Breaking the TV Habit

They say it takes three weeks to establish a habit, although I suspect that’s a very optimistic estimate. Does it take the same time to break one? Tomorrow it will be three weeks since my Comcast cable detached itself, perhaps with the help of the vegetation shrouding the utility pole and preventing the Comcast tech from reconnecting it.

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I would have been a lot more aggressive about solving this problem if I had ever been convinced to bundle my phone and Internet connections into my Comcast account. Fortunately, those are provided by my phone company, Frontier, and work just fine, along with my Verizon smart phone. With Frontier’s wifi, I have full use of the Amazon Fire tablet I bought a few months ago. It’s not a full-scale tablet for writing and I’m not impressed with the browser, but it’s a great little entertainment machine, which is exactly what I wanted.

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So Cable TV is all I’ve been doing without. That’s not only a first world problem, but folks not far from me are still displaced from their flooded homes, thanks to Hurricane Harvey. I am not complaining.

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I’ve been surprised to discover how quickly I’ve adapted to the lack. (It helps that I’m not a rabid baseball fan and probably wouldn’t have watched any of the recent Astros games anyway, for fear of being a jinx.) I use the TV for background noise at least ninety per cent of the time, running marathons of shows I’ve seen dozens of times or listening to jazz on Music Choice. That’s easily taken care of—I have radios all over the house, including two HD radios that pull in the jazz and classical music stations that Houston seems unable to support over the air (a disgraceful situation in such a large metropolitan area, if you ask me).

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I have discovered that I actually watch very few current shows. I don’t watch reality shows, and over the last year the news has become the worst reality show of all. For what I do want to see, I’ve found alternative methods. CBS.com shows current shows the day after broadcast. (No, Star Trek fan that I am, I haven’t subscribed to their pay service.) The Xfinity Stream app I downloaded to my Fire tablet allows me to watch most cable shows live (I watched the return of Major Crimes on TNT the other night), as well as access to the Music Choice Channels. (Apparently one only gets full service and broadcast channels with an Xfinity home wifi network, but there’s the eggs-in-one-basket thing again.)

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On the Fire or the computer, there’s a lot to enjoy on Amazon Prime: movies, TV, and some very good Amazon-produced shows, and a wide range of music. And then there are the three shelves of DVDs, many of them as yet unwatched, in my living room. This week I’ve rewatched Topkapi and Heavenly Creatures.

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What I have escaped from, I now realize, is the schedule. I’m not planning my evenings by what’s on TV, or when some show starts. I’m not searching for something to “watch” (largely meaning ignore) while I’m getting it all together in the morning. I’m not staying awake at night to watch something I’ve seen a dozen times, just because it’s there. I’m not planning my lunch break to coincide with some show I’ve seen seven times, or hurrying home from something to catch another rerun. The next time my cable box gives me trouble, I’ll probably get one without a DVR.

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Yes, I will get the service reconnected one of these days. I have a new understanding of those who cut the cord with their cable TV providers, but I still like the convenience. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more, getting to sleep earlier, and not watching reruns (well, I have been keeping up with Deep Space Nine on Amazon Prime, but that’s it, honest). I’m going to try to stick with that. We’ll see if three weeks plus is long enough to change a rather mindless habit.

The Man in the High Castle

When I joined Amazon Prime a couple of years ago, I was mostly in it for the fast free shipping, but I did plan to take advantage of the access to videos and music. Good plan, but not much came of it. Then Amazon announced it was producing an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic SF parable The Man in the High Castle, and my interest in the video side jumped.

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I’ve always been a fan of alternate history tales, and I’d read High Castle back around 1980, so I downloaded a copy to my Kindle (later discovering that I still had an old Science Fiction Book Club edition on a high shelf) and read it last November. That convinced me that an adaptation was going to take a lot of work.

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The Man in the High Castle

New cover, based on adaptation, sure to confuse unsuspecting readers

The Man in the High Castle is a very cerebral novel, based on the premise that the U.S. and its allies lost World War Two. The eastern half of the country is now part of the Greater German Reich, the west coast is ruled by the Japanese, and a strip just east of the Rockies is a Neutral Zone. In the novel, an array of (not particularly sympathetic) characters spends an inordinate amount of time consulting the I Ching and discussing the probable political fall out from Hitler’s eventual death. Interesting enough to read, but not the stuff of great cinematic drama. The action, such as there was, took place in the Pacific States (where Dick was interested in the problems of Americans trying to adapt to the very different basics of Japanese culture) and the Neutral Zone (where the Man in the High Castle, who appears only in the last few pages, lived).

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Turning this relatively short philosophical novel into a ten-hour (and more—the third ten-episode season is currently in production) was clearly going to take a great deal of expansion. When I finally begin watching the series (on my new WiFi powered tablet), I quickly began piling up “I don’t remember that” moments.

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For good reason. Much has been added, much has been changed, and much has been improved. The basic premise remains, of course—the United States is no more. It is 1962, and the Reich rules the East, the Japanese the West, and the Neutral Zone is essentially lawless. The main characters, Juliana, Frank, and Joe, are younger, more interesting, and far more active, and relationships between them have changed. Major characters have been added, as have important motivations.

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One change at the core of the adaptation involves the McGuffin of the story, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In Dick’s novel, this was an alternate history novel, written by Hawthorne Abendsen, the Man in the High Castle, banned in the Reich, available in an under the table sort of way in the Pacific States, and sold openly in the Neutral Zone. In the adaptation, it is a collection of newsreel films showing alternate time lines, sought by both the Reich and the Japanese, extremely dangerous for the Resistance members attempting to smuggle the reels to Abendsen, who may be responsible for them or merely collecting them. The films provide danger, conflict, and mystery to propel the action.

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Major new characters include Chief Inspector Kido of the Japanese Kempeitai in San Francisco, terrifying and ruthless in pursuit of his duties and the newsreels, and Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, the American head of the SS in New York, a man with a home in the suburbs (where neighbors wave at one another with a cheerful “Sieg Heil”), a family he loves dearly, and the ability to push a disloyal subordinate off a building ledge without wrinkling his uniform.

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I could go on and on. As a lover of alternate histories, I’m totally engrossed by the story, the characters, and the production values. As a reader and writer I’m fascinated by the changes and expansions made to bring the novel to the screen. And I’ve lost so much sleep staying up late watching it that I’ve promised myself that I’ll wait until August (after I return from the RWA conference in Orlando next week) before I start on Season Two. Then, alas, I’ll have to wait with everyone else for the release of Season Three, probably late this year.

Nazi Times Square

Bosch: Season One

Last night I finished watching the first season of Bosch. Wow!

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I joined Amazon Prime way back when, partly to access the video collection, but mostly for the fast free delivery of books and other random goodies. I was never really comfortable watching video on my computer monitor (although I have a good one), but until the nice tech from Frontier replaced my antique modem with one that supports WiFi (he was here to fix an actual phone line problem) I didn’t have much choice.

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With the WiFi up and running, I bought a little Amazon Fire HD8 tablet (on which I spend way too much time playing games), telling myself it would be great for videos and music. (Self, you don’t have to make excuses.) I watched the first episode of The Man in the High Castle (very impressive, and I will get back to it), and then I watched the first episode of Bosch. And I was hooked.

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I have not read any of Michael Connelly’s novels about LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, so I can’t talk about how well (or not) Amazon’s adaptation reflects the books, but from the reviews I’ve read, Connelly’s fans seem pleased (and Connelly himself is a producer of the show, whatever that actually means).

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Bosch posterAs a viewer—well, I’ve watched all ten chapters of the first season in the last week and a half, and I’m not a binge watcher, so that tells you something. The acting is excellent (of course, I’d happily watch Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch, in just about anything, including Comcast commercials), as are the writing and production values. Los Angeles is almost as much a character as any of the people. The serial killer Bosch is chasing is absolutely chilling (an amazing performance by Jason Gedrick). The mysteries (woven together from elements of three of Connelly’s novels) are intricate and take the whole season to play out.

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Bosch is not episodic, crime-of-the-week television. As I mentioned above, the sections are listed as chapters rather than episodes, and the season is, indeed, one long filmed novel. That feeling was emphasized by the way I watched it—in bed at night, with the tablet on my chest, almost more like reading a book than watching video. It is a much more intimate experience than watching something on the TV set across the room.

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Two more seasons of Bosch are already available, and the fourth will be out next spring. But I think I’ll wait a bit and savor the first season before I dive into the second (which many reviewers claim is even better). In the meantime, I believe I’ll go back to The Man in the High Castle, and that’s barely scratching the surface of the Prime library.

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And I bought four books on Friday, two on paper, two on Kindle. Maybe I’ll go read a while . . .

Seven Months of Trek

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the beginning of the original series. I was in college then, without easy access to a TV, and it probably took me years to catch all the episodes (mostly on black and white sets back in the day). Since then I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek and The Next Generation an embarrassing number of times. I can nearly recite the dialog along with most of them. On the other end, I have to admit that, as much as I enjoy Scott Bakula, I never really warmed up to Enterprise.

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But I loved Voyager and Deep Space Nine, both long off the air. I’d seen all of Voyager, but not since its original run, and I’d missed big chunks of Deep Space Nine, which was shown in syndication and probably moved around the schedule a lot. So I chortled with glee last July when the oldie channel Heroes & Icons announced it would be showing all five series six nights a week, straight through in their original order. Voyager wrapped up (and started again from the beginning) last week, Deep Space Nine this week, and it was great fun to watch the whole sagas in seven months instead of the original seven years.

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voyager-companionI had picked up a copy of Star Trek Voyager Companion at Half Price books a couple of years ago and stashed it on the shelf with my well-worn copy of Captains’ Logs (which covers the franchise from the beginning through the casting of Voyager). Not the sort of book one sits down and reads from cover to cover, the Voyager Companion includes episode synopses, cast lists, lots of pictures, features on the characters, and several passable indexes, but not much behind-the-scenes information. When the series started its run last July, I started reading the book, episode by episode (especially useful when I dozed off during Act 3, not an unusual occurrence given the 11 PM time slot).

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I immediately decided I needed the corresponding Star Trek Deep Space Nine Companion, but that book was out of print and not easy to find. Enter Alibris, where I found a copy indeep-space-nine-companion mid August. I quickly caught up to reading by the episode. The Deep Space Nine book far outshines the Voyager volume (except for its lack of multiple indexes). Detailed synopses of the episodes are followed by behind-the-scenes sections describing the writing process, character development, special effects, connections to other episodes, and more. The tales of “story breaking” are informative not just for screenwriting techniques, but for the choices made in developing character and plot consistent with the long arcs of the series. Many finished episodes reflected only a kernel of the original story idea.

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Why do I continue to watch Trek episodes that I’ve seen over and over again? Not for the plots, good, bad, or indifferent. I know what happens, no surprises there. I watch for the characters. I don’t so much care what they’re doing—I care who they are. There’s a lesson for writers in that: we may have a plot, but without characters that our readers care about, we may not have a story.

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Live Long and Prosper!

Hell On Wheels: Done

Hell On Wheels has come to the end of the road, with a final episode full of choices, endings, and new beginnings. (And this post is full of spoilers, so if you haven’t yet watched the finale, go watch it now.)

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“Done” (Durant’s one-word message to the rest of the nation) was an episode of human drama, without the raw violence and death that has marked so much of the series. Quiet conversations between Cullen Bohannon and Eva, Governor Campbell, Durant, George Armstrong Custer, and President Grant carried much of the story, settling old questions and raising new options.

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The transcontinental railroad itself, of course, was completed (in episode 13, “Railroad Men”), and “Done” opened with Durant and Huntington bickering over who would drive the Golden Spike. Durant won that argument, but things went downhill for him from then on, as he was indicted and sent back to Washington to stand trial on charges of bribery and corruption. We already knew, from a previous flash-forward (or from Wikipedia), that Doc Durant’s life ended in poverty and disgrace, but Hell On Wheels ended with his passionate defense of his building of the railroad. (Colm Meaney’s performance throughout the series has been magnificent: Durant was sleazy but determined, climbing back from every defeat, both mentor and foil to Bohannon.)

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The Golden Spike Ceremony (from AMC.com)

The Golden Spike Ceremony (from AMC.com)

Eva Toole (one of my favorite characters throughout the series), who has survived everything a hard life could throw at her, tells Cullen that she left her Mohave family long ago to protect them from the white men determined to take her back. When Louise Ellison and her editor offer Eva the chance to write a book and set out on a lecture tour (as Olive Oatman, the inspiration for Eva’s backstory, actually did), Eva agrees, but she weeps when she tries to describe her Mohave family and realizes she can’t live with a version of her story dramatized for the public. She won’t be a victim—or another sort of whore. Instead, she cashes out her share of Mickey’s business, tames her white horse, and rides off into the west, perhaps in search of her past with the Mohave, perhaps the only time she was truly happy.

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Cullen wakes up with a hangover and a piece of silk with Mei’s last message, an address (he learns from an equally hungover Chinese foreman) in Ningpo, China. He stumbles to Mickey’s makeshift saloon and, while Durant and Huntington are driving the Golden Spike, starts a bar brawl that ends in laughter when Governor Campbell (now Secretary of the Interior) comes looking for him with a subpoena to testify against Durant back in Washington. In the capital, Cullen (in evening dress!) is offered a commission by President Grant to lead the 4th Cavalry in protecting the railroad he has built.

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Despite his reservations (“I’m no Indian killer”), he decides to accept the commission (he also has a job waiting with Huntington to build the Southern Pacific, if he wants it), and he appears at Durant’s trial in uniform. There he refuses to throw Durant under the train, insisting that without Durant, the railroad could never have been built.

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Custer and Bohannon (from AMC.com)

Custer and Bohannon (from AMC.com)

A conversation—punctuated by target practice—with George Armstrong Custer shakes Cullen’s decision to return to soldiering. Custer’s delight in killing Indians (and raping Indian women) is exactly the attitude Cullen has tried so hard to leave behind. Still in uniform, he visits the very church in which he began the murderous trail of revenge that brought him to Hell On Wheels in the first place, sees the bullet hole he made in the confessional when he killed a man there, and breaks into tears. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”

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No more killing. Cullen leaves the uniform behind and heads west, taking the train to San Francisco, on a track that exists in large part because of his efforts. No more railroad work, either. Instead (as I hoped, and to the delight of my romance-writer’s heart), he boards a ship to China, following Mei.

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I will miss Hell On Wheels (and perhaps one day will watch it again, all the way through), and I’m sorry to see it end, but I think the writers and actors did an excellent job of bringing the epic to a close and giving the survivors the endings—and opportunities—they had earned.

Hell On Wheels: Two Soldiers

Hell On Wheels returned last night with the first of its last seven episodes, this one nearly a two-man show. Warning: There Will Be Spoilers Here.

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Instead of the Hatch homestead, where Cullen Bohannon and Thor Gunderson were headed when we last saw them nearly a year ago, Two Soldiers opens in a Union Army camp in 1863, with a cheerful young officer playing a harmonica as his fellows laugh and sing. A young man, with a full head of dark hair, the camp’s quartermaster. Yes, it’s Gunderson.

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In the next scenes, Gunderson ages by decades in the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. Now mockingly called Swede by the prison guards, Gunderson has lost everything, from his beloved harmonica to the basic rules of humanity. We have a glimpse of how a young man from Norway becomes the odious Swede we have hated for five years.

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photo credit AMC.COM

photo credit AMC.COM

By the time Bohannon reaches the Hatch homestead, the Swede has killed or wounded everyone but Naomi and baby William; he chases them into the woods, Bohannon following. Over the course of the episode, Bohannon, with a bullet in his leg, resists the temptation to drown the Swede, to shoot him, to let him die by snake bite, or to leave him to die in the desert. When Naomi asks him why he doesn’t just kill the man, Bohannon insists he will see the Swede hang for his multitude of crimes.

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After a harrowing two-day journey across the desert to a small army camp, Bohannon receives medical care and the Swede receives a legitimate trial (conducted while Bohannon is unconscious, but after he’s told the Army commander enough to investigate the homestead and bring in a judge from Salt Lake).

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The Swede’s hanging, witnessed by Bohannon, is gruesome indeed, mirroring the last struggles of the snake Bohannon killed in the desert. No courteous professional executioner or well-built trap door gallows (as was provided for Ruth) here, just a crossbar, a noose, and enough soldiers to haul the Swede up and let him strangle to death, with all the hideous details. Yes, this time he’s really dead.

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When we first met Bohannon, at the beginning of the series, he was killing a man in cold blood, in a church, in revenge for the deaths of his wife and child during the war. He has pursued the Swede for years, as the Swede has pursued him. He has more than enough personal reasons for revenge against the man who killed Lily Bell just to spite Bohannon. But when the time finally comes, Bohannon wants public justice more than he wants personal revenge.

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How much did the Swede contribute to that change of heart? Sane or mad, the Swede has functioned as a bizarre conscience as well as a villain, as Bohannon’s mirror as well as his opposite. There was, after all, a human being inside the Swede, driven mad, perhaps, by the war, ruthless, manipulative, as hard to kill as Rasputin. His last words? “I am Thor Gunderson from Norway.”

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The episode left me wondering why Christopher Heyerdahl (who has won many Canadian acting awards) hasn’t won an Emmy for this stunning five-season performance. Maybe this year.

Changing (TV) Seasons

It’s the end of August and summer is coming to an end. Well, perhaps not weatherwise; summer in Texas might well run into October, along with the hurricane season. But looking at the TV listings, I can see that we’ve fallen into the gap between the end of the summer shows and the return of the network regulars. Warning: spoilers ahead.

 

Last night I watched the series finale of Falling Skies, after five seasons of alien invasion mayhem. I’ve seen reviews on line, written by people who take TV shows far more seriously than I do, tearing it apart, but I was happy with it. Fine with me that all the members of the Mason family survived (even those who had died and come back to life, thanks to one of the alien allies). I was happy to see the show end on an optimistic note. I really don’t care how all the men found suits and ties to wear (after five years of pretty much wearing the same bedraggled jeans and jackets) or where the women got their hair done. They had defeated the invincible aliens (with perhaps a nod to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds solution) and that wrapped it up for me.

 

Friday night’s episode of Defiance was billed as the season finale, but the show must be on the bubble, and the production team gave us an episode which could just as well serve as the series finale, if the show isn’t picked up for a fourth season. By the end of the episode, Nolan (unquestionably the protagonist for the past three seasons) was piloting the Omec ship into the galactic depths rather than blow it up and destroy the thousands of beings on board in suspended animation, with Doc Yewll plugged into the ship’s computer. A few weeks later we see the people of Defiance, humans and all the various aliens alike, peacefully going about their business. Irisa is now the Lawkeeper, Amanda is recovering from her injuries, and Datak and Stahma Tarr, the ever-scheming aliens we love to hate, are together again. How they might carry on with a fourth season without Nolan and Yewll (or how they might bring them back), I don’t know, but I’ll watch if they do.

 

The SyFy channel had two new shows on the Friday night schedule this summer, Killjoys and Dark Matter, and both of those ended their first seasons with cliffhangers. Killjoys is about a trio of “reclamation agents,” working for an agency that retrieves anything, human or artifact, for a price, definitely the more space opera of the two. Dark Matter is a bit more serious and dark, with six people waking up on a ship with their memories wiped, dodging various dangers while attempting to recover their identities, aided by the rather endearing female android who runs the ship. I watched both without investing much in them; I’ll watch if they come back next year and forget them if they don’t. If it were up to me to pick one to return, it would be Killjoys.

 

Saturday evening I watched the “mid-season finale” of Hell On Wheels. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until next summer for the second half of the season (which I suspect has already been filmed, at least in part). Most of this summer’s seven episodes were set in Truckee, California, as Bohannon worked to drive the Central Pacific Railroad east through the Rocky Mountains. There we met the Chinese who built the railroad, including a boy named Fong who turned out to be a girl named Mei, and assorted other new characters, while Gunderson (the Swede) plotted to replace Brigham Young with one of Young’s sons. Back in Laramie, we caught up with Eva, Durant, and their associates. In Saturday night’s episode, “False Prophets,” Bohannon joined Durant, Huntington, Brigham Young, and President Grant in Salt Lake City, arguing over the route of the railroad. By the end of the episode, they had set up the race to join the two railroads (north of the Great Salt Lake, much to Young’s disgust), Gunderson’s plot to control the Mormons had gone badly awry, and Bohannon and Gunderson were in their own race to reach Bohannon’s wife and son. Considering Hell On Wheels’ willingness to kill major characters and Bohannon’s disastrous record in the area of personal relationships, I’ll be worried about Naomi and little William until the show comes back next summer for its final seven episodes.

 

What did you watch this summer, and what are you looking forward to watching this fall?

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