Saturday, April 05, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: 'He That Believeth in Me' (4x01)

It’s been a long time since we saw a new episode of Battlestar Galactica. It was a relief to finally get the show back after a year, though I’m already dreading the six month break that will follow the end of this year’s run. Just air the show and get it done already. But, best not to dwell on that, instead it’s time to be happy that the show has returned, and is doing pretty well. This episode featured some really dazzling moments, but was mostly about maneuvering things into place for future storylines.

The highlight of the episode was the opening space battle, a trippy, hallucinatory experience. Most of the time visual effects are evaluated solely on verisimilitude, or scale. Transformers effects are lauded because they look real, but I feel like we’ve moved past simply replicating reality as a criterion for evaluation, we’re at an age where effects need to be evaluated as art, and these effects are incredible pieces of visual art. The streaking missile lines lingering in the sky, the masses of star and cloud matter, it’s all beautiful, a visual experience. By removing the usual focus on building tension during a battle and instead just sitting back for a more relaxed experience, we’re able to appreciate the art and wonder of it more.

After that, we’re back to more traditional storytelling, which is kind of hard to evaluate at this point. The tricky thing about series premieres is that they’ve got to work for people who haven’t seen the show in a year, and for people who just binged through season three on DVD and are eager for more. So, a scene like Apollo turning down the wings had me thinking oh yeah, Lee resigned and worked on Baltar’s trial. I was used to the status quo, of Lee as military guy, so I wasn’t even thinking this needed to be addressed. But, it’s the kind of thing that someone who’d just seen season three would be wondering about.

To that end, I think the episode suffers a bit because it needs to devote story time to exploring the fallout of Starbuck’s return and the revelation of the four when we’ve had a year to ponder this, and are ready to move on. I think it would have felt disingenuous to skip over Kara’s troubles, and I love a lot of the moments here, particularly when Kara roughs up Anders and the two guards to go after Roslin, but I also think the episode got a bit bogged down in dealing with the consequences of her return. This is the kind of story that might have benefited from a jump forward in time, so we would know that the characters dealt with the issue, but we don’t have to deal with a bunch of scenes that have the same inconclusiveness.

The same is true over on the final four side of the plot. We need to spend time with these people to see how they’re reacting, but at the same time, all the scenes are basically the same, echoes of what we saw in season three’s finale. Move too fast and you risk people saying, you’re not dealing with the character fallout, however, I think we needed something newer here. My favorite moment was Tigh hallucinating that he was shooting Adama, it was obviously a dream, but it was a great way to capture Tigh’s fears about what he could do. I’d like to have seen more of the subjective experience of fear, rather than just showing the characters looking at each other while other people talk.

The storyline that did work was Baltar’s trip to the cult. Baltar has long been one of my favorite characters on the show, and I love what they’re doing with his character here. The early highlight is the scene where Baltar talks to Six and they think he’s praying, but that’s topped by the fantastically devious “one god” scene. Baltar may think the people who captured him are a bunch of crazies, but y’know, as long as he’s there, he’s not going to turn them down.

The question this story brings back to the fore is, what’s going on with the Six who Baltar sees. Is it all a cylon plot to convert humanity to monotheism, or is he really seeing an emissary of God? Either way, I hope the cult of Baltar grows. I like Adama and Roslin at times, but I’d love to see Baltar show them up by winning over more and more minds on the ship.

So, this was a pretty solid episode that set things up, but other than those first ten minutes, isn’t that spectacular on its own. Still, there’s a lot of promise here, and the cinematography and acting on the show remains so good that even if there’s not too much going on, it’s still a joy to watch.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

John From Cincinnati Revisited

Yesterday, John From Cincinnati finally came out on DVD. The much maligned series has become something of a punchline since it aired. I’ve got a Google News Alert for the series, and will frequently get sent an article in which some new show is panned, with the only caveat being “at least it’s not as bad as John From Cincinnati.” So, I figure now is as good a time as any to tell people who haven’t seen the show that it’s one of the greatest TV series of all time, an intricately constructed world that builds and evolves over the course of ten episodes. It’s one of the most joyous series of all time, a unqiue mix of strange supernatural content and very real, gritty human emotion.

I watched the first episode tonight, and it holds up really well. The opening credits sequence is probably my favorite of any show. The building guitar line over those first shots of water leads us up above the waves in a mix of contemporary and classic imagery. And the big bang happens in there as well. Just hearing the song and seeing those images brought me back to the summer, to watching the show on Sunday nights, eagerly awaiting each episode.

My experience of watching the show paralleled what happened on it. I started out watching it alone, and got some other people hooked on it as it aired. So, a community built up around the show, and every Sunday, we’d be there to watch it. There are some works that define an era for me. Summer 2001 for me was playing wiffleball in the evening, then coming home to watch X-Files season three and read Sandman: The Kindly Ones. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of nights that this happened, but it’s come to represent the entire era in my mind.

Summer 2007 is wrapped up in JFC, and watching the show brings back a lot of good memories. I think the show is really about social gatherings, people coming together and building something, and that’s part of what makes me love it so much. Watching the first episode, it’s not quite what it will become. It’s weird to see people who aren’t cast regulars on the show, but at this point there are only about ten main characters, it’ll take a bit for the cast to double. But, the roots of most of what’s to come are in place, and there’s a lot of seeming non-sequiters that make a lot more sense once it’s clear where Milch is going.

Hopefully the DVD release will salvage the show’s reputation. Are we so close minded that this sort of magical realism, this spiritual storytelling has no place on TV? Realism’s great, but in a lot of ways this show feels more real to me than a lot of so called ‘realistic’ stuff. Everyone in the world actually lives in their own mind, they perceive things through a cloud of dreams and memories, and that’s why the supernatural flourishes in the show work for me. They externalize the mental trauma these people are carrying around. I’m reminded of something Grant Morrison said, that the reason he can relate to superhero comics is his problems feel huge, he feels like more like Superman battling a renegade sun than some guy dealing with some personal problems. Our problems feel huge to us, they feel of cosmic importance, and the ultimate message of the show seems to be that saving one person can save the world, even if that person is yourself.

As the show goes on, it takes on a trance like quality, mental and physical reality collapse on each other until they’re virtually indistinguishable. The best example of this is the legendary John speech in episode six, I remember the first time I saw it, I didn’t really get what was said, but I knew I’d witnessed something profound. And that’s what this show is, it’s a spiritual experience on film, and I’m so happy Milch had a chance to make it.