Monday, June 18, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Two' (1x02)

After an intriguing, but not entirely conclusive first episode, John From Cincinnati comes into its own with a mesmerizing second episode. I can think of very few series that have had me hooked as much as this one does at this point. Much like Six Feet Under, this one just feels special, it’s a unique world that I want to learn more about and I really can’t wait to see what they come up with next week. But first, let’s review what went down this week.

I’m still a bit baffled about how baffled some people are by the series. There’s some mysterious elements, but also a strong central narrative that anchors us emotionally. The major issue this episode is the merits and problems with the mysterious promoters. Cass tries to lure Mitch into a starring role in her documentary film, but there’s some kind of larger agenda involving her and Linc. Thematically, we’re addressing the troubles with commercialization. Mitch still loves to surf, he’s out every morning, but he doesn’t want to be a part of the surfing machine that has grown up around the sport. He sees what it has done to Butchie and hopes to save Shaun from the same fate.

I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of Deadwood, but that show was interested in the way a society is formed out of chaos. Here, we’re looking at people in an almost apocalyptic world. Whenever they’re away from the water, the color is almost overwhelmingly yellow, an oppressive sun you can feel through the screen. This is a world slightly removed from traditional reality and authority, and the promoters are working to spoil the edenic life Mitch has built for Shaun and his family.

Concurrent with this, we’ve got more stuff with John. It’s still unclear what his exact nature is, but it’s a lot of fun to watch him mimic the actions of those around him and play at being human. The scene in the bathroom at the hospital is particularly cool, as he makes sound effects to mimic what’s going on around him. In this episode, he seemed a bit less like a prophet and a bit more like a mentally challenged person, but there’s clearly something larger going on here.

The earthquake, which leads into Shaun’s accident works in the same way that the earthquake in Altman’s Short Cuts does, giving us a major incident that unites all the disparate plot lines. We see the people at the hotel, the Yosts at the ocean and Bill in his apartment, all wondering what’s going on. It’s easy for a show to get splintered into a bunch of little shows, with no overall unifying direction, so this works well to give things a unity and singular sense of purpose.

Shaun’s accident also serves this purpose, and it was a pretty shocking development. The scene with Mitch, Cissy and the Doctor is the first moment when the characters felt emotionally real. On the best shows, the characters take on a life of their own and begin to write themselves. Joss Whedon talked a lot about this, how in a longform narrative, the characters determine their own destiny. On shows that don’t quite work, you always feel the writer’s hand, manipulating characters to fulfill specific plot points. On great shows, you don’t even think about the writer, everything that happens feels like an inevitability. Last episode, there was a lot of quirkiness in the characters, and that always makes you feel the writer’s hand. It can still be cool, but it’s not going to feel emotionally real.

Shaun’s accident is an artificially imposed incident, but it puts the characters in a very real emotional moment, and through their reactions, we can understand a lot about them. It’s notable that a lot of successful shows begin with a traumatic event. When we see Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under reacting to his father’s death, we see him stripped raw, and then can better recognize the layers of personality that he puts on to deal with others. Ultimately, the best shows are ones where you can tell when characters lie because you know them so well that you can understand why they lie and what they’re hiding. I’m not saying this show is there yet, but the hospital scenes do give us great insight into the characters and bring them closer to that point of taking on their own life.

The episode ends with Bill bringing the bird into the operating room, drawing Shaun back to life. It’s an incredible moment full of a deep, mystical power. The show has a weird vibe and there was real magic in that moment, the sense of something much larger than the characters falling into place. The cut to TV on the Radio’s “Staring at the Sun” for the closing credits did a great job of sustaining that mood.

That scene, combined with John’s odd muttering all built up a lot of mystery and possibility for next week. I really loved this episode, it took the potential of the first episode and transformed into a legitimately great hour of TV. And next week looks even better. One line from the preview had me particularly interested, John saying “Kai, see God.” This show has that same unique feel that Twin Peaks did, and I don’t think I’ve seen on TV since. It’s not forced quirk, it’s an askew worldview that creates a world of mystery and wonder to journey to each week. This show is fantastic, and I hope it gets a chance to build the fanbase it deserves.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

All Star Superman #6: 'Funeral in Smallville'

The first TPB comes to a close with an issue that’s fairly schizophrenic, bouncing between the emotion of Pa Kent’s death and the bizarreness of the Superman Squad. Much of the series has been about that balance, simultaneously embracing the Silver Age wackiness and more grounded, realistic emotion. But, this issue doesn’t quite pull it together as well the others. There’s moments here that are as strong as anything in the series, but it doesn’t quite cohere into a cohesive whole.

The opening few pages of the issue are probably the most unqualified success. You simultaneously experience the Superman and Clark parts of his personality. He’s still reverent towards his father, embarrassed when he tells the story about how he crash landed on Earth. But, once he gets to use his powers, he’s having fun again, chasing Krypto up into space.

The best thing about the space stuff is how much fun Clark is clearly having. While I do love the angsty superhero soap opera of something like X-Men or Buffy, all that worrying frequently obscures the basic joy of being able to do something that other people can’t. Superman doesn’t go to the park to play fetch with hi dog, he goes to the stars and rests on the moon.

Superman has that classic hero’s journey arc. Much like Luke Skywalker, he has to leave the family farm and go off into the big city. Unlike Luke Skywalker, his home wasn’t destroyed, so he can return back and imagine what could have been. Did he make the right choice in going to Metropolis and becoming a hero, or would it have been better to just say home and work on the farm. One of the strong things about the issue is that it makes it feel like a legitimate conundrum. Sitting in the diner with Lana, it seems like he would gladly stay there forever.

However, adventure calls and in a funny panel, Lana claims that he must be Superman. This is the opposite of what Lois Lane says, she is unable to believe that Clark could be Superman even after he says he is. Lana knows that Clark is. I’m not that familiar with Lana’s place in the Superman mythos, but just judging from this issue, she’d have known him growing up and would be more aware of how he felt developing the powers. So, she’d notice when Clark started acting weird, acting like Superman.

Superman then meets the Superman Squad. This is a concept that cropped up in Morrison’s JLA: One Million, which, if I recall correctly, also featured the Unknown Superman and Kal Kent. The Superman Squad is a cool concept for JLA, since that was a universe full of superpowered characters. However, here in All Star, I always got the impression that Superman was the only superhero. He does mention Batman, but we never see anyone else, and I feel like it undermines his specialness to have three other Supermen around.

The Chronovore is a cool concept, right in line with a lot of Morrison ideas. The idea that he turns “Farmer Stone’s cows into the hamburgers they were destined to become” is great, very Invisibles. But, the 5-D Superman is just annoying. So, it’s not all good.

What I like about the issue is the way it shows how far Superman has to go. He recklessly rushes in to show up Kal Kent and in the process misses his father’s final moments. One of the best panels is Superman rushing across the grass, screaming “I can save him! I can save everybody!” That sounds a bit like Anakin Skywalker, the hubris of the young hero with near unlimited power.

I suppose the thematic reason for combining the story of the Unknown Supermen with the death of Pa Kent was to force Superman to confront forces larger than him, and to grow up in the process. At the beginning of the issue, he’s happily bounding through the sky and meeting with childhood friends. By the end, he’s been shown up by the Superman Squad and also been rocked by death for the first time. He can’t save everyone and he recognizes that in the funeral scene.

I love the speech that Clark gives there, it’s exactly the sort of thing that Superman would say. However, this again positions Clark as a young man, I felt like he was older in the first issues of the series. The Superman who was faced with mortality in issue one felt more middle aged than this guy who seems barely into his twenties. I suppose he puts on a more mature approach as Superman, but reverts to a younger mentality when he’s back home.

The issue ends on a curious note, as we find out that the Unknown Superman is actually Clark himself. It’s interesting that the 5-D Superman says it took Jonathan Kent’s death to ensure that Superman left Smallville and moved out to the big city. He flirted with staying a child, but realized that he does have to grow up, and become something new.

The issue is quite ambitious, mixing a lot of elements. I think I see better now what Grant was trying to do, but it’s still tough to fit all these things together into a cohesive whole. I would have toned down the oddness of the Superman Squad a bit, but I think it works as a glimpse into Superman’s future. This is his legacy, but it’s also Jonathan Kent’s legacy, and Jonathan wouldn’t have wanted Clark to stay home. That’s why he hired help on the farm, he knew Clark was destined for something bigger and needed a little push out into the bigger world.

When the series first started, there was a strict division between Clark and Superman. It was represented in their physical appearance and characterization. I felt like Superman was the real guy and Clark was just a disguise. But, as the series has gone on, the line has blurred to the point that they’ve become one interdependent entity. The first issues presented a really iconic, chill Superman, but as they’ve gone on, we’ve gotten a bit more character development. I think he’s still true to the Superman that Morrison met, but his possible death has forced him to reassess things a bit.

I’m probably going to start following the series in singles, since the individual issues are essentially self contained and satisfying enough to bridge the gap between publication. So, I’ll be getting issue seven next time I’m at the comic store, then it’s time to wait for things to get rolling. In the meantime, I’ve been reading the first trade of 52, a review’s coming soon, but the quick summation is surprisingly good, and inexplicably addictive. It’s like the methadone to Seven Soldiers’ heroin.