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September 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»dexter

Slice of Life

There's a throwaway joke during the first season of Dexter for the obsessive serial killer fiction audience: the titular character, fearing suspicion by his own police department, sneaks in and removes his alias from a list of controlled-substance purchasers. The name he erases is "Patrick Bateman," also known as the American Psycho.

It's worth a snort, and thankfully the show is smart enough not to dwell on it any longer. But it's interesting in that the two characters could barely be farther apart, except for their shared interest in murder. Bret Easton Ellis's killer yuppie was obsessed with meaningless pop culture and acquisition. The running gag of the novel was that Bateman's homicidal tendencies were barely separable from the greed and narcissism that he shared with his colleagues.

Dexter Morgan, on the other hand, comes across as a reluctant psychopath. Michael C. Hall pulls what menace he can out of the character, but his fangs are basically pulled early--Dexter's an amoral killer, but his foster father trained him to act normal and only kill other murderers, which turns the show's "shocking" twist into something more like a very grisly arrest sequence. We're never really in doubt that the people Dexter kills are anything other than scum, so we're disinclined to feel bad when he offs them. The impulse is really nothing more than the usual cop-drama bad-guy punishment sequence made more explicit (and perhaps, for much of the audience, more darkly gratifying).

This is a little unfortunate. I've come to prize fiction that makes the audience uncomfortable with its protagonist, which a show about an unrepentant serial killer could have certainly accomplished. But it also gives Dexter the opportunity to explore slightly more fertile emotional ground. Even when he's hunting his rival, the Ice Truck Killer, Dexter's real conflict is with himself: he's been pretending to be a normal, caring person for so long that he begins to become that person, although he tries to deny it. He tells us again and again that he's emotionless, but can't stop himself from enjoying the company of the people around him, and becoming upset when they're taken away.

Dexter lacks the vocabulary to express this directly, which is one of the pleasures of Hall's performance. He claims to have chosen his girlfriend for her "damaged" fear of intimacy, but is oddly charmed as she comes out of her shell, and off-handedly refers to her as "enchanting." His worries about his sister are tangible--"If I could have feelings at all, I'd have them for Deb," he says, unaware that he protests a bit too much. The pangs of feeling are still muffled, but the overall progression of the show is to raise their outlines and see how the character reacts.

What's still unclear is whether Dexter's human side is something that always existed in some form, or if his pretense is beginning to take more concrete form. I think the scripts are trying to say that it's the former, but the latter is a lot more fascinating. It's cynical, but also optimistic: it expresses a hope for change, and that a person could reinvent themself into the face that they present to the world. Which is kind of a nice message, for a show about a blood-spatter expert who kills people according to a twisted moral code in his off-hours.

September 7, 2007

Filed under: movies»television

The Harsh Realities of the Marketplace

And now, A Bit of Fry and Laurie:

August 29, 2007

Filed under: movies»television

Television Week: Well, More Like A Day

When we first moved into our apartment, Belle and I thought carefully about television. With Netflix, we didn't really need movie channels, but I'd gotten used to having an onscreen guide from digital cable. You get that with TiVo, and Belle really wanted one. So we went with regular ol' analog cable and spent the extra money on the TiVo subscription, and everyone was happy. Well, except for Comcast, but I'm not really shedding any tears over that.

There are lots of nice things about TiVo, little advantages that you don't get with the generic DVRs. Like the way that the fast-forward takes your reflexes into account, and rewinds a little bit so you don't overshoot the end of the commercial break. That's very thoughtful. It's also nice that the box will record recommendations if there's space left on the hard drive--most of the time it's stuff we'll never watch, but sometimes there are jewels, or programs that we meant to record but forgot to add to the list.

Turns out there's some really good stuff on basic cable nowadays. Even besides Galactica. I remember a few years ago, the general consensus seemed to be that if you wanted quality TV, you probably needed HBO. That was back when the reality show craze was in full swing, and all the news outlets screamed that we'd be watching nothing but reality TV in just a few years. So much for that.

  • Psych: At some point, USA apparently decided that they were going to be the quirky mystery network, only to be informed that audiences no longer respond overwhelmingly to Murder, She Wrote and Matlock. Not to be deterred, they made their own, starting with Monk, which I never watched but I'm assured is very clever. Psych has a similar gimmick (superobservant, smart-alec investigator who couldn't cut it as a cop starts a fake psychic detective agency with his friend), but suffers no illusions about being fluffy, formulaic fare. The result is an amusing (if not shocking) show that usually has at least one great line per episode.
  • The Closer: TNT is a weird bird. I always thought of them as the network that ran the same movie twice a night, three nights in a row--on-demand for cheapskates. Then they always advertised their home-grown movies, stuff like The Librarian or innumerable westerns starring people like Tom Selleck. But I guess that's really been working out for them. The Closer was one of the TiVo's recommendations, and it turns out that it's actually very, very good--and this coming from someone who normally hates police drama. The cast is talented, the writing is good, and it's usually light on legal wrangling and authoritarian nonsense (the worst part of the Law and Order franchise). They have episodes up on tnt.tv that you can watch for free, which is always a nice bonus for people who don't have DVRs (or cable, for that matter).
  • Doctor Who: Never watched the original show, but this is not bad. A little cheesy at times, but all in all it's clever, progressive entertainment, aimed primarily at younger viewers without talking down to them. Great theme music. I don't think I really have to write much about this one.
  • Top Chef: You know what cracks me up about reality shows? They're only three seasons in, and people are making comments like "well, the most anticipated episode is always such-and-such," or "I always enjoy this challenge." I'm sorry, but when you've only got two finished seasons in your sample, it's a little bit hard to buy any talk about the show's traditions or recurring events. It's not an institution yet, is what I'm saying. Anyway, Top Chef is good, and the cheftestants are less annoying this season.
  • Eureka: Oh, Sci Fi Channel. Talk about a roller coaster ride. Some of the network's original shows have been critical successes, but more often (Flash Gordon, Painkiller Jane, etc.) they're low-budget disasters with bad scripting and worse set dressing. Eureka is one of the few exceptions. It's based on a premise that I'm surprised no-one had yet exploited: a rural city is populated almost entirely by genius scientists working on secret government projects, like a Mayberry Manhattan Project. If Eureka doesn't always reach brilliance, it still nicely twists small-town drama around 1950's-style pulp science.

June 6, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»heroes

Who watches...

I'm late to the Heroes party because I didn't particularly care for the first episode. Not that it was bad, it just didn't grab me. Because I wasn't hooked from the start, I didn't add it to our TiVo list. Because I didn't add it to our TiVo list, we got halfway through the season before everyone started talking about how great the show was. And because Heroes is serial television, Belle and I didn't want to jump in halfway, so we didn't watch it. We figured we'd just Netflix the DVDs or (as it turns out) record the episodes when SciFi ran a marathon.

I like the show. I think it's got weak points, mainly in the characterization and plotting--people do things sometimes just because if they didn't, there wouldn't be much of a story left over. I'm willing to put up with that because the cast is very good, the writing is often funny, and the overarching story is enjoyably sinister.

Some people have compared Heroes to Alan Moore's Watchmen in its plotline, even to the point of saying that the former "borrows" heavily from the latter. In both cases, a cabal/evil genius plots to unite the world in a utopia of fear by destroying New York City with a superhuman bomb/genetically-created monster. It's not implausible that the writers could have picked up the plotline from Moore's work, which is one of the most well-known works in the genre. Maybe they did. I haven't read any interviews, I don't know.

On the other hand, the big elephant in the room for Heroes is September 11, even though the event itself goes conspicuously absent. There's talk of terrorism in New York, but nobody discusses the obvious connection. And the Bush administration may not exist in Heroes, but there's something familiar about the plan to exploit an easily-prevented tragedy for goodwill, only to squander it by turning the country into a terrified fascist state (as the jumps to five years "in the future" demonstrate).

It's obvious that Tim Kring and the other writers tiptoed around the issue a bit. I almost get the feeling that they were unsure whether or not to take the comparison to a more obvious level, or if they're backing away from it. I doubt NBC would be terribly happy if they came outright to say that the show's about Bush's failed war on terror.

But here's the thing: it's almost painful--like, actually cringe-inducing--to watch the writers of Heroes contort and twist to try to avoid 9/11. They're not fooling anyone, except maybe the network, into thinking that this isn't political. The sad thing is that it would be a better show if it just came out and said what it wants to say. Or, even better, if they were really willing to use their fictional platform to explore the issue in a slightly different light.

Superheroes are a fine place to start looking at political issues. That's part of Watchmen's legacy--it was one of the first attempts to critically examine what those caped vigilantes really represent. A superhero isn't a cop, honestly. They're an army. They "fight crime." A policeman "keeps the peace." And there's a very serious difference there, not the least of which is the outlook: a superhero basically exists on the assumption that there are bad people out there that must be stopped, preferably with mind-bullets.

I don't think that Heroes really aspires to explore the issue, but it is worthy of more ambiguity than it credits to itself. It demonstrates sympathy toward some of its villains, and puts its protagonists in awkward situations. It plays with the idea that New York might actually be demolished by its most empathic and good-hearted character.

But the writers don't go quite far enough in either direction. They clearly want us to understand that using the bomb as motivation for the public will lead to disaster. We never believe that the Linderman conspiracy might actually work, or that the world might actually need it. The conspirators are monsters--well-meaning monsters, but still unambiguously so. Between that and the show's touchy relationship with real-life terrorism, it has to walk a middle ground: not playful enough with its premise to be really thought-provoking, but not bold enough with its plotlines to go for the gut. I guess that leaves it at about the lungs, a little conspicuously airy as the first season wraps up.

May 14, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»top_chef

Better Cooking through Chemistry

Fans of molecular gastronomy geek Marcel from season two of Top Chef may enjoy looking through this slideshow of his recipes, including the coffee faux-caviar from the finale. Sadly, they don't actually give any details on the recipe, although you may be able to find those at Bravo's site. I'm still not entirely what's up with the "cyber egg" recipe, though. Is it a shot at Wired's logo? Or did "bullseye egg" just seem too simple?

March 26, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Too Much Confusion

Bear McCreary, the composer for Battlestar Galactica (as well as a number of other shows and movies), has a blog where he explains how he adapted Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" for the season three finale (when it goes into the archive, that entry will be located here). Putting the song into the show was a bizarre--but fascinating--step. Too bad we'll have to wait until January 2008 before we can find out what it means.

McCreary's blog actually features a few other interesting previous entries, especially the ones on the instrumentation he uses, and where he actually breaks apart the small musical themes that are used to score behind each character. Did you know? That irregular, single-note beat that opens the prologue to the show ("The cylons were created by man...") is actually in 9/8 time, and is played on the Javanese gamelan. Now you know.

February 14, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»24

Tick

In a more sober tone, he said, "We've had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, 'You don't realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.' They say torture doesn't work. But I don't believe that. I don't think it's honest to say that if someone you love was being held, and you had five minutes to save them, you wouldn't do it. Tell me, what would you do? If someone had one of my children, or my wife, I would hope I'd do it. There is nothing--nothing--I wouldn't do." He went on, "Young interrogators don't need our show. What the human mind can imagine is so much greater than what we show on TV. No one needs us to tell them what to do. It's not like somebody goes, 'Oh, look what they're doing, I'll do that.' Is it?"

That's the creator of 24, Joel Surnow, speaking to the New Yorker. He's responding to criticisms by civil rights lawyers (including the dean of West Point) that 24 has made it harder for the Army to discourage abusive behaviors among recruits, for whom the show provides a compelling "time bomb" scenario of the kind largely dismissed by intelligence experts. Note that Surnow does not technically refute whether or not the experts are right and torture doesn't work. He's more interested in whether or not someone would torture, regardless of efficacy, when placed in a crisis situation. I thought I had a grim outlook on humanity, but combined with Surnow's statement that "young interrogators don't need our show," this is a quote from someone who lives in a pretty harsh internal life.

Before I get into the issue of this, can I mention how writing about these kinds of issues makes a mockery of my home-grown categorization system? Is this in "movies," where I've decided to put the television posts for the flimsiest of reasons? Or is it "politics," due to the outrageously wingnutty content of the show? These are the reasons that my "random" folder has become increasingly cluttered.

But excuse the digression. The point is not that 24 is a bloody show that flaunts its circumvention of the Geneva Convention at every possible opportunity. It's that the program has contributed to a public dialogue where torture has become an actual valid option for policy. That these goalposts have been moved (or, perhaps more accurately, had their fingernails pulled until they revealed the location of the real goalposts) is dismaying. I'm still sometimes shocked by the surrealism of seeing references to "the President's interrogation policy" in newspaper headlines, not to mention Surnow's other comment in the article that he'd like to rehabilitate the image of Joe McCarthy--"an American hero, or maybe someone with a good cause who went too far." Yeah, if anyone could be the ironic spokesman for wrongful accusations, surely Tailgunner Joe tops the list.

But then, to some extent that's already occurred. Anyone covering the extreme political right in this country already knows that the redemption of McCarthyism (as well as the revival of detention camps and other WWII-era outrages) has been a priority--and for their constituency, not unsuccessfully so. To sophisticates and elites--and I mean that in the very nicest sense of the word--Ann Coulter and her book Treason may be a joke, but those books sell. People agree with them. I know several who do. You may as well.

Here's another fun digression: guess who's Surnow's partner in creating a "conservative network" (Bravo with guns instead of gays) that became a right-wing Daily Show pilot, soon to appear on Fox News? None other than Manny Coto, the same writer who apparently rescued Star Trek: Enterprise from mediocrity shortly before it was cancelled. The tiny, dark cloud spotted hovering over NewsCorp's headquarters right now would be the ashes of Gene Roddenberry, attempting to spin in their orbital grave.

I don't really have a solution to 24's torture problem. I'm not sure we can. If you're going to be in favor of free speech, you can't limit it just because the speech isn't something you'd want to say yourself, or because you think it's a bad influence. I can't condemn 24 outright without taking part in the same demonization campaign of groups like Brent Bozell's Media Research Center (Motto: "Counting penis jokes and semi-exposed breasts since 1987"). But I think it's unfortunate. I'd like for people to talk about how torture, even fictionalized torture, makes them feel, and whether they think that's healthy. But my most considered impulse is largely pity for the writers: to sit in a small room, week after week, being paid to create new and fresh ways to inflict physical pain on hero and villain alike, does not sound particularly fun or sustainable to me. It sounds worse than watching it, frankly. I wonder if Surnow would have made such a grim statement as the quote above in 2001, before producing 24 for six years.

January 30, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Galactica Season Three Gag Reel

First Draft included this in Athenae's weekly Galactica post. Since it has spoilers in it, I can't watch it for another couple months, so I'm saving it here.

January 18, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»star_trek

The Wrath of Retcon

When Enterprise started syndication on the Sci Fi channel, I figured I'd give it a shot. The idea of a prequel to the original Star Trek is interesting, even if I have reservations about anything starring Scott Bakula.

I doubt it'll stay on my TiVo watchlist for long, and I don't really want to discuss that at length here. What really struck me are the production elements and the scenery. When Star Trek moved from the original show to the Next Generation, it signalled a shift in the "future" as seen from the 1970's to a sleeker, information-age future. The blocky consoles and blinking light bulbs were replaced with smooth curves of plastic and touch-displays. The show's underlying premise underwent a similar revision, covering the original swashbuckling with a thick coat of liberal humanism (although regressive elements still lurked under the surface). While those changes make TNG superficially easier to watch for an audience that's used to slick special effects, I think it's going to age more poorly than it's first incarnation.

Enterprise casts itself in the mold of TNG in a lot of ways. The design of the ship, the sets, and the writing largely evoke the same polish, ergonomics, and mindset, respectively. I don't really care about what that does to continuity, since I shed any pretense of being a fan around the time when DS9 hit its peak. But I think it would have been more fun to watch a show that took its inspiration from Kirk instead of Picard. This doesn't just include the big, bulky technology that somehow has slimmed down and networked itself in Enterprise, although I think it would have been cool to see the old flip-top, satchel-shaped tricorders and square bridge panels again (Matt Jeffries, the original set and prop designer, reportedly said that subsequent entries to the franchise turned his bridge into "the lobby of a Hilton." He wasn't all wrong, either).

But more than that, there's a kind of sexiness to the first Star Trek that was neutered when Roddenberry revived his show in the 90's. Subsequent shows flirted with the idea, pardon the pun, but they were never allowed to be as blatant as the original. Catch a rerun sometime, and you can see why a million disturbing fan-fics have been written about it. Flared pants and calf-high leather boots, with tight-fitting tunics and gold trim? Starfleet had style, man--a markedly 1966-69 kind of style, sure, but it was there. Not to mention the ridiculous miniskirt uniforms, and Kirk's habit of either bedding any lifeform that moves, having his tunic ripped to shreds, or both. Whether you think it was great cinema or not (it wasn't), Star Trek was fun to watch.

Maybe the solution would have been to give Enterprise a much lower budget. After all, it's comforting to know that the technology for creating "ice or rocky planet #364" has remained relatively stable for the last twenty years. When push comes to shove, apparently nothing satisfies like styrofoam rocks and speckle-painted canvas wrapped around irregular shapes.

January 16, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»star_trek

To Boldly Go

"The Future was Funky." Exactly.

Future - Present - Past