Friday, February 08, 2008

Farscape: 1x07-1x09

Farscape rages on with its best episode yet, and two of its weakest. That’s the peril of any show based around standalone episodes, you’re going to get duds in there, and it makes it tougher to watch the show. In the post Sopranos age, a standalone structure isn’t required, and it’s tough to return to those days. But, as long as we keep getting good episodes like “PK Tech Girl,” I’ll stick around.

That episode is easily the series’ best. It takes a kind of stock plot, the hero rescues a girl and falls in love with her. The episode works for two reasons, one is the way it brings out the tension in John and Aeryn’s relationship, the other is how it develops the world of the Peacekeepers. It’s been a while for John, as we found out a few episodes ago, and when he sees a pretty girl who likes him, he’s happy about it. Aeryn and John are clearly meant to be together eventually, but this does a good job of putting a twist in things. They’ve been in this sealed world, getting closer over the course of the episodes, and the intrusion of an outsider disrupts that.

The best scene of the episode is definitely Aeryn telling John that she found him interesting, struggling to find a way to convey her feelings. Of course, neither of them are ready to say how they really feel about each other. The relationship between them is right out of 30s screwball comedy, where the two characters are always at each other’s throats, but they’re getting closer and closer all the time. I can definitely relate to the way Aeryn feels there, and it’s certainly the most emotional episode of the series. I particularly like the crazy strobing lights on the ship, which heighten the tension.

Gilina herself is a pretty compelling character, and a nice contrast to the more world weary Aeryn. I was sad to see her go at the end. It’s the same as the Karen/Pam situation on The Office, because we care about all the people involved, it makes the love triangle more engaging.

This episode also featured a great subplot with Rygel, and his memories of his time on the Peacekeeper ship. Rygel is in a lot of ways the most complex character on the show, struggling to deal with the pain in his past while keeping the appearances of a cool, collected leader. He won’t admit how far he’s fallen, even though he clearly knows it. And, the interrogator guy was pretty freaky looking.

The episode after this on paper looks great. We get back to the show’s ‘mythology’ and see Crais and Crichton clash for the first time against the backdrop of a surreal wizard’s nightmare world. Unfortunately, the surreal nightmare world feels very much like a bunch of sets, and the Crais/Crichton conflict doesn’t work for me. The reason is Crais’s hatred of Crichton is irrational. I can understand why he’d be mad, but we have no real context for understanding Crais’s feelings, no real understanding of the man. Those flashbacks here were probably supposed to do that, but just knowing a guy had a tough childhood doesn’t make his reckless pursuit of Crichton make any more sense.

The best moments on The Wire or Babylon 5 came when we cared deeply about both the heroes and the villains. When the Narn/Centauri fought or when the detail pursued Avon, I wanted everyone to come out okay, even though that wasn’t possible. Here, there’s no conflict, just a misguided guy bothering our hero. Maybe Crais will develop as time passes, but here, he’s not doing much for me. And, I think they could have done a lot more with the dreamspace where we spent most of the episode.

‘DNA Mad Scientist’ was another dud. What threw me here was the sudden, complete change in all the characters’ behavior, Zhaan in particular. I didn’t know everyone so desperately wanted to get home, so the decision to cut off pilot’s arm comes out of nowhere. This was an episode where they decided to go in without exposition and just cut straight to the story, but not having that exposition meant the character arcs didn’t make sense. It seemed like all the characters were under the influence of some strange drug, with their juvenile scheming.

Along with this, the whole Aeryn turns into weird beast storyline was classic standalone stuff, where we know she’ll be fixed by the end, and it’s just a matter of getting there. I did enjoy the weird Lovecrafty vibe when she was behind the curtain, it reminded me of the Shoggoth from The Invisibles, but other than that, there wasn’t much of note in this episode.

So, hopefully things will turn around a bit in the next set of episodes. I loved ‘PK Tech Girl,’ but since then, things have been a bit off. Any show’s going to have some duds, but it’s frustrating to watch them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Wire: 'The Dickensian Aspect' (5x06)

“The Dickensian Aspect,” like much of the season, is simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. The best aspects revolve around the increasingly desperate Omar struggling to make some kind of a strike back against Omar, while the weak elements once again revolve around Scott and his antics over at the Sun.

The thing that really bothers me about Scott’s storyline is it doesn’t feel vital to our world. I’m sure there’s people out there making stuff up in newspapers, but isn’t the bigger problem what they are reporting from reality, not what’s being made up? The New York Times’ greatest failure in the past few years wasn’t the whole Jayson Blair thing, it was their failure to question Bush during the buildup to the war in Iraq.

Along those lines, I think Alma would have been a better focus for the season. The strongest parts of the newspaper storyline were about her initial idealism clashing with the reality of what the business is. People don’t care about the very real murder of three people in their house, but they love this serial killer stuff. Why don’t we see her questioning these values at all, or at least deal with her dealing with this stuff? What we’re seeing is the same transfer of priorities that’s happening over at the police department, real murders being bumped out for the fake ones.

Scott himself remains a rather one dimensional guy. The notion that his Iraq War veteran story was less overwritten, felt more real, was way too head on. We get it, Scott was a bad journalist, and doing the right thing feels good. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in a scene where Whiting says that the veteran piece could have used a little of Scott’s usual magic just to hammer home the point.

Whiting isn’t necessarily a more uniformly bureaucratic, destructive character than a Clay Davis or Rawls, what makes him a problem is that he’s so boring to watch. Clay Davis and Rawls clearly love what they do, and we can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. The reason people forgive some of the craziness in the Omar storyline is that it’s a joy to watch, Whiting is always boring, so the problems with the character come to the fore. Increasingly, I feel like the newspaper storyline was mishandled. With only ten episodes, it was going to be tough to pull off, and I don’t think Simon took it in the best direction by focusing on this chronically fabricating guy when there’s a lot more real problems out there with the way newspapers operate. Watching the Carcetti storyline in seasons three and four, it was easy to see how someone with good intentions could run awry and wind up a part of the system. There’s none of that complexity with the higher ups at the paper.

Plus, with the exception of the Daniels quote story, they haven’t taken advantage of our split perspective to show the way the newspaper’s agenda and the police or city hall agenda run into conflict. What made the first season so brilliant was I simultaneously wanted them to catch Avon and wanted Avon to avoid capture, I don’t get that conflicted feeling watching this because the newspaper gang isn’t emotionally engaging. I don’t care about what happens to any of the characters. Now, maybe things will turn around in the last few episodes, but right now, the storyline’s going to have to kick its game up to match even the port storyline.

Along with that, I’m finding the serial killer storyline a bit exhausting, though it’s starting to hit hard, and I think it’ll end strong. It’s hard to watch McNulty and Lester so thoroughly destroy themselves on this crusade against the system, putting their careers and lives on the line to get Marlo. The point that this episode makes is it’s not about Marlo, it’s about sticking it to their bosses. Both of them have a chronic desire to rebel, to show they’re better than the authority figures lording over them, and they’d gladly martyr themselves rather than do police work under the conditions handed down by City Hall.

What makes this episode effective is the contrast between what Bunk’s doing and what Lester and McNulty are doing. Lester and McNulty spend all their time perpetuating the swindle, and have made very little progress on Marlo. I think that all hits home for McNulty when he takes the homeless man to the shelter and sees just how bad things really are. These are the people he’s exploiting. He thought that no one would care about some homeless bodies, but looking at the guy, he realizes that they are people, and is it worth desecrating those bodies to get a wire tap on Marlo? I think the whole thing is going to come crashing down soon, not necessarily because they’ll be found out, but because McNulty will recognize that Lester is on an endless quest. Getting Marlo won’t mean anything, he’s certainly not worth sacrificing their lives for.

This is all in contrast to Bunk, who’s making real progress on the bodies in the vacants. Bunk is the star of the season for me. Normally relegated to comic relief, he was a character I loved, but didn’t seem that essential to the show. Here, he’s the voice of reason, the guy who thinks that it’s still possible to do things by the book and get results. He’s a murder police, so he’s going to work those murders. This is bringing him into contact with the gang of kids from season four, and setting up some potentially incredible, and sad stories.

Already, we’ve got the great scene with Randy. Bunk knows that Randy has the information he needs, but after what Herc did, it would be foolish for Randy to talk to him. The kid has changed, he’s grown tough to protect himself in the group home. The person we knew last season is dead, and it feels ridiculous when Bunk threatens him with time, he’s already in juvie. I doubt we’ll be seeing Randy again, and it’s sad to think this is how it all ends up for him. Herc may get revenge for his camera by busting Marlo, but that same camera led Randy down this path. If anything, it only makes the scene where Carver is taunted by Randy at the end of “That’s Got His Own” even more haunting. It all goes back to that fucking camera.

Michael’s mother provides a better lead. Here, we see the complex web of interactions that will potentially bring Marlo down. Michael rejected his mom after she bailed him out, making her more open to talking to the police. Bunk knows Chris and Snoop did the murders, and now he’s got another one to tie to them. It’s ironic that the one potentially justifiable murder in the whole bunch will be the one that could bring them down. It’s emotion that gets people into problems in crime, that makes them do stupid things, and that murder may be what dooms Chris. I’d love to see Bunk bust Marlo and his gang using traditional police methods instead of McNulty using his serial killer.

I’m not sure what kind of message that sends though. Simon is fond of saying the system is broken, so why should Bunk working things through the system help him succeed? I’d argue that Simon has always valued individual action. People like Colvin and Stringer can achieve their own goals within restrictive systems through individual action. That’s what Bunk is doing, he’s working as hard as he can to succeed in spite of the system, not because of it. McNulty is actually more controlled by the system than Bunk. He’s going through this whole serial killer charade to stick it to the man, whereas Lester’s one day of spying on the lot earlier in the season got them more information than all this.

A scene I really loved was Carcetti’s speech about homelessness. It calls back to the last episode of season three, where Carcetti gives an inspiring speech about changing things, right after shutting down Hamsterdam. We’ve all seen these speeches, and it’s harrowing to realize it’s all a lie. Carcetti isn’t doing all he can, he’s doing the exact same thing as before, but he made the media believe in him. Watching that speech, I could see how Carcetti could become governor. He’s electrifying, even if it’s all a lie. That’s what McNulty doesn’t understand, the bosses only have to keep up appearances, they don’t really need to fight crime any differently.

Elsewhere, Omar takes the fight to Marlo’s people after surviving some “Spider-Man shit.” The man is battered, barely able to walk, but he’s still calling Marlo a bitch. Omar has watched his entire world torn apart, all his enemies killed, and he’s got nothing left. I’m not exactly sure what his goal is, is he going to kill Marlo’s whole organization? Either way, it’s harrowing to watch him strike such a well equipped foe. There’s such desperation in everything he does, and I’m really not sure how he’s going to be able to defeat Marlo.

Marlo completes his corporate takeover of the drug game, shutting down the co-op and raising the price on the good drugs. I’d like to think that Marlo’s hubris will set up his fall, but it’s hard to say. Certainly corporate America has been taken over by people like Marlo, but I think he’s just done too many bad things to survive the series. Someone’s going to want revenge. Slim Charles is still in play, he may tip off Omar.

I’ll admit it’s tough to watch this show on a weekly basis. The episodes are dense, but I always need a bit more when it ends. This was a really good episode, and I’m sure it will play well on DVD, but as all The Wire I’ll get for the week, I always want a bit more. I’ve noticed when I rewatch an episode, it always plays a lot better, I think it’s because I know what to expect, and can appreciate what we have, rather than just waiting to see what will happen next. There’s a huge difference between finishing an episode and knowing you can watch the next one whenever you want, versus finishing an episode and having to wait a week.

And, the show’s lost a lot of my favorite characters. Stringer and Bodie are dead, Colvin’s MIA, Cutty’s barely been on, the Bubbles we knew is essentially gone. They were all incredible presences, and it’s hard for the show to be the same without them. There’s a ton of great people left, but you can’t help but miss what’s not there.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Grant Morrison's The Authority #1-2

I read the first Warren Ellis Authority trade back in 2002 or so, when the series was sputtering to the end of its controversial first run. It was clearly mismanaged along the way, but the original book had enough power to keep the property viable to the present, and pave the way for a Morrison relaunch of the series back in 2006. I didn’t think much of the Ellis stuff, the characters weren’t well developed, it was all just empty spectacle. Now, I suppose that was the point of the run, but at the time, I just wasn’t feeling it. I wanted to read Stormwatch and then read the Authority run again, but I couldn’t make it through Stormwatch, so I still haven’t read it. But, one day I’ll catch up, primarily because I want to read the Frank Quitely issues.

The Grant Morrison Authority was one of the most disastrous crash and burn launches in the recent history of comics. It baffles me that a company would put out a relaunch of its flagship title with only one issue in the can. Could you imagine David Chase doing a new TV show, coming out with one episode and then saying, hold on, you’ll have to wait six months for the next episode? It just wouldn’t happen, and it’s sad that comics can’t get the professionalism to get a bunch of issues in the can before putting something out. I can understand doing a bi-monthly schedule, or even the very sporadic All Star Superman release schedule, but there’s no excuse for coming out with two issues of a book, six months apart, then leaving it in limbo for over a year.

Knowing it’d probably be years before the Morrison Authority got collected, I decided to pick up the first two issues of his run. I don’t feel cheated, I think that each issue has enough interesting stuff to be worth reading, however, I do wish he got to continue the run because it’s more interesting to me than what he’s doing over with Batman, and the Gene Ha art is really nice. Batman is a fun, kind of throwaway work, this book seems to be closer to the core of his superhero work, making literal one of themes inherent in much of his other work, the idea that superhero comics provide a model for humanity as they evolve forward.

Issue one got lot of flack from the internet audience, but I really enjoyed it. It would play best in a TPB, where its laid back, reality-based stuff would set the stage for the insanity to follow. As a single issue, it’s a bit frustrating, with some very slack pacing. There’s no need for that many splash pages. What makes the issue work for me is the deep compassion Morrison has for the Ken and Joan. The use of close-ups throughout the panels focuses us on the boring morning routine, and the characters’ body language, rather than facial expressions, conveys the personal drama. Morrison does a fantastic job of capturing the frustrations of everyday, and making you believe in these characters. Those few pages are so good, they make me forgive the fact that very little else happens in the issue.

The purpose of the first issue to set up what this reality is, what our world is. The murky colors, boring routine, that’s what we face, it’s not what comic book characters face. Morrison’s pitch for the series was essentially “The Authority can save the world, but can they save your marriage?” It’s an interesting question because it brings up the issue of what a utopia is. Can we really make everyone happy? Even if you have everything that money can buy, are you emotionally satisfied? Ken here seems to be doing as well as anyone in the world, but he’s so distant from his wife.

Morrison frequently discusses the way that he turns his personal demons into foes for his superheroes to battle. The Invisibles featured a lot of hypersigils for his personal life, and many of his JLA villains were incarnations of the problems he was dealing with at the time. That’s part of what makes his work so much more effective than other writer’s sci-fi stories, his best work is barely non-fiction, it’s a colliding bunch of realities in which the emotions and concepts are from reality, but filtered through the tropes of the genre.

So, it’s interesting to see him put The Authority characters into our world, and reverse that genre filtering. Rather than turning our world into theirs, he’s extracting the superhero characters from their universe and putting them in our boring one. This story basically picks up where his JLA: Classified arc ended, with the Ultramarines inserted into our reality, with the mission to change it. I’ve read a lot of superheroes in reality storylines, but I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this, where the superheroes from the comic literally land in our world.

One of my favorite scenes in the issue is The Doctor and Jack’s trip to Forbidden Planet in Union Square to pick up their own TPB. This is the same store where I met Grant himself back in 2006, so it’s a delirious mix of realities bending on each other. I really like the notion that these characters do exist in a parallel reality, and the only way we’re able to see through to it is through fiction. It’s like the act of telling stories is a means of traveling to other dimensions, not unlike the Authority’s own travel through the bleed. This ties into Grant’s notion of the DCU becoming sentient, if they were powerful enough, perhaps the characters could pass through into our world.

Midnighter decides that he wants to intervene in this world and solve all its problems. That was the basic appeal of The Authority in its day, the notion that these heroes actually changed the world and didn’t just fight back against villains. But, the essential question of the series seems to be, will our world let it change? And, even if you remove all those big problems, you’ve still got people like Ken, who have personal issues that can’t be solved with guns. I think it’s a great premise for a series, something new and fresh, and I’d have loved to see it continue.

However, that doesn’t look like it’ll be happening, in the near future at least. So, these issues stand as a potentially great, unfinished work. I really do love the look and feel of Morrison’s Authority character. They feel alien and offputting, but intriguing. I don’t think this would have been one of his all time classic series, but I do wish it got a chance to run its course.