Category: TV shows

PITB Reviews: Shadow And Bone Is Netflix’s Best Epic Fantasy

Title: Shadow and Bone (season 1, 2021, season 2 March 16, 2023)
Genre:
Fantasy
Medium:
Netflix

Shadow and Bone begins with a well-worn YA premise: A young girl lives a drab existence, dreaming of a better life, when she unexpectedly discovers via extraordinary circumstances that she’s Special.

Jealous rivals don’t like the fact that she’s Special and try to tear her down as she leads a revolution in a society ruled by idiotic adults, who Just Don’t Understand the complicated lives of teenagers.

Normally that would be enough for me to steer well clear of a movie or TV show, but a teaser for Shadow and Bone tickled my interest: It shows the protagonist, Alina, on a boat that’s about to cross the Fold, also called the Unsea — a pitch-black, swirling mass of cloudy mist smudged right across the middle of her country, dividing it in two.

As the ship approaches, Alina and the other passengers can hear the shrieks of the unseen nightmares that populate the Fold. The bow of the boat penetrates the Unsea, Alina closes her eyes, holds her breath, and the preview ends.

That short scene was enough to convince me to give the series a shot. At the very least I wanted to know what The Fold was, how it came into being, and what kind of creatures stalk its gloom.

The Fold
The Fold is a wall-like scar that splits the country of Ravka in two, and many ships are lost trying to cross it. Credit: Netflix

While Shadow & Bone uses YA tropes as its jumping off point, it quickly sheds them in favor of clever world-building, affable characters and a well-established mythology that sets up the overarching heroic journey of its protagonist. It also ages its cast so they’re mostly in their twenties and thirties, and while Netflix may have played up the YA template while marketing the series to appeal to younger views, the show itself is geared toward adults of all ages.

The action is centered on a country called Ravka, which is modeled on Czarist Russia and has been split in two by the Fold. Ravka’s capital, Os Alta, is located to the east of the Fold while its major port cities and trading centers, Os Kervo and Novokribirsk, are situated to the west of the dangerous no-man’s land.

As a result, and despite the dangers, Ravka’s economy and unity depends on ships that regularly cross the Fold to move food from the breadbasket to the east and trading goods from the port cities to the west. Losing ships is the cost of doing business, not unlike crossing the Atlantic was during the days of colonial America, and it has a human toll as well: Alina, her best friend, Mal, and all the other children at the orphanage where they grew up lost their parents to the Fold’s horrors.

But Ravka has its blessings as well: A class of conjurors called Grisha who have the ability to manipulate elements. Grisha Tidemakers can control and shape water, Squallers can control wind, Healers can repair human bodies in ways normal medicine cannot, and Heartrenders can sense and manipulate hearts. They can sooth a person’s anxieties or ease them into a restful sleep, but they can also stop a person’s heart or tell if someone is lying by feeling the subtle shifts in their heartbeats.

The Grisha can mitigate the chances of a ship being lost to The Fold but they’re not immune to its dangers, and many of their number have been lost to its hazards as well. Making the crossing is a grim prospect for anyone aboard one of many ships that regularly journey across the so-called Unsea.

The Grisha are led by General Kirigan (Ben Barnes of Westworld and Narnia fame), who has the unique ability to manipulate shadows and destructive energy. It was Kirigan’s ancestor, the Black Heretic, who created the Fold, and Kirigan has vowed to redeem his family by destroying it.

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Ben Barnes is General Kirigan, Ravka’s military commander and its most powerful Grisha, or conjurer.

Prophecy foretold a new kind of Grisha — the Sun Summoner, who has the power to call on the sun’s energies and manipulate light. It’s said the Sun Summoner will be the one to finally destroy the Fold and emancipate Ravka from the terrible toll it takes. In addition to protecting Ravka against her many enemies as its general, finding the Sun Summoner has been Kirigan’s life’s work.

Alina is the Sun Summoner, but you already knew that because Shadow & Bone is based on a YA series of books. But she doesn’t know it until she’s forced to cross the fold and one of its nightmarish creatures is about to kill her beloved Mal, drawing out her latent powers in a moment of desperation. The sudden burst of energy and light as she intercedes is so powerful that it’s spotted for miles outside the Fold, and soon survivors of the ill-fated ship arrive at the docks, telling of a woman who can call upon the power of the sun.

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Alina Starkov, an orphan who occupies a lowly position as an assistant cartographer in the Ravkan army, learns she has the ability to summon the power of the sun.

In the series, Alina and her friends are aged up and appear as young adults. Mercifully, Shadow & Bone doesn’t mirror its genre’s traditional portrayal of adults as idiots, and unlike other big-time YA franchises, like Veronica Roth’s incoherent Divergent series, it doesn’t ask its audience to buy into an absurd society. Novelist Leigh Bardugo has clearly put a lot of thought and research into crafting her fictional universe. There’s rich lore, varied nations with their own distinct customs, prejudices and beliefs, a believable economy and conflict perpetuated by very human motivations and circumstances. Most of the characters we meet are just trying to get on with their lives and are caught up in the central drama.

Alina, played by 26-year-old British actress Jessie Mei Li, is mixed race, part Ravkan and part Shu. Shu Han, a nation based loosely on dynastic China and the Middle East, is in a perpetual state of conflict with Ravka, and Alina’s Shu appearance makes her the object of disdain, ridicule and ignorance even among her countrymen.

“I was told she was Shu,” the queen says in a later scene, when Alina is presented to the royal family and the court of Ravka for the first time. “I guess she’s Shu enough. Tell her… Oh, I don’t know, ‘Good morning.'”

Alina speaks up before a man by the queen’s side can translate.

“I don’t actually speak Shu, your highness,” she says.

“Then what are you?” the queen asks.

There’s a long pause, with Alina clearly unsure how to answer, before General Kirigin steps in.

“She is Alina Starkov, the Sun Summoner, moya tsaritsa,” Kirigin says. “She will change the future. Starting now.”

And with that, Kirigin claps his hands, enveloping the throne room in unnatural gloom with his shadow-manipulating ability. He turns to Alina, takes her hand, and there’s an eruption of ethereal light so powerful that the assembled aristocrats, guards and Grisha gasp and shield their eyes. The light solidifies into a bubble around Alina and Kirigin, its elements twinkling and orbiting them like stars, and the overjoyed king is convinced his nation has indeed finally found the prophesied Sun Summoner.

Becoming the Sun Summoner isn’t all flowers and rainbows. Alina feels the weight of expectations upon her. The king of Ravka is impatient for her to learn to control her newfound powers so she can tear down The Fold. Ravka’s aristocrats, as well as ambassadors and powerful figures from other countries, initially suspect she’s a fraud. Regular people, who have suffered the most from The Fold’s impact on Ravka, begin to venerate her as a living saint. And there are plenty of people who don’t want her to succeed or see her existence as a way to profit.

Shadow and Bone also has a parallel narrative following three lovable rogues from Ketterdam, an island nation west of Ravka. It’s clear early on that their journey will intersect with Alina’s at some point, but the series never feels predictable in the way the characters approach that point.

The Ketterdam trio, who call themselves the Crows, are led by Kaz, the owner of a tavern-slash-gambling den called the Crow Club. Kaz is practical, calculating and focused on making money, legitimately or not. Inej is another orphan of the Fold who was sold to a brothel in her early teens. She was bought out by Kaz, who recognized her intelligence, her light step and her talent for spying. Last but not least is Jesper, a wise-cracking, life-loving and fiercely loyal friend with uncanny sharpshooting abilities.

The Crows
The Crows, lovable rogues of Shadow and Bone: Sharpshooter Jesper, spy and assassin Inej, and mastermind Kaz.

The Crows are the source of much of the series’ humor, despite being criminals and despite all of them having painful pasts. Jesper in particular is known for his wisecracks and his relentless, single-minded obsession with hiring “a demo man” — an explosives expert — for every job they do, regardless of whether the gig calls for it.

“Boss, I think we need a demo man for this one,” he tells Kaz at one point.

Kaz points out that the nature of their job is stealth, and the whole purpose is to get in and out without being heard or seen. You can almost see the gears moving in Jesper’s head as he thinks up reasons why they do, in fact, need someone to blow things up.

When word of the Sun Summoner’s appearance spreads to every corner of Shadow and Bone’s universe, the Crows catch wind of a contract offering a fortune to anyone who can abduct the Sun Summoner and bring her to Ketterdam.

Kaz believes the Sun Summoner is a hoax and views the job as a simple transaction, while Inej holds out hope that she’s the real deal, and if she is, the prospect of kidnapping a living saint weighs heavily on her conscience. Jesper is just content to go wherever there’s alcohol and explosions.

Alina Starkov
Once she’s revealed as the Sun Summoner, Alina feels the weight of expectations upon her, with everyone from the king to General Kirigan and regular people looking to her to save the kingdom.

A great strength of the series is that it begins from a familiar place and manages to regularly subvert expectations.

The production values are exceptional, and it appears Netflix spared no expense bringing Bardugo’s world to life. Ravka, Ketterdam and Novokribirsk feel like real places inhabited by real people, with authentic differences in culture, manner of speaking, dress and even the way they count money.

From imperial courts to military camps to the seedy underbellies of Ketterdam drinking clubs, the world feels like it continues to exist long after we turn our televisions off.

The first season takes several wild turns, which I won’t detail here because it’s very much worth watching, especially now: The long-awaited second season comes to Netflix on March 16, promising to expand on a series already bursting with lovable characters, thrilling adventures and political intrigue.

Of course all epic TV series will eventually be compared to the juggernaut that started it all. Shadow and Bone never tries to be Game of Thrones, and it doesn’t need to be — the first season carved out the show’s unique identity, and season two promises to make the world even bigger and more adventurous.

Buddy’s rating: 5/5 paws

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Sunday Cats: An Incredible Cat Condo That Looks Like Ghostbusters HQ

When I was a kid, the list of VHS tapes I’d worn out included Joe Dante’s Explorers, The Last Starfighter, The Last Dragon (the deliciously cheesy 80s kung fu classic set in Harlem, not the Bruce Lee film), Ridley Scott’s Legend, The Neverending Story, and maybe the first truly great comic book movie, 1989’s Tim Burton-directed Batman starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger.

And, of course, there was Ghostbusters.

As a kid it was adventurous, fun and even a bit spooky. As an adult it evokes a rush of warm nostalgia and joyful recognition that the actors – Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Bill Murray and Signourney Weaver — had a hell of a lot of fun making the film.

To this day when I see a stack of books I have to restrain myself from exclaiming “Symmetrical book stacking! Just like the Philadelphia Mass Turbulence of 1947!” like Aykroyd hot on the trail of a haunting at the New York Public Library. When someone tries to convey an object of massive scale, I find myself echoing Hudson’s Winston: “That’s a big Twinkie.” When someone questions my expertise in an area, especially one I know nothing about, I slip into Murray’s New Yorkese: “Back off, man, I’m a scientist.”

That’s why Buddy I was so excited to see this cat condo build that’s designed to look like Ghostbusters HQ from the 1984 classic. Buddy I would love to have one of these things. Instagrammer Shawn Waite explained in a post that he was just kidding around when he proposed the idea, and his family pushed him to go for it:

“We got a new kitten (her name is Stria) a couple of months prior, and we were adding some cat furniture to our home for her. We thought that she may enjoy having something in our home office, which is where I have my vintage toy collection, so I joked that we should build a cat condo that looks like the Ghostbusters Firehouse play set so that it would fit with the theme of the office. My wife loved the idea, and our twin daughters (age 9) were excited for Stria to have a condo.”

Waite not only managed to retain the three-story interior layout with a scratching post cleverly taking the place of the fire pole, he tweaked the logo so there’s a dog in place of a ghost, just in case any jealous pooches get ideas about lounging in Stria’s sweet condo.

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I’ve always wanted to learn to build stuff, especially after seeing examples like Waite’s build or the amazing Hobbit house litter box one cat servant made for his feline, Frodo.

frodohouse
Frodo the Cat and his hobbit house.

But hey, if I’m gonna go all out and build a spectacular lounging spot or bathroom for the Budster and mine 80s/90s childhood obsessions for ideas, wouldn’t the Thundercats HQ — known simply as the Cat’s Lair — be more appropriate?

That's A Big Twinkie
“Let’s say this Twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. According to this morning’s sample, it would be a Twinkie 35 feet long, weighing approximately 600 pounds.” “That’s a big Twinkie.”

Dear Buddy: Become Our Celebrity Spokescat!

Dear Buddy,

We’re a group of entrepawneurs making all natural, delicious cat treats. Unlike humans, we know what cats want, which is why our treats aren’t made from chicken, salmon or beef — they’re all-natural, 100 percent mouse!

We’ve been talking about hiring a celebrity spokescat for our company, Of Mice and Meows, and we’d like to offer you the job!

What do you say, pal? You’ll be generously compensated in catnip and snacks!

Startup In San Diego


Dear San Diego,

It says here your product is only available in 14 stores and your total revenue for the last fiscal year was $476.23.

I just don’t see the logic in your valuation. Your idea is sound, but you’re entering a crowded market, and most of all the potential reward is not worth the risk that I’ll be taking on, especially if it eats into my 16 hour sleep cycles.

In addition to the scalability question, mouse is cool, but lack of turkey is not. And for those reasons, I’m out.

Buddy


Dear Buddy,

Did you just Shark Tank us?

Startup In San Diego Continue reading “Dear Buddy: Become Our Celebrity Spokescat!”

PITB Reviews: Archive 81

Title: Archive 81
Showrunner: Rebecca Sonnenshine
Genre: Drama, horror
Medium: Netflix streaming

Archive 81 arrived just in time to help us through a content dead zone.

The Witcher’s excellent second season helped tide us over last month alongside Amazon’s not-so-great adaptation of The Wheel of Time, and critically-lauded The Expanse ended its six-year run on Jan. 14. Meanwhile, if network TV is your thing, the last few weeks of January through early February are filled with nothing but reruns as networks are loath to put any original content up against the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl.

Enter Archive 81: A story that promises mystery, Lovecraftian horror and a heavy dose of 90s nostalgia.

Our protagonist is Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an analog enthusiast who makes a living restoring vintage media (VHS, cassette, Betamax and anything else pre-DVD), and spends his off hours crate-digging for rare recordings.

We meet Dan as he’s looking through recently-acquired VHS tapes at a street vendor’s stall in Manhattan.

“You know last month you sold me 16 hours’ worth of a T-ball tournament, yeah?” Dan asks.

“Yeah. But also, I sold you an uncut version of Phantasmagoria off channel 7,” his street vendor friend says. “That’s unreleased and very rare.”

When Dan balks at buying a box of random tapes, his vendor friend appeals to the hobbyist in him.”Look,” he says, “I know you love the hunt.”

“The hunt” he’s referring to is the obsessive drive that prompts collectors of all types to sift through yard sales, estate auctions and abandoned storage units. It’s the thrill of opening the unknown with the knowledge that most of it will be junk, but every once in a while a nondescript box will hold a rare gem.

It’s the thrill of the hunt that leads Dan to accept an archiving gig from a secretive company despite concerning red flags.

The job is to restore an archive of video cassettes scavenged from the charred ruins of a Manhattan apartment building called the Visser that burned to the ground in 1994. No one survived the building-consuming fire, and Dan’s employers believe the tapes could shed light on how the fire started as well as the people who lost their lives.

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Dan finds himself increasingly invested in the story of Melody Pendras, who lived on the Visser’s fourth floor before the building was destroyed by fire. Credit: Netflix

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Dan is hired by a company to restore fire-damaged cassettes that could contain important clues about a 1994 fire that destroyed an apartment building in Manhattan. Credit: Netflix

The company offers Dan a particularly generous fee for restoring and digitizing the footage, with the caveat that for the duration of the project he has to work out of a company-owned compound in the Catskills, a few hours’ drive north of New York City.

Dan accepts and it doesn’t take long for him to become engrossed in the content of the tapes he’s restoring. The collection of cassettes was shot by a young woman named Melody Pendras who moves into the historic and creepy Visser Building, ostensibly to interview its residents for a dissertation she’s doing on the strange history of the high rise.

With each cassette Dan restores and digitizes, a new chapter of Melody’s time at the Visser is revealed, and it becomes increasingly apparent that something is very wrong with the building and the people who inhabit it.

Think Ghostbusters and 55 Central Park West, also known as “Spook Central.” In the 1984 hit, 55 Central Park West’s bizarre design choices came courtesy of an architect who was heavily into the occult, and he built the high rise to serve as some sort of supernatural antenna for spirits from another dimension. The Visser has similar origins, although the details are best left unspoiled.

Archive 81
There’s something creepy going on in the Visser’s basement community room. Credit: Netflix

As Dan becomes increasingly invested in Melody’s story he begins to feel the effects of isolation, living in the brutalist compound that houses the repair studio and a cavernous living space. He’s not allowed visitors, as the content of the tapes are supposed to be confidential, he doesn’t get cell service and he begins to suspect the landline is tapped.

With a history of mental illness, Dan isn’t sure if he’s imagining things when he realizes someone else may be in the compound, and his paranoia is stoked by the discovery of journals that indicate he wasn’t the first archivist to work in the isolated building.

To make matters worse, he begins to experience vivid dreams in which he’s speaking directly to Melody — and she’s clearly in trouble, calling for help across almost three decades.

Archive 81
As Dan restores the damaged video tapes, he unravels more of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). Credit: Netflix

Archive 81 is guilty of the so-called “mystery box” narrative format popularized by JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof with Lost. The pair provided a template to string viewers along by unraveling just enough of the central mystery in each episode to keep viewers hooked, but as Lost proved, the mystery box form only succeeds in pissing the audience off if there’s not a solid pay-off at the end.

While Abrams and Lindelof dragged out Lost’s narrative and winged its conclusion to much derision, Archive 81’s Rebecca Sonnenshine clearly mapped out her story from start to finish. Momentum builds over eight roughly hour-long episodes until things escalate quickly toward the end. While I’m still not sure how I feel about the way things concluded, Sonnenshine’s story provides answers to most of the burning questions that pop up over the season’s run, and leaves just enough of a cliffhanger for a potential sequel. (And judging by the show’s several-week run atop Netflix’s charts, we probably will see at least another season.)

You could argue that mystery is baked into the genre: Archive 81 is a drama with elements of horror, but it doesn’t rely on jump scares. It avoids many of the latter genre’s most worn-out tropes while embracing others, layering the narrative with an ever-increasing sense of dread. It’s a clear attempt at high-concept horror.

There’s not much in the show to dissuade the squeamish and the writers are more concerned with exploring their characters than trying to freak viewers out. All the same, whether you enjoy the series or not probably depends heavily on how you feel about the genre. If you’re game for something a little dark, Archive 81 isn’t a bad way to spend a week’s worth of frigid January or February nights.

Buddy’s Verdict: 3 1/2 Paws Out Of Five:

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Big Buddy’s Verdict: Recommended

PITB Reviews: Lost In Space (Netflix)

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Netflix’s reboot of Lost In Space.

Would it hew closely to the brightly-colored 1960s original in all its cheesy glory? Would it aim for a darker tone, as so many television series do these days? Would it be a low-effort nostalgia cash-in like so many ill-advised reboots of the past decade? And would the series, which was slated to keep things PG, have enough going on to appeal to adults as well as kids?

With Netflix delivering the third and final season last month, my verdict is in: Lost In Space is the rare worthy reboot, a visually spectacular retelling of the original that tweaks and modernizes the details in all the right places. There’s a generous amount of adventure, quiet character moments, and an overarching theme about the importance of family. Over the course of the story, the latter group that widens to include not only the Robinsons but also their closest friends who brave the cosmic dangers alongside them.

Speaking of danger, the original show’s most-used catchphrase — the robot’s “Danger, Will Robinson!” — will be familiar to almost anyone, even those of us who were born in the decades after the show went off the air. It’s become part of the pop cultural fabric.

In the original Lost In Space the Robot is a human-engineered tin can, a 1960s retrofuturistic vision of what sentient machines might look like that was dreamed up at a time when servers occupied entire rooms and a computer’s output came in the form of punch cards.

Lost In Space: Original and reboot Robot

In the reboot, the Robot is an alien intelligence: a towering, six-limbed, digitigrade machine with an inscrutable face and serrated claws. Where the 1960s Robot was risible, the reboot Robot is terrifying in its default form — until a brave Will Robinson, who encounters it after crash landing on an unnamed planet, helps the dying machine repair itself.

He does so as a raging fire engulfs the forest around them, reasoning that he can’t escape, but perhaps the robot can.

The curious Robot, awash with gratitude, immediately rescues Will and, on safe ground, studies the boy for a moment before rearranging itself into an androform shape to mirror Will. From that point on, boy and Robot become inseparable.

Lost In Space: Will Robinson and the Robot
The Robot and Will Robinson form a mysterious bond, with the machine becoming fiercely protective of the boy.

It’s Robot who gets the Robinson family out of trouble in the first episode and many times over subsequent installments, earning the trust and eventually the love of the Robinson family, their friend, mechanic Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), and the mercurial Dr. Smith (Parker Posey).

It’s a credit to the writers and visual effects team that the series appeals to kids as well as adults. I watched the first episode with my eight-year-old niece, who’s younger than the target audience. She was absorbed in the story, her attention beginning to wane only during moments of expository dialogue.

The series is probably better suited for kids at 11 or 12 years old, as there are some relatively heady science fiction concepts and subsequent episodes range from PG to PG-13ish.

There’s no sex, the relatively little violence happens off camera, and the narrative regularly stresses the importance of family. Will, his sisters Penny and Judy, and the Robinson parents all rely on each other to meet challenges. There are, however, adult themes like divorce and near-death experiences, and occasional bad language which never gets more profane than Dr. Smith derisively calling Don West out on his “bullshit” in one episode.

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Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) play important parts in the narrative and bring different skills to the table.

The show takes off right away and delivers excitement and mystery, but it takes a little while to find its rhythm, with early episodes following a “crisis of the hour” format more suited to episodic television. The writers were clearly trying to convey the power of the united Robinson family, and how each member brings different skills and ways of thinking to the table, but the show is at its best when storylines work in service to the overarching narrative.

Mom Maureen is a brilliant engineer who designed the colony starship Resolute and its Jupiter landers. Dad John Robinson is a former Navy SEAL, a man of action who encourages his children to make bold choices. Eldest daughter Judy Robinson is a young medical doctor who, despite her obvious talent, often feels she has something to prove. Her younger sister, Penny, is the least scientifically-minded member of the family. Penny’s better with people, serving as a peacemaker and scribe who documents the Robinson family’s adventures.

Last but not least, young Will Robinson is a dreamer who marvels at alien worlds and distant stars, and takes after his mom in scientific aptitude. He becomes something of a legend among the colonists for his inexplicable bond with Robot, who is extremely protective of the boy.

Lost In Space: The Resolute
The Resolute is attacked en route to Alpha Centauri, forcing its passengers to flee to their Jupiter “lifeboats” and make emergency landings on a nearby planet.

Of course there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell if the Robinsons and the other colonists simply made it to the idyllic colony at Alpha Centauri without incident. It turns out the colonists fled the Resolute — and crash landed on an inhospitable planet — because Robot’s brethren attacked the ship.

Although the viewers are shown the act of kindness that sparks the bond between Will and Robot, the other colonists aren’t as trusting once they realize Will’s seven-foot-tall protector came from the same place as the murderous machines that attacked the Resolute. Dr. Smith also has her own designs on the mysterious Robot, and the Resolute’s crew has been hiding a secret from its passengers that will come back to haunt them.

Can the colonists survive on a dangerous world without the resources they need? Will they ever reach Alpha Centauri?

Why did the robots attack the colony ship? What do they want from humans? And who made them?

Those are the questions at the heart of the mystery, but the characters can’t hope to answer them if they’re stranded on a hostile alien world.

Netflix spared no expense with Lost In Space and the writers clearly had a complete vision for the story, wrapping it up in just three seasons over the course of 28 roughly hour-long episodes. (The first two seasons had 10 episodes each, while the final season had only eight.)

In a sea of Netflix content, Lost In Space stands out as one of the streaming giant’s best original shows, especially for fans of science fiction and parents looking for a show they can watch with their kids.

Buddy’s Verdict: Four Paws out of Five paws45

Big Buddy’s Verdict: Recommended

Lost In Space: The Robinsons
Will Robinson, front, with Dr. Smith, Judy, Robot, Penny and Maureen Robinson.