Saturday, November 10, 2007

The X-Files: Season One Reflections

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been rewatching The X-Files, up through “Eve” now. The series was my favorite show when it was on, and the first TV show I really got into. However, the past two seasons really soured me on it, and obscured a lot of the good stuff that had come before. Watching it today, after seeing shows that were much more consistently successful, I think it’s a little easier to accept the show’s flaws and just appreciate it for what it is.

The show’s greatest strength, from start to finish, was the incredible chemistry between Mulder and Scully. Pretty much any episode with the two of them together has at least a couple of moments of interest. “The Jersey Devil” has a main plot that’s frankly embarrassing, but the subplot with Scully going on a date, and Mulder’s implicit jealousy, makes it worth watching. Late in the series, people might have gotten mad about their romantic entanglement, but right from the start, the show is a story of these two people who have only each other and their work. An interesting story to do would have been an alternate timeline where Mulder never met Scully and wound up either arrested or insane. Scully is his anchor, keeping him from drifting off, and Mulder helps pull her out of a narrow minded acceptance of the system into new ideas and concepts.

The series has an overarching central narrative, but that’s not in place in season one. So, the ongoing narrative arc is the strengthening of Mulder and Scully’s relationship. An episode like “Ice” tells a strong standalone story, but the scene that lingers is the moment where Scully checks Mulder for bugs. I skipped over a couple episodes that I remember as being bad, but through the episodes I watched, there is a clear progression in their relationship.

After 9/11, people said that the government conspiracy ethos of The X-Files was no longer relevant, that the government was good then. Obviously, it wasn’t, and watching the show today, trust no one is more apt than ever. I think a lot of people have issues understanding the way that genre and reality interact, particularly with sci-fi. There’s this feeling that a movie like Good Night and Good Luck can say a lot about our world, but a sci-fi show or comic can’t. For me, genre magnifies the conflicts inherent in reality, and gives us a better understanding of the stakes.

Take a look at Jack Kirby’s brilliant Glorious Godfrey story in The Forever People. That’s a powerful condemnation of the fascistic qualities of the religious right, but most people would just view it as goofy seventies comics. In the same way, I think it’s easy to dismiss the delusional military personnel and omnipresent men in black as relics of 90s paranoid culture. But, the emphasis on an ephemeral truth is perfectly analogous with what Bush has done to our world. Aliens might not be involved, but his government has covered up the truth whenever possible. Who knows what they’re doing that we haven’t heard about yet?

But, reality has shown things in a slightly different light than what the series reveals. Here, the truth is seen as something that can save people if they just find out about it. It’s a weapon that can be used against the government conspiracy. However, what reality shows is that people don’t care about the truth, we can hear about Guantanimo Bay, but we’re so powerless to do anything about it, caring about it seems almost counterproductive. Beyond that, we’ve got presidential candidates actually saying that the torture done there should be continued! That is so hard for me to believe, but Bush has shaped an us vs. them reality and created a war that can never be won. It’s a real tragedy, he has warped the truth, the very weapon that here is Mulder’s salvation.

Yes, there’s an element of quaintness when Max Fennig pops up talking about the JFK assassination. Notably, society has completely marginalized 9/11 conspiracy theory. I’m not saying that Bush attacked the towers, but I don’t think it’s so absurd to not be discussed at all, considering the attack allowed him to enact all the policy he wanted to. But, in this case, the origin of 9/11 is less important than what he did in its wake, and that’s just as evil, if not more so, as the act itself.

I always loved the government conspiracy stuff more than anything else on the series, and it’s those episodes that still resonate. The Litchfield Experiment in “Eve” is fascinating, and believable. “Fallen Angel” is another strong episode, a prototype for the larger mythology episodes to come. I really want to get to those classic mytharc two parters, but for now, I’m just enjoying the standalone stories. The show could have been so much more if guided by someone like Joss Whedon or David Simon, but as is, it’s still consistently enjoyable and frequently thought provoking. At its best, the series is as good as anything that ever aired on TV. But, it was rarely at its best, and certainly wasn’t there in these early season one episodes.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

X-Men: Messiah Complex: Chapter Two (Uncanny X-Men 492)

Chapter two spends a disconcerting amount of time recapping the storyline from part one. I suppose the point of the news report stuff is to show the extent of the devastation in Alaska, but we already saw that last week, so there’s no particular need for it. I would argue that this issue and the prelude could have been combined into one 30 page issue to speed the story along. But, I suppose it’s a 13-part crossover, so it’s going to take a while to maneuver everything into place.

What’s most interesting about this issue for me isn’t the story itself, as I mentioned, basically nothing happened, it’s looking at the way that Morrison’s run and other previous X-Men stuff has been synthesized to build the current status quo. X-Men itself is an evolving concept, a title that has been through many permutations, each new one taking elements of what’s come before and combining them into something new. I actually really like where the series is now. Despite the awfulness of House of M, the shortage of mutants has given the characters a new focus and gives an urgency to this storyline.

But, this status quo is ultimately counter productive to the thematic agenda of the series as a whole. Morrison redefined the characters and concepts in a way that was more dynamic and real than they’d ever been before. His run was all about examining the way that evolved humans would be perceived in the real world. They would certainly be hated by some, but would likely be at the center of culture, and that’s what he did to them. His X-Men were cool, an aspirational model for humanity. It was a more relatable model than the dying race we’ve got here.

But, I’m hoping this storyline will eventually bring us to the rebirth of mutant culture, it’s one of the rare cases where a giant reset button would be appreciated. Does Layla Miller have a superhero name yet? If so, I hope it’s Deus ex machina, but in this case, maybe her and Forge can make something to bring the powers back.

As for the story itself, our primary focus is the conflict between Scott and Xavier. Scott has grown up and taken control of the team, something that makes Xavier feel superfluous. I think this is an effective storyline because it takes advantage of Scott’s relationship with Emma Frost. She is his go to telepath now, and is willing to do things that Xavier isn’t. I love that Scott and Emma are still together, though neither are written as well as they were by Claremont or Morrison.

So, this issue isn’t exactly great, but it’s got enough interesting stuff to keep me reading. I’m eager to get to Sinister himself, and figure out what’s going on with him and his crew.

The Wire: 2x03-2x09

The Wire’s first season is pretty close to a perfect season, telling its story and ending in a satisfying way. However, either imprisoning or killing most of the street characters, and splitting the detail up left them with some work to do to get things rolling again in season two. The second season is quite ambitious, and still immensely satisfying, but also runs into some issues that weren’t present in season one.

The major issue for me is simply the divided focus. I think it was smart to expand the focus and not just retread the cops vs. drug dealers storyline of the first season. If you keep Avon around, we’ve got the same basic conflict and not much room for the story to grow. However, this brings us to a catch 22. I loved the characters in the street storyline, so even though I think the focus needs to change for the series’ overall health, in changing the focus, we lose touch with much of what made the series successful in the first place. Particularly with all the major police characters splintered apart, I found myself wanting to spend more time with Stringer, Bodie and the other characters from that storyline.

Instead, we spend a lot of time with the dock workers. Those characters have grown on me a bit, but still don’t feel as fully realized as the characters on the street in season one. Part of it is that I find the milieu, the heavy drinking blue collar lifestyle, less interesting than the disciplined business world of the street characters. Avon and Stringer were a worthy foe, and you got the sense that they could outwit the police. Frank Sobotka is a tragic character because he’s merely a pawn in a much larger criminal enterprise.

Now, you could argue that’s true of the drug dealers too, something made explicit in D’Angelo’s speech over the chess board. But, it’s tough to watch the inevitable oncoming tragedy for Sobotka. Even if he beats the cops, the port is on the way out, his lifestyle is on the way out, and that’s driving Nick into drug dealing in the same way that the project kids get pushed there. Thematically, the storyline expands the series’ scope considerably. We get the absurdity of these struggling people paying thousands of dollars to politicians to try to preserve their jobs. Watching this series makes you astonished that anything good happens in American politics because the entire system seems to be motivated by people paying politicians off to pursue their own interests. Sobotka is driven to illegal activity because he needs to pay off the politicians to save his job. Shouldn’t they just be looking out for him in the first place?

I actually like Frank and Nick, but the other characters are annoying. Ziggy’s unhinged self bothers me, though I did enjoy his duck plot. The other characters aren’t as well realized as the minor street characters, they seem to exist more in the service of the plot than just exist because they’re there.

But, my issues with the port plot are primarily because the other plots are so much more interesting. On another show, this port stuff would be the best thing, but it pales next to the riveting drama surrounding Avon’s crew. Placed in more of a leadership role, Stringer has become my favorite character on the series. The switch from strip club to funeral home for his headquarters is appropriate because, as he says, he’s not a soldier like Avon, he’s a businessman. He’s clearly got an aptitude for economics, and I love when he applies what he learns in class to his drug business.

Stringer’s conflict in guiding his organization is between being a soldier and being a businessman. Is it more important to have the towers but no product, or to deal with Proposition Joe and lose some of his territory? Avon is stubborn and won’t concede their need to ally with Joe. Stringer is more of a pragmatist. There’s a lot of conflict brewing between Avon and Stringer, with Brianna in the middle. They’ve already set up a way for Avon to get out of prison, and I’m guessing that next season will deal with Stringer struggling to give up power after Avon’s return. Can Avon run things better than he is? Probably not, but can he shut Avon out of the organization that he started?

One of the most shocking developments for me was D’Angelo’s death. Arguably the main character on the drug side of things, I was wondering how they’d get out of the corner they’d written him into. When he started to get choked, I was shocked, and as time passed, I realized he wasn’t going to get out of it. It does make sense from a storytelling perspective, but it’s cold. D was our best hope among those characters, and now, he’s gone. Now he’ll never know the difference between Ultimate Spider-Man and regular.

Over with the police, we finally reunite the detail. A lot of shows, like The X-Files and Friday Night Lights, like to mess with the status quo at the end of season one, leading to the inevitable slide back to what things before. It makes a lot more sense to have the detail together, and thankfully they’ve made it permanent so we won’t have to deal with the split. What I loved about the first season was watching the team work together, watching everyone find what they could contribute to the whole. They’re not quite running at full strength yet, but the brothel sting was a really fun mission. There’s actually a lot more humor this season, and it’s all the funnier because of the show’s usual seriousness.

So, the series is still going strong. The economy of the storytelling is dazzling and the writing still humbling. In Russell, we’ve got another fully realized, compelling character. My only major issue now is that the port storyline isn’t as interesting as the drug stuff. I’m guessing that will be a season two only thing, so it shouldn’t be a problem for too much longer.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

House of M

I just finished reading Brian Bendis’s House of M, a storyline that had a major impact on the universe of the X-Men, but also managed to be one of the most poorly structured, logically unsound and outright boring crossovers in comics history. This I so misguided on many levels, it’s hard to even consider.

My major issue with the story is that it’s inherently pointless, because we know that the world is going to get reset by the end of it. Now, it’s true that the characters remember what happened, and there’s a couple of major lasting consequences, but really, the whole crossover winds up being about one moment. There’s six issues of messing around, then about ten pages of stuff that’s actually interesting, with Wanda and Pietro, then the story just ends.

Bendis must be a pagan because we’ve got so many gods in the machine in the story. The biggest, and most interesting, is Wanda. I think they could have done a fantastic story about Wanda’s reality warping powers going out of whack, forcing the heroes to question what they’re doing. The best scene in the book is the opening, where Wanda invents fictional children for herself and Xavier has to remind her they’re not real. In the beginning, she seems totally on the verge of losing it, and there’s a lot of potential in exploring how you deal with someone who’s so incredibly powerful, and completely out of control.

That’s what we get in the first issue, and that stuff’s not bad. However, it quickly is replaced by yet another alternate reality. Claremont’s original Days of Future Past was brilliant, but it’s opened a lot of awful doors for later writers. At this point, ten years after Age of Apocalypse, did we really need another extended trip to an alternate reality? I don’t think so, certainly not one as boring as this. While it’s admirable that we don’t have yet another fascist dystopia that ends with all our heroes dying, making a relatively ordinary world doesn’t produce the most interesting stories. We basically spend five issues following Wolverine around as central deus ex machina Layla resets peoples’ memories. The problem with this is I have no reason to care that people are being reset, I know what’s ‘real’ to them, and after seeing one person reset, we don’t gain anything from the rest of those scenes.

The big issue for me with the story as is is the fact that Wolverine so vehemently shoots down the idea that maybe they should leave things as they are. What’s so wrong with a world where everyone has what they want? In most stories like this, we get the implication that to continue to live this way would be a lie, a betrayal of some innate idea of reality. However, if Wanda can give everyone the world that they want, wouldn’t be it a betrayal to deprive them of that? A mutant powerful enough could make everyone happy, wouldn’t that be enough?

Of course, that would mean no more interesting stories. However, you could make a pretty interesting story if there was a real conflict between people who wanted to preserve the House of M world versus those who need to get back to reality.

As it is, the story is so devoid of moral or thematic complexity, it’s hard to believe. The most interesting character, the focus of the entire thing, is Wanda. She’s got a lot of issues to deal with, how does she live in this perfect world she’s created, the only one, other than Pietro, who’s aware that it’s a lie? It would be more interesting to have her knowledge of reality conflict with everyone else’s happiness, that she could make the perfect world for everyone else, but never herself.

That’s not what we get. Instead, Wanda doesn’t appear in the House of M world until issue 7, and we get very little insight into her motivations or psychosis. I think the most interesting story you could spin out of this would be to make the House of M universe a completely irrational, unsteady universe. I’m not clear on how her powers work, but is she mentally supporting the entire rewritten universe. I think it’d be more interesting if her changes were eroding, and the heroes found themselves struggling to save the universe from imploding on itself.

Of course, this crossover isn’t particularly interested in that sort of cosmic stuff. Great crossovers have been made out of character stuff, Mutant Massacre for one. However, if you want to explore characters, rewriting the entire universe to remove the central issue of the crossover isn’t the best way to do it. I guess the point was to show people what they could have been, but that’s only dealt with in Spiderman’s story. And, maybe it’s just a bias of my own reading, but it’s very weird to have Spiderman hanging out with the X-Men. I think the X-Men make a lot more sense in a world without other superheroes, it’s not good to have the other corners of the Marvel Universe intrude on them.

The reason I’d call this the worst of the major X events is primarily because it’s boring. Say what you will about X-Tinction Agenda or X-Cutioner’s Song, they were brimming with ideas, characters and craziness. You’re overwhelmed with characters and storylines, it may be hard to follow, but it’s trying for something big. Here, everything happens in a linear way, and there’s no real conflict anywhere in the story. There’s no particular urgency either, because if you could remake the world once, you can remake it again. Is it a better story than some of those early 90s crossovers? Yes, but it’s less entertaining.

And, I’m confused about why everyone thinks Magneto made this reality. They just assumed, but I always figured it was Wanda herself. The major twist seems to be that Pietro was the one who told her to, but I just kind of assumed he did, in light of what we saw in issue one. Admittedly, I knew about no more mutants before hand, but your story shouldn’t have just one twist. Really, this entire book was about that one page.

As for “No more mutants,” I think it’s pretty foolish to do this story as a result of an alternate reality. With each alternate reality, the credibility of your characters declines, and having such a major plot point come out of this one raises the question of why you couldn’t just alter reality again to change things back. Alternate realities remove characters’ agency, in this story, no one makes any choices, they just go along doing stuff. And, the no more mutants thing is undermined by the fact that so many of the characters we know still have their powers. That was an appalling plot point, and I need discuss it no further.

I did enjoy a couple of things. Dr. Strange was pretty awesome, and I’d love to read some more stories with him. The scenes with him and Wanda are easily the best part of the book. However, it really bothers me that Wanda’s entire arc is motivated by desire to have children, a bit cliché for a female character.

Bendis, how much did Marvel pay for your soul? I hope it was worth it. His work on Jinx and Goldfish was amazing, his early Marvel work was pretty good, but why are you jobbing to Joe Quesada’s editorial whims? Do some creator owned work again, and stay away from big crossovers like this. This isn’t the worst X-Men story out there, but it’s bad in a different way than most.

Compared to its DC counterpart, Infinite Crisis, there’s no contest. Crisis was full of crazy ideas, fun concepts and real world changing stuff. This, just another pointless alternate reality exercise in the service of an editorial mandate.