It's always fun spotting the moment when the writers sit up and realize they've gotten poop all over their hands. Just from what happened on the show this week, I'm assuming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was the first episode written within a month or so of the show airing, meaning the folks behind the scenes were able to see what elements were working and what elements needed to be pulled back or exaggerated. It was pretty clear all over, from the seemingly concrete proof of Gavin's real identity, to the restructuring of various character dynamics. Being 666 Park Avenue, none of it was that great, but it's clear the show is changing in one way or another, instead of merely phoning it in for this last run of episodes.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
Great serialized dramas frequently strike a balance between the overarching story that the writers want to tell, and smaller, more character-driven concepts that help smooth out the show's edges and create a strong ensemble dynamic. Hunted is weighing heavily on the former and has been ever since it first premiered, at the expense of any real strength of character. The only arc this season to be driven by actual people instead of elaborate conspiracy hooey has been the relationship between Sam and Aiden and their angst over the baby they lost. As an idea it's undoubtedly strong -- the death of an unborn child is horrible, and the emotional fallout can easily provoke sympathetic drama. But Polyhedrus strands both characters in a pissing contest, Aiden whining over Sam sleeping with another character involved in the Turner scheme and yelling at her in public like somebody in ninth grade.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Capeside Revisited goes a long way in rectifying the wrongs of last episode. When it comes to Dawson, the script successfully decides to separate him from Joey, meaning his decision to stick around in Boston is explored without the weight of romantic possibilities and instead with a little more perspective. Mitch easily shifts into audience surrogate mode, yelling at his son for abandoning an incredible opportunity to pursue something that it's debatable even exists anymore, or that will even work out long-term based on what happened several years ago. It helps open up the story, and almost makes his decision play a little better. When everything Dawson does is guided by Joey, it inevitably leads to trouble. But his faith here was easier to take, particularly with that lingering feeling of doubt.
Annoyingly, sending the Dawson's Creek cast to college has already sort of backfired, since its unknowingly exposed all the weird and codependent issues between Dawson and Joey that Capeside as a location covered up. Of course, we always knew that they were overly reliant on each other, always seeking each other out for a sense of approval or validation, but the fact that they were stuck in this incestuous bubble of high school and lived in houses that were right down the lake from one another both generally left them appearing pretty stable, that they were only so wrapped up in one another because the universe had thrown them together in such a way. But by running through the same overly self-conscious romantic saga in a whole different environment with so much more at stake, they only come off like a couple of flakes. And that's just disappointing.
The transition from high school to college is rough for any young adult series. That original location becomes part and package of what makes the show what it is, the school hallways safe and standard, the presence of family and older adults something stable and warm. But, at the same time, the show needs to evolve with time, following the young characters as they grow from immature kids into hopefully secure adults. It's even riskier for Dawson's Creek, the writers deciding to split most of the characters apart and allowing them to flourish as individuals removed from the incestuous romantic plotting that provided the narrative skeleton for so much of the past four seasons. There's obviously a lot of the same angst still there, lurking beneath the surface, but The Bostonians really looks and feels like a whole different show.
Origin stories are generally a double-edged sword. For every Godfather Part II, in which flashbacks and past misdeeds only help enrich a narrative universe, there's a Star Wars: Episode I -- where mystical concepts are elaborated upon in such a way that it all becomes laborious and overly confused, reduced to a bunch of scientific particle hooey. Horror is another genre that frequently says too much a lot of the time. Is there anything scarier than somebody just being psychotic? Regardless of a tangible explanation, the idea of a person going out of their way to maim and terrorize others is terrifying enough on its own. Only that's not good enough for Ryan Murphy, who carefully details a lot of Bloody Face's history this week, along with most of the rest of the cast.
After a couple of weeks of meandering around, Alias kicks back into high gear with A Dark Turn, a richly-drawn episode all about the complexities of trust, and how it can be bent and manipulated at will. Irina's been fun locked in a cage for so long, but pulling her out and placing her in the field was an inspired decision. Like early season two, this episode hinges on Irina's ambiguity, pulling Jack deeper and deeper into her way of thinking, before a last minute bait-and-switch leaves everybody stranded and left to ponder what the hell just happened.
One of the unexpected side effects of Phase One has been Sloane's reinvention as something of a James Bond villain, somebody so driven by his obsession with Rambaldi and at total ease with mass carnage that he now more or less resembles a complete monster. But I'm finding it all a little difficult to enjoy. In the early days of Alias, Sloane was given a surprisingly small amount to do. He launched the missions, and we were told by other characters how duplicitous and scheming he was. Then he began to grow as an antagonist, humanized by the arrival of his dying wife, and later given additional shading with the revelations about Emily's survival and Sloane's elaborate plot to keep her safe. But with Emily gone for weeks, a lot of that shading has been diminished, leaving Sloane this arch criminal mastermind, and it's hard to swallow.
After last week's false start, this is Alias pushing forward with its new identity. A Free Agent instantly re-positions the ensemble cast, Sydney and Vaughn now partners both out in the field and between the sheets, Sloane the globe-trotting villain bouncing from scheme to scheme, Sark his lackey and Francie a clone. I can't help but feel the show has lost a little something in this restructuring, notably how Syd's strength has been diminished slightly by having a dude tag along with her on missions, but it's neat seeing Alias move forward, regardless of the sometimes awkward returns. One major distinction involves Sydney and Sloane being outwardly hostile towards each other for a change, both now so removed from their false identities that they can be as volatile as they'd like. It's something new.
Double Agent is an episode built entirely around Ethan Hawke. As a result, it feels strangely detached from what we know of Alias as a show, and isn't the most auspicious beginning to the post-SD-6 landscape. Barely any of the regulars appear, and there's an uneasy balancing act between real-world espionage horror and the goofier aspects of the cloning thing that popped up at the end of last week's episode. Here the fun gravitates from not knowing which Ethan Hawke is which; both Ethan's claiming to be the 'real' Ethan and one Ethan being a mad scientist (*gah*), but there's a sort of generic quality to most of this, lacking in normal Alias intensity. Which is unfortunate.
We've come to expect certain things from television. A series' basic premise will remain intact for several seasons. An endgame couple will experience numerous false starts before they finally get together. Token black friends will stay on the periphery of things, never doing anything of consequence. A heroic victory usually means the end for key villains. All of that is more or less true... and then there's Phase One. This is an episode that rapidly undoes everything we thought we knew about Alias, tearing down the series' narrative conventions with an unexpected explosion of surprises. Alias was always a show that seemed to have a handle on where it was going, but Phase One is that rare episode that switches things up to such an extent that you're left breathless and completely unsure of where they're going to go from here, more so than ever before.
"Goodness exists, all around. It's just sleeping." That's all well in theory, and probably correct if you really think about it, but Enlightened's season finale should throw an addendum onto the end of that line. Since goodness isn't so much 'sleeping', but more in a 'decade-long coma', at least within the walls of Abaddonn. Burn It Down follows a similar trajectory to much of this magical first year, with Amy bouncing through life with keen enthusiasm, only for a last-minute plot twist to expose how bad everything really is. What it lacks in narrative surprise it makes up for in thematic resonance: the importance of fighting for something, since real change can never occur just from being nice to people.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
It's a strange complaint to suggest that there's almost too much story here, particularly when new series usually take a while to figure out the right ways to pace an arc. But Hunted is the kind of show desperately crying out for a moment of peace. Granted, you can understand why Frank Spotnitz would feel the need to burn through so much of his plot considering the season only consists of eight episodes, but there comes a point where things really ought to slow down a little. If we've learned anything from the past four episodes, it's that this show is at its best when things are a little quieter -- like the silent moments of relentless training in Mort, or that scene in Hourglass with Sam resting her head against the wall that I (appropriately?) went gaga over. While Hunted has slipped into a direction that is never exactly dull, it's so locked on full-speed drama right now that it's easy to get lost in the wilderness.
So much of senior year is about those goodbyes. Every time you do something fun, or if you had an especially great day, you get that nagging feeling of "hey, that could have been the last time I'll ever do that". It hits you like a freight train, that sense that everything you hold closest to you at that moment in time is soon going to be ruptured. That you can't just go to school the next day and see everybody again, that the sense of community you'd always had with your friends and family is all about to be thrown apart, and that you'll soon wind up pushed into a whole different environment where everybody's a stranger. Coda is all about that last night, and those awkward goodbyes that you try and stretch out for as long as possible, trying so hard to delay the inevitable.
Plot winds up a little thin on the ground this week, most of the major arcs having come to a natural close, forcing the writers to severely extend them for another episode. Surprisingly, this graduation episode didn't move me on an emotional level. There are a couple of moments of rousing sweetness, but not the same level of "aww, it's the last time we'll see them all together in high school" that most young adult shows can produce. Maybe I just wasn't as attached to Capeside High as a location as much as I was, I don't know, Sunnydale High?
One of the most pleasant surprises this season has been the show's insistence on keeping things relatively peaceful and bright. Sure, there's been a ton of melancholy and angst per normal, but there's also been a real sense of a future -- that while everything is pretty complicated and pained right now, hope is right around the corner. I don't know if its because of the looming potential of college, or if there was a genuine mission statement that the writers had this year, but it's why I've never been more personally invested in a Dawson's Creek season than I have been up till now.
American Horror Story's first season sometimes awkwardly meshed together spooky campiness with emotional drama, the show struggling to fully embrace the themes of family and infidelity that seemed to only surface when the writers remembered that they were there. Instead, we got a lot of aggressive horror; blood and intestines all over the place, and character-driven drama sometimes left on the back-burner. All of that is something that has seemingly been acknowledged this season, Asylum intent on tying both sensibilities together in a far more cohesive structure. The horror is still elaborate and chilling (Part 2 is arguably the nastiest, scariest episode in show history), but the characterization is bringing the season to a whole separate level of wonder. It's become a series where fully developed characters are experiencing horrible things, instead of a show about horrible things freaking out a shallow ensemble.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
This was all about crossing into unknown territory, and characters taking that next leap into the unknown. It's ridden with bullets and bodies and bad memories, but it's something that has to happen for anybody to be able to move forward. Sydney and Vaughn went to dinner, ignoring all the warning signs and intent on being happy and romantic for once; while Jack turned to Irina for help, not with any initial concern or worry over her allegiances, but because he needed her in the moment, and knew that her information is invaluable. Not only does this mark a real push forward in terms of Alias' season two narrative, but it also develops new character beats that are alien and strange at first, but only make these characters more human in the long-run.
If The Net taught me anything, and I think we all learned a lot from The Net, its that really-slow downloads don't make for great, visceral drama. That's a major stumbling block here, too much of the action revolving around the formation of a computer system; Marshall, Sloane and Irina all working separately to either build the Echelon device or break it down. Either way, there are far too many shots of people sat watching computer screens as a little black bar ticks from 75% complete to 76% complete. It's a little disappointing, too, since the Marshall action last episode was so effective. He gets a couple of moments of rousing sweetness here, notably his lack of terror in the face of the dentist dude, as well as his adorable rescue of Sydney, but it's a little lacking compared to last week.
It's easy to rag on Marshall Flinkman. He has a very specific schtick that's used in practically every episode and rarely develops beyond that base level of nerdy goodness, so it's not like he's really bringing anything new to the able nowadays. But I always loved the guy, Kevin Weisman coating his delivery in half-starts and awkward stumbling, conveying a man so excited by things that most people aren't, yet constantly embarrassed at the tracks he verbally goes down. He's just a fun character, and pushing him center stage in The Abduction only made him more adorable. We learn a lot about Marshall here, from his lack of exposure to the outside world, the fact that his best friend seems to be his mom, to the elaborate lie that he's crafted for her, implying that he's a big-shot doing great, positive work.
It makes sense that Jack would start to come around to Irina at the same time as we are. Man, it's hard to see Lena Olin as evil. She's just too precise in her movements and seductive with her voice. Here we began to see glimmers of Jack and Irina's old life together, the two of them reminiscing about funny incidents from years ago and not following it up with an abrupt turn-around in emotion, suddenly remembering how bad everything became. It's cute, naturally marred by the ambiguity, but a sign of where things could be headed. Sydney also called her "Mom" for the first time, something that made Irina cry. These feelings are certainly genuine, right? It can't just be an elaborate ruse, especially at this point in time. I can't remember how shit goes down, particularly towards the end of the entire series, but right now I've entirely fallen for Irina Derevko.
It goes without saying that Passage exploits the Bristow family dynamic for all its worth. This is crazily entertaining television, the three characters forced to work together on a mission to India, and behaving exactly how a complicated, dysfunctional family would behave while on vacation. With that in mind, there's a lot of juxtaposition here between regular family activity and the twisted Alias variations on it. It's normal for a husband to buy his wife jewelry and place it around her neck. On Alias, Jack gets his ex-wife a necklace, only its set to trigger a bomb if she ever misbehaves out in the field. Then there are the two parents warring over their daughter's love life, Sydney trying hard to not blush as her mom talks about the guy who is clearly interested her, Jack warning of the dangers it would entail. Only it's another wrinkle of complicated because the mom killed the love interest's dad a million years ago. And last-minute vacation bonding? Not a dinner or a day trip, but taking down an army of militants with a bunch of machine guns. This is batshit badassery at its finest.
The only elderly people we ever hear about are the 'sexy' elderly. You probably know the type, the ones that look relatively young for their age, dress in expensive, fashionable outfits that accentuate the bodies they're still working out in aerobics class or whatever. They're the type of elderly with an enormous disposable income, so much that they have the vacation home and the regular visits to vineyards and safari parks just because. Consider Helen, one of the greatest episodes in television history, is not about those elderly people. Instead it's about a woman in her mid-seventies who lives a very basic, un-showy and mostly solitary existence, the kind that has its own areas of happiness, but still feels mostly empty.
Amy spends a lot of Comrades Unite! playing the victim, unable to put her own behavior into perspective and painting herself as somebody hard done-by and downtrodden -- the very type of person she regularly tries to save. It's an interesting perspective in which to hang the episode, one that once again returns to the central dilemma of Amy's denial and her arrogance. But it's also something that continues to make her such a dynamic protagonist. It's easy to side with those around her, particularly when it comes down to Amy's own lack of effort at work and her generally dismissive nature, but Laura Dern salvages her character's earnest, human qualities, too, bridging the gap between somebody who is self-absorbed and somebody merely flawed.
With every passing week, there are smaller snapshots of what this show could be. One scene in Downward Spiral specifically jumped out at me: an attractive montage of mutually concerned individuals getting dressed up for a Manhattan gala. Like the atmospheric, action-driven opera scene that opened up the pilot, there's a morbid slinkiness to these moments, something grand and gothic with its classical music score and array of disturbed protagonists looking all shady. If only the rest of 666 Park Avenue capitalized on it, though. This wasn't as strong as last week, but it's becoming clearer that the writers are getting a cleaner focus on what the show is going to represent, and how the fleshed-out backstory of the Drake will guide things. It's not there, yet... at all, but it feels every once in a while like it's on the right track.
Saturday, November 10, 2012
You know what Hunted has suddenly reminded me of? The short-lived AMC thriller Rubicon, another sleepy serialized drama full of shady operatives, muted color palettes and slow plotting. Hunted resembles it enough already on a superficial level, in particular the vagueness of the private intelligence firm at the center of things and the so-subtle-it's-nearly-unbearable pacing. But the introduction of economic terrorism to the Turner saga, in which the family earn millions in stock market shares on the immediate heels of some kind of explosive disaster, brought to mind that this is operating like a kind of low-budget remake, only with wonky acting and ridiculous goofery instead of smart, sophisticated writing.
There's a moment during Hourglass in which Sam returns to her apartment and rests her head against her big Carrie Mathison board of suspects, just standing for a while, leaned in to it. It's a shot that goes on for around five seconds or so, something so slow and jarring that it actually made me think my feed had been briefly corrupted. After I realized that it was just an incredibly still moment, it suddenly became clear that it represents exactly what this show is trying to do. At the center of all this brutal criminality, here's a woman who just needs a minute to rest, having carried what feels like the weight of the world on her shoulders for the last year, having lost a baby and a lover and currently unable to trust anybody around her. It's a really affecting scene, something that makes Hunted as a series just that little bit better.
Friday, November 9, 2012
So it happened. Joey and Pacey are no more, the event that had been quietly building for the last couple of weeks finally occurred, and a ton of angst paints the walls as a result. Like most of Dawson's Creek, I'm unsure if it totally worked or not. I remember commenting at the very start of the year that the writers would inevitably break these two up and have Joey run back into Dawson's arms, and it's debatable whether they did a great job of depicting it. While the tension has been growing for a while, it still felt like a phony leap to see Pacey treat Joey so horribly, claiming that her positivity and ambition only makes him seem more a failure. Both actors are unsurprisingly strong, but struggle to paper over all the holes.
Is it wrong that I'm getting real tired of the gay-bashing stories? It feels like every single subplot Jack is wrapped up with eventually involves some kind of violence or homophobic gesture, like he and every other gay man he encounters are walking victims constantly at the mercy of assholes eager to attack them in some way. I'm a little ambivalent in my judgment here because it is important to teach kids about homophobia and promote that reporting assaults is absolutely the right thing to do... but the show is at that point where literally everything in Jack's life involves this kind of attack, and for once I'd like to see him date somebody or head down a new narrative road without prejudicial horror rearing its ugly head at one point or another.
This is one of Michelle Williams' finest hours. We've watched the intensity build over the last couple of episodes, Jen slowly coming to terms with her past and how it irrevocably damaged her relationship with her father. Here we discover the source of all that internal conflict, and while it's hard not to dismiss it as something of an anti-climax (it was marital infidelity, not abuse like we were lead to believe), Williams is so ridiculously powerful here that the story itself proves irrelevant. You can see her anguish slowly building during that initial dinner with her dad, before she completely comes apart when she finally confronts him. She's always been great on this show, but Eastern Standard Time allows her to fully express her abilities. It's no surprise she's one of the most acclaimed actresses today...
My general happiness with the road Dawson's Creek is headed down is probably sourced from the inevitability of everything falling apart in a couple of months. This is the very end of senior year, the time when everybody's preparing to leave and move on into their adult lives. It's also the time when high school relationships generally come to their natural end, especially when you're moving across the country from one another. So while it's clear that the writers are engineering a Dawson/Joey reunion, I have no real issue because you know it'll eventually fall apart again. Not because of fights or repressed memories or whatever, but because of time, and how we all eventually move on.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
American Horror Story is beyond ordinary television. Not so much in terms of writing, but very much in terms of the sheer amount of ideas on offer and how we at home respond to them. On any other show, throwing so many elements into the pot would come off as overstuffed, especially when almost every episode jumps between all of these disorienting storylines at the same time. But watching this show is an experience in itself, since you're unable to just sit down and try and pick holes in it, instead you allow it to just wash over you. We're so used to this kind of storytelling now that it doesn't matter if random, batshit elements are occurring simultaneously -- it's the narrative equilibrium at its core, and it's like no other show around. Probably ever.
American Horror Story, as fun a show as it is, sometimes agonizingly exists within the individual moment. The very best serialized dramas follow a traditional arc through-line, but also allow enough breathing room to tell smaller, less arc-driven stories. There's nothing explicitly wrong with how Asylum is operating right now, particularly the thriving sense that this is all headed somewhere sensical (a step up from the sometimes exasperating first season), but it's settled into a groove wherein every episode tells the next additional chapter of a longer story. So an array of showy subplots are merely teased out piece by piece with every passing episode, which makes it a difficult show to watch objectively.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
When Sydney first became a double-agent, she was only truly motivated by revenge. Joining the real CIA, she wanted to fight back against Sloane because of her fiancee's murder, along with all the lies she had been told for so long. She was very much a lone wolf of sorts, the woman equals the mission. But it's interesting to see how much more stock Sydney now has in other people. While she was once so alone among a sea of traitors and betrayals, she now has her father's welfare to worry about, along with her personal investments in Vaughn and her friends at SD-6, the ones that are just as in the dark about their true motives as Sydney once was. This week we saw Sydney abandoning any form of protocol to save Vaughn's life, in one great moment being completely uncaring about telling Sark how she truly feels about Sloane, offering his head on a platter in exchange for a cure for Vaughn's ailment. It's just another example of how layered she's become.
One of the things that really struck me this week was how the writers managed to capitalize on the idea that so much of what we do could be considered emotionally manipulative. These early episodes of season two have been all about Sydney's swaying allegiances, what her mother represents to her and how that could be ambiguous, and her father's compassion versus his betrayals. Irina got in on the action this week, potentially pleading guilty purely to avoid a trial, and therefore force Sydney to delay her execution. It could all be Irina's own guilt that's at work here, or it could indeed be another act of game-play as Jack claims. But Jack isn't so easily cast as a hero, also indulging in his own form of manipulation here, telling the CIA inquiry of his love for his daughter, and how his recent actions were only done to protect her.
So much of this season has been about Sydney's unconscious desire to be an innocent again -- the gradual softening of all those walls she's put up. Her mother has played the most important part in that, Sydney slowly letting her back into her life, allowing herself to become "Irina's daughter", and not just this powerful double agent with a steely persona. But that was all wrecked last week by the revelations Syd was manipulated into believing, and The Indicator is another hour in which she is forced to call into question everything she thinks she knows about her own family. It's fitting for a season about childhood memories and the complexities of family that this episode gets straight to the root of Sydney as a spy, and whether or not it was all set in motion from an early age.
Jack Bristow has always been driven by impulse, very much a man moving at the beat of his own drum and orchestrating events in his own private ways. It's always somehow connected to Sydney, though, every one of his decisions designed to protect her best interests. But here we arrive at Dead Drop, a masterful exploration into emotional complexity, in which we witness Jack resorting to extreme methods to distance his daughter from Irina. Again, it’s a decision motivated for Sydney's welfare, but it's hard to entirely support him... right? Irina is an awful, awful person, but there does appear to be something compassionate there, and a real desire to connect with her daughter.
Doesn't everybody long to have perfect parents? Maybe because we so often don't, despite it being the one thing that we're supposed to have as human beings. If you're inclined to have children, you're meant to be nurturing and compassionate, and every child deserves that kind of treatment from the people they trust the most. There are obviously many of us who don't have that, or experience the crushing moment when you realize that your parents aren't as flawless as you once imagined. But what remains is a deep desire to have them be good, wishing they could remain that picture-perfect image that you remember from your childhood. Alias' second season is already tapping into that idea, Syd struggling to shake her last memories of Laura Bristow and slowly coming around to the woman she now knows as Irina Derevko.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
One of the more interesting responses to Enlightened has been the vocal apathy towards Amy herself, and how she's so hideous a character that it's hard to enjoy the show at all as a result. It's something that is explicitly examined throughout Lonely Ghosts, an episode that explores how Amy uses those around her to get what she wants. It's actually a really interesting question from an audience standpoint, since we're living in an age of complex anti-hero protagonists, particularly on cable. And maybe that block between Amy as a character and certain folks at home isn't derived so much from what she is, but instead what she isn't.
We live in a time in which the definition of friendship has been stretched to such an extent that it's sometimes hard to discern whether your friends are really, honestly, actually your friends. Or if you actually know them at all, and vice versa. Enlightened is a series that says a lot about one woman and her quest for some kind of inner peace, but has also been intriguingly exploring loneliness for most of the season so far. Of course, Amy isn't literally alone, seeing as she has companions at work and lives with her mother, but every one of these relationships is fractured in some way. The people at work she wants to be friends with don't like her at all, she arrogantly positions herself above co-workers like Tyler and doesn't appear to want an actual friendship with them, while both her mother and ex-husband find her suffocating. So she's very much alone, in a lot of ways. Then enter Sandy.
Monday, November 5, 2012
There is a fantastic show buried deep inside of 666 Park Avenue. The series has so far been ruptured by a scattershot feeling throughout each additional episode, spooky events happening for no discernible reason, characters rarely interacting beyond surface level exchanges of dialogue, and subplots that have yet to grant us reason to care. Diabolic, the strongest episode so far, reined everybody in, so to speak. While characters are still stuck in their own smaller adventures, writer Christopher Hollier this week developed something resembling a through-line, one thing somewhat connected to the next thing, and so forth. Throwing in a bunch of revelations that actually lived up to the word also helped, and it seems like the show is trying to turn a corner.