History of Melody Nelson Videos
Yesterday I watched the TV special that Serge Gainsbourg did for his 'History of Melody Nelson' album. It's available in seven parts on Youtube. As I've already written about, I love the album and it was cool to see it visualized. There's not much of a narrative to the songs, but you get the basic idea of what happens through Serge's interactions with Jane Birkin as Melody. The visuals are very abstract, most of the songs feature our heroes superimposed over weird spinning patterns. My favorite video is the first, showing Serge driving along, passing through a bunch of lights and colors. The video for 'L'Hotel Particulier' is nice as well, following Serge and Jane through a variety of classic paintings. The only problematic one is the finale, 'Cargo Culte,' which focuses on African tribal imagery for some reason. But, it returns to Jane by the end and resolves nicely. I thought this was a great series of videos and I'd love to see a higher quality version on DVD. The album is still one of the all time greats, and if you haven't heard it, check out this video below.
Inland Empire Trailer
In other video news, the trailer for David Lynch's Inland Empire is up online. I saw the film and reviewed it back in October, but I'm looking forward to a second viewing when I return home in a couple of weeks. The trailer isn't exactly representative, I don't think anything could be, but it captures a lot of the film's mood. Also, I believe the vocals on that song are by Lynch himself, but I'm not positive on that one. This is a film where it's pretty safe to watch the trailer, there's so much in there, it's tough to spoil.
The Fountain Dries Up
It's been tough to see last weekend's box office report, and see The Fountain get so few viewers. I've followed this film for six years, and even though the film itself was great, I'd have liked to see it make more of a cultural impact than it did. Now, I'm sure this will be one that people will rediscover on DVD, but if you want to see more films like this get made, go see them in the theaters. If everyone who likes Eternal Sunshine now went to see it in the theater, it'd probably be a lot easier to get adventurous films like that made. But, I feel like people go to the movies that are most hyped, the ones that you need to see to be part of the cultural dialogue. And, outside of the internet, The Fountain is not a part of that dialogue.
Weeds Season Two
I finally finished watching the second season of Weeds earlier today. The last run of episodes was great, with an expertly constructed cliffhanger to top it off. I prefer the show when it's in dramatic mode rather than broad comedy mode, and this final arc, in which Peter turns on Nancy was the best thing the show's ever done. Plus, Nancy and Conrad are fantastic together, there's a chemistry there that makes all their scenes together great. Zooey Deschanel fits right in with the cast, hopefully she'll be back next season, and I like how they use her to help develop Andy a bit. The show grew a lot with the second season and I'll definitely be back to see how things are resolved next year.
More on the Preacher show
There's an interesting interview with Mark Steven Johnson here, in which he talks about his plans for the Preacher show. I like the idea of one episode an issue, the Grandma storyline will certainly provide a nice first season finale. I'll be curious to see how the show winds up, this isn't a series where the comics connection is instantly apparent, so it could wind up attracting a general, rather than fanboy audience. That's not to say that superhero films don't attract a general audience, it's just that they're usually ghettoized, where a show like Carnivale isn't. More generally, I'm curious about how people will adapt to watching a show where they already know what will happen. If the general viewer wants spoilers, they'll be readily available, and I'll be curious to see how many people get hooked on the series and wind up reading the comic because they need to know what will happen next. And, how will this show affect Alan Ball's upcoming vampire series, True Blood?
Saturday, December 02, 2006
History of Melody Nelson Videos
Now that the first mystery of the season is over, it seems like as good a time as any to check in on Veronica Mars. Most shows have a lot of trouble transitioning from high school to college, and I think Veronica has done a smoother job it than Buffy or Gilmore Girls. However, the primary reason for this is that they've made very few changes to the show from the high school years. Everyone that Veronica knows has gone to Hearst, even Weevil is a janitor there. So, other than calling the cafeteria a dining hall, and getting some new antagonists, this is the exact same show it was the previous two years. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, clearly it was a formula that worked, but at the same time, it feels like the show hasn't grown.
Part of the reason that's difficult is because of Veronica herself. With Buffy, there was real difference between college and high school. Xander never got a job at the college, instead he was left behind, and that was a great choice. When you go to college, everyone you know doesn't follow you, and there are people like Xander, who get left behind. Similarly, Buffy runs into issues with her parental figure, Giles. She has trouble incorporating him into her new worldview, she's outgrowing him, and we don't get that same tension with Veronica and Keith. I think it would have been smarter to not have her live at home, that way there'd be more tension in the relationship, with Veronica working on cases without his knowledge or approval.
The major reason they can't do this is because none of the other characters are complex or developed enough to sustain their own storylines. Xander could easily handle an A storyline, but I don't think the same is true of Wallace. He's given a couple of decent storylines, but generally speaking, he remains the same person he was back in high school, Veronica's sidekick. Ironically, despite being added to the opening credits, Mac has even less screentime. This is a huge mistake, we should be seeing more of how her experience with Beaver affected her, but that's only really touched on in the first episode.
That's symptomatic of a larger problem, which is the show's reluctance to use its history to its advantage. There are references to past episodes, but generally speaking, there is not strong character development over time. Some awful stuff happened at the end of last season, and they should have engaged with that more. Now, a major reason for the reluctance to do so was likely the desire to make it easy for new viewers to watch the show. There's validity to that, but I think it's possible to incorporate arcs that build off of old stuff without requiring the audience to know the exact details of what happened. If you just started watching the show this season, you'd have no concept of Mac as a character, she'd just be Veronica's friend who appears occasionally.
There are similar problems with the new characters. For one, they don't get much screentime, so you don't really know them. I just had to look on IMDB to find Parker's name, which shows how much she's impacted the show. The problem with her is that they set up a specific kind of personality in the first episode, then having her get raped negates all that personality. So, who is she now? That is never really clarified. Piz is the archetypal self deprecating nice guy who cropped up often on Buffy, always as a contrast to her real desire for the bad boy figure. Now, I think Logan is the most interesting character on the show, but with Veronica's morality, there's no real reason that she should be interested in him.
Veronica has a very strict manichean worldview. With her dad's affair, she refuses to consider that it might make him happy. Admittedly, she has seen a lot of these kind of affairs that go wrong, but I feel like she's acting a bit hypocritical when she is dating someone who's been involved in all sorts of bad stuff. With Buffy, it made sense for her to be attracted to Spike because having her drawn to the darkness was a part of her character. We never get that sense with Veronica, when she crosses the line, it's in being utterly cold, there is none of the emotional heat that Buffy had. Veronica's decision to break up with him does make sense, but I'm sure they'll inevitably be drawn back together.
The other major issue I had with this part of the season is with the overall mystery. Now, having your best friend murdered isn't very nice, but I think we're more used to dealing with a whodunit, and it's not as fun to engage in a whorapedher. And, the resolution wasn't particularly exciting. A couple of peripheral characters did it because they could. The resolution of the first mystery was great, and the second season's was solid as well, but this one felt like they just picked a couple of people and had them do it. Plus, I think it's troubling that Veronica has been dosed with GHB so many times. I feel like it's crossing the line from something interesting to a kind of perverse punishment for the character. They've made her so steely that it takes literally being drugged to give her any kind of weakness.
But, there is one element of the show that always works and that's Dick. Every scene he has with Veronica is funny, and a nice counterpoint to her usual seriousness. Logan's also still pretty interesting, though a bit neutered this season. I'm still enjoying the episodes, but the show's not growing, and that's a problem. What did this season's nine episode long rape arc do that wasn't already done in the standalone episode that introduced it last season? Not much. The show needs to commit to giving more development and better arcs to its supporting cast, and challenge Veronica with more than just rape drugs.
The premise here wasn't too promising, and even after the episode was over, the sudden introduction of boxing into the universe felt a bit weird, but if you roll with that, it's actually a great hour, and a nice return to form after a couple of off weeks.
The thing that stands out most here is the structure of the show. Very few other shows on television attempt the complex structural and storytelling techniques used on Galactica. In mid season two, they did a bunch of start at the end, track back episodes, and those were generally unsuccessful. What we have here are two seperate storylines that progress forward independently, and comment on each other as they progress. The show does a lot of impressionistic openings, presenting a bunch of images whose meaning only becomes gradually clear. They usually save this for big episodes, like the season one finale or this year's premiere, but it works well here too.
The most interesting thing about this episode was definitely the look back on life at New Caprica. When I heard they would be doing a flashback episode filling in the 18 month gap, I wasn't too excited because I got the sense that they skipped over all the interesting stuff, and looking back would ony mean dwelling on some inconsequential stuff. That is true to some extent, but at this point, just seeing the happiness and optimism they have about New Caprica is powerful. They all seem so happy and the blue skies are such a contrast to the oppressive gray we see later in the Cylon era. I think Baltar got a bad rap throughout the season, but here, it looks like his decision has really worked out. I particularly like Adama and Roslin, their drug fueled ruminations on the future of the planet are great.
The problem with doing any flashback episode is that it has to fit into what we've already seen in the series. In the last episode, the major issue was, if this is so important to Adama, why have we never heard about it before? To some extent, the story with the Chief runs into that issue. At first, it felt totally arbitrary that he would choose to fight the chief, but eventually it becomes clear that he's not fighting the chief, he's fighting the complacency that allowed the cylons to so thoroughly rout New Caprica. Much like on the original Caprica, they got lazy, let their guard down and were overwhelmed by the cylon force. Adama is basically saying that he won't allow that to happen again. He lets himself be hurt as a way of showing to the men that it's important to always be ready for a fight.
Having Roslin all of a sudden be into boxing was a bit ridiculous, but the other scenes between the two of them were great. That's true of a lot of the episode, having the characters suddenly invested in boxing is just weird, but the way it's intercut with the New Caprica stuff makes it work. The boxing become a purely allegorical piece of storytelling, a means to work out what the story is really about, the lingering emotional tensions between the crew.
I've never been particularly invested in the Kara/Lee relationship, but this episode does a good job of telescoping their whole history into a few moments. I like the way moments are continually replayed, and over the course of the episode, we're given context for what we're seeing. The shots on New Caprica are so good looking, it's a joy just to be back there. I really wish they had the budget to spend more time there.
The ending is the most effective part of the episode, particularly the brutality of the fight. Kara seems devoted solely to hurting Lee, and that means using kicks, elbows, anything. I like how the show never even makes issue of the fact that Lee is fighting a woman, Kara is his equal, or superior, in all respects, and the end of the episode makes the point that they're so even, neither can ever definitively top the other. It's that equality that makes them so attractive to each other, no one else in on their level, and if one of them definitively won, it would let them both move on. But, after the stalemate, they each see the other as the archetypal male or female against whom all others will be judged.
So, I really enjoyed this episode. The boxing initially felt a bit goofy, but it worked really well in context, and the narrative structure here was fantastic. The music was also critical to making the episode work, building mood and momentum through the repeating string motifs. It's a testament to the episode that I wasn't even missing Baltar and the cylons, the Galactica stuff was that solid.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
After watching the pilot, I wasn't thrilled with Babylon 5. But, as promised, things improve as it goes into the series. The first episode is basically a revised pilot, introducing us to the new characters and re-establishing the status quo on the station. What stands out immediately is the loss of most of the really bad actors. Ivanova has a lot more personality than Takashima, it's always good to have a contentious supporting cast rather than people who totally believe in the mission. With Ivanova, I see a lot of potential for future development, and we even get some more layers here, with the death of her father and her story about her mother. Plus, it's nice to see Bill's mom from Freaks and Geeks getting some work.
There's a lot more tension here. In 'The Gathering,' there's very little actual conflict, but the attack on the colony lends urgency to what's going on. Plus, it allows for some humanization (or Centauriazation) of Londo. After three episodes, I'm still not sure about Londo. He's a very entertaining character, but sometimes feels a bit too broad. He was better in the third episode, gradually becoming more than just funny hair and an accent. It doesn't help that his assistant seems to be right off of a bad sitcom. It's hard to take a character seriously when he's dealing with such goofy help. On Buffy, there were a lot of complaints about the goofiness of Andrew, but I always found him funny in a smart way. This assistant guy just isn't funny, and that makes him only annoying. I think the guy could bring a bit more realism to the acting.
The Captain is also still a question mark. I really didn't like him in the pilot, and I don't know if it's that he's improved or that I've gotten used to him, but he's definitely less offensive. That said, I still don't buy him as the center of the show, and it feels odd that he's always involved in the action. We never see Bill Adama going out in the Viper, and similarly, I don't know if the head of this whole station should be out on fighter missions. Admittedly, it's needed for the plot, but I feel like it might have been better to make a seperate pilot hotshot character and captain character. Of course, that could just be the Battlestar influence talking.
The effects were a real problem in the pilot, but I'm getting used to them a bit more. The rendering is pretty bad, but I think they are successful in terms of free camera movement. You can do more with these CG ships than with models, and the fights are pretty well done. However, the basic issue remains that they're clearly fake, and the story has to be better to compensate for that. In any sci-fi show, you must willingly cross into the universe. Sometimes when I catch a snippet of Buffy or Angel out of context, it looks absolutely ridiculous. But when you're watching the show, it feels perfectly natural. I'm still not quite at home in the Babylon 5 world.
A simpler trouble arises in the second episode, a standalone that feels a lot like a bad X-Files episode. The Soulhunter is a decent idea, but so much time is spent on drawn out dialogue scenes, the episode never really comes together. It's a visual medium, and I understand the budgetary limitations, but a snappier pace is needed to keep things interesting. We do get some interesting teases about the future, and possible developments with the Minbari, but that's not enough to make the episode work.
I'm hoping that there's not a long period where every episode is a standalone. I get the need to set up the universe, but I feel like there are more exciting stories that could have worked to set up the Minbari world. For example, the next episode does a good job of setting up Centauri culture and developing both G'Kar and Londo. It wasn't a particularly unique plot, but it was the most emotionally involved I've been in an episode so far.
I'm curious to see if relationships become central to the series as it goes on. So far, the show seems pretty cold, and I don't see the potential for a relationship with the fire of a Buffy/Spike, or more accurately, there's no indication that kind of storytelling is a priority for JMS. The Captain has his girlfriend, but other than that, everyone just seems to be there.
So, I'm not fully sold on the series. The standalone structure isn't what I usually like, and there's too much of a sitcom style, set up conflict, resolve it all by the end, have a nice happy ending structure, but I was more entertained by each episode here than I was by the pilot. I'm really curious to see how it develops and how all of the hints dropped here eventually play out over the course of the series.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Back when I first started reading comics, I read with baited breath every rumor about the possibility of a Watchmen or Preacher movie, even hoping that the awful sounding Sandman movie would get off the ground. I'm not sure why, I guess part of it was to bring these stories to more people, and also just curiosity about how to do it. Then, I saw the From Hell movie, absolutely awful, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, even worse, and V For Vendetta, a good movie, but nowhere near the book.
By this point, I'll admit I'm always curious to hear about progress on a project, but I don't particularly want most comics I really like to get made into a movie. It's particularly odd that so many Alan Moore books are getting adapted. What makes Moore so unique is the way that he makes use of all that comics have to offer as a storytelling form. Watchmen has a great story, but even if you tell the whole story, the film still won't have a lot of the impact of the book. Watchmen is often called comics' Citizen Kane, and just like Kane, the form is critical to the success of the work. Nobody would want to read Citizen Kane as a comic, and that's the equivalent of what a Watchmen movie would be.
If this Zach Synder Watchmen movie does happen, I'm sure I'll watch it, but if it doesn't happen, I won't particularly care. I think the great myth of these films is that it gets people to read the books. In some cases, it does, but I think it puts things the wrong way around. People read V For Vendetta the book and compare it to the film, it ceases to be an original work unto itself.
But, a development I am interested to see is the just announced HBO Preacher series. I'm always annoyed when longform comic series are turned into movies, the two forms don't match. Preacher fits perfectly with a TV show aesthetic, and HBO is one of the few places that will have no problem dealing with the violent and sexual content. Plus, the whole joy of the series was the evolving relationship and that'll be easier to work with in this form. I guess I'm more attached to Preacher as a story than as a complete work of art, so I think it could do better in translation. If the casting's right, the show will write itself.
Considering both HBO and Vertigo are in the Time Warner empire, if this show is a success, I wouldn't be surprised to see more Veritgo books turned into TV shows. I think the most obvious candidate is Y: The Last Man, which has a perfectly promotable high concept, if you can't make a good pilot out of it, then you shouldn't be working in television. I think 100 Bullets would also work really well, it's nicely episodic already and would be a new twist on the crime genre.
Of course, for me the big one would be The Invisibles. It's still shocking to me that no Grant Morrison stuff has been adapted for the screen. He's got so many quality projects, you'd think one of them would have stuck. Morrison is still little known outside of comics, despite the fact that he's an equal of Moore. I guess it's because Morrison has less easily accessible one volume works, a lot of his best stuff is longform, and tied up in a lot of continuity. But, perhaps I should be happy that I've been spared adaptations on the level of Moore's work.
If I got the chance, there's two comics I would want to adapt for the screen, and only two. One would be Miracleman. Of all Moore's major works, this one is the least tied into comics form. Totelben's art in the last book is some of the best ever, but that's more due to his pointilistic style than to anything particular in the layouts. The story is also easily accessible, and in today's post Heroes world, would have a very broad appeal. Superhero movies are now so prevalent, I think we're ready for the deconstructionist take, and few works are better at first breaking down, then reimagining the superhero than Miracleman.
I would make books one and two into one movie, ending with the birth of Miracleman's child. Then, do book three as a second movie. The brawl between Miracleman and Kid Miracleman is still unmatched in comics, and it'd be cool to imagine the world described in Olympus. The primary issue I could see there is that the fight would be the height of narrative tension and the worldbuilding might be a bit anticlimactic. So, perhaps it would need to be a trilogy.
The other work I'd be really curious to see a film of is Flex Mentallo. Flex is Morrison's response to the deconstructionist 80s works by Alan Moore, and I think no work does a better job of articulating the essential appeal of superheroes, the wonder and magic inherent within the concept. I love the fractured narrative structure, and it'd be cool to cut between Wallace Sage's suicide attempt and the superhero stuff with Flex. I would shoot Wallace in low end DV, and Flex in 35mm film, then find some kind of median when the two worlds intersect. More than anything, the key would be not trying to increase narrative comprehensibility, but rather use music and editing rhythm to let the viewer just drift through the world.
The two things that film has that comics do not are sound and motion. I enjoyed the Sin City film, but it's ultimately pointless, a film should not use the comic as a storyboard, I'd prefer to see a film use the comic narrative as a jumping off point to create a Wong Kar-Wai style immersive journey through another world. Flex would be perfect for that, with a lot of montage editing and voiceover to link the disparate story strands. I feel like comic book adaptations should use what cinema has to offer, and try to stand as a nice addition to the original work, rather than a replacement.
Ghost World is the best graphic novel adaptation because it captures the soul of the original work and also adds something new. You can read the two side by side and see them each as pieces of a larger universe. I hope that Preacher feels the same way, a growth upon the original and not just a second generation degraded copy.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
To celebrate thanksgiving, I rewatched Terence Malick's The New World. I saw the film last New Year's Eve and loved it. I was really disappointed to see the film get critically savaged, but thankfully a small online cult of admirers has risen up, and I think future viewers will rank the film right alongside Malick's 70s work. I think it's easily his best movie, and also one of the greatest films of all time.
The thing I love about the film is the way it thoroughly immerses you in a world. Most films are designed to tell a story, and they use a language that was codified in the classical Hollywood era. Films may be paced faster and less narratively cohesive than they were then, but it's still the same basic structures, shot/reverse shot dialogue, and all style and technique designed to move the narrative forward. It's like this is what film must do, and you very rarely see films that manage to tell a story in a totally different way. The New World is one of them.
Days of Heaven was Malick's first masterpiece, a film that was revolutionary in its focus on visual storytelling. There's very little dialogue in his work, rather, he uses music and voiceover to convey meaning. He's at his best when working with very simple stories, one of the reasons The Thin Red Line is his weakest film is that there's too many characters and events, no chance to just get lost in the emotion of the moment. In The New World, the story is a simple cultural myth, and that means most of the basic work is done for him. Doing a straight adaptation of the Pocohontas story would be horribly misguided because we already know what will happen. To try to build tension in traditional ways just wouldn't work. Because we already know what happens, Malick chooses to focus on immersing us in the world, and making us feel what these characters felt at the time.
In doing so, Malick helps to pioneer a new time of filmmaking that has emerged in the past ten years or so. I think the originator is Wong Kar-Wai, a director whose mid 90s work uses incredibly over the top stylistic techniques to construct uniquely emotional moments. I think Fallen Angels is the most beautifully shot movie of all time because not only are the shots well composed and aesthetically pleasing, each frame illuminates the characters' emotions. The best moments in film are almost always about a fusion of visual and music, and virtually every moment in The New World is just that, a visual narrative with musical accompaniment designed to create an emotional reaction. This is his goal with every moment of the movie, to make you feel. The voiceovers aren't so much about conveying information, it's a spell designed to immerse you in the world the characters are experiencing.
As the film opens, Pocohontas says "Come spirit, let me sing the story of this world," invoking a mystical storytelling power to help create a reality. This is very much in line with what Alan Moore or David Lynch talk about, the idea that the storyteller is a vessel through which some the collective unconscious expresses itself. The editing of the film makes you feel that you're being taken on a kind of hallucinatory journey, experiencing many years of history in a state of reverie. It uses dreamlogic or drug logic, moments stringing together outside of time, rising and falling like music.
The best example of this is near the beginning of the film, after Smith is spared. We experience the essence of his relationship with Pocohontas through a series of perfectly chosen moments. What makes it different than a typical montage is the way the characters seem to step outside of time. The events are arranged into a beautiful pattern of rising emotion, culminating in the unbelievable shot in which the camera rotates around Pocohontas, lightning crashing on the shores behind her. To watch the sequence is like experiencing a compressed dose of pure love, the sequence is a dream of a world that could be, and we spend the rest of the film wanting to return to this pure state.
We finally return there at the end of the film, when Pocohontas comes to terms with the loss of the life she had. The film is largely concerned with growing up, and in her son, she sees the same sense of wonder that she once had. Running through the garden, she rediscovers the passion, culminating in the fantastic scene where she cartwheels across the grass in her formal dress. With the music swelling, we experience her death not as sadness, but as passage, a return to whence she came, and it is good. The editing returns us to that moment we thought lost.
A lot of complaints about The New World claim that it was all style, no substance. In cinema, style is the substance. No other medium can so thoroughly affect your perception and immerse you in a completely different world. This film made me feel like I was there at the birth of contemporary America, and through it, I understood the conflicting emotions they felt at the time. That is a more substantial experience than comes from passive engagement with a traditional narrative. Most films are concerned with making you feel for the characters. This film makes you feel exactly what the characters are feeling, and I think that's a more valuable endeavor.
There are moments in this movie that are among the most beautiful in cinema history. They are beautiful not only from an aesthetic point of view, it is also an emotional beauty. Q'orianka Kilcher in particular conveys such pure joy, it doesn't feel like acting at all, she is completely in that moment. Seeing her joy is infectious.
So, I feel like this film is creating a new cinematic language, one that relies on visuals not words as the foundation point. Film was at first inspired by theater, and then by novels, but in recent years we've seen movies that are not governed by traditional scripts, rather they're governed by the possibilities of visual connection. This film, Wong Kar-Wai's work, Miami Vice and David Lynch's Inland Empire all function in this respect, neglecting traditional, outmoded forms of characater development, preferring instead to focus on putting you in a world and making you feel that way. This film has images so powerful, they touch something primal. It is one of the greatest films of all time, and a critical moment in the evolution of this new cinematic language.
Back in 2003 when I started watching Buffy on DVD, I'd seen very few long form TV series, but over the past few years, I've gone through pretty much every show I really wanted to see, the shows that were considered essential works of longform television storytelling. However, there was one still out there that I'd heard great things about, and that's Babylon 5. The thing that stopped me from watching it before was the first season's bad reputation.
Most shows today are able to start off strong. For whatever reason, the medium has evolved to the point where a show like Six Feet Under or Lost can come out with a first episode that instantly places you in a specific world, with developed characters and strong style. In the case of Lost, this first episode turned out to be the best moment of the series, but back in the early 90s, it seems like it took longer for shows to find their voice. Buffy's first season is decent, but almost embarassing compared to the greatness that would shortly follow. The same thing is true for The X-Files, which took a season to really find its voice. If I was watching Buffy as it aired, I'm not sure if I would have made it through the first season. And, in the case of Babylon 5, I'm pretty sure I would not make it past the pilot. But, there's an advantage in knowing that something will get better and that means that I'll stick with the show despite the very weak opening.
The first thing that stands out watching the show today is the pathetic effects work. At the time, it was apparently groundbreaking, but most videogames today have better stuff than what we've got here. Particularly coming off of a show like Battlestar Galactica, it's jarring to see stuff that doesn't even come close to reality. As the episode went on, I got more used to it and was able to accept that this is just how it is and I can't ask for more. It does hurt though because any time we're presented with something that's supposed to be dramatic happening in space it has to overcome the hurdle of the blatantly unreal effects.
But, that's not my major problem with the episode. In sci-fi, there's an inherent ridiculousness to the material, and it's up to the actors to make the world into a place that's emotionally real. Someone like Patrick Stewart or Edward James Olmos brings the gravitas you need to create a believable world. Alas, our captain here feels more like a game show host or used car salesman, you get no sense that he's invested in the world, it's more like he's trying to avoid being embarassed by working on the show. His second in command, the Asian woman, is even worse, delivering every line with the same b-movie mix of anger and disinterest. The alien actors are much better, when they're on, it's easier to believe in the reality of the world.
The acting is my main issue with the pilot. I'm not expecting much from the first season, but I just don't see most of these actors ever doing something great. Now, I also couldn't see most of the Buffy actors ever doing the stuff they would do over the course of the series, but most of them were at least alright in the first season, not actively bad.
What's most exciting about the pilot is the glimpses of the larger world in which the series takes place. It seems like the series' overall arc will revolve around the difficulties that the various alien races have in co-existing. Presumably they'll move towards the goal of a universal peace, but constantly be undermined by individual jealousy and selfishness. There's certainly potential in the premise, and pieces of the episode are good, but generally speaking the acting and effects prevent the series from creating a believable reality.
It's always unfortunate to watch a show like this after seeing what it spawned, in a Battlestar Galactica or Firefly. The latter have access to so many more resources in creating their effects, it's very difficult to compare. Yet, you don't really have a choice, and rather than BSG being a pleasant surprise in the growth in quality of its effects work, Babylon 5 winds up looking far below standard.
But, I will be sticking with the show, at least through the first season because I would love to see something as good as people say the later seasons of the show are.