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Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Battlestar Galactica has featured assassinations, coup d’etat, martial law, suicide bombing, torture, forced abortion, gang rape. It’s a dark show. But to my mind, one of the most horrible moments of the show was not anything so conventionally terrible as the above, but a speech sometimes hailed as one of the triumphant turning points of the show:

In our civil war, we’ve seen death. We watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was, beyond the reach of the resurrection ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time. As if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value it must end. To live meaningful lives we must die, and not return. The one human flaw, that you spend your lifetimes distressing over – mortality – is the one thing . . . well, it’s the one thing that makes you whole.

In “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner”, Natalie, the Six who leads the Cylon rebellion, gives this speech to the assembled Quroum, humanity’s elected government, arguing in favor of a joint strike mission to permanently disable the Cylon’s ability to resurrect themselves into new bodies following death. Later, in “The Hub”, with the exploding resurrection hub in the background, Helo and the leader of the rebel Eights fly the last surviving Three back to the rebel base ship:

Three: And with a whimper, every Cylon in the universe begins to die.
Eight: Yes, that’s right. And it’s a good thing, D’Anna, because now there’s no difference. We can all start trusting each other.

The first thing that follows this, of course, is Helo’s betrayal of the Eight’s trust by taking Three to President Roslin and denying the Cylons access (on the President’s order). But there’s a larger issue here than the Eights’ pereptually foolish optimism. And that’s the idea that the only way the Cylons can be “whole” is for there to be “no difference” between humans and Cylons.

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A new plan of attack involves more shorter posts, so that there aren’t months without anything. I stayed away from that here before because I keep really short thoughts to Facebook status updates (would be Twitters if I had any friends on Twitter, but I don’t), but there’s a place between rambling essays and one sentence thoughts that I hope I can use to good effect in the future. In the meantime, a few quick shots:

  • Pushing Daisies be dead. Terrible, horrible, depressing, expected. On the very minor positive side, Bryan Fuller may well end up running Heroes and perhaps save it from the abysmal joke it’s become. (During Heroes’ second season, the first time I watched the show as it aired, I repeatedly took it to task for ugly sexism until I eventually concluded it was just lazy writing, not actual misogyny, and gave up. This is still the case, and still one of the few things I actively despise about the show. Please save it, Bryan Fuller. Make it whimsy and fun!)
  • Far Cry 2 is a great game, but I’ve barely played it (or any other games) since I started Letters from Africa. As a result, I haven’t updated that particular project since then. I hope to get around to it eventually, but at this point I kind of just want to play the game. I also bought Overlord during its 75% price reduction on Steam and played it for an hour or two. It’s cute.
  • I’m a terrible DM. Not really, of course, but not a very good one, anyway. I don’t intend to continue the campaign log, although I do intend to keep the wiki updated with shorter summaries and to post some thoughts on DM-ing (and how much I suck at it). Seriously, it’s hard (especially when the online campaign I’m playing in is so well-designed. Here’s to you, stabs!) I almost want to start something new next semester (with a month of preparation over break), but I think the players would prefer to continue, because they don’t have as much of a problem with what I do as I do (and that’s what’s important, anyway)–and there are still some (hopefully) really interesting moments to get to.
  • Quantum of Solace is a conundrum to me. I’m planning on writing some more thorough thoughts (and I’ve thought a lot about what those will be) but I’m waiting until I probably see it again this weekend.

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The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a fascinating show. It’s a show on a major network (and one notorious for canning potentially brilliant but niche shows befor giving them any real chance to establish an audience) that manages to get away with many things you wouldn’t expect possible on a major network (and especially on FOX). It’s a confused show, one that often seems to be at odds with itself, threatening to be torn apart by these two impulses: the desire for mainstream, traditional, escapist entertainment and the desire for a genuinely new, creative, and interesting work of science fiction. To this already dangerous balancing act is a third pillar, the nostalgic love for the first two Terminator films that presumably keeps much of the audience (and thus the show) coming back while at the same time fighting with both of the show’s other main directions. If you’re at all interested in the troubles of maintaining a clear vision on a network television series, this is enough reason to watch Sarah Connor Chronicles, just trying to decipher each week how the people behind the show have managed to corral all these competing impulses into a coherent series.

That’s not most people, of course, and that’s fine. But the reason I point all this out up front is that while I want to focus on one aspect of the show–the aspect of it that is a genuinely new work of science fiction–I don’t want to pretend that that’s all it is, or that the show is a particularly great one. This is not Battlestar Galactica. At times SCC devolves into a conventional if entertaining action series, or into a love song for The Terminator and Terminator 2. The series is often clumsy and unsubtle, the acting by leads Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker is uneven (though Summer Glau and Brian Austin Green are reliably excellent), and some of the first season’s plot threads were too drawn-out and complicated to really work on television. Despite these flaws in execution and its confused heart, however, SCC is a show with a very strong heart, a show with something to say which, even if it’s not quite sure how to say it (or perhaps even what it is that it wants to say), deserves to be heard.

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This post is something of a sequel to this one.

I’m halfway through season two of The Wire (just finished “All Prologue”) and I’ve got some more thoughts on it and David Simon’s other HBO production, Generation Kill (thoughts which of course apply to television and to some extent narratives in general as well).

What strikes me now, especially after getting into Generation Kill, is that the problem I attempted to describe previously already has a perfect title, albeit one not widely used: the “tragedy of verisimilitude”. Coined, as far as I know, by Battlestar Galactica‘s James Callis in a “roundtable” podcast of several of the show’s actors and crew (a fascinating, albeit very long, discussion, you can get download it from SciFi’s Battlestar site, which unfortunately prevents more direct linking), he lamented that Battlestar‘s oft-praised dedication to realism (or more accurately verisimilitude) was occasionally a burden, when the principles of physical reality (or the expectations of the audience) made simple stories needlessly complex (or worse, made them impossible to convey believably).

While the problem occasionally rises on Battlestar, it’s much more prevalent on the much more grounded Wire and, in a twisted, more acceptable fashion due to its semi-nonfictional nature, Generation Kill. The second season of The Wire begins with the main characters of the first season, who were pulled from various disparate police units to serve on a special detail, scattered into the wind. McNulty is working the boat; Freamon is in Homicide; Kima has a desk job; Daniels is in the basement; etc. The first episode juggles the ongoing fates of these characters while continuing the story of Avon Barksdale’s similarly scattered drug crew and introducing an entirely new set of characters at the Baltimore docks (not to mention beginning a plot, although that’s clearly, as always on The Wire, a secondary priority). It’s a clusterfuck of too many characters, too much to carry, and yet it works in a twisted way, because this is what happens. People move on, with their jobs and with their lives, and the attempt to follow that, rather than unrealistically but more simply keep them together, or bring them back together on another detail for a new case.

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Having finished the first season of The Wire (and the first episode of season two), I think I’ve figured out what my problem with it is: I’m not engaged by the characters. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like The Wire; I think it is brilliant, and great, and powerful, but so far it isn’t the best show on television to me, because I don’t love it. That sounds cheesy and it’s about to get worse. There’s no beauty in The Wire (for me). I am cognizant of the quality of what I’m watching, but I don’t care.

As a writer I’m a character guy. My first priority in a story is always making the characters true and real; while of course I think about themes and motifs and structure and mechanics and what have you, if it undercuts the characters, it goes. On The Wire, I can’t help but feel that the characters are working for the story and not the other way around. A part of it is likely simply that the characters are for the most part quite pedestrian–McNulty, setting aside the quality of the series and simply looking at the substance of his character, is a character I’ve seen a thousand times before in nearly every cop show ever: self-righteous, arrogant, intelligent, divorced, battling with his wife for custody, fucking another woman. This is more-or-less the sum total of his character at the end of season one. There’s nothing interesting here. And the same goes for almost all of the characters. (I find Stringer Bell fascinating, but that may just be me.)

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If you somehow weren’t aware, season two of Mad Men premiered last night. The episode was everything I expected and hoped for and more, with a couple of surprises along with the general thoughtful evolution of characters that have aged more than a year since we last saw them. (Season two begins in February 1962; I believe season one ended Thanksgiving 1960, although I’m not as sure as I’d like to be.) What struck me–what has always struck me about Mad Men, since I watched the first episode, even as I have grown accustomed to it–was the pacing. Mad Men is a brilliant show, and while these are of necessity rare, it is by no means alone. I do believe, however, that Mad Men is unique, or nearly so, among television shows in its pacing. At the very least, I have never seen another show like it in this regard.

When searching for a way to describe Mad Men to friends who have never seen it, the word that almost always comes to mind is “pensive”. So much of the show it seems is not in the dialogue or the actions but in the inaction, the moments of quite solitude when characters simply stare off in the distance, lost in thought. Of course, describing the show like this usually makes it seem boring and dull, but because of the acting and the writing it’s not. Because Mad Men is a show about characters, more, a show about characters who are trapped in lives they do not want, in a structure and society they do not like but nonetheless uphold like some kind of nation-spanning Abilene paradox, we understand why they must take a moment, or many moments, to contemplate how fucked up their existences really are (and drink a hell of a lot of alcohol).

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For years there have been (at least to my perhaps biased perceptions) two shows that have dominated television critics’ articles as the “best shows on TV”: Battlestar Galactica and The Wire. I’ve watched Battlestar since the beginning (and fallen completely in love with it, and become known as something of an evangelist for it), but I was never able to watch The Wire because it’s an HBO show. Recently I’ve finally been able to start watching it–so far, only the first episode–and I’ve been trying to put my reaction into words. It’s a very weird thing, to read about the greatness of something for five-odd years before finally getting to experience it; it’s a recipe for overhyped expectations, disillusionment, disappointment. I’m not disappointed, so far; but disillusionment would be a fair assessment. I don’t mean that in a bad way–the first episode was great–and to be honest it doesn’t so much have to do with the critical praise as it does with the show it’s paired with.

Battlestar is a show about the nuclear annihilation of humanity by killer robots and the human survivors’ attempts to find a new life and a new way to live. It’s a character drama of the highest caliber, yes, but it’s also a show with space battles and nuclear showdowns and sex (surprising amounts of sex, really) and all a manner of infantile geek fun. Watching Battlestar, I get to indulge both the intellectual, artistic, philosophical brain and the instinctual, visceral, kiddie brain. And that’s not just a great package, it also allows the show to occasionally transform visceral fantasies into their horrifying realities in a moment, twisting the infantile pleasure of watching spaceships blow up into a shocking moment of self-awareness. Which is great and lovely and awesome.

That’s not what The Wire is. This should be obvious, of course. The Wire is, after all, a cop show. It’s not about nuclear showdowns and killer robots. But somehow, in the years I spent hearing about the other best show on television, I connected the two in my brain, or at least got used to the idea of great television being both entertaining and intelligent. I don’t mean to say that The Wire isn’t entertaining (even though that’s what I just said), but that–well, it’s not visceral. There’s nothing “awesome” (in the popular sense of explosions and sex) about The Wire, or at least not the first episode. It’s very well-written and touches on a lot of important themes and says a lot of important things, but I didn’t get a spectacularly wide grin on my face when I watched it like I do with Battlestar or even (to reference a previous post) The Dark Knight.

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