Saturday, August 13, 2005

Y: The Last Man

Over the past few weeks I've been reading the comic book series, Y: The Last Man. I just finished the fifth volume, and will have to wait a few months until the next trade comes out. The series has a great premise, a plague wipes out all the men on Earth except for one, our main character, Yorick Brown. So, he has to go around and figure out why he survived, and also try to get back to his girlfriend, Beth, who's over in Australia, and doesn't know he's alive.

First off, I really liked the book, it's been a while since I had a good longform comics series, and like Preacher, this book goes down smooth, and you don't want to stop reading it. I don't think it reaches the insane heights of Preacher, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable book that tells intelligent stories. I really do want to see where things are going.

So, the five volumes follow Yorick on his journey across the country to get to a lab in San Francisco, where Dr. Mann can test Yorick and see why he survived. They decide to go there at the end of book one and it takes until the end of volume five to actually make it there. This book definitely follows the new trend in comics of decompression, i.e. pacing the story slowly. Decompression came about as a reaction to older comics where there's nothing but plot, and no time to relax and get to know the characters.

However, in reacting against this, a lot of creators have taken this to mean pacing stories so slowly that the book moves at a glacial pace. Warren Ellis was a big offender during the end of Transmetropolitan, when it took nearly twenty issues to tell a story that would have probably taken five issues at the beginning of the book.

The whole point of decompression is that it gives you a chance to spend time with the characters and get to know them, because they're not always dealing with plot. The problem with this book is that there's not much character development, so the plots just drag on and things move forward very slowly. Books 2-4 are basically a series of distractions on the way to San Francisco, where nothing really happens.

I suppose the point is to show us a bunch of people in this world, to give us an idea of what it's like. The problem is Vaughan gives us some isolated pieces of the world, but we have no feeling of what things are like on the whole. Especially as things move forward, we don't learn more about the world. Considering the premise of the book, it's absurd to spend all our time on this road story, and get no sense of what it's like for ordinary people in this world. There's so many issues and we never really get the sense of how things have changed, outside of what's necessary for the story.

For example, there are no men, so what are families like. Are women moving in with each other and forming sort of nonsexual couplings, how people feel about lesbianism now, are people realizing that lesbian couplings are the only option available, or are people still clinging to the hope that men will return? I'm not just saying this from the heterosexual male point of view, but it's absolutely ridiculous that this book hasn't dealt with lesbian sexuality in 31 issues. As a writer, the potential for drama there is huge, and I have no clue how Vaughan could not touch on the issue.

Vaughan has very different priorities in writing than most of the fiction I like. People like Joss Whedon or Alan Ball always have the plot come out of character problems, to the point that the show basically writes itself. Vaughan doesn't write particularly strong characters, so he's constantly imposing new random threats on the characters. In a long form series like this, I'd rather see a focus on character development and growth than just have them run into another bunch of crazy women. That's why it feels like the book isn't going anywhere, Yorick has this one desire to get to Beth, but nothing else, so it feels like most of the events that occur are pointless. The plots play out, but in most cases, they don't change the characters, and if the characters don't change, why am I reading the book?

The best storyline in the run of the book is 'Safeword' because it's about examining a character, rather than just having another arbitrary random encounter. In this story, Yorick encounters a dominatrix, who imprisons him and forces him to examine his attitudes toward sexuality, and find out why he's not taking advantage of his status as the last man on earth to have lots of sex. It explains one of the major character issues from earlier in the book and is also an interesting storyline in and of itself, however this storyline is the exception, and we get no similar insights into the lives of Dr. Mann and 355.

There's another major plothole in the book and that's the fact that there's no indication of what's going on with artificial insemination, and if that's worked to help give birth to any new men. It's been over two years of book time, so someone's definitely tried it. There's one pregnant woman who we hear gave birth to a son, and he's treated like mankind's last hope, but someone must have tried the sperm bank.

And if the sperm bank doesn't work, isn't it Yorick's obligation to impregnate as many women as he can? He's so concerned with being faithful to Beth, they don't seem to have considered what he'd need to do to continue the human race. There's some references to these issues early on, but this should really be the dramatic meat of the book. How would Yorick feel about having the entire next generation of humanity be his children? This is the stuff that great drama is made of, and Vaughan never even touches on it.

I guess my biggest problem with the book is that the premise offers so much drama, but Vaughan uses it merely as a gateway to a road trip story that only marginally takes advantage of the premise. So, it's one of those books where a lot of stuff seems to happen, but looking back, there's been a ton of stories that don't contribute anything to the characters or our knowledge of the world, so the stories are entertaining, but don't really go anywhere.

And, despite all these problems, I was still hooked on the book. It is entertaining moment to moment, but once you step back, it becomes apparent that it was thirty issues of going nowhere. Still, I probably will pick up the next collection.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Why are all the good concerts when I'm away?

Looking at the news from the music world, I'm increasingly annoyed because after a summer with basically no concerts I want to go to, it seems like in September and October, nearly every band I'd want to see live is playing in New York City, but I can't get there because I'm up at school.

These are just a few of the concerts I'd love to go to, but I have to miss.

Arcade Fire
David Bowie
Sigur Ros
The Polyphonic Spree
Belle and Sebastian

So, I've got to decide if it's worth coming back for some of these. U2 I have tickets to two of their shows, one is on the weekend before I go on break, and one is on the weekend of break. So, I'm thinking of selling the tickets to the first show and buying tickets to the Across the Narrows festival in Brooklyn, where The Polyphonic Spree and Belle and Sebastian are playing, not to mention Beck also. Basically, if the Spree are playing, I need to be there. Their concert last year was one of the best events I've ever been to.

It's just annoying that these concerts couldn't be one month earlier, because I would have loved to gone to them all. Because there's really been nothing going on concert wise here this summer.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Six Feet Under: 'All Alone'

When a major character dies on a show, it's sort of a double edged sword for the writers. Do you want to spend a whole bunch of time dealing with grief, or do you want to try to move things along and get back to moving the plot forward. One of the greatest TV episodes ever made, Buffy's 'The Body,' was devoted entirely to dealing with the aftermath of a major character's death, and was the most realistic depiction of the grieving process I've ever seen in any piece of fiction. This episode doesn't reach the heights that 'The Body' did, it's much more of a standard TV eulogy, giving us an overview of the process, and at the end, there is a feeling of if not resolution, at least closure.

I think this was a really well done episode, with some phenomenal moments, but on the whole, it felt like too little content, considering we only have two episodes left after this one. Obviously Nate was a huge character and I don't think he should have went unmourned, but there's a lot of unresolved character stuff and I was more interested in seeing that than just seeing people mourn. I did love the funeral scene, particularly Rico's speech, as well as Claire's drive around town with Ted.

Bringing back David's attacker just felt like too much of a plot device, a way to give a narrative arc to David's grief, plus I never like when crucial information to a story is introduced in the episode it's used. Maybe I just forgot it, but I don't remember any of that stuff with bullying from the past. That said, I was feeling really sad as David struggled to get through his speech, so the device did serve its purpose.

The best scene of the episode was the only one where there was really lasting character conflict, and that was when Maggie goes to Brenda's house. Brenda's in such an awkward position now, having been dumped by Nate, however, I don't think anyone else actually knows this, and I'm not sure if Brenda is ever going to tell someone else. Maggie is also in an incredibly awkward position, I love the shot at the burial when Maggie is crying and Brenda is looking at her, hating the fact that she's crying for him.

The other really standout scene was Brenda's confrontation with Nate's spirit. If you look at this scene and the scene with Lisa in the premier, Brenda clearly still has a lot of issues with self esteem, particularly in regards to her relationship with Maya. I think that she should keep Maya, to abandon Maya now, the third parent to do so, would do horrible damage to her. I don't think any of her blood relatives have the right to be Maya's parent that Brenda does. Though there would be a certain justice in Ruth having to raise Maya, because it would give her the purpose she's been seeking since losing George. Maybe Ruth is the sort of person who can only function when taking care of others, and even though she resents it, she seems to be unsure what to do when she's not in the role of caretaker.

Over with Keith and David, we're finally getting to the dark side of the deal with Roger. I don't want to see Keith and David broken up when their family seems to be so together right now, but Roger doesn't seem like the kind of guy you want to have against you. It would be odd to just include mention of the 'blowjob video' and then not have it come back as a plot point, but I really don't see how you could play out a major storyline with it in only two episodes.

I guess that's my major problem with the episode, I loved all that was going on, and it was good to see the characters mourn, but with so little time left, each scene needs to be great to justify its presence. If you look at the end of Buffy, 'Chosen' is a great episode, but spending half the episode finding the demon army felt like a waste of time when we had so few moments left with these characters, and to some extent that's how I feel here. There's so much unresolved stuff, and even if the ending is pretty ambiguous, it's going to be tough to find closure in just two hours.

But, this is a show set at a funeral home, and when Nate dies, his funeral is certainly worthy of screentime. Part of it is the fact that I had already processed Nate's death and come to terms with it, so watching the characters do that felt a bit odd. This is definitely one that should be watched in succession with Ecotone, though coming after that brilliant episode, nearly anything was going to be a bit of a let down.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Six Feet Under: 'The Silence,' 'Singing for Our Lives' and 'Ecotone'

I already did an extensive writeup on Nate's fate yesterday, and what happens to him makes almost everything else that happened in the previous episodes seem utterly insignificant, but that doesn't mean there's not a lot of cool stuff going on.

Other than Nate's story, Claire's stuff in these three episodes was the most interesting. We get to see her pushed out of the art world bubble she had been in for the past two seasons and have to deal with 'common people,' who perhaps aren't as attuned to the fine points of culture, or particularly worried about being hip, something that's most notably evident in the fact that they're still using a seven year old catch phrase to answer nearly every question. So, it's fun to see Claire totally dismissive of going to the corporate chain mall bar, Doc Hannigan's. I love the fact that Claire first looks down on these people, then finds herself watching TV alone at home and realizes that maybe doing something, even something lame, is better than doing nothing. This is a storyline I found really relatable, and it's the sort of conflict you're not going to usually see on TV, the conflict that occurs when high standards prevent someone from engaging with common people.

So, the next episode brings back some characters from Claire's art school days for what I'd suspect will be, a final farewell. I liked the way they compared the brutally normal frat boys with the self consciously out there art school kids and concluded that both of them are living in constructed worlds, unable to think of any life outside what they had. Claire was fully into this world, but looking back on it now, it seems ridiculous, and all the stuff they went through seems painfully insignificant. This episode goes a long way towards showing how much Claire has gone. Is it good that she's moved away from the art life, that's difficult to say, but she's gained some perspective. I'm really not sure how to feel about the Claire storyline, it seems like she's happier now than she was early this season, but I don't like the idea that she finds happiness by giving up her art and working in an office. Considering what's already happened to Nate, it'd be tough to give another character a rather down ending and have Claire become a lifer at the office.

The inherent conflict between her and that lifestyle is apparent in the first scene of 'Ecotone,' where Claire and Ted argue about the Iraq war, Claire once again is having her assumptions challenged. She figured that no intelligent person could be pro-Bush, and yet here's someone she likes who she finds out is an Iraq War supporter, and who actually presents a decent argument in favor of it. Obviously, I don't agree with what he says, but his argument does a good job of puncturing liberal views about the war, and doesn't make him a less sympathetic character. I like the scenes of them together in the waiting room, and though I doubt Ted's going to be the 'one' for Claire, he's put her character in an interesting place.

Off elsewhere, Brenda did much of the same. My favorite scene with her was when Jackie finally tells her to stop talking about her problems with Nate. This year, Jackie and Ruth's knitting friends were set up as basically sounding boards for the characters' problems, so to have one finally react against this was great, and this leads Brenda to reach out to Nate, in the tragic image of her sitting alone in the Quaker church.

The best material for Ruth came in episode nine, when she's shooting down all the men in her life and we get some nice cameos from years past. The basic point seems to be she doesn't know what she wants, it's the same conflict she's had from the beginning of the series, when she was left single with Nathaniel's death. She's sort of been written into a box, because to give her a new guy at this point would seem trite, while we know things wouldn't work out with George. Add in having to deal with Nate's death, and I'm not really sure if she can get a happy ending. If I had to guess I'd say she'll end up leaving the house to live a lifestyle more like Sarah's, and maybe David will move his family in.

Speaking of David, he has more adventures in parenting which are entertaining, but his story doesn't have the overarching grandeur of the best stories on this show. It's fairly conventional soap opera material and we can imagine their lives will go on in much the same way until the kids are grown. With Nate, I always felt there was some greater purpose to his life, and all his traumas along the way were leading somewhere, and ultimately they were. Not so with David, who's never had an experience like Nate had during 'Perfect Circles.' Maybe the surfer vision will lead to something, but I doubt it.

One choice I'm really happy with is that Ruth wasn't there for Nate's death. By taking her out, there's no one who can really take control, Brenda feels left out because of Nate's infidelity, Maggie can't take charge because of Brenda and David has problems dealing with it because he knows what Nate did.

I'm still not sure of the decision to make Nate go out like he did, as someone who didn't regret at all what he did. I think it's in character, but still sad. Nate may wander out into the sea and leave it all behind, but he leaves no peace on earth with his passing. Brenda must be devestated that the love of her life, the person she changed everything for rejected her in the moments before he died. All she'll remember is that he would rather have been with Maggie then her, and she'll see that in Maya, who she will presumably have to take care of now, raising two kids as a single mother.

This string of episodes is a testament to what television can do, in telling huge stories that span over many, many hours. Very few films reach the emotional power these episodes had for me, to go through such a long journey with this character and then lose him, it's tough. And I can't wait to see what we get in the next string of episodes, will Nate be a ghost like Nathaniel, and will the characters get any sort of happy ending, or will they all pay for the bad things they've done, as Nate did?

Six Feet Under: Goodbye...

Goddamnit. Fuck. Shit. I was not expecting that to happen. I wasn't planning to watch all the episodes I had tonight, but this was one of those runs where it was not possible to stop, and I'm glad I didn't because this was one of those multi-episode runs that just builds as it goes and by the end, I was completely furious, first by what Nate says to Brenda and then by what ultimately happens to him.


In all my previous reviews I was saying how Nate was the character whose storyline I was most interested in, and also the person I was most unsure how things would turn out for, and I was not expecting this. I'd heard some things that suggested Nate may have been in some sort of already dead state, like in Mulholland Dr., but this turned out to be totally false, and while it's a cool idea, the way things turned out now was so dramatically impressive, I'm glad they went down the path that was chosen. I guess it's a bad sign when a character starts reflecting on how things began for them on the show, and that's what Nate did when he met with Maggie.

The whole season I'd been saying that something was going on with Maggie, and that she was being set up for a big role at the end of things. I wasn't sure that they would end up sleeping together, but the way it happened had me at once really excited to see them together, since I liked them as a couple, and angry because it's such a betrayal of Brenda. I'm not sure about the direct correlation they create between sleeping with Maggie and Nate's death, but I think it ties into what Nate and Brenda were talking about a few episodes ago, with regards to the idea of a higher being speaking to the Quakers. She wrote this off as ridiculous, but Nate seemed entranced by the idea that a higher being could speak to him, and even concluded that when Maggie made something up, what she made up was in fact that message God wanted to send her.

So, by giving him the second AVM, Nate receives a message from a higher power, namely you can't keep behaving like you are. He heals quickly, and is given a second chance, and maybe he finally does the right thing and tells Brenda they shouldn't be together. The problem is, he's using that as an excuse, a justification for why he could leave her. He just wants to be with Maggie, because he thinks she can give him what neither Lisa nor Brenda could. Back at the start of the show, Nate was someone totally unable to keep a stable relationship going, Brenda seemed to have changed that, but now that they were finally together without any obstacles, he goes out and finds obstacles and destroys what was working. It's so sad that the last thing she heard him say was that they can't be together. Maybe the saddest image from this entire arc of episodes was Brenda sitting alone in the Quaker church, finally having reached out to Nate, and he's not there.

Perhaps what frightens Nate about committing to Brenda is the fact that she was able to pull her life together and create a stable situation at home. She'd been through a whole bunch of shit in the past, but she was there now, and Nate could no longer use Brenda's problems as an excuse. He was ultimately left with his own fantasies, constructing other lives for himself in his head, never able to live with the reality he had.

So, Nate's a tragic figure, and here at the end, his character flaws are magnified, and essentially an act of God strikes him down. This is the same storyline we saw back in year three, and the same character conflict present in year one.

But despite all that, I still love him as a character. He's the heart of the show, the flawed center around which all else revolved, and now he's gone. I'm not sure what's going to happen in these next three episodes, but it's going to be a very different show.

His final moment on screen was absolutely phenomenal. I always love dream sequences and this one was really surreal and perplexing. First, the song, 'Strawberry Letter 23' is a really great song. Nate seems to take another trip to an alternate reality, much like he did in the series' best episode, the season three opener 'Perfect Circles.' Surfer David was great and for a moment I was thinking that maybe the entire series would move to this alternate reality. But, we soon wind up at the beach where real David returns and Nate runs out the water, bidding farewell to the mortal world, even as David calls out to stop him. I'm really glad they went for this sort of symbolic storytelling and it's really fitting for the end of Nate's life. This is an echo of a previous episode I don't remember exactly, but it ended with Nate walking out into the water.

Then that final fade to the title was brutal. I was affected by this more than almost any TV series moment I can remember. I'm not saying Ecotone was the greatest episode ever made, but the only comprable moment I can remember is the last scene of Twin Peaks. Going in unspoiled and seeing that title come up, I'd been following this character for five years, through so much, and to see him die, I can't think of another series that offed its main character in such an ignoble manner. But, Nate is dead, it's astonishing that a fictional world can have so much power. That's why we create art, to tell stories that move people and that's what this story did to me.

I'm going to go back in tomorrow and do a bit more general review of these three episodes, since there's a lot going on with the other characters, and more to talk about the construction of the episodes themsevles, but I'm too in the emotional moment now to really analyze, it's just got to sink in.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Six Feet Under: 'The Rainbow of her Reasons'

So, I've seen another episode. This one was a big improvement over episode five, and really has the plots moving forward in an interesting direction. As the episode opened, I was wondering if this was going to be Sarah's finale, but I figured that they wouldn't bring her back only to have her die in the first scene.

First, the most notable thing about this episode was the 'Calling all Angels,' which brought back some memories of the 'Wise Up' singalong scene in Magnolia. Here, they didn't go as far as to have the other characters actually sing, but we had that same feeling of seeing them all connected, and I really liked that. One of the problems with these ensemble shows is that it sometimes feels like the characters live in worlds all their own and there's no overarching connection in the narrative. So, a scene like the party two episodes ago, or the singing here, goes a long way towards making it feel like a more coherent universe.

David and Keith finally got some good material to work with, as they have to deal with the difficult reality of raising kids. Both of their views on how to treat the kids are relatable, and I liked the way they didn't make Keith out to be the bad guy. We see that there's a need for moderation, to find a path that isn't just letting them do whatever they want, but at the same time not walking the line of near violent behavior. I liked the fact that the kids were very challenging for them, and seeing how it broke up the life they had been living. If they were to adopt those kids, things would never be the same. I'm waiting now to see what Nate and Ruth think of David's decision.

The best storyline here was Claire's time in the office. After living in a sort of fantasy world, she now finds herself brought into the crushing mundanity of an office, where art and creativity are seen as hindrances to doing work. I loved the guy imitating Austin Powers, there is no more played out imitation. I loved the way they had Claire's clothes become a physical prison for her, echoing her feeling of being mentally trapped in a pointless endeavor. I don't think Claire will become a 'lifer' at the office, but it's the sort of thing that could help her, by giving her some perspective, and perhaps even inspire some new pieces of art.

I liked the scene where Claire catches Ruth trying to take some weed from her, and the moment they share. They basically switched roles here, Claire was the calm one, while Ruth was rather unhinged. All of Ruth's storyline in this episode was great, her enthusiasm as she talked with the women, and ultimately her confusion when George finally tells her she can leave. This is exactly what she wants, but now that she has it, she feels guilty about ever wanting him to leave.

So, I'm not sure where this leaves George and Maggie on the show. There's definitely something building with Maggie and Nate, I liked the way he slipped in "Brenda's at mom's, it's just me and Maya here." I'm not sure what's going to happen with her, but there's been a lot of buildup and I feel like it's going to be something big.

And now Rico is back with Vanessa too. I don't find them too interesting this season, they're fun to watch, but there's nothing particularly worth writing about. There's none of the layers in the relationship that you have between people like Nate and Brenda.

So, moving on, there's a major crossroads. I'd like to see Sarah stick around for another episode, so Ruth could talk to her about her newfound freedom from George. At this point, it's Nate and Claire I'm most interested in, largely because I'm really not sure where they're going to end up. David and Keith I think will probably end up adopting these kids and working out as a family. I'm not sure what's going to happen with Ruth, but if I had to guess, I'd say something bad's going to happen to George and she'll feel really guilty about abandoning him. And Billy's definitely going to factor into things somehow. But, I think we'll ultimately get an up ending, with all the families together and Nathaniel phasing out of this realm, his mission done because his sons have now become fathers like him.

But, I may be totally wrong. There's only six more episodes in which to find out.

Six Feet Under: 'Eat a Peach'

Another day, another episode. This was the weakest episode so far, I don't have too much to write about it, watching an episode and reviewing it each day means it's a bit of a challenge to not just write the same stuff each time.

The highlight of this episode by far was Nate and Brenda. They're unquestionably the center of this season, and the people I most want to watch. Their storyline this week addresses one of the major issues that was sort of lost in the gap between season four and five, and that's how has the spectre of Lisa affected Nate's relationship with Brenda. Back in season one, we saw her confront Lisa, comparing herself in terms of being Nate's partner, but here she is forced to consider what the effect of her taking over from Lisa as Maya's mother will have on her.

It happens nearly every week, but there was another great argument scene between Brenda and Nate. But, unlike most episodes, this one ends with a positive resolution. Nate apologizes, which he definitely needed to. Calling Maya 'my daughter' was just nasty, not that Brenda wasn't out of line in asking Maya about Lisa. I think Maya will probably be pretty confused when she grows up, considering all the crazy stuff that's gone on around her during her life. But, for now, things seem pretty good, Nate and Brenda have resolved their differences, and Nate has realized how important Brenda is to Maya. However, the question still remains of whether he sees her like he saw Lisa, someone he has to be with, not someone he wants to be with.

I thought they would use the dinner with Maggie to set up a dynamic where her and Nate connect, with Brenda left out, but instead that whole dinner is basically a device to let George bring up Hoyt. I'd have rather seen more development of Nate's relationship with Maggie.

Paralleling Brenda's need to create a narrative for Maya is David and Keith's decision to adopt Anthony despite the fact that he already has a narrative, and said narrative is not a good one. I'm glad that they finally got their kid, because every episode with them this year has been basically the same, and now something different can happen, as I'd imagine we find out that having kids isn't that easy. I'm guessing that David and Keith are going to be having a lot of problems, but that means more material for stories, so it works for me.

It's appropriate that as a show about death ends, it's all about people trying to create and foster life. This season, new life has become much more important than the recently deceased. In fact, the show has drifted so far from the funeral home as a central component that the death of the week being a major factor in this episode was a bit jarring.

The Rico plot had some interesting bits, but I'm not as interested in what's going on with him as what's up with Nate or Claire. His only really good episode this season was 'Hold My Hand' when he holed up in the hotel room with Illeana Douglas.

Claire's story was pretty solid this week as well. Leaving Billy like she did was wrong, and I'd guess that it's going to end up causing some problems down the line. The best scene was between her and Nate when he places things in perspective by comparing her to Maya, something that might give her a better understanding of her mother's position. I don't think it's entirely ridiculous to suggest she should get a job if she's not going to go to school. Claire's always been drifting, not sure what she wants to do, and here she again denigrates the one thing she's done that people really responded to, the photo collages.

So, things move forward. This wasn't the best episode, but it works to get us to a new phase in some of the plots and whatever's next. Only 7 episodes to go.