Monday, November 7, 2011

T.V. or not T.V.? - Part VI - Eclipse

Yak Sya Mayesh, Gentle Readers!

American beat poet Gil Scott-Heron once wrote "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised".  That's a pretty cool sentiment, but I wonder if he ever anticipated the revolution of televison itself?

Since I've already done five previous segments about the medium I wanted to provide a convenient table of contents if'n you ever wanna go back and read the whole story from the very beginning...

Part I  In which the author as a young man first discovers the miraculous, omnipresent, entertainment box.

Part II    "Portrait of a T.V.-Addicted Pre-Teen

Part III  Yours truly manages to detect a few precious bits of wheat amongst the mountain-sized heaps of prime-time chaff.

Part IV  I'm forced to eat crow after publicly declaring that T.V. is a vast wasteland.  

Part V  Reaping the benefits from a sudden abundance of entertainment-related riches.

Now for the big reveal: all of these previous posts are leading up up to one particular admission: that television has supplanted movies as my primary entertainment drug of choice.

And with that confession I've probably set an entire legion of tongues a-waggin' with calls of  "Heresy!",  "Sacrilege!" and/or "Burn the demented one!"  But I stand by my claim.  Yes, prime time television is still largely produced by and for the mentally infirm, but cable T.V. continues to wow and amaze me.  

Ladies and gentlemen of the entertainment jury, please direct your attention to Exhibits "A" through "C" if you may:

Supernatural (2005 to present)    

Supernatural is the heir apparent to such shows as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even Kolchak: The Night Stalker.   Basically the premise has the Winchester brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) gallivanting across British Columbia (doubling as the continental U.S.) in their bitchin' 67' Impala, encountering urban legends, hauntings, weird phenomenon and eventually some major spiritual movers and/or shakers.  

The show was brought to my attention by the same wise soul who first recommended Buffy The Vampire Slayer to me.  Just like that particular program, I was first put off by the concept of Supernatural.  To me it just seemed like an excuse to depict two flyweight, pretty-boy actors in some over-stylized and nominally scary scenarios.  And frankly, the bulk of Season One did little to sway my first impression.

The series begins with an admittedly chilling flashback in which Sam and Dean's mom Mary (Samantha Smith) is killed by demonic forces when she's pulled onto the ceiling and then spontaneously combusts (!).  This horrific occurrence compels their father John to hunt down and destroy the supernatural forces that inhabit the dark corners of the world.  He drags Sam and Dean along to keep watch over them and to pass on some much-needed survival skills.  Naturally this results in a less-then-normal childhood and considerable resentment between the three of them.

After Sam has a falling out with his dad and brother, he leaves the spook-slaying behind to pursue a relatively normal life as a student at Standford University.  In the pilot, Dean is forced to drag Sam back into the lifestyle after John goes missing on a solo excursion.  At the end of the episode, Sam tries to return to his old life but something terrible happens, forcing him to realize that his destiny is unavoidable.  Soon the two re-united brothers hit the road to locate their missing pops and gank as many creepy McNasties as they can along the way. 

Although this certainly sounds like a cool premise, the first ten episodes are completely self-contained and do very little to establish the show's milieu or storyline.  In addition, the dialogue is rife with faux-clever macho comebacks and one-liners that sound as if a sixth grader tried to re-dub an R-rated film.   Also, both leads are still feeling each other out and the camaraderie and confidence that makes later episodes so memorable is pretty scarce in the first half of Season One.

But then something incredible happens at the mid-way point.  In Episode 11, entitled "Scarecrow" (directed by the late, great X-Files alum Kim Manners), Sam insists that they keep pursuing their father even after he's ordered his sons to investigate a series of Children of the Corn-style disappearances.  During their separation, Dean gets in way over his head and Sam encounters a young, cute, hitchhiker named Meg (Nicki Aycox) who may not be the free-spirit she seems to be.  

From here on in, the show builds up more and more momentum.  Looking to avoid the same fate as the The X-Files (which eventually collapsed under the convoluted weight of its own mythology), the writers of Supernatural always resolve dangling story threads before adding another layer of depth.  Even stand-alone episodes might contain one or two scenes that acknowledge the overarching plot and contribute to its resolution.  The show is also notorious for ending on some pretty brutal cliffhangers. 

Supernatural is also truly blessed by the incredible chemistry of the two leads.  Jared Padalicki and Jensen Ackles are clearly on good terms and this really sells the fraternal bond between the two of them.  The supporting cast is well-rounded out with Jeffrey Dean Morgan as John Winchester, Jim Beaver as the boy's grouchy alterna-pop Bobby, Misha Collins as the woe-begotten and morose angel Castiel, flinty Samantha Ferris as a matronly hunter named Ellen and the beautiful Alona Tal as her daughter Jo.  

The show really has come a long way.  One week might feature a genuinely creepy one-shot like "Family Remains", "Everybody Loves A Clown", or "The Benders".  The next week might be something that takes the concept of "meta" to hilarious new heights such as "Changing Channels", "The Real Ghostbusters" or "The French Mistake".  And the week after that you could be faced with a gut-wrenching, top-shelf dramatic entry like "No Rest For The Wicked", "Swan Song" and "Abandon All Hope".  Trust me, not very many televisions shows have the ability to pull off such authentic tonal dexterity.

You have to respect a show that had a five year story plan but continued on after an overwhelming flood of fan support.  I just finished Season Six and, let me testify, Kind Reader, it's just as good if not better then anything that preceded it.  

Here's cool promo video for Season One.  I'm pretty sure Jared Padalecki's testes hadn't even dropped when this was filmed.  Man, he looks young...       

Spartacus: Blood and Sand  (2010-present)

Here's another program that I really didn't care for at first but ultimately it won me over.  Executives at Fox should see this as a lesson well-learned: new shows really need ample time to flesh themselves out and find their audience.  Mercifully I stuck with this one beyond it's uninspired pilot and eventually the show went from a titillating curiosity to one of the best things I've ever seen in my life.  

Apologies to anyone who may have already read this on my entertainment-related review blog, but this show really does deserve a second mention.  

Spartcus: Blood and Sand tells the story of a Thracian citizen who gets coerced into joining a Roman Auxiliary army to defend his homeland against barbarian invaders.  When our hero makes the mistake of upstaging the arrogant General Claudius Glaber, the Romans leave the Thracians high and dry.  Our protagonist is betrayed, captured, and then sold off as human chattel.

He's subsequently purchased by Quintus Batiatus, who's inherited a rundown gladiator training academy. Now re-named after the fierce Thracian King of legend, Spartacus is forced to do battle in the arena. After being separated from his beloved wife Sura, our hero manages to channel all of his rage into one bloody victory after another.  In order to keep his new champion pacified, Quintus pledges to funnel all of the gladiator's winnings into an effort to track down his missing wife.  Naturally, the mind reels when you consider the opportunities for duplicity here.

Like I said, the pilot really failed to impress me.  It's rife with badly-rendered, hyper-stylized violence pilfered from the movie 300, with a bunch of gratuitous nudity thrown in.   But then I watched episode two. And then I watched episode three.  And then I found myself watching two or three episodes per sitting until then I ran out of episodes and then I was sad.

Did the producers just feel as if they had to cram as much sensationalistic nonsense into the pilot just to hook viewers? Well, it almost had the opposite effect on me and it's a minor miracle that I stuck with it.  But, man,  I'm sure glad I did.  

Over the course of the next three or four episodes, the characters slowly begin to reveal themselves in increasingly sophisticated ways.  Naturally we cheer for Spartacus right away because we're sympathetic to his plight, but then the writers take a gamble and show us that he's not perfect.  His mindless quest for revenge causes collateral damage.  He's overconfident and sometimes a bit arrogant.  And he's also a bit of an asshole, especially where it concerns "yesterday's news" rival gladiator Crixus. Bless the writers for treating the audience like mature adults who are capable of making up our own minds about certain characters.

In order to strike the perfect balance between rage, smarm, and cunning, the producers really needed a talented actor for the title role.  They struck pay-dirt when they found Welsh actor Andy Whitfield. It's a friggin' crime that he passed away recently after a lengthy battle with non-Hodgekin lymphoma. Fans can only hope that his replacement (Liam McIntyre) has just a fraction of Whitfield's charisma.  Andy's presence will be sorely missed.
Speaking of Crixus, his character continues to reveal increasingly complex facets.  When we first meet him he comes across as a typical meat-headed, honor-bound, brainwashed oaf who's irrational hatred for Spartacus springs from his own insecurities.  But after we see him get used and discarded by Lucretia, the wife of Batiatus, all the while secretly pining over the stunning slave girl Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt), we begin to feel guilt over writing him off as as a mere goon.  That's a major feather in the cap of the writers.

Lucretia, along with her husband Quintus, form the Lady and Lord MacBeth of the piece.  Once again, the writers do a great job generating sympathy for these two.  After all, it's easy for us to get behind two people who are just trying to keep their business afloat, improve their lot in life and make ends meet.  However, as their behavior become increasingly Machiavellian, we eventually get turned off by their inability to be satisfied with merely prospering.  Both Lucy Lawless and John Hannah are sheer genius in their respective roles.  It's a credit to both actors that we silently plead with them to do the right thing, long after their dark paths become apparent.

I also have to give praise to all of the actors for being brave enough to jettison any shred of self-consciousness.  Quite often they're asked to appear completely disrobed on screen or indulge in some pretty risque sequences.  I imagine it would be challenging to be completely buck nekkid with a veritable army of cast and crew standing around eating sammiches.  In additional to being historically honest, the copious nudity certainly offers up some tremendous eye candy for both male and female viewers.  I, for one, would personally like to thank the show's producers for giving us a glimpse of Xena's chakrams.  A-hem.

As if to reward their bravery, the actors are given a ton of "A"-list material to work from. The plot keeps getting better and better and story threads dropped earlier in the season pay off in the end.  The denoument is particularly nasty, like Titus Andronicus meets Apocalypse Now.  Speaking of Shakespeare, this is one of the few examples where the mock-Shakespearean dialogue actually works.

I love that Steven S. DeKnight and his team of scribes actually went through the bother of approximating how ancient Romans used to speak, employing one-word sentiments like "Apologies" versus "I'm sorry" for example.  The dialogue is also generously spiked with double entendres, bawdy humor and alliteration. As salty as things can get, there's also plenty of wit and wisdom, such as when Spartacus declares: "It is a distance to travel from a woman's mouth to a man's ears."          

The digital effects also get better as the season progresses.  One spectacular highlight features a titanic battle with Spartacus and Crixus allied against the monstrous and nigh-invulnerable Theoceles.  Also memorable is a horrible detour into The Pit, a vile and repellent bloodsport den that makes the arena look like a kid's soccer match.  Scenes like this even managed to make this veteran gorehound's stomach churn.

So, if your interested in a television series that actually follows through on what shlock crap like Gladiator promised to do, then look no further.  Spartacus: Blood and Sand takes advantage of it's additional freedoms to deliver a show that's appropriately bloody, sexually mature and positively rich with memorable dialogue, engaging plot twists and top-notch performances.

Here's just a sample of the intensity of the combat scenes:

The Wire (2002-2008)

Y'know, I didn't think that anything could ever come close to supplanting The Shield as my favorite cop show but The Wire comes pretty damned close.  Mercifully, both shows are so apple vs. orange that comparisons ultimately prove fruitless ("Haw!  See what I did there?").  So, what we're left with are two incredible shows which are distinctly awesome in their own inimitable ways.

The primary mastermind behind The Wire is David Simon, a former police reporter in Baltimore.  After he became increasingly disillusioned with the state of investigative journalism, he channeled all of his ample experience into writing crime dramas.  His first novel, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was quite successful and served as the basis for Homicide: Life on the Streets only two years later.  I'm ashamed to say that I haven't seen this show, but it's certainly on my docket now.  

Allegedly Simon had some conflicts with NBC over Homicide's consistently bleak subject matter.  When it came time to produce a new show, Simon took it directly to HBO, where he knew such content wouldn't be an issue.  It was a wise move, since The Wire dispenses with every mediocre expectation that the big networks often saddle police dramas with.

The show follows the efforts of a rag-tag group of Baltimore cops as they attempt to surveil, gather evidence and then bust a drug trafficking ring run my the notorious Avon Barksdale.  After D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr), Avon's nephew and a lieutenant in the gang, is acquitted for murder after a key witness suddenly refuses to testify, Detective James McNulty (Dominic West) decides that this is the last straw.  After pulling some strings with the Judge, he manages to shame the senior members of the police force into establishing a hastily-assembled, poorly funded and nominally-staffed department dedicated to taking down Barksdale.

Naturally complications arise.  Half of McNulty's officers want nothing to do with the assignment.  Most of them are cast-offs who are alternately lazy, incompetent or prone to "loose cannon" behavior.  Low-level arrests prove useless.  Even more disturbing: it becomes increasingly obvious that the detail is nothing but a half-hearted concession that was never meant to succeed.    

For the longest time, nothing happens until one of McNulty's best acquisitions, Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) manages to photograph Avon Barksdale, crack the elaborate pager system used by the gang to communicate and then lobbies for the implementation of a wiretap.  Soon the fresh evidence starts to implicate high-ranking political figures, which reveals a few conflict of interest. 

The really cool thing about The Wire is how it allocates just as much screen time to the Barksdale gang as it does to the cops.  I read a book a few years ago called Freakonomics which compared the organization of drug dealers to the managerial structure of McDonald's. Whereas lesser cop shows usually depict criminals as inherently evil, randomly violent and chronically stupid, Freakonomics and The Wire treat their audiences with a lot more respect.  

In fact we get plenty of scenes which develop the so-called antagonists as three-dimensional characters.  Characters such as D'Angelo really wrestle with their conscience over the negative effects that dealing drugs has on his friends and the neighborhood.  Their organization is incredibly sophisticated, with the kingpins at the top safely insulated from prosecution by their obedient foot-soldiers.  Their seemingly antiquated method of communication via pagers cleverly avoids traditional surveillance.  

That's not to say that the lifestyle is glamorized in any way, shape or form.  Homeless "customers" like Bubbles (Andre Royo) are abused at every turn.  Young, impressionable Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), an ersatz parental figure to a tribe of prepubescent dealers, eventually becomes hooked on his own product.  When Avon Barksdale's major domo Stringer Bell decides that he's a liability, the kid is stunned by how quickly his "friends" turn against him.    

And then we get refreshingly original characters like Omar (Michael K Williams), who would probably never see the light of day on a prime time cop show.  Chewed up by his own environment, Omar becomes a Robin Hood-like vigilante, knocking over stash houses and giving money back to the poor.  Naturally this makes him Public Enemy #1 in Avon's eyes, so he orders his lieutenants to capture, torture and murder Omar's boyfriend Brandon.  Even as Omar steps up his revenge against Barksdale, he still employs an odd sort of honor-code that seems strangely incongruous.     

For it's fresh writing, intense realism, immaculate performances and consistently gritty direction, The Wire is one of the best (if not the best) cop shows ever produced.  Here's just a sample of the show's brillaince, as the wily D'Angelo teaches his young subordinates how to play chess, inner-city style:


So there you have it, Kind Readers, three compelling pieces of evidence that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that cable television is consistently trumping cinema as the superior and intelligent creative medium. For one, these programs don't have the draconian restraints of the MPAA breathing down their necks.  That alone is enough to ensure that the writers aren't bound to directives antiquated enough to make the Comics Code Authority look contemporary.

I'll be back again with three more pick soon!  Until then, keep your brain fit and have fun on your couches!  



FAIL  Wikipedia is awesome, even if only for this encyclopedic record of televised crap:

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