Friday, March 31, 2006

The New World of TV and Film

SPOILERS: A couple of things for the first four seasons of 24

Writing about the first season finale of Battlestar Galactica, I started to explore the idea that TV has supplanted film as the premier visual storytelling medium. The thing that really prompted me to address this is that so many TV shows are hailed for being "more like a movie than a TV show," with seasons made up of a bunch of "little movies." However, the way things have gone, saying that a TV show is like a movie isn't so much of a compliment, I think we've reached the point where the best movies should be hailed for their TV series like complexity.

Now, the thing about evaluating television is the fact that everything on it is grouped into one catergory. So, you get a lot of people who look down on TV, witness the classic Onion article: Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn't Own a Television." Yes, the vast majority of stuff shown on TV is crap, but saying you won't watch television because of reality TV is like saying that you won't read a book because of The National Enquirer.

That said, I think peoples' perceptions are changing. The most important development in affecting peoples' view of television has been the start of TV on DVD. I remember back when the first season of The X-Files was coming out, it was this completely unprecedented thing, that you could easily go back and review the series in order, without having to tape episodes and wait for each episode to air. It's a lot easier for people to appreciate a series without the commercials and seeing everything in sequence.

Concurrent with this was the rise of the internet, which made it a lot easier to keep track of series and find other fans to talk about stuff with. The internet is much more suited to television than film because TV series have a lot more content, and on top of that, there's speculation about the future of the series to talk about. I have no data to support this, but I think reading internet reaction to shows changed the way producers perceive the audience. If you're not getting any real feedback, it would be tough to tell how much of the show people really did remember, but when the fans are calling the producers of the show on continuity mistakes, it becomes clear that fans are able to keep up with even the most continuity intensive plot lines.

Twin Peaks was a critical innovator in bringing an unprecedented artistry and style to television. Following that was The X-Files, which effectively shows the world of TV in transition. On the one hand, it's a standalone procedural series, you can tune into most episodes and get everything you need to know from the hour. However, with the mythology arc, the show engaged in an extended, longform story that took roughly 60 episodes to complete, many dependent on your knowledge of what happened in earlier seasons to understand.

And at the end of the 90s, two shows emerged that forever changed television: The Sopranos and 24. The Sopranos was notable for many reasons, for one it started the pay cable original series trend. This was a show that fully exploited its freedom from network censorship, with all kinds of violence and sex.

However, the greater impact was that the show was just so good, even people who usually dismissed TV had to take notice of it. The Sopranos completely raised the bar on what was possible to do on TV, and other shows struggled to catch up. It was also one of the first shows to consistnetly present a morally ambiguous universe. Our hero made a lot of bad decisions, you don't like him, it's more that you're fascinated by him. If previous TV shows used their characters as an idealized alternate family for the viewer, The Sopranos was one where you love to watch Tony, but have no desire to run into him in real life.

24 brought a lot of what The Sopranos did to network TV, and thus democratized it. HBO's whole slogan was "It's not TV. It's HBO," which appealed to those people who considered themselves above television. 24 showed that a network show could do extreme serialization and still be successful. This is a show where you don't miss an episode, you're either watching the whole day or you're not watching, and that was a new way for network shows to work.

The other change was to bring the morally ambiguous hero to network TV. I think TV changed forever with the second season premiere, when Jack asked for a hacksaw to cut the head off a man he'd just killed. Jack was a guy who didn't care if you didn't like him, he was going to do whatever it took to acheive his goals. And as part of the stories, you frequently saw problems with no easy solution, where Jack would make a huge sacrifice to get something done. Witness the killing of Chapelle in year three, or the Paul Raines vs. terrorist emergency room scene in year four.

Many shows since have taken on the violence and anything could happen feel of 24. Battlestar, particularly in the miniseries, does a lot of those no easy choice decisions. The scene with Roslin leaving the little girl behind to die would not have happened if 24 didn't exist.

And both series are examples of longform storytelling. On The Sopranos, there's almost always a followup on what happened the previous week, and when there's not, we know that it's still affected Tony. Everything that happens is part of these characters' lives and factors in the way they live. So, the TV series became less a bunch of episodes and more one longform work, broken into chapters, rather than just a bunch of episodes.

So, while all this was happening we've seen people talking about the artistic bankruptcy of Hollywood filmmaking. When a movie like Crash wins best picture, it's clear something's wrong with Hollywood's definition of quality. This has prompted people to lament the fact that Hollywood has fallen so far from its creative golden age in the 70s (including me). And I would stand by the idea that the American film scene is nowhere near as exciting or innovative as it was in the 70s.

But, looking at the situation, I realized that in thirty years, they're going to talk about today's TV like they're talking about the films of the 70s. What are the similarities? For one, both eras came about as a result of the easing of standards. It's mindboggling to think that into the 60s, the production code was still strictly regulating the content of films, and for a long while, those same standards were held on television. The emergence of cable shows has completely changed the game, allowing for shows that have even greater boundaries than most film, and even on the networks, there's room for a lot more sexuality and violence than would have been possible earlier. There may be some groups trying to stop that, but for the most part, there's more room for developing stories than there was before.

What was the other big development of the 70s? Auteur filmmaking, and on TV we're beginning to see the emergence of a class of auteur showrunners, who have near total control over the content and direction of their series. Because shows became more longform, the guiding hand of the showrunner became more apparent. In the 70s, filmmakers were given a lot more freedom to do what they wanted without studio interference. With TV, it seems like most of the showrunners are being given a free hand to do what they want now, certainly more than filmmakers today. The reason for this is if your show gets high ratings, you've basically proven that what you're doing works. So, the network has no reason to mess with it.

Obviously, some people have more autonomy than others, but I get the feeling that David Chase has become the Kubrick of television, doing whatever he wants whenever he wants it. If Chase was doing a film, there's no way he'd have the autonomy that he does on The Sopranos because there'd be no guarantee that it'd be successful. People aren't watching The Sopranos for David Chase, they're watching it for Tony and his family. Like in film, very few TV people have become brands unto themselves, Joss Whedon is probably the most notable example, though his fanbase clearly wasn't large enough to support a show on its own.

But as long as you stick with the main show, you can do whatever you want. Chase may take heat for his dream sequences, but people are still watching the show. TV gives you the ability to experiment with an almost guaranteed audience, and the critical reason why that's possible is the emotional connection to the characters. David Lynch's most abstract work is in the last episode of Twin Peaks, a piece that can simultaneously be completely symbolic and abstract, and still be emotionally affecting. Because we know the character so well, when Cooper goes through the lodge world, we don't watch with a detached perspective, we're on that journey with him. Similarly, Joss Whedon's experimental episodes, notably Restless and Once More With Feeling, work because of what we know about the characters. If he was to just write an original musical, it'd probably be good, but in combining the musical with the existing TV universe, it becomes great.

Over the past few years, as I've watched a whole bunch of fantastic longform TV shows, I've also become increasingly disenchanted with traditional Hollywood films. The depth and nuance of the characters on a Buffy or Six Feet Under makes the plot-serving people in most films seem utterly contrived. Compare Firefly the show to Serenity the film. In Firefly you've got a large ensemble cast of people, all doing their own thing, living their lives as the show goes along. Sometimes big stuff happens to them, sometimes they just coast. And even though Mal may be the leader, everyone has an equally interesting and developed life.

In Serenity, Mal is clearly front and center, and a lot of the supporting cast is defined by just one trait. They all have their own little goals, and they're so resolutely focused on them. It's the necessity of the film to fit everyone into an arc, and Whedon does an admirable job of it, but it feels contrived. Compare the tentative dance of the developing relationship between Simon and Kaylee in the show to the very clear she wants this guy arc in the movie. In the film, that goal is her sole characteristic, the thing that defines her. In the film, you get a much clearer main character/supporting cast divide, whereas the genius of Buffy was that we got just as much insight into Xander or Willow as we did into Buffy. The main character is usually the least interesting, Han Solo trumps Luke Skywalker and Willow or Xander trumped Buffy. But if Buffy were a movie, even one true to Joss' vision, Xander and Willow would have been little more than one note comic relief, and Buffy herself would never have the depth that she did on the series.

Up until recently, most TV people talked about using it as a way to get into films. David Chase made it clear that he'd rather be in films and Joss did as well. Recently, Chase seems to be acknowledging that what he's done in TV goes beyond what could be done in a film. Alan Ball also made it clear that Six Feet Under was his greatest creative achievement, and he's already jumped back in to work on a new pilot for HBO.

Joss remains pointed towards features, and that's not something I'm thrilled with. I would guess part of that is the fact that his two most recent shows were cancelled, but I'd rather see him try to get a pilot on HBO than go forward with Wonder Woman. I'm sure personally it's a terrible grind doing a series, but creatively, Buffy or Angel make nearly every feature film ever made pale in comparison.

The way I see it now, TV has raised the bar for film to a different level. Serenity is a perfectly entertaining movie, a well told story, but that's all it is. Compared to Joss' TV work, it's pretty insignificant. The films I'm most interested in seeing now are the ones that do what TV cannot, namely focus on style and the art of filmmaking. TV, for all its merits, still suffers from the fact that it must be filmed so quickly. Even the best directors can't make every shot great when you're shooting an episode in eight days.

What films can do is make those perfectly constructed, really artistic pieces. Wong Kar-Wai is a perfect example of this, a guy who creates films where each image is a beautiful work of art unto itself, films that are more an atmosphere, a feeling than a story. I want films that you get lost in.

That's not to say you can't still make a good film that's a straightforward narrative, just you have to raise the bar. Magnolia is an example of a film that is simultaneously a wonderful piece of visual/sonic fusion and also creates characters with a depth of a long running TV series. It's a movie I would say is more like TV than cinema and mean it as a great compliment.

And finally, much like the creators of the show, a lot of TV actors used to see it primarily as a stepping stone to films. So, Sarah Michelle Gellar left Buffy for the "greener pastures" of cinema. Now, from a money and time point of view, film is much better for an actor than TV, but from an artistic perspective, the best TV shows offer actors so much more than films.

As Buffy, Gellar got to do everything, from really broad comedy to painful drama, often within the same episode. Watching her in The Grudge, she didn't even have a character. She was just a person who stood there while stuff popped out. I think she spent more time promoting The Grudge than she did actually acting in it.

For an actor, doing a TV show is a risk. You could end up in a show that fails, which would tarnish your reputation and hurt your chances of getting future film roles. Or you could end up on a show that gets enough ratings to keep going, but no buzz. The actors in Lost may get written about now, but come season six, will anyone still care? And more importantly, you'd be past your prime and thus unlikely to get any good parts once the show finishes. And even in the best of cases, you're still stuck in one role for many years.

However, the best shows give actors possibilities they would never have in a film. James Gandolfini is a prime example, this is a guy who's been in a bunch of movies, supporting roles. Then he does The Sopranos and creates one of the most compelling characters ever seen. Alyson Hannigan is another prime example, seeing her in something like Date Movie is painful because on Buffy she showed such varied potential, and post Buffy she's just doing one type of role.

In a lot of cases, the acting on these shows is so good, people forget that these people aren't just playing themselves. I was shocked when I heard James Marsters or Alexis Denisof's actual speaking voices, you completely believe that they're British. Same thing with Gandolfini in the two most recent Sopranos episodes, it's not until you're aware that this is in fact a performance that you can appreciate what they're doing. This is where the fear of typecasting comes in. When someone is so good, it becomes tough to see them in another kind of role. I've talked to multiple people who were really surprised to learn that neither Michael C. Hall or Matthew St. Patrick were actually gay.

Ultimately, I feel like this is what real acting is about, totally becoming a character. The Academy Awards usually award showy performances, where the performance is an attraction in and of itself. It's like special effects, the Academy is going to award the shot that makes you go "whoa, that was an awesome effect," whereas the best effects are the ones you don't even know are there. And that's the best kind of acting. You never say, "wow, Peter Krause is great as Nate," you only see Nate.

So, what's the conclusion? Basically that the most exciting and innovative storytelling right now is happening in TV. If I had the choice between having the chance to make a big studio movie or an HBO series, I'd go with the series, and an increasing number of creative people are making that choice as well. We've been so conditioned to think that two hours is the time that a story must be told in, it's liberating to have the chance to see something that goes into more depth. Conventional wisdom holds that The Godfather is one of the top five movies of all time, and if The Sopranos does everything The Godfather does and goes way beyond it, doesn't that mean that The Sopranos is better than any movie ever made?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Big Love (1x01-1x02)

At this point, HBO's got such a good track history that I'll at least sample anything they put on. Combine that with an intriuging premise and a great cast, and Big Love was a must sample show for me.

The first thing that's striking about the show is the opening credits sequence. It's a great looking sequence that does a nice job of setting up the show's basic plot, all set to one of the greatest songs ever, "God Only Knows." However, I'm a bit uneasy about the choice of theme song. Obviously it's a great song, but I feel like it's a song you have to earn. Watch Boogie Nights and you see two and a half hours of growth for the characters, and by the end of that journey, they've earned the right to use "God Only Knows." To have it as your opening credits feels wrong somehow.

But, looking at the names in the credits took my mind off that. We've got Bill Paxton, a pretty big caliber actor for a TV show, but what got my attention was two Twin Peaks veterans, Grace Zabriskie and Harry Dean Stanton. On top of that, there's PT Anderson regular Melora Walters, who created one of my favorite film characters with Magnolia's Claudia. And then there's Chloe Sevigny, who's been great in countless indie films. On top of that, we've got Lily Kane and Mac from Veronica Mars. So, that's a nice bunch right there.

The show itself has an odd feeling, largely because the world it's depicting is so close to ours, but at the same time off. The two best HBO shows, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, used this same basic idea, an ordinary family but with a twist. However, in the case of Big Love, the family isn't ordinary. The sort of conflicts they've got aren't common things, and I think that's the biggest issue with the show. They have problems that are really specific to the world of polygamy, and it's hard to empathize with their issues.

The genius of SFU and The Sopranos was that its setting, either the mob or the funeral home, raises the stakes on ordinary problems. So, trouble at work for Tony could mean coming home dead, but here there's no large stakes, it's all very small scale, petty problems. The biggest issue is the jealousy between the wives, all competing for Bill's attention. The problem with this is that so far we've got no sense of who Bill is. All he does is have sex with his wives. The life he leads seems to be almost hellish, constantly being asked for stuff, walking around a zoo of kids that he seems to have no relationship with.

It's always a problem to have too many kids on a show, and here we've got a whole bunch who seem to be there just because, and that takes away from the sense of any core family. Everyone's so busy running around doing their stuff that we never get the sense that these people actually like each other. And the way the show plays, it's like this is a co-operative family, and other than Barbara, his wives come off more as his children than as spouses.

I think that's partially a problem of just dumping us into the story with no real background. We get a sense of Bill and Barbara having a real, loving marriage, and the other wives seems superfluous. It's implied that when Barbara couldn't have any more kids, she allowed him to take Nikki as a wife, but I'd like to explore those issues more, how did they come to live this life? I can understand the desire to get right into the action, but I think that's such an essential part of their lives that we need to know it.

There was an episode of Six Feet Under with Daddy, a guy with a polygamist family, and there you got the sense of them as a functioning cooperative, you could understand why someone would choose to live that way. You don't get that here, it just seems like a really awful arrangement. That's because the show doesn't give anyone a moment of downtime, a moment to show why they're living this life in the first place.

In films, there's a big emphasis on characters acheiving their goals. For a movie, this is usually a fairly concrete goal, like beating the bad guy or winning a game. In a TV show, you need a more extistential goal, something that can carry your character through the whole series. So, for Buffy, the goal is to have the opportunity to live a normal life and not be a slayer. That's the thing that keeps the narrative moving forward, that all the character development is in reaction to.

For Six Feet Under, it's Nate's search for meaning in life that makes the show more than just a soap opera. There's something deeper underlying Nate's decisions than just the fact that another episode had to happen. My favorite arcs on that show are Nate's, Brenda's and Claire's, because all three characters have a deep struggle to find meaning for themselves that overwhelms any of the personal conflict they go through along the way. Compare that to David who has much more limited aspirations, and by extension, the most consistently soap operatic plot lines.

The problem with Big Love is that no one seems to have any ultimate goals. The issues with the compound provide some conflict, but I get no sense of an ultimate direction for the series. Implicitly there's the question of whether the family can survive, but that's not really the sort of thing that can make for a fulfilling series in the long term. So, without this overall goal, the series can fall prey to the worst of soap opera, decisions that come out of a need to just do another episode rather than out of logical character development.

The one character who does have a lot of interesting issues is Barbara. She's clearly very ambivalent about being in this family. She loves Bill, but doesn't seem to want to play mother to not just her family, but also the two other wives. She's not as into the doctrine as the others, and if Bill views her as his real wife, would everything collapse if she were to leave the family unit?

The other interesting arc is the story with Sarah and her Mormon friend at the restaurant. She's another person who's in an ambiguous position with regards to the family, and there's a lot of potential in further exploring her feelings about the way she lives.

I think one of the problems is that the show has such a big cast, and with three wives to handle, it's tough to develop people. In the long term, this is probably good, but most shows usually start with a small core for a reason.

So, I'm going to give it a few more episodes, but so far I haven't been that impressed with the show. I need a better idea of what it's going to do on a week to week basis to get an idea of its overall quality.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Earlier this week, I watched the documentary A Decade Under the Influence, which was all about the film culture of the 1970s, and this inspired me to check out Carrie, one of the 70s classics I hadn't seen yet. I'm not usually a fan of the horror genre, for the same reason that I'm not usually a fan of comedy either. The need to get a specific audience reaction, either a scare or a laugh, can upend logical narrative progression, and it also means that character and plot development can be sacrificed in favor of a bunch of cheap laughs or scares.

In some respects, you could say that all mainstream Hollywood films today suffer from this problem, the need to keep the audience's attention with frequent bits of action can screw up the construction of the film. But, Carrie hails from the era when studio films were more like art films, it's a horror film where the horror is secondary to the primary character conflict.

The best horror or sci-fi films are the ones where the genre elements are used in support of an emotionally real story. Carrie reminded me a lot of Buffy in the way that it used these horror elements to dramatize the very real problem of bullying in school. Watching it in a post Columbine era, it's striking how closely Carrie's story matches up with the arc of the killers in Elephant. It's the same basic story, it's just Carrie uses telekinesis rather than guns as her means of getting revenge.

Going in, I was familiar with the prom scene, and the fact that it was a horror film. So, it was striking how restrained the film's first hour or so is. The opening scene is very intense, not because of the TK, but because of the raw cruelty of the girls. The way the film is constructed, Carrie's TK is equated with her maturation into womanhood. Her first notable TK experience occurs at the same time as her first menstruation, and she has a similar lack of control over each. In the following scene, when Ms. Collins calms her down and tries to explain things to her, she finds control, but when the principal disrespects her, her TK acts up again.

It's notable that her mother is extremely disapproving of her development, both sexually and with the telekinesis. By equating each of these things with sin, Mrs. White is putting Carrie in an uncomfortable position. Things can't stay the way they are, even her mind wants to, her body won't allow it.

What's striking about the film is how economical it is. The first scene is so powerful that it tells us everything we need to know about Carrie's existence, and that allows us to skip most of the traditional exposition and get right into the central setpiece, the prom scene.

As someone who knew what was coming, the prom scene works for the same reason that all tragedy works. Carrie finally breaks from her mother's influence and takes what she wants. Tommy is a really kind, understanding guy and helps to bring her out of her shell. However, we know that this isn't the kind of movie where the girl has a good prom and then the film ends. Yet, as she's succeeding, you don't want things to go wrong.

This left me wondering whether the film would have worked if she hadn't been attacked and the film had just been the story of this girl who overcomes her bad mother and bullying classmates to succeed. It wouldn't have been as good a film, but I think it still would have worked because of the film's tone. If Carrie had turned out for the best, it still would have been a difficult road, she would have earned her happiness through her ordeals during the film, and that's what would keep her success from being cheesy.

However, as Joss Whedon said, you've got to give the audience what they need, not what they want, and the very fact that you're rooting for Carrie to succeed is what makes it essential that she go through pain. Clearly, DePalma is aware of the audience's feeling, because he draws out the moment before the blood falls, you're aware that everything is about to come crashing down, so Carrie's happiness becomes cruelly ironic. You're no longer happy with her, you're sad that she's come so far, only to fall.

And fall she does. At this point, DePalma does some interesting things. The first is the subjective laughing sequence. I think it's pretty clear that Carrie is exagerating the reaction in her mind, there's no way that Ms. Collins would actually laugh at her. Instead, it's her mother's conditioning coming back, implying that she couldn't possibly succeed and be happy. And this makes everything fall apart.

Carrie chooses to kill everyone in the prom because in her mind, everyone there is complicit in her torment, it's the social system that's at fault. Again, this is her mother's influence, bringing this fire and brimstone vengeance down on everyone around her. The scene is shot in a really interesting way, with split screen used to juxtapose Carrie's grim resolve with the violent excess going on around her. The world that created her will now be destroyed its own creation.

This scene is a classic for a reason. The image of the blood stained girl, her virginal white dress stained by the blood, which of course, echoes to the previous blood flow in the first scene of the film. It clearly taps into a primal desire for revenge that has become only more relevant as time has passed.

This is the emotional peak of the film, and even though the confrontation with her mother is interesting, everything after the prom scene feels somewhat irrelevant. It had to be there, but there's not much more that needs to be said after she leaves the gym.

There's a bunch of random, notable things about the film. The actress playing Carrie's mother is Piper Laurie, of Twin Peaks. Her hair looked the same, but her face looked completely different. If I hadn't known it was the same actress, I never would have guessed.

And the other notable thing is the 70s fashions. I think the content is timeless, but the clothes were not. Travolta's mullet, the really short shorts, the powder blue tuxedo, these do not hold up so well today. Still, they don't seem as dated as the awful early 90s clothes from Heathers.

So, Carrie was a great film, one of the best uses of the horror genre to tell a real, emotional story. This is what horror should be about, using a metaphor to explore an issue, rather than just random acts of violence.

The Sopranos: 'Mayham' (6x03)

I'm not sure if it's just that the show had been gone for so long, these episodes are like finding a lake in a desert, but this season of The Sopranos seems to have taken everything to a new level of complexity and intrigue, going beyond anything that's come before. This show was already one of the best in TV history, but each episode of the new season is so deep and emotionally involving, I can't remember a TV show ever being this good on an episode to episode basis. It's like Six Feet Under post Nate's collapse level of good, only we've still got seventeen to go.

There's a lot in the episode, but I'm going to start with Christopher's stuff, because this is the first episode where we really get an insight into where he is post Adrianna's death. Christopher's screenwriting arc in season two was my favorite thing the show ever did, in particular the Jon Favreau episode, so I'm really excited to see Christopher get back into the Hollywood game, only this time he's doing it through his mob connections. Obviously, there's a lot of comedy in the intersection between the mob and Hollywood, and I love the discussion of Cleaver, but the real meat of the storyline is in a couple of small moments.

The line that had me stunned was when Christopher is talking about the project and says "And he gets fucking payback on everyone who fucked him over, including the cunt he was engaged to, she was getting porked by his boss the night the hero was killed." The line tells us a lot about Chris, it's clear that he hasn't gotten over Adrianna. He still feels like she betrayed him, by talking to the feds. The animosity with which he's talking about her makes it clear that he did love her, and as far as we know, he hasn't gotten involved with anyone else since her death.

The issue that arises is whether he actually believes that she was having a relationship with Tony, or is using it as a justification to emotionally distance himself from her. Regardless, it's clear that he still has a lot of issues with what happened in "Sentimental Education." And if he still feels this way, that would clearly have a deep impact on his relationship with Tony.

The film is a personal fantasy for Christopher, in which he would have the opportunity to get back at everyone who's wronged him, to take control of his life rather than just drift down the stream. The very act of making the film represents a move by Christopher to reclaim some of his autonomy. He is too smart to be content just being a soldier, he needs to have something more, and seeing the way things are going, having a way out of mob life would clearly be something he'd want.

The scene where Christopher asks the mentally incoherent Tony for funding for his film is painful because he's basically ask Tony to pay for his way out of mob life, he's jumping ship while Tony is at basically the low point of his life. It's notable that the scene is played in virtually the same way as the Tony in a coma scenes were. The characters are talking to Tony, but it's really all about using this speech as a way to work out their own personal agendas. Christopher is rambling on even though Tony is not responding at all, he's all about himself, choosing Tony's lowest point as the time at which to do exactly what he told him not to right in the first episode.

The episode's primary narrative arc is the dissolution of the crew without Tony. Silvio is given the opportunity to step up and definitively claim the role of leader, however he is unable to manage things well, his indecisiveness culminating in his physical breakdown. In this episode, we get to see just how skilled Tony is at managing things. It's his authority that keeps them from being so petty and selfish, without him, everybody worries only himself and everything breaks down. The best example of this was Bobby asking Silvio why he didn't call him back as he's being wheeled into the ambulance. Hilarious and perfectly encapsulating the theme of the episode.

Watching this just a few days after the opening of Battlestar Galactica's second season, the similarities were striking. Silvio and Tigh have virtually the same arcs, second in command pushed up to the leader role they didn't want and end up failing miserably while their first is in a coma. Even their Lady MacBeth like wives are similar. It's unfortunate that there was such a lead time on these episodes, because this episode was likely finished before the Battlestar episodes even aired. It's the second time that a similarity like that has happened this season, the first was the striking similarities between 'Join the Club' and Six Feet Under's 'Ecotone.'

It's clear that Vito's moving into the primary aggressor role within the crew. He's going to be the one causing problems for Tony. Vito's family connection to Phil Leotardo is going to complicate things even more, because Tony won't have New York's backing in a conflict, and now that he's debilitated, he's basically powerless should Vito decide to make a move.

There were two other notable scenes for Vito in the episode. One was his final encounter with Carmela, where he feigns a polite, "anything I can do to help" front, but as the elevator closes, he's clearly not happy about parting with the 100 K. With Tony seemingly unable to function as acting boss, their loyalty will be tested. Are they still going to kick up to a boss who's got no physical muscle to back his rule?

The other big scene was Vito's encounter with Finn. It's pretty clear that this is going to eventually lead to something, since it's being continually stressed. If things do come to war between Tony and Vito, is Meadow going to step up and out Vito. That would basically destroy his credibility as a mob leader.

Looking at Meadow's role in these past few episodes, it's clear that she is becoming increasingly drawn into the world of the family. This is what Carmela is worried about, and even though AJ's outburst last week was the more showy, obvious concern, Meadow's constant presence at her father's side will likely not lessen once he's out of the coma. She'll have to take a larger role in support of the family if Tony is disabled, and this would mean putting off a job or internship that would get her out of their world.

This all ties back to her outburst at the end of season three, when she says there is no mafia, echoing Tony's words to her in "College." The more time she spends in his world, the more likely she is to never leave it. I'm not sure how Finn will fit in to all this, but if he's not happy at dental school, he'd probably be perfectly happy to freeload off Meadow's family.

It's also notable that Meadow is the one to finally draw Tony out of his coma. I was at first a bit surprised by how much Meadow was concerned and active in caring for her father. Obviously she's going to care, but it's clear that she's not at all ready to lose Tony, becoming more childlike in her pleas for "daddy" to come back. Throughout the series, Meadow is at times antagonistic, most notably during the Noah era in season three, furious at Tony's prejudice towards him. However, when he dumped her, it may have validated his words in her mind. Following that she does take his advice and date an Italian. Even though she's feuded with Carmela in recent years, she's been on good terms with Tony, and their bond is clearly huge for her. The question now is how big a role she'll take to protect his position within the mob family.

If her and Finn cross the line and out Vito, she'd be putting herself in a very dangerous position. In their world, an insult like that would not go unretaliated against, and considering the crew's declining reverence for the Soprano family, it's not inconceivable that Vito or Phil Leotardo could take action against her or Finn. Leotardo is clearly still mad at Tony for what Tony B. did to his brother, and killing a family member of his would, in his mind, be appropriate retaliation.

Stepping back from analysis, Edie Falco continues to do some of the best acting of all time. She's got such a wide range of material, and she totally becomes the character. For Carmela, this episode is all about realizing the potential negatives that arise from the convergence of the family around Tony. The scene with Melfi is a critical followup to the scene where she goes to her own therapist and he calls her on her hypocritical behavior.

Back then, Carmela tried to feign naivete about Tony's world, claiming that she wasn't a part of his illegal activities, she just put food on his table. Here, she's got no qualms about admitting that she's always had full knowledge of what Tony did, and that might even have been what attracted her to him in the first place. She recognizes that she didn't get tricked into this world, she chose it. I don't think Tony himself has claimed full responsibility for the life he leads, and if the Kevin Finnerty scenes are any indication, if he was able to escape the life he leads, he would be in no hurry to get back.

The scene where Carmela yells at AJ was brutal and magnificently acted. For Carmela, it is true that AJ has caused her a lot of problems, and at this moment of emotional weakness, she lets that out. How this will impact on him in future episodes is not clear, but unlike last season, AJ does not have the option to move out. He's stuck at home, at least until he makes enough money for his own place.

And after all that, we've still got the man himself, Tony, who continues his journey through the Kevin Finnerty reality. What started out as a nightmare is increasingly becoming an appealing reality for Tony, though he's stuck with the nagging feeling that he's losing his mind. Last week, the Finnerty reality seemed to function mainly as a limbo between life and death, with Tony losing his identity and by extension, his earthly attachments. Everything is leading up to the complete break from material reality and the return to the Finnerty family reunion.

However, Tony is no longer content to just sit around in the bar, he's now out investigating the new world he finds himself in. This is likely a function of Tony being in the coma for so long, he's becoming more comfortable in this mental realm, be it dream or purgatory, and is able to find new facets within it. I love the stuff with Tony questioning whether he really is becoming Finnerty. In a purely mental realm, perception is reality, so if people believe that he is Kevin Finnerty, for all intents and purposes, he is Finnerty.

When he talks to his wife, he's still putting off a return home, he'd rather continue to live as Finnerty and explore what's going on with him. So, becoming Finnerty is leaving the life he lead behind, and moving on to a new existence, which is apparently death.

The Finnerty family reunion is where all this culminates. If he was to go to the family reunion and be accepted as Kevin, that would mean that he had completely assimilated into this new life. However, Tony's real life is increasingly intruding into the fantasy. I'm not positive, but I believe that one of the Buddhist monks was the doctor treating him, and most notably the hilarious scene with Paulie's ranting intruding into his hotel room.

When he reaches the family reunion, Tony finds Steve Buscemi, who is credited as "Man." Tony doesn't recognize him, which I suppose indicates his disconnection from his life as the real Tony Soprano. For the audience, Buscemi would indicate that to enter the family reunion is to die, and head off to the ultimate family reunion. The thing that still perplexes me about the Costa Mesa sequence is why the 'Tony Soprano' of this world isn't the same Tony from the real world. I'm guessing that was meant to be the first stage of disconnection, he first invents a new life as Tony Soprano, then leaves that too.

So, even though he doesn't recognize Buscemi, on some level, he knows that he should not give up the briefcase, his "entire life," to him. Passing by the door of the hotel we see someone who looks like Livia, and Tony begins to hear Meadow's voice floating down through the trees. Her voice is heard as Costa Mesa Tony's daughter's voice, but gradually it turns into Meadow's. The Finnerty identity is punctured, reality comes pouring in and the fantasy collapses. As he returns to the real world, Tony asks if he's dead, signalling the extent of his mental trauma. His fantasy world fear about Alzheimers has come true in the real world.

And as we head into the next chunk of episodes, Tony looks like he's not in such a good shape. I'm really interested to see how a man who prides himself on being so in control and not feeling sorry for himself deals with this mental and physical dehibilitation. By shooting him, Junior has turned Tony into himself.

All this, and it's just one episode. This show is intellectually challenging, emotionally wrenching and on top of that, the funniest thing on TV right now. So far, I would say this has been the best season yet.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Battlestar Galactica: 2x04-2x07

These episodes resolve most of the plot strands from the first season cliffhangers, and more importantly, give us a bunch of new information on what the cylons are up to. After the slightly lackluster first couple of episodes, this chunk represents a return to form, with some of the best stuff the show's ever done.

My favorite stuff from the first two episodes was the happenings down on Caprica, as Starbuck and Helo encounter a new band of survivors. I was wondering what happened to all of the people who didn't make it off the planet, but survived the nuclear explosion and we find out here. All the humans on the planet are being mercilessly hunted, and the fact that cylons can look like humans mean that they're suspicious of everyone on the planet. This works in the cylons' favor because it means that the humans are likely to kill each other, not trusting any survivors.

In some ways, it was a bit cheesy to all of a sudden stumble across a whole bunch of survivors, but I think it worked, and Starbuck's relationship with Anders really went over for me. Lee is still something of a non-entity for me, even as Starbuck is becoming an increasingly developed and interesting character. In the two episodes that he appeared, Anders proved himself a worthy foil for Starbuck, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when Starbuck returns to Caprica to get him back.

"The Farm" saw the series again return to classic X-Files mythology territory, and it's the best episode other than the first season finale. I always love the prison that messes with your mind setup, and right from the beginning, I was thinking, and actually hoping, that Starbuck was at a cylon hospital. The first few episodes gave us no new information about the world of the cylons, but luckily this episode gives us a whole bunch.

The episode worked because it put Starbuck, a character who keeps her emotions closed and is dependent on always being in control of things, in a situation where she's got no control. She's physically weak, which means that even though she's suspicious there's nothing she can do to investigate. It's interesting that the cylons chose to attempt to break her down emotionally, creating the story about Anders' death. I'm not sure if it was an attempt to keep her weak, or rather a way to flatter her, saying that she's so strong that she survived where he died. Or it might just have been a ploy to keep her from asking to see him.

The birthing chamber wasn't as visually impressive as similar stuff from The X-Files, but I love the basic concept, and it confirms the idea that the cylons are trying to create hybrids. I love this kind of stuff, and I'm really interested in seeing more of the cylons' world and their plans as things progress. The end of this episode, where Sharon returns in one of the troop carriers and saves them was a great emotional moment, though there's still a lot of questions about where she went and why she chose now to return.

I suppose that ties into the overall cylon plan. I was under the impression that cylons could conceive children, the whole point of Helo's storyline in the first season seemed to be that they were using him to inseminate Sharon and create the hybrid. So, I'm not sure if the cylons had tried and failed to conceive before, and the success with Sharon was attributed to love because this was the first one that worked, or if this is some sort of miracle, that a being that shouldn't be capable of having children is having one.

Similarly, the events here raise a lot of issues about how the human cylons are grown in the first place. If they came up with twelve models, couldn't they just make more of those and populate the world that way? However, it seems that they're stuck at the twelve they've made and the only way to make new ones is to make cylon/human hybrids. If the cylon women are capable of having children, then I'm not sure why the cylon men wouldn't also have the necessary equipment to do so. If they did, then what's the need for the whole birthing room setup?

Regardless, this episode, and subsequent stuff with Six and Baltar, seems to make clear that the cylons' ultimate agenda is to make a human/cylon hybrid, to use the humans as hosts to help their own race grow. So, was the attack actually a ploy to throw the humans into chaos and then use that chaos as a way to capture subjects for their research testing? That would imply that they had gotten as far as they could building their own models and they needed to get some new raw material. I'm thinking it's possible that the birth of these twelve humanoid cylons may have been some kind of miracle. That would explain why they aren't able to just make new models on their own, and also why they have such strong religious faith. It's like these ones that now exist have been given a mission from God, and they will do whatever has to be done to let his will be done.

Back on Galactica, I really liked the Civil War arc. The arc with Thai's botched command worked really well because it played off the characters' basic insecurities. He's a classic second in command, adept at enforcing Adama's decisions, but not so good at making his own. He makes some bad choices, but considering it was Adama who chose to arrest the president in the first place, would he have done anything different if he had been in command at the time? When Adama wakes up, he sees his own flaws in the way Thai ran the ship, his own stubbornness and as a result, lets go of his pride and decides to reconcicle. Of course, a lot of this is motivated by the fact that his son had betrayed him, and if they were to let the other ships break, it could very well mean never seeing his son again. So, his speech at the end of "Home Part I" about bringing the family back together has a clear double meaning, the question is which family was the reason for his action.

"Home" was a reallly strong episode, notable for the fact that it brings nearly all the core characters together for the first time in a long while. I love the Sharon/Helo relationship because it gets to the core of the issue with the humanoid cylons, if they can be so well programmed as to completely believe that they are human, then what's the difference between us? Belief can be more powerful than actuality, as Adama makes clear when the chief says he thought he love Sharon, and Adama says that's all love is, a thought. Helo and Sharon clearly love each other, so why should it matter if she was born synthetically, is there that big a line between Sharon and something like in vitro fertilization? That's the lingering question, because we don't know how much the cylons are like humans. Other than the red glowing spine, they seem to be identical to humans.

Anyway, the episode also raises a lot of issues about the shared memories between cylons of the same model. This Sharon remembers the things that original Sharon went through, even if she hasn't experienced them herself. This sets us up for a bizarre love triangle with Helo, Sharon and the Chief. In so many ways, this Sharon is the exact same person as the Chief was in love with, but where does he fit in now that she's with Helo. Lot of issues, and I'm really looking forward to seeing them played out.

Other than this stuff, we get a lot of interesting developments on the religion front. Roslin is playing increasingly on these prophesies, and the experience at the Tomb of Athena would seem to give creedence to everything that she's been saying. They apparently have found the way to Earth, but the issue now is when the show is taking place in relation to our history. If they do eventually make it to Earth is it going to be in our present, which would probably be goofy, or is it going to be some kind of creation myth, where they land in the past and drop the information that will lead to the creation of our society. It would be interesting to see things go in a meta route and have them land in our world and find that their existence is being chronicled on a show called Battlestar Galactica.

That would play off the connection to the 70s show. With the emphasis on the cyclical nature of history, they seem to be acknowledging the existence of that show, and I'm not sure if it's that going to play into further developments.

The other major development on the religious front is getting the cylon perspective on humans. I didn't catch it before, but the cylons are monotheists, while the humans are polytheists. The humans are also closely tied to Greek and Roman polytheist culture, which would position the cylons as the next stage of development. If they are positioning the humans as polytheists, the arc of the show would eventually lead to all of them being converted to the cylons' faith, which is perhaps what the hybrid is about.

Concurrent with the stuff on the planet, we've got an interesting story for Baltar and Six. They haven't done that much this season, so seeing some actual change in Home was interesting. I loved how they played on the characters' image by having her all of a sudden dressed like a suburban mom, forcing Baltar to question everything that he's been believing.

Now, the x-ray doesn't necessarily mean that Baltar doesn't have a chip, but I'm assuming if they went to the trouble of doing the storyline, they're not going to all of a sudden say it's an x-ray proof chip. So, is Six really an angel of God? I'm not really sure, but it throws everything into question. Things have been manuvered to the situation where Baltar will deliver the first hybrid child, fulfilling God's will and ushering in a new age.

So, things are really interesting right now. I'm a little disappointed that the civil war storyline was resolved so quickly, there was a lot more potential there, but other than that, everything's great right now. I'm guessing that the new conflict will be whether to go off in search of Earth or to go back to Caprica and bring back survivors. Hopefully, the DVD set of the second half of season two will be out soon, I want to get caught up before I come across any big spoilers.