoming the primary and lone villain of the series.

Of course, there are some insane, hard-to-believe things going on in the plot, like the idea that in 2020-2021, we have rival karate Dojos running around fighting each other with no government or authority figures present….it is straight-up escapism at its best.

As I said earlier, Season 3 is a bit darker than the previous seasons. Most of the comedic parts are centered around Miguel’s rehab and Ali’s return.

All the characters continue to be massively compelling and appealing. Especially Johnny’s sentimentality and references to the 80s…. the 80s and 90s are near and dear to my heart, so I can directly relate to Johnny.

Cobra Kai is slowly becoming the Daniel LaRusso slash Johnny Lawrence buddy dramedy show. The chemistry between these two is terrific. I cannot get enough of them every time they share some screen time.

I get the sense that in season 4, they will take this whole concept of mentors and students to a higher level, especially with the potential return of Terry Silver and Mike Barnes.

This entire three seasons of Cobra Kai has provided a brilliant blueprint for how a successful revival of a series or franchise should be put together.

Beyond excited for season 4.

Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿

Cobra Kai (Season 3). Streaming on Netflix.

*TV SERIES RECAP: THE FRANKENSTEIN CHRONICLES (Seasons 1 & 2)

The Frankenstein chronicles grabbed me from the first episode of the first season. It is essentially a gothic murder mystery thriller — set in early 19th century London during the pre-victorian era, mixing historical events with science fiction and some gothic horror.

Sean Bean is excellent as always, playing John Marlott of the River Police, tasked with investigating the mystery surrounding the discovery of a body that washed ashore. This dead body appears to be made up of body parts sewn together from different people. Very similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel, which was released a few years before the events of the show. Mary Shelley is a character here, but not a central character, and it is cool to see her featured in the show. Other historical figures of the era are also featured, like William Blake and Sir Robert Peel, as the Home Secretary, who was instrumental in founding and creating the modern British police force.

The first season is excellent, using the events of the historic passage of the Anatomy Bill as a backdrop, and with the strong opposition from religious groups and all the anti-science sentiment of the historic period. We see the early days of forensic science being explored. We have mad scientist-type doctors conducting all kinds of weird experiments on dead and living bodies. The show captures the grim, gloomy, and dark vibe of the era. There are beautiful shots of 19th century foggy London — The divisions between the upper class and the underclass are clearly distinguished. Additionally, the characters are interesting enough to keep you invested in the show.

Season 2 is not as satisfying as the first, mainly because the second season tends to drag a bit — with a lot more exposition than season 1. However, it is still compelling enough to keep you watching.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

The Frankenstein Chronicles (Season 1 & 2). Streaming on Netflix