Saturday, September 24, 2005

Nip/Tuck: 'Ma Boone' (3x01)

Around March I watched the first two seasons of Nip/Tuck, a show that I enjoyed a lot, but it never went further than that. It's a soap opera through and through, in both the positive sense of long plots and character based storytelling, and the negative, in that there isn't that much character growth, the story doesn't seem to be going anywhere. But at the same time it's an extremely enjoyable show, so I was psyched for the return.

It's always a bit tough to pick up a highly continuous show after a long break, you don't have the strong connection to the characters that you develop when watching a show in a continuous binge. So, the show has to work to bring you back into its headspace and not only advance the plots, but also remind you of where they were to begin with. Six Feet Under's premiere this year did an astonishing job of bringing right back to where I was when I was finished watching the fourth season, it was one of the most emotionally wrenching episodes of the series, and I got all those emotions, by the end I was completely back in the world of the series.

Here, I was caught up on all the plots, but I was still a bit distanced and that caused to see more of the weaknesses than if I was still fully immersed in the series, as I was when I finished watching the second season. I remember right after finishing that finale I was really excited to find out who the carver was, but a lot of time has passed, and now I didn't really care, and while I do care, I never reached that same level of concern that I had at the end of the last season.

Nip/Tuck is a show that always works by blending together extreme glamour with some really nasty images, and this episode certainly did that. I'm not sure why they choose to show the really graphic surgeries, I get the idea of setting up the world, as Six Feet Under did with some early corpses, but at this point we've got the idea, do we still need to see something like the breast implant removal, which is just nasty and doesn't add anything to the plot? While the woman on the couch was very nasty, she was also the central focus of the episode, so it makes sense to spend so much time with her, and on her surgery.

I think the episode's decision to set up a parallel between Christian and Ma Boone was just too obvious. There was no need to sell it so hard. The whole Ma Boone thing was odd and nasty, but still worked from a story point of view.

There's a lot of potential for interesting stuff with Julia this season, seeing what happens to someone whose been dependent their whole life, how do they carve out a seperate identity for themselves? However, we don't see too much of her this episode, so I can imagine that'll become a more prominent feature of future episodes.

My favorite character last season was Kimber, and I'm glad to see that she's become a regular this season, and her continuing work as a director of porn films has some dramatic potential.

One thing I found really odd was the threesome. Now, I never mind two hot women kissing, but it seemed very tangentially connected to the narrative, I guess the point was that this was Christian reclaiming his personality, as he tells Kimber, "I'm back baby," but it still seemed a bit odd and came out of nowhere. But the show always seems to go for cheap thrills, and if they're still thrilling, does it matter if they're cheap?

This is a show that isn't trying to be a great work of art, it's all about entertaining the audience, and in that respect this episode succeeded, and despite the show's myriad flaws, I wouldn't miss the next episode.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


A few days ago I watched Todd Haynes' first feature, Poison. Todd has been my most recent 'discovery,' and after seeing Far From Heaven a while back, I set out to see all of his films, a quest that is now complete. Haynes is someone who creates great, challenging films that are always a bit off. Everything he's made seems to take place in a world that's not quite our own, whether it's the 50s Sirk world of Far From Heaven or the slightly skewed 80s of Safe. All three of Todd's features that I've seen ended up on my Top 100 Films All Time list, and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story surpasses even the greatness of those films. So, I was understandably excited to see Poison, and at least complete the journey through the filmmaking world of Todd Haynes.

Right from the beginning, Poison puts you in a really weird headspace. I'm not sure if it felt like that when it was first released, but this film just seems to come from another world, and the voice of that other world is the narrator of the Richie storyline. I think she narrated Superstar also, and it's the oddest, seemingly calm, yet disturbing voice. Combine that with the grainy file photo and the long shot of a child's hand reaching for something and I was in a strange place. And the film doesn't really leave that strange place. From a narrative point of view, and a thematic point of view, this film doesn't really make it, but where it does succeed is in sustaining an odd feeling for an hour and a half, and a lot of the time, that's more interesting than a classically structured narrative.

As I talked about in my piece on running a film series, a lot of people don't seem to enjoy the slow paced world building that Haynes did in Safe, and I don't think they'd enjoy what he does here, because from a story point of view, there's a ton of issues. The film has three seperate segments that are intercut, but there's no real connection between them, and in terms of style they're worlds apart.

One segment revolves around a prisoner who's jealous that the inmate he's in love with is hanging out with other prisoners. This makes it sound like a really bad teen prison show, but the way the feelings are dealt with is through a bunch of dream sequences and voiceover. The dream sequences represent the prisoner's time at a juvenile home, but they're set in an odd meadow type environment, and have a lot of bizarre, dreamlike imagery. These sequences are interesting from an aesthetic point of view, and the spitting scene is quite disturbing, but I'm not sure what the thematic point of them is. They work as a purely visual element, providing a contrast to the dark enclosed prison, but their position in regards to the narrative is a bit obscure.

This story has its moments, and is probably the most well made, but it's also the least entertaining. Going to the other extreme, we've got a story about a scientist who discovers how to turn the 'sex gene' into a liquid form, and accidentally ingests it, causing him to take on the appearance of a leper. I thought this was just a bizarre tale, imitating the style of 50s sci-fi movies, but reading about it online indicates that it was meant to be an allegory for the AIDS crisis. That makes sense, but I guess it shows how much society has 'moved on' from that crisis, even though it's still affecting thousands of people. It's just not part of our cultural consciousness at present.

Anyway, this story is entertaining, notably the overwrought acting, but its value as dramatic piece is questionable. I love the shots of a rotating black and white wheel intercut with all kinds of crazy things, and the way the piece seems to take place in a world that's kind of like the 50s, but not quite. Without viewing it as an allegory, it's rather nonsensical, but the ending works really well, and provides a nice thematic wrap up for the whole movie. So, again, narrative not a big concern here, but in terms of creating a mood it succeeds.

The final piece is told in documentary style, harkening back to Haynes' work on Superstar. The mockumentary format has been used to death lately, but it works well here, as the people who knew gradually construct a picture of Richie, the seven year old boy who killed his father. I love the visual of Richie looking in at his mother having sex with the gardener, staged in such a way that it's obvious the footage is film composited in the frame. It's great when the footage within the door actually zooms in, breaking any illusion of reality.

The ending of this piece is very enigmatic and leaves a lot of things unanswered, which works well. This isn't the kind of story where you want to find out that Richie ran off somewhere and died in a ditch, the entire power is in the fact that we're reconstructing this person solely from other peoples' impressions of him. It's a technique Haynes brings back later in Velvet Goldmine.

What prevents the film from working as a cohesive whole is the fact that these stories don't really have any discernable connections to each other. They all focus on some element of humanity's dark side, but other than that, the styles, tones and content are all vastly different, and intercutting these totally different stories doesn't add much to them, or produce any really interesting juxtapositions, which is the whole point of intercutting.

So, Poison was worth watching because of its alien atmosphere, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I don't think it's anywhere near as successful as the work that would follow. You can see the potential for greatness here, but potential alone doesn't make a film great. But I always love to watch people who experiment with the medium and try to do something different, and this film certainly does.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Gilmore Girls: 'Fight Face' (6x02)

This week's episode wasn't as strong as last week's brilliant opener, but that's to be expected. Last week was all about revelations about the characters' emotional states, and now we get to spend a bit more time playing around in this new status quo.

I really like the fact that we still haven't gotten an easy resolution to the Lorelai/Rory feud. I think it seems a bit artificial, these two have been so close, would Lorelai really shut her out so fully, but you have to keep in mind the fact that she's very self conscious of what she's doing. She's trying to shut Rory out so much that she has no choice but to apologize. It's putting the onus of responsibility on her. So, that's why it makes sense, even though it creates behavior that seems to be unnatural or out of character. Lorelai even seems to have some problems staying 'in character' for her mission, under this constant pressure to just let Rory back in. And I think it's clear that Rory feels quite hurt by the fact that Lorelai seems to have so thoroughly rejected her. It's inexplicable.

On the episode's plot specifics. I really liked Rory's storyline, putting her in this emotionally dazed state, with no one to really connect to emotionally. She speaks to the maid and the maid gets fired. Her aggression comes out when she, for no apparent reason, gets in a fight with one of her fellow community servers. I think she's got a ton of pent up frustration and none of her usual methods for venting are there, so she lashes out there as frustration at her life builds up. It could be construed as out of character behavior, the Rory of years earlier certainly wouldn't do that, but that's the whole point of the storyline, she's changed and has to reject the life she had in order to grow, and ultimately come back to it.

And Emily's prison ettiquete speech was hilarious. I loved her giving Rory a pack of cigarettes to use as currency. It's a nice job of using a scenario for both dramatic and comic purposes.

The TJ/Luke stuff was ok, it falls into the 'wacky antics' segment of the show, and since most of the townspeople were missing, it fell on TJ to pick up the slack. I guess that's an example of where a show has elements that I don't really like, but are neccesary just because they're part of the show's package. Buffy always had to fight something, and there's always got to be some wacky small town stuff on Gilmore Girls, but in both cases, I think it takes away from the more important character stuff.

I'm not a big fan of the dog storyline, though there were some good laughs out of it, so it wasn't all bad. I like the way Luke and Lorelai are able to argue, but not have things get out of hand and hurt the overall relationship because of one petty thing.

The best two scenes this week were Rory in Luke's, very awkward and sad at the end, and the final scene with Lorelai confronting Rory on the side of the road. It's interesting that the first two episodes of this season have ended abruptly on uncertain emotional footing.

So, it's not the greatest episode, but there's a lot of really interesting stuff going on, and I really like the direction the plots are going. Hopefully next week we'll see Lane and her band, they're the only reliably strong characters outside of the Gilmores and Luke.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Lost Just Isn't that Good

So yesterday the Emmys were announced and Lost won the award for best drama. Now, I did watch the whole first season, so it's not like I hated the show, but it's got so many flaws and a lack of real storytelling ability that it's far from a good story or piece of art, it's something that keeps you watching by providing the occasional flash of quality every once in a while, then going back to the same routine. It suffers from the frequent problem that ongoing serialized works can have and that's to have stuff happen to the characters, instead of allowing plots to form organically out of the interactions between them.

For example, in the first season they set up Boone as very protective of his sister Shanon, going so far as do a whole flashback about this. At the same time, they set up an attraction between Shanon and Sayid. This is good plotting, Boone will go after Sayid, leaving Shanon torn between her brother and the the man she may love. But wait, once Shanon and Sayid actually begin the relationship, the very first scene in which they're walking back to camp, they find out that Boone is dead. That's some apallingly bad plotting, to take away the source of tension in your narrative, right at the moment when the plot should be coming to a head.

And that's just one example, this is a show that seems to be more concerned about coming up with something to get to the next episode, rather than having well developed characters. Once you have good characters, you have to do very little work to make things interesting. All the characters are basically the same as they were at the beginning of the season, and there haven't been many storylines with events of lasting emotional significance. People should go through massive changes, considering they are stranded on an island, but no one does. The characters are all stable, something perhaps best exemplified by the show's narrative structure, which features flashbacks designed to show how the characters got to where they are now, when it would be much more interesting to watch the characters evolve in the present.

So, this show did not deserve an emmy, especially up against the best season yet of 24 and a phenomenal year from one of the best shows ever, Six Feet Under. The thing about Lost is that it aspires to be a film, and uses the narrative style of action movies, where characters are generally just archetypes. We know them all from past movies, so there's not a pressing need to really develop them. To some extent, every character starts off as a type, but the whole point of doing a TV show is that you have enough time to go in depth on each of your characters. In a long form narrative, you can have characters as complex and contradictory as Brenda or Nate, and you just can't do that in movies because there just isn't enough time.

Similarly, the beauty of TV's long form storytelling is that you can have all the action come out of character decisions. There's no need to just have stuff appear suddenly, look at Buffy season six as a shining example of how character decisions alone can propel a narrative forward. There was no need for a big villain because the characters had enough conflicts between them to sustain the season. And it's not even like the show was coasting or anything, it's riveting to watch these long held tensions come to the surface and witness the domino effect of actions that lead to something bigger. Six Feet Under does this really well, frequently starting the season with a slow burn to establish mood and tensions, then bringing everything to a head at the end of the season. If you let the characters grow, your show will write itself.

The problem with shows like Lost, Alias, The OC and others is that the characters all have to remain relatively stable, because they're not written deep enough to allow for growth. Brenda's sex addiction in season two emerges organically, while Marisa's flirtation with lesbiansim seems like a cheap narrative ploy. On Lost, all kinds of stuff happens to the characters and they just react. Same on Alias. There's no subtext, it's just the characters going along, confronting each new peril. These shows create the illusion of depth and continuity because on the surface their plots are very complex. However, these complex plots mask the fact that the show isn't going anywhere. Buffy always felt like it was moving forward, while Alias, it seems like JJ is struggling to come up with enough to make it to the end of the season.

And that comes to the major dichotomy in television, comics and any other ongoing narrative medium. Is the story going somewhere, is there an ending in mind, or is it just going until people stop caring? If it's going somewhere, that allows you to have actions with lasting consequences, but if there's no ending, then things have to stay relatively the same. The producers of Lost claim to be going somewhere, but even if the plot genuinely is, which I doubt, the characters aren't. A plot revelation is good for a one time surprise, but a character evolution will give you a whole series.

And to top it all off, I come across an article in which Damon Lindleof, co-creator of Lost, repeatedly cracks on Twin Peaks, citing the show as an example of letting early promise go to waste. Now, yes, there were some issues in season two, but the series rebounds, and never got as bad as people claim. Plus to claim that it got lost in its own mythology would imply that Lynch's stylistic exploration in the last episode and FWWM is a failure, and I just can't agree with that.

So, Lost isn't the worst show, but it really surprises me that so many people love the show so much. It's got so many dramatic flaws, I don't see it as successful on an artistic level.