Friday, December 06, 2019

Notes From the Streamapocalypse

Until last month, 2019 felt like a year in which popular culture was winding itself down.  What seems like an abnormal number of shows, including juggernauts like Game of Thrones, wrapped up their stories, while others were cancelled.  Collaborations like the Netflix MCU were brought to an abrupt end.  Everywhere there was a feeling of holding one's breath, clearing the decks in preparation for the coming onslaught.  And then, a few weeks ago, that deluge arrived with the launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+, two new streaming platforms seeking to directly challenge Netflix and Amazon for primacy in a field that already feels hopelessly crowded and balkanized.  Scripted TV is only one front in that fight (Disney+, for example, can afford to launch with only one original scripted series because it has such an enormous back-catalog to boast of, whereas Apple+ is scrambling to measure up with four new scripted series, and more to come).  But it's the one I find most interesting.  Overall, my verdict is that all of these shows are ambitious, and a few are interesting, but none of them are truly great (and all suffer from the besetting flaw of streaming TV, of working better at a binge, which obscures annoying tics and makes the plot seem to flow better, than in weekly installments).  If this is the future of television, my reaction to it is decidedly qualified, with a few sprinklings of hope.
  • See - You have to respect a series that realizes its premise requires some major suspension of disbelief, and, instead of trying to ease the audience into it, just throws them over a cliff.  After a title card informing us that a virus has decimated the Earth's population and left the survivors blind--an affliction that has been passed down a dozen generations, until the very concept of sight seems fantastical--See immediately drops us into a battle scene, between two armies that can only sense each other using sound, smell, touch, and taste.  It's never entirely convincing--you can believe that human society would survive the loss of the sense of sight, but not in the standard form of post-industrial tribes conducting quasi-medieval battles.  But you can't help but respect the show's commitment to its high concept, and the obvious thought that has gone into imagining how a society like this would function.  So yes, there are questions the show won't address--such as who laid out the neat and orderly rows of the village in which our hero, Baba Voss (Jason Momoa), lives, or how everyone could be wearing animals products like wool and leather.  But if you accept that as the buy-in--if you accept, in other words, that being sightless is the norm for these characters, and that like any other living being they have adjusted their way of life to the senses they have--then it is quite neat to see the tricks the show's writers have come up with to make that life seem practical and possible.  These range from the simple (probably variations on techniques that blind people today use) like characters snapping their fingers or making some vocalization to announce their presence, or writing on one another's palms as a form of silent communication, to invented social structures and roles, such as the revelation that some people are so skilled at moving soundlessly that they become hired spies, able to eavesdrop on anyone simply by standing next to them undectected.

    That cognitive dissonance is one of See's chief pleasures, but also one of its challenges.  It can be hard to put yourself in the characters' heads--you are, after all, watching a visual presentation about people for whom the visual plays no role in their lives.  When Baba Voss, for example, enters a room where his son is being held captive, the audience will momentarily assume that he knows his quest has succeeded, before being reminded that the son has to vocally announce his presence to his father.  Before long, however, the characters themselves begin to develop an awareness of this gap.  The show opens with Baba Voss's wife Maghra (Hera Hilmar) giving birth to twins, whom the viewer can see are sighted.  Maghra came to the village already pregnant, and the twins' father, the fugitive Jerlamarel (Joshua Henry), stuns Baba Voss and the village wisewoman Paris (Alfre Woodard) by committing feats such as building a bridge across a ravine, or killing a bear with a bow and arrow, achievements that to them seem magical.  As the twins grow older, the show's scheme becomes clearer--this is a superhero story in which nobody has superpowers.  It's just that in a world constructed without any consideration of vision, the sighted Kofun (Archie Madekwe) and Haniwa (Nesta Cooper) can cut through the established rules of their society without even thinking about it--the kidnapped Kofun, for example, writes a message for Haniwa when his captors stop for a rest, knowing that only she will see and understand it.

    Whereas most superhero shows implicitly treat the audience like normies, awed by the hero's powers, See has us identify with the superpowered beings, for whom remarkable feats are so natural that they can't help committing them.  By the same token, though the villains of the show, the evil Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks) and her witchfinder, Tamacti Jun (Christian Camargo), insist that they are pursuing Jerlamarel and his children for spreading the heretical notion of sight, it only takes a few instances of Kofun and Haniwa easily evading their grasp to make the point that their real concern is much more prosaic.  Sight represents an existential threat to the power structures of the show's world--a point that other superhero stories have made in the past, but which here is understood much more viscerally because we share the same superpower.

    None of this would matter, of course, if See wasn't also an entertaining story.  The plot moves along at a brisk clip, bouncing the characters from one peril to another as they evade Tamacti Jun's pursuit and travel towards Jerlamarel's promised land, with periodic fight scenes that are all the more effective for how they depict and take advantage of the characters' blindness.  But See also knows how to give the characters room to be themselves.  Momoa, in particular, is a delight precisely because of his willingness to cede the center stage.  Though a fearsome warrior and respected leader, his character is ultimately an enabler of other people's heroism (not just the children, but also Maghra, who turns out to have connection to the seat of power, and plans of her own).  He struggles with the knowledge that his children have so completely outstripped him that they can't help but condescend to him, and that for all that they love him, their biological father will always have a connection with and a hold on them that he never could.  It's a portrait of masculinity that one doesn't often see, especially in action storytelling--a hero who knows that he is outmatched, but who is determined to do his part nonetheless.  Kofun and Haniwa's stories are more conventional--they face the call to adventure, and worry about the power over others that their sightedness confers on them.  But the show is willing to take their stories to challenging places, such as Haniwa tearfully admitting to her parents that she's afraid of her own capacity for violence, even as she insists that she has to pursue her power and legacy. 

    Less successful are the show's villains--Kane, in particular, is a caricature of an evil, sexually voracious woman, and her actions in the second half of the season feel more like an excuse to let Hoeks vamp and chew scenery than a plausible plot development.  But this is made up for by the challenges the characters face, simply by living in the world.  See is at its best when it stresses its characters' vulnerability against the vast natural landscape, or in the bizarre structures that the various communities they encounter on their journey have constructed to allow themselves to survive.  If the show makes the audience feel like superheroes, it also makes us feel just how big its now-empty world is, and how even sight doesn't always give its heroes the ability to navigate it safely.

  • The Morning Show - Apple reportedly paid Jennifer Aniston a not-so-small fortune to star in this show, her first regular TV gig since Friends ended fifteen years ago.  It's tempting to snark at a wannabe streaming giant using yesterday's stars as a crutch, but the truth is, Aniston is the best (at some points, the only) reason to watch The Morning Show.  Her performance as Alex Levy, a co-presenter at a popular morning news show whose world is rocked when it's revealed that her partner, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), has been accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct, is a fascinating, complex portrait of a middle-aged woman who is at once beleaguered and breathtakingly privileged.  As the scandal breaks we watch Alex, who has clearly been operating on auto-pilot in both her professional career and personal life, realize that none of the people around her--not the other employees on the show, not the show's producer (Mark Duplass), not the head of the news division (Billy Crudup), and maybe not even her husband (Jack Davenport)--actually respect her, even though she's the only thing keeping their careers afloat.  It's a familiar scenario for many professional women, who find themselves expected to simply go along with things, because everyone else needs them to.

    Alex's reaction to this is gratifying to watch.  Whether she's calmly informing the network president that she's in charge now, because he needs her more than she needs him, or backing the show into a corner by publicly announcing her new co-host before anyone has had the chance to come up with a shortlist, she's content to burn it all down rather than continue to live with disrespect.  But Alex is by no means a feminist hero, and the show gleefully explores her many contradictions.  She's tough and hard-working, but also spoiled and self-absorbed.  Empathetic, but also vain and narcissistic.  Most importantly, as the season draws on it becomes increasingly clear that she knew, at least on some level, what Mitch was doing, but turned a blind eye because she needed him as a friend and a bulwark against the world.  She is, in short, exactly the sort of person you'd expect a rich, famous, self-made white woman to be, and the pleasure of watching her comes from not knowing, from one moment to the next, whether you want her to face some comeuppance, or stomp on the even more annoying people arrayed against her.

    Unfortunately, Alex is far from from The Morning Show's only focus.  It is, in fact, hard to pin down just what the show's focus is, whether it's a character study or a two-hander or an ensemble piece, and whether its interest is in the people it's depicting or the system they exist within.  But either way, everything around Alex is questionable at best, hard to watch at worst.  It is, for example, simply inexplicable that the show keeps Mitch around past the first few episodes.  At first, it seems that he is going to take the path of many exposed sexual predators in the #MeToo era, and become a right-wing commentator pandering to an anti-feminist audience.  But when Mitch veers off that path, it becomes clear that the show genuinely thinks it is using him to expose the grey area between obvious violators, like Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K., and people who are simply long-term creeps.  But this is a point that is actually made far better by other characters, as in an interview with one of Mitch's victims, who insists that she was victimized as much by the other employees of the show, who treated her like damaged goods after she acquiesced to Mitch's advances, as by the man himself.  Or a subplot about the show's weatherman (Nestor Carbonell) and a much-younger PA (Bel Powley) who are in a serious relationship, but can't figure out how to distinguish their affair from what Mitch did.  Or, most intriguingly, an older producer (Karen Pittman), who had an affair with Mitch years ago that ended amicably, and who is now becoming aware of how that has soured attitudes towards her on the show.  Keeping Mitch around only focuses the story on his whiny insistence that he shouldn't experience any consequences for his actions, instead of castigating the culture that made those actions possible.  Other characters, such as Crudup's Cory Ellison, feel simply unreal.  Cory responds to every upheaval in his division with exclamations of excitement, clearly thrilled by the trainwreck his flagship show has become.  The intention is presumably to make him look like a savvy disruptor, but--leaving aside the fact that reality has given us more than enough reason to be wary of men who think disruption is the path to a better world--Crudup's dead-eyed performance makes Cory seem less like a cheerful imp, and more like a budding serial killer.

    But the biggest problem with The Morning Show, by some long way, is Reese Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson, a local reporter who, based on a viral video in which she screams at an anti-environmentalist in a protest against a coal mine, lands the job as Alex's new co-host.  From her name, to her politics (she's an independent who finds Democrats and Republicans equally worthy of disdain), to her convoluted family history (she has a troubled mother, an addict brother, and a boatload of daddy issues), Bradley feels like a character sketched out by Aaron Sorkin, and then rejected for being too unrealistic and over the top.  Witherspoon does her best to humanize her, but she can't do much against the show's own incomprehension of her.  It's never clear, for example, why Bradley, an investigative journalist who likes to report challenging, hard-hitting fare, would be interested in presenting a soft-focus morning show where all her material is scripted and half the stories are feelgood pap.  The obvious answer, of course, is that no one in their right mind would pass up this sort of opportunity (especially not someone like Bradley, whose career was on the rocks before the viral video made her a star).  But the show seems unwilling to give Bradley any sort of careerist instincts.  She stays on The Morning Show because that's what everyone expects of her, futilely complaining when they won't run the more challenging material that she'd like to cover, and acting surprised when her pursuit of the Mitch story--including the question of what Alex knew and when--earns her enemies.  It's the exact opposite of the fascinating, self-contradictory yet also believable portrait that the show paints of Alex, and it makes the entire experience of watching The Morning Show supremely frustrating.  The further the season advances, the more time Alex and Bradley spend together, and the more obvious it becomes that only one of them has a story worth telling.

  • For All Mankind - Of the four inaugural Apple TV+ shows, this is the one that has garnered the least attention, which in a way feels appropriate.  The elevator pitch for the show is "an alternate history in which the space race never ended, and humanity--specifically, NASA--continued its expansion into the solar system".  But For All Mankind is being screened in a world where the space race did end, in part because people got bored of space, and the Apollo missions quickly lost their luster and became must-see television for only a small group of fanatics.  So it's not surprising that creator Ronald D. Moore hasn't been able to capture the imagination of a mass audience.  But to make this excuse is also to let For All Mankind off too easy, because for all that it is a niche taste, it's also a show that puts its very worst foot forward.  Far too much time is spent establishing just why the space program continued and expanded, along the way indulging in some of the worst habits of Apollo Program fannishness--chiefly, "what if we made this incredibly complicated and dangerous endeavor even more so in order to cut through the audience's awareness that it all worked out?"  It's not even enough for the show to posit that the Soviets won the race to put a man on the moon (in reality, the Soviet space program was plagued by mismanagement and infighting, and had effectively given up on a moon landing by the late 60s).  We also get a sequence in which the astronauts on the Apollo 11 lunar lander lose contact with mission control for hours and are presumed lost after a much rougher landing than the real one.

    Positing that the reason the space race continued is that the Russians stayed in it and remained competitive is obviously fraught with a lot of political and ideological subtext.  For All Mankind had the opportunity to comment on the role that jingoism and anti-communism played in driving the American space program and its employees.  But instead the show seems to buy into that worldview hook, line, and sinker.  It's not just the characters who view a Soviet on the moon with alarm, but the show itself, which seems to expect the audience to accept that an American on the moon is an uplifting moment for all humanity, whereas a Soviet moon landing is a belligerent act.  The show then goes from bad to worse with an absolutely bizarre redemption tour for, of all people, Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore).  Again, there was an opportunity here for a challenging conversation--far too many dramatizations of this period downplay or erase von Braun's role in the Apollo Program, which he ran until well after the moon landing.  But For All Mankind instead chooses to sugarcoat the man, having him lament the way the Nazis "corrupted" his V2 rocket design by using it to target civilian populations.  The series's second episode even pretends that nobody at NASA knew that von Braun had been a member of the SS and had used slave labor in his factories during WWII.

    Once it gets over the hump of explaining why the space race has continued, however, and gets about the business of speculating how that would look--a permanent lunar base in the early 70s, with plans for Mars and the rest of the solar system to come--For All Mankind becomes much more fun and engaging.  A lot of this has to do with how it diversifies the space program.  During the first two episodes, our point of view character for much of the dismay at NASA is astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman, who is at least a head too tall to be an Apollo astronaut), an invented character who feels almost like an illustration of how the myth of the Right Stuff has become filtered through modern anxieties about masculinity.  Ed is taciturn and emotionally withdrawn, but also prone to insubordination and outbursts of anger, for which he never experiences any real consequences.  So it's a palpable relief when the show puts him on the back-burner in favor of a new program to train women astronauts.  This leads to the series's best episodes, in which the first of these candidates, Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) ends up on Ed's mission, and has to confront not only his well-meaning condescension, but her own entirely earned suspicion of male authority figures.  The rest of the female candidates feel almost like a carefully-chosen array of social issues--one is black, one is gay, one is the wife of an astronaut who laments abandoning her own professional ambitions after marriage and childbirth--but it's still fun to watch women like this get to take part in the Apollo story.

    The crux of For All Mankind's alternate history is the suggestion that continuing the exploration of space would have required radical change on the ground as well, and that the program would have spurred important social advances in unexpected ways.  Some of these speculations feel silly and contrived--the hearings over NASA's failure to beat the Russians to the moon cause Ted Kennedy to cancel his getaway to Chappaquiddick, thus eventually leading to his presidency.  But others are intriguingly thorny, such as the revelation that President Kennedy got the ERA passed by moving a lucrative NASA contract to a Republican-controlled state, which ultimately leads to a fatal accident due to faulty Saturn V parts.  None of it, to be honest, bears much scrutiny, but at its best moments, when it drops the nostalgia and simply starts spinning a story, For All Mankind can be a genuinely exciting work of science fiction.

  • Dickinson - Unlike the other three Apple TV+ show, which dropped a few introductory episodes upon the platform's launch and then switched to a weekly schedule, Dickinson's entire first season was made available as a chunk.  You could read this as a sign of Apple's lack of confidence in the show, and if so it's hard to blame them for being anxious.  A deliberately anachronistic comedy about the teenage years of early modernist poet Emily Dickinson, whose story beats conspicuously echo those of modern teen soaps, doesn't exactly sound like it would have a broad appeal.  And yet, judging by my twitter feed, Dickinson has become Apple TV+'s most iconic foray.  Which may not mean anything, from a viewing numbers standpoint, but a wannabe entrant into the increasingly crowded field of scripted TV could do worse than to make a splash with something idiosyncratic and memorable.  This is not to say that Dickinson completely pulls off its mixture of tones, references, and period details.  There are as many misses as hits in the show's first season, and at times it feels as if creator Alena Smith hasn't quite landed on the story she wants to tell with it.  But when Dickinson works, it is simply marvelous, and even when it jars, it's so much more interesting, more itself, than more conventional fare like The Morning Show (or even For All Mankind and See) that one can't help being won over.

    Played by Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson imagines its heroine as both a proto-feminist and a spoiled brat.  Emily dreams of writing poetry that will rock the world (or, at least, the staid and comfortable corner of it that she lives in, as the daughter of one of Amherst, Massachusetts's most prominent families) but also chafes against the expectation that she help around the house, and runs roughshod over the feelings and wishes of the people closest to her, chiefly her younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) and her best friend, Sue (Ella Hunt).  The early episodes of the season focus on Emily's shock that Sue has agreed to marry her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe).  Though her snide, incessant undermining of Sue's happiness is clearly rooted in romantic jealousy (the two have a relationship that the show doesn't try to put a label on, but which is both emotional and physical), it also stems from Emily's selfishness, her inability to grasp that Sue, who has lost her entire family to disease and has been left penniless, longs for security, and genuinely likes Austin.  In another episode, Emily feigns illness in order to gain some time for herself, to write and read and just do what she wants.  But in a period in which even minor illness can end fatally (as seen through the example of Sue's family, and in a storyline late in the season in which Emily falls for her father's clerk only for him to succumb to tuberculosis), this pretense deeply traumatizes her parents (Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski). 

    As much as the show castigates Emily for her selfishness, however, it also wants us to see it as, in its own way, revolutionary.  By insisting on her right not just to an education and a creative outlet, but to her own time and privacy, Emily is demanding recognition of her humanity.  While her mother expects that every minute of Emily's time be spent in homemaking and husband-seeking, and her father views her every attempt to develop her mind and her craft as an affront to his own dignity, Emily struggles to balance what she owes to herself with basic decency and kindness towards others.  That she usually overcompensates in one direction or another is hardly surprising, and the show never fails to remind us what a tragedy it would be if she ever stopped trying.

    It's a heavy topic, and Dickinson lightens it not only through its constant use of humor (it's interesting to consider that this is the only one of the shows I'm writing about in this post that is explicitly a comedy) but through its consciously anachronistic storytelling.  Some of the best moments in the show come when it juxtaposes the norms and restrictions of 19th century life with storylines taken straight out of Beverly Hills 90210, as in a mid-season episode in which the Dickinson children, left alone in the house by their parents, decide to throw a party, or a later subplot in which Lavinia is dismayed that the handsome but shallow boy she's been making out with has shown everyone the nude self-portrait she gave him.  When this sort of alchemy works, it causes the entire show to click into place, its story both specific and timeless, realistic and heightened.  The fact that Emily's parents speak in an affected, faux-historical cadence, for example, while all the young characters talk like modern teenagers, is at once a reminder of the show's artifice, and a perfect metaphor for the generation gap.

    But Dickinson is also trying to do so many other things that the result can end up feeling scattershot and uncertain.  It is sometimes fantastical, as in a subplot in which Emily imagines that she is in a long-term flirtation with Death (Wiz Khalifa); occasionally historical, featuring guest appearances from Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) and Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet), who are much more accurate to the real writers' personalities and preoccupations than the show's treatment of its own heroine; and every so often, genuinely horrifying, as when Austin and Emily's father behave violently towards her, or when Sue is sexually harassed (perhaps even raped) by her employer.  The constant tonal shift can make it hard to decide how to react to the show, what it wants us to feel and how seriously it wants us to take it.  This is particularly noticeable in the show's struggles to place its characters in their historical context.  It nails the well-meaning but vague liberalism of its privileged characters' social set, where support for abolitionism is taken for granted without any willingness to take concrete steps towards ending slavery (much less treating black people like equals).  But when it tries to address Emily's own clueless privilege, it often punts.  The family's black servant (Chinaza Uche) gently chides her when she tries to express solidarity with him, reminding her that their situations are entirely different.  But there's really no place to take this thread from that point, and the result feels perfunctory, as if Dickinson knows it needs to address this issue, but can't find anything meaningful to say about it.  The impression formed is of a show that hasn't settled on a tone or approach, and is simply trying them all on--perhaps because it's so much fun to do so, and so exciting to have the opportunity.  To be fair, this is consistent with Dickinson's heroine, who is as excited by the possibilities she sees before her as she is confused and overwhelmed by them.  If the show sometimes doesn't seem to know what it is from one scene to another, perhaps that's part of the point.  And for the moments in which Emily--and Dickinson--truly find themselves, a bit of confusion is worth enduring.

  • The Mandalorian - Watching the fan reaction to Disney+'s first scripted show, and the first live-action series set in the Star Wars universe, has felt a great deal like being gaslighted.  For the life of me, I can't understand what so many people see in a show that, four episodes in, feels thoroughly uninvolving.  That's not to say that there aren't things to praise about The Mandalorian.  It is, for one thing, absolutely gorgeous to look at, combining the stunning compositions of A New Hope with the detailed, tactile production design of the new movies, and featuring some excellent fight scenes that are all the more engaging for being small-scale--no space-battles and CGI extravaganzas here, just close-quarters combat with physical heft and palpable stakes.  And it has proven itself to be excellent meme-fodder, from the million GIFs and drawings of Baby Yoda, to the increasingly delightful pronouncements of director Werner Herzog, who appears on the show as a former officer of the Empire, and whose attitude towards the entire endeavor in interviews is wonderfully irreverent.  But as an actual viewing experience, The Mandalorian is--dare I say it--kind of boring.  In its worst moments, it feels not at all unlike watching someone else play a Star Wars-themed computer game--the same thin, barely-there storytelling concealing a structure that is nothing but a string of missions.  Some moments even feel like cut-scenes, in which the show's titular hero returns to his base after completing an objective to receive an upgrade to his armor and new weapons.

    The basic concept of The Mandalorian is obviously "a spaghetti Western in the Star Wars universe".  Set after the collapse of the Empire in Return of the Jedi (but before the sequel trilogy), it follows a bounty hunter who is recruited by some Imperial die-hards (led by Herzog's character) to retrieve an unspecified item, which turns out to be the aforementioned Baby Yoda (well, probably not actually baby Yoda but a baby of Yoda's species; which has caused everyone to realize that despite being one of the franchise's most iconic characters, we have never learned the name of Yoda's species).  This leads to a series of challenges and conflicts, as the Mandalorian must overcome teams of mercenaries, other bounty hunters, and even opportunistic scavengers who cannibalize his ship.  It's a solid enough concept, but the execution feels too flimsy to hang an entire series on.  The first three episodes, in which the Mandalorian receives his assignment, finds his quarry, delivers him to the client, and then decides that he isn't going to leave a baby with a bunch of space-Nazis and rescues him, should have been the first act of a movie.  As the opening salvo in a TV series, they drag, all the more so because of the show's central gimmick, the fact that the Mandalorian, in accordance with his culture's strictures, never takes off his helmet.  This is not only a criminal waste of actor Pedro Pascal, but it leaves the show with no emotional center.  Faceless characters may not be inherently unemotional, but the writing on The Mandalorian does nothing to compensate for the character's facelessness; to bring this back to computer games, he feels like the player character in one of them, just present enough for the audience to project themselves onto, but with no personality of his own.

    What fills that void instead is a cubic ton of fanservice.  The show's storytelling is awash in references, both well-known and obscure, to the series's canon.  So the Mandalorian uses carbonite to store his targets for transport, and the aliens who cannibalize his ship are Jawas.  Not to mention the Mandalorian himself, whose very existence is an acquiescence to fandom's decades-old (and, to me, inexplicable) infatuation with Boba Fett.  Some of the details are aimed at fans far more obsessive than I, referencing the computer games or little-read Wookieepedia pages.  But this sort of thing should be a garnish, not the main course, and it increasingly feels as The Mandalorian is substituting the momentary high of recognition for genuine emotion or drama.

    If the preamble structure of the first three episodes gives rise to the hope that, once the show has established its premise, it can start building an actual story on it, episode 4 dashes that hope.  It delivers an entirely standard Western story, in which the Mandalorian, seeking refuge for himself and his child, agrees to help some villagers fend off raiders in exchange for a place to stay (in accordance with the show's mandate never to let an opportunity for fanservice pass by, the raiders have gotten their hands on a leftover Imperial AT-ST).  Not only is there no depth to the episode's storytelling, which merely gives a familiar template a Star Wars-themed re-skin, but it seems to establish the rest of the season's structure--episodic adventures in which both the Mandalorian and his charge are merely blank slates to be acted upon, with no character arcs or themes to develop.  Around the margins of the show's storytelling, one can glimpse interesting ideas about how the world of the series looks in the aftermath of the original trilogy--the very fact that the remnants of the Empire are still up to no good; the appearance of Imperial weaponry in the hands of criminals; the suggestion that the rebellion hasn't really lived up to its promise, as in a guest appearance by Gina Carano as a former rebel soldier who left when things got "too political".  But this is rather thin gruel, and it's increasingly clear that this is not what the show is going to be about.  It's been a bit depressing hearing the voices calling The Mandalorian a return to "real" Star Wars.  There's a lot to be said against the new movies, but they at least try to push the franchise forwards, while The Mandalorian seems content to wallow in fanservice.  If this is the future of the franchise, well, I'm not even sure "future" is the right word for it.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Recent Movie Roundup 34

This will probably be the last recent movie roundup of 2019.  There are still several highly-lauded 2019 movies that I want to watch (and, of course, the looming giant that is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), but between travel later this month and Israeli release schedules, I probably won't get to them until 2020.  The last bunch of 2019 movies is a mixture of highbrow, lowbrow, and stuff in between, of established directors and franchises and more experimental stuff.   I didn't love all of them--in fact, I disliked a few--but I'm glad that a year that had seemed rather barren, movie-wise, in the spring and summer has blossomed into an interesting stew of genres and modes towards its end.
  • Terminator: Dark Fate - The latest film in the Terminator series--now with James Cameron back in a producer's capacity and with a story credit--isn't very good.  For a movie that works so hard to recall the first two, excellent films in this series (while also erasing its more derided entries, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator Genisys) it keeps falling short of the standard they set.  The script is plodding and uninspired, full of inelegant infodumps and what sounds like placeholder dialogue (except in those places where the characters awkwardly parrot some of the series's catchphrases, sounding as if even they would rather not).  Its twists are mostly telegraphed well in advance, not least because several of them--including the appearance of both Linda Hamilton as an older, grizzled Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a T-800 who has lived for decades among humans--were revealed already in the film's trailers.  Worst of all, for a film that pitches itself as a direct sequel to one of the finest action films in modern moviemaking, Dark Fate repeatedly falls flat in its actions scenes.  The best of them comes early, a sequence in which the protectee du jour, a young Mexican woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes), is carried along in a knock-down freeway car chase by time traveling badass Grace (Mackenzie Davies), an human enhanced with cyborg components, as they try to flee an even more dangerous version of the liquid metal terminator (Gabriel Luna).  But this is such an obvious reference to a similar chase scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and falls so short of that scene's poetry and wit, that it's hard to feel more than mildly entertained.  And subsequent action sequences don't even reach those heights--they are, to a one, murky, busy, and incoherent, substituting noise and high concepts (one bit involves the characters bouncing around in near-zero-g as the plane they're on plummets towards the ground) for genuinely inspired action moviemaking.

    Does this mean that Dark Fate isn't worth watching?  Not necessarily.  But it is a film more notable for its parts than its whole, and mainly because it's the first entry since the cancelled-too-soon TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles to actually push against the franchise's established premise and central themes rather than simply reiterating them for easy fanservice points.  This is, for example, a film that realizes what should have been obvious already in 1991--that John Connor is by far the least interesting, least essential part of this story.  Dark Fate's method of acknowledging this truth is one of its few genuinely successful storytelling flourishes (though, like so much else about the film, one that it eventually runs into the ground) and it subsequently trots out a lot of other ideas that the TV show played with--the conclusion that humanity's fascination with AI means Judgment Day can only be delayed, not averted; the implication that removing John Connor from the timeline will merely lead to other leaders emerging within the resistance; the suggestion that the boundary between "human" and "machine" will ultimately become meaningless.  In addition, the film takes obvious inspiration from Logan in drawing deliberate connections between the looming threat of AI and the US's current obsession with the high-tech securitization of its borders.  It's darkly humorous--but also a very pointed statement--that the future savior of humanity is nearly killed because she can't cross the border into the US without being placed in a detainment facility, where her pursuer can easily catch up to her by imitating the agents of the state.

    Aside from this, what's pleasurable about Dark Fate is what the trailers promised us--Hamilton returning to her most iconic role, Schwarzenegger playing against type (he also gets some of the film's best gags, a reminder that he is an unheralded comic actor that we probably wouldn't have gotten if it weren't for Cameron's input), and Davies in a delightfully androgynous performance that carries forward some of the things that young women watching Judgement Day found so intriguing about Sarah's physicality and defiance of gender roles.  Even here, however, it's worth managing expectations.  Sarah and the T-800's character arcs recall the ones they had in Judgment Day--her profound ambivalence over the person her life has made her into, his growing understanding of human connection--without really adding anything new to them.  And while Grace's connection with Dani carries hints of both the romantic charge between young Sarah and Kyle Reese in The Terminator, and the parent-child bond between young John and the T-800 in Judgment Day, it doesn't achieve the depth of either relationship.  This is possibly because Dani herself is, like John Connor before her, a great deal less impressive and magnetic than the film needs her to be.  It's easy enough to guess the twist that Dark Fate puts on her story--that it is she, not her child, who will lead the human resistance in the future--but the character who shows up on screen is convincing as neither a great leader, nor an innocent girl who will grow into toughness in response to the needs of the collapsing world around her (this isn't a knock on Reyes's performance, which shows glimmers of both of these character types; it's just that the writing isn't there for her).  The result, then, is a mass of good ideas and compelling performances that don't so much move the franchise forward as suggest ways in which it could have moved forward, if better hands had been on the tiller.

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire - Writer-director Céline Sciamma's latest film sells itself on the high concept of its first act.  In the 18th century, portrait painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at a remote country estate to paint a marriage portrait of the daughter of the house, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).  Because Héloïse, angry about her arranged marriage to a man she's never met, has refused to sit for previous painters, Marianne presents herself as a lady's companion, observing Héloïse in secret, and developing an attraction towards her even as her painting takes form.  But this is actually the least satisfying part of the movie, when the two women barely interact with one another, and Marianne's art feels mechanical and unspecific.  When Héloïse, told the truth about Marianne's purpose and invited to view her portrait, icily observes that it neither captures her essence, nor has anything of Marianne in it, the audience can't help but feel relieved.  Now the movie proper can start, as Marianne begins to paint a second portrait for which Héloïse agrees to sit, and the two women finally begin talking, and inching towards the realization that they have feelings for one another.

    Portrait won the best screenplay award at the most recent Cannes festival, which, after watching the film, feels more like political maneuvering on the part of the jury (who gave the grand prize award to this year's juggernaut, Parasite) than an earned award.  Though a moving and engrossing experience, it is probably weakest in its screenplay, which tends towards over-obvious dialogue and set-pieces.  Characters declare their feelings and impressions of one another in carefully-analyzed detail, even when they're meant to be sheltered teenagers recently brought home from a convent.  Central themes and ideas are baldly introduced and signposted.  A young woman undergoing an abortion has the procedure while lying on the midwife's bed next to a baby.  Marianne, painting a nude portrait of herself for Héloïse, studies her own face in a mirror balanced on the other woman's privates.  In one of the film's central scenes, the two soon-to-be lovers discuss the fable of Orpheus and Eurydice, and try to puzzle out Orpheus's decision to look back at the last minute, sending Eurydice back to the underworld.  Marianne suggests that Orpheus was thinking like an artist, making "a poet's choice, not a lover's"; Héloïse, who was thrust into the world of arranged marriages after the suicide of her older sister, wonders if Eurydice was the one who wanted to escape life, and who made Orpheus turn around.

    This is less a criticism than an observation--Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not a subtle movie, and this can occasionally be frustrating.  Its pleasures are found, instead, in its insistence on closely observing the story that it is telling in such bald, unmissable terms.  That story is both a romance and an examination of the artistic process, and of the way these two dynamics both parallel each other and run at cross-purposes.  In both its visuals, which are often locked closely on the actresses' faces, and its storytelling, what the film is concerned with is looking.  Marianne looks at Héloïse as both an artist and a lover.  Those purposes reinforce one another--it is by looking at Héloïse that Marianne falls in love, and by allowing herself to be looked at during sittings that she becomes an object of love.  But by looking at Héloïse and painting her, Marianne also creates the means of their separation.  This might have been a glib irony, but Portrait makes it clear that Marianne never surrenders her perspective as an artist, even as she becomes a lover.  Her career matters to her, and when Héloïse argues that Marianne prefers her as an object to be lost in pursuit of her art than as a woman to be held, both Marianne and we realize the truth of this, even as it clearly hurts her.

    Underlying all this is the unacknowledged but omnipresent fact that the characters are women in a man's world.  Marianne is a trailblazer--a single woman who is planning never to marry and to inherit her father's portrait-painting business, an artist who defies conventions with her gender, and who even illicitly paints male nudes--but she is also unthinkingly conventional in how she sees and depicts other women, packaging them up for a world that needs them to be only one type of thing.  Héloïse, meanwhile, can't articulate why she rebels against the life that has been forced on her, and which she ends up capitulating to.  But in her own way she's braver than Marianne, by being honest about the forces controlling her.  She even pushes Marianne forward in her art when she encourages her to paint the abortion she witnessed, a subject that male artists would never consider.  The entire film takes place in a sort of women's enclave--it begins when the ferryman who has delivered Marianne to Héloïse's home leaves her on the beach, and ends when he arrives to take her back, and in between there are only women on screen, not just Marianne and Héloïse but the other women of the household and the village.  But it's made clear to us that this is only an interlude.  Marianne and Héloïse's love story must end, and all they can take from it going forward is the knowledge of having been seen, of possessing a secret that the male society around them can't even imagine.

  • Frozen II - It's no surprise that we're getting this movie, seeing as the first Frozen was one of Disney's biggest successes this century (with the princess movie line, that is; not including films from Pixar, Marvel, or the Star Wars division).  But the first Frozen was also something of a mess thematically and as a piece of storytelling, so I was both curious and a bit hopeful when approaching its sequel.  The very flimsiness of the edifice Frozen had constructed meant that Frozen II could take its characters in many different directions.  This, as it turns out, is exactly the problem.  Frozen II is ambitious, expanding the world of the original movie to create what might almost be an epic fantasy setting (it also feels like an obvious lift from Avatar: The Last Airbender, though that's a comparison that does the film no favors at all).  But it also isn't entirely sure what it's saying.  The early parts of the movie find its characters worrying about change--Kristoff is trying to propose to Anna (whose bizarre misreading of his every attempt to do so raises some questions about their long-term suitability); Olaf is experiencing ennui over growing older and leaving his "childhood" behind; an almost hysterically effervescent Anna insists that despite the drama she and her friends have experienced, they've arrived at a safe harbor and have no more upheavals in store; and Elsa, who has been hearing the call of a mysterious voice, tries to ignore it, fearing the loss of her hard-earned happiness.  It only takes one song for her resolve to weaken, however, and the result is a series of supernatural disasters that strike the kingdom of Arendelle, sending our heroes on a quest to an enchanted forest in search of their cause.

    It's a solid premise--not least because of how it tips the hat to Into the Woods, the quintessential musical about what happens after happily ever after, whose characters embark on a transformative journey in an enchanted wood.  If Frozen II had satisfied itself with this concept, it might have been an effective, evocative film, and proof that Disney can expand its princess franchise into theater-quality sequels (and perhaps even crossovers).  But the film instead piles on a new plotline that delves into the history of Elsa and Anna's parents (alas, not in order to castigate them for years of emotional abuse; both parents are instead made to look loving and self-sacrificing) and their grandfather, as well as the entire family's fraught history with a tribe of elemental magic users who live in the forest.  It's a fairly convoluted plot that touches on generational guilt, the abuse and exploitation of indigenous people, and the need to make reparations for past wrongs.  Along the way it also gives Elsa yet another journey of self-discovery, which seems to exist in lieu of acknowledging the years-long cries from fandom to make the character gay (it's very hard to read the ending the film gives her as saying anything but that Elsa doesn't need a girlfriend, because she's just so awesome on her own).

    This is, quite frankly, too much for the film to handle, and most of its themes end up getting short shrift--Anna's inability to let Elsa face challenges on her own, for example, or Kristoff's feeling that he is constantly being abandoned when Anna runs off after her sister.  The heaviest material, about Elsa and Anna's troubled legacy and their need to set right the wrongs of the past, is especially harmed by this scattershot quality, finally building to a crescendo that is more effective for its well-animated bombast than any coherent moral argument (I wrote a bit more about the problems with this storyline on my tumblr).  What's left, then, is what you get from most direct-to-video princess movie sequels--a chance to spend more time with the characters, the expansion of the film's world, and some new songs (as in the first Frozen, these sound like they each came from a different musical, but some of them are quite good, and overall I'd say the quality of songs is higher even if there's no "Let It Go" or "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" in the bunch)--though with better production values and more impressive animation.  It's a fun way to spend a few hours, and by the end you'll feel moved and wrung out as only a Disney movie can make you feel.  But if you were hoping that Frozen II would build something more substantial on the premise provided by the first movie, it's best to temper those expectations.

  • The Irishman - Martin Scorsese's latest, epic-length mobster movie is interesting less for the story it tells than for the questions raised by how Scorsese chose to tell it.  Why, for example, did Scorsese choose to adapt a book based on interviews with Frank Sheeran, a low-level mobster whose claims to have been a hitman (and even to have killed Jimmy Hoffa) have been met with skepticism and even derision from experts?  Why was he so determined to cast actors like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci to play characters whose tale spans four decades instead of using younger actors for the film's 50s- and 60s-set scenes?  (The de-aging technology the film uses to make this casting plausible is interesting from a technological standpoint, but its effect is mainly to make the characters look as if they spent thirty years being middle-aged.)  Why did he let the movie leave his hands with a bloated, self-indulgent running time of three-and-a-half hours, most of it made up of samey, repetitive conversations between greying men?  Every choice in The Irishman feels deliberate and considered, as suits a man who recently took to The New York Times to extol the value of auteurism, and to reserve the label of cinema only for films that represent the vision of a singular artist.  There can be no question that The Irishman is exactly the film that Scorsese wanted it to be.  Which still leaves the question of why he wanted that, and why we're expected to have any interest in it.

    We first meet De Niro's Frank as a truck driver who is skimming his haul of beef to supply mobsters in Philadelphia.  This brings him to the attention of Pesci's Russell Bufalino, a high-ranking mob boss who assigns Frank jobs of increasing violence, finally graduating him to assassinations.  Through it all, Frank remains utterly indifferent to the moral and psychological toll the work takes on him and on the people nearest to him.  Becoming a career criminal is necessary, he explains to us, because his family is growing and he needs to support them.  Assassinations are more or less complicated based on how public they need to be and how much security the target is likely to have around him.  Clearly, the fact that the film's protagonist and narrator is a remorseless psychopath is part of the point Scorsese is making.  I found myself wondering, in fact, whether Frank's irredeemable nature was a response to the criticism that Scorsese has (rightly) taken for how The Wolf of Wall Street glamorized Jordan Belfort and helped to spread his myth of being a savvy moneymaker.  The Irishman, in contrast, does everything it can to forestall the perception of Frank as cool or compelling.  The life he builds for himself on murder and graft is small and unimpressive--the closest he comes to luxury is a second-hand Lincoln.  His daughters grow up to fear and resent him.  And at the end of the movie he's left lonely and unloved, trying desperately to cadge absolution from a priest who is attempting, just as desperately, to wring some semblance of remorse from a man who clearly feels nothing but self-pity.  It's an effective portrait, but not, in any way, an interesting one.  The fact that Frank is a follower who did abhorrent things not out of ambition or a desire for wealth, but simply as a job and in order to appease stronger and more dangerous people might, in a shorter, tighter movie, have been an interesting commentary on the way that mob and crime films tend to glamorize a mundane and ugly reality.  At three-and-a-half hours, it is a punishing slog, accompanied by a man whose narrative becomes increasingly tedious and rambling.

    The third point in the film's central triangle--and the character who comes closest to making the entire experience worthwhile--is Pacino's Hoffa, the head of the Teamsters' union whose mob connections and 1975 disappearance have entered the realm of modern mythology.  Introduced by Russell, Hoffa becomes Frank's boss and eventually his friend, and one of the film's rare pleasures is the opportunity to watch these two actors play against each other, the taciturn, easily-led Frank quickly won over by the energetic, gregarious Hoffa.  But The Irishman had the opportunity to delve into Hoffa's many contradictions--a true believer in the cause of unions and their ability to act as a leveling force for working people (well, mainly men), he nevertheless lets greed rule his choices, allowing the mob access to the Teamsters' pension fund and using their strong-arm tactics to cement his power.  The film could have discussed how this paved the way to the public associating unions with corruption and excess, a mindset that we are only starting to emerge from decades later.  But instead it remains focused on the personal, on Hoffa's outsized personality and how his ego prevents him from accepting that his power is gone, and on Frank's conflicted (but not really) realization that he has to betray his friend in order to survive.  Again, in a shorter film this might have been a compelling dynamic, but The Irishman drags the story out past any reasonable length--we spend an hour waiting for Hoffa to die, then another 45 minutes letting the movie wrap up from that point.  For fans of Scorsese and his three leading men, The Irishman's excess will presumably be a delight.  Anyone else would probably be better served watching one of Scorsese's older, tighter mob movies.

  • Knives Out - Rian Johnson's follow-up to The Last Jedi is both a classic, Agatha Christie-esque mystery and a knowing, metafictional send-up of that form.  It's a fitting turn for Johnson, who broke out with the hardboiled pastiche Brick, but this time around he has the money and cachet to make his story sumptuous and star-studded, almost an Old Hollywood throwback--but with a twist.  Set mostly in a rambling, knickknack-strewn mansion, complete with secret passages and plenty of corners to eavesdrop around (one character describes the house as "a Clue board", only one of the film's many knowing mystery genre references), Knives Out charts the disarray after the death of patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling mystery author.  Harlan's family--grown-up children Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Walt (Michael Shannon), daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), Linda's husband Richard (Don Johnson), and grandchildren Ransom (Chris Evans), Meg (Katherine Langford), and Jacob (Jaeden Martell)--gather in the house to await the reading of the will.  But while the police (led by LaKeith Stanfield) are willing to close the case as a suicide, renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives on the scene insisting that there is more to be learned.  Caught in the middle of all this is Harlan's nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), whose supposedly close relationship with the family quickly begins to fracture as questions arise about Harlan's death, and his plans to alter his will right before it.

    Knives Out wears its genre savviness on its sleeve, most obviously in the character of Blanc, whom Craig plays as a deliberate cliché, affecting a ridiculous southern-fried accent and announcing that rather than investigate the case, he prefers to follow its "internal logic", in the belief this will lead him inevitably to the truth.  But even this character--who seems to have emerged out of one of the books that the film both parodies and presents as the stock-in-trade of its murder victim--doesn't prepare you for how the plot repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag.  The first act initially proceeds as expected, establishing a timeline for the night of the murder and introducing the cast of characters in a series of intercut interviews with the detectives, which reveal that almost all of them are lying, and had a reason to want Harlan dead.  But instead of continuing with the established template of this type of murder mystery, the film seems to immediately reveal the solution to the crime, and from that point it splits into two storylines--the detectives who are still pursuing the case, and the guilty party who is trying to outsmart them.

    Nor is this the last of Knives Out's twists.  The film keeps moving, barreling through plot and delivering new information at a breakneck pace.  Revelations are made, alliances are struck, and quite a few genuinely funny and bizarre sequences are presented with truly impressive panache and skill.  It can leave the film feeling a little breathless--in particular, some of the family, as well as supporting characters played by Riki Lindhome and Edi Patterson, end up getting short shrift.  I found myself thinking that the film might have worked better as a miniseries, in which the Thrombey family and its various dysfunctions and secrets could have had more time to breathe and develop.  But even as a movie, Knives Out never loses sight of its heart--Marta, and her increasingly bewildered witnessing of the chaos that erupts after Harlan's death.  de Armas has to field two-hander scenes with Plummer, Craig, and Evans (who plays beautifully against type as the family's most openly vicious member, and nearly steals the whole movie), and acquits herself admirably in all of them.  By the end of the movie, we have no idea what the right move might be for her, but we want her to come out on top.

    The conflict between Marta and the family is also how the film explores its central preoccupation with class and the corrupting power of wealth.  In her first scene, Marta is asked by a policeman whether she is "the help".  The cop is then chided by Meg, who insists that Marta is "part of the family", a sentiment echoed by the rest of the cast. But it doesn't take very long to realize that the Thrombeys are protesting too much, and that Marta's desire to be honest and decent with them is not reciprocated--or at least, not once it becomes clear that she threatens their wealth and position.  The power differential is only exacerbated by differences in race, and by the revelation that Marta's mother is undocumented, a fact that the family--despite proclaiming their liberalism--are happy to exploit.  It's interesting that, along with Parasite, two of 2019's most lauded movies have been dark comedies about the class struggle, which use the setting of a house to illustrate how the rich and poor can live side by side, but still be in different worlds.  Where I feel that Knives Out falls short of Parasite, however, is in its desire to have it cynical cake, but still end, as classical, Christie-esque mysteries often do, by assuring us that the wicked have been punished and the righteous rewarded.  Johnson's film repeatedly draws a contrast between "self-made", hard-working people like Harlan and Marta, and the rest of the Thrombey family, who have had wealth and privilege handed to them, and have become monsters as a result.  But what was missing from the story, to my mind, was any acknowledgment that Harlan himself is also a monster, made so by decades of wealth, and by the ability to command his family through his control of that wealth.  The film ends on a note of working class triumph, with Marta finally gaining power over people who have been content to order her around, manipulate her, and use her for their own ends.  But I'm not entirely convinced by Knives Out's closing argument--that Marta's background protects her from the corruption that has ruined the Thrombeys--to find that ending an entirely happy one.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Review: The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson, at The Guardian

I have a short review of Tade Thompson's The Rosewater Redemption at The Guardian.  This is the concluding book in the Wormwood trilogy, whose first volume, Rosewater, was published as a standalone novel in 2016, then republished in the UK by Orbit last year (it went on to win the Clarke award earlier this year).  The second volume, The Rosewater Insurrection, was also published this year, which is going to cause some issues come award-nominating time.  This is a trilogy that deserves to be recognized by awards, but I'm really not sure which volume I prefer (maybe this is finally a justification for the best series Hugo category).

Since I have more space (and fewer limitations on things like spoilers) on my own blog, I'd like to elaborate a little on the review, and particularly the sense I got that the Wormwood trilogy changed as it expanded from a standalone to a series.  When I first read Rosewater (and even more so when I reread it last month, in preparation for writing this review) I was struck by how clearly it belonged to the subgenre of "zone" science fiction.  Originating with the Strugatsky brothers' 1972 novel Roadside Picnic (and the 1979 Tarkovsky film, Stalker, inspired by it), "zone" novels imagine that some segment of normal space has erupted into strangeness, a zone where the normal rules of physics, biology, and causality no longer apply, and whose residents--or anyone who wanders in--are irretrievably altered in some fundamental way.  The zone also represents a disruption to existing power structures, and the plots of zone novels often revolve around characters who have been dispatched by the state to infiltrate the zone in an attempt to control or at least understand it--an effort that is doomed to failure.  Recent examples of zone novels include Jeff VanderMeer's Area X trilogy and M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (and particularly the middle volume, Nova Swing).  I've even seen a persuasive argument that the HBO miniseries Chernobyl can be read as zone science fiction, because of its unreal, heightened depiction of the region around the exploded reactor, and because the effects that the unseen radiation it spews have on people, animals, and plant life in the surrounding areas track so closely with the subgenre's central trope of cellular-level change.

In Rosewater, the zone takes the form of an alien lifeform that has emerged in the Nigerian countryside and begun transforming the people around it.  Some it cures of illness and injury.  Some it transforms into grotesques.  And some it turns into mindless zombies.  The alien also seeds the atmosphere with spores that connect all living beings, and which some sensitive humans, like Rosewater's narrator Kaaro, can sense and manipulate.  Rosewater ultimately reveals that the purpose of the alien's actions is to transform humanity, replacing human cells with alien ones for an unknown purpose.  The novel ends on a note of ambivalence towards this process, with Kaaro resigning his position in the secret government department S45, who had wanted to use him to stop, control, or weaponize the alien transformation process, and deciding to retire quietly and await the inevitable end.

This note of resignation suits the zone subgenre, which often views the authorities outside the zone with more suspicion than the zone itself.  There's a thread of anti-imperialism running through the works in this group, with the zone representing a final bulwark the overweening power and ever-increasing control of the imperial, colonizing force.  Empires tend to assume that they can impose their own culture, worldview, and habits of thought on the regions they "discover", and the zone functions as a rebuke to that assumption.  It swallows all infiltrators--including agents of the empire--and instead of being colonized by them, it alters them so fundamentally that they often can't return to their home.  In some zone novels, the would-be infiltrators even choose this exile, because despite the cost it extracts, the zone is the only place where one can be free of the empire's influence.  (If this all sounds familiar, it's worth noting that another influence on zone novels is Conrad's Heart of Darkness.)

So it can feel a bit wrongfooting when Rosewater's sequels not only change their tone and main character (the cynical, nihilistic Kaaro becomes a secondary character, and his girlfriend Aminat, who is unthinkingly heroic, becomes the series's lead), but shift their attitude towards the aliens themselves.  Suddenly we're informed that the purpose of the aliens' transformation of human bodies is to turn us into suitable receptacles for the consciousnesses of the aliens' masters, held in storage after the ecological collapse of their world.  Though it initially seems as if humans and aliens will be able to reach a compromise in which both can inhabit the Earth, ultimately the novels' heroes decide that they need to remove the alien presence completely, a task at which they ultimately succeed.  By the end of the trilogy, all alien presence on Earth has, however implausibly, been removed, and the powers that the aliens granted some humans have receded alongside the danger they posed.

One cynical way to look at this tonal and thematic shift is that Thompson is making a commercial decision.  Stories of alien invasion and its defeat sell better than the nihilistic musings of an anti-hero who hates his government more than he hates aliens.  If Rosewater was to be expanded into a trilogy that people would buy, it needed to offer a concrete response to the aliens' plot, not the embrace of change and transformation that characterizes zone science fiction.  

That was my initial response to The Rosewater Redemption, and I have to admit that as it became clearer what the novel's trajectory was, I found myself feeling rather disappointed.  But then, as I write in the review, it occurred to me that one significant difference between the Wormwood trilogy and other works of zone science fiction is that its characters have already been colonized once.  There's a very different valence to a story about allowing yourself to be altered by a colonizer when you're not an empire, but a former victim of empire.  Thompson seems even to have anticipated reactions like mine, because he has several characters in the novel explicitly compare their current situation to the predicament of Nigerians who first met European explorers, who might have stopped the exploitation and colonization of their country before it even started if they'd acted decisively.

I'm still not sure how I feel about this ending--part of me wonders whether, in a science fiction scene in which so much literature (not the mention the readership) is still coming from the perspective of colonizers, it isn't too easy to overlook the difference inherent in telling this type of story from the perspective of the formerly-colonized.  On the other hand, you could easily make the argument that those readers (myself very much included) are not the trilogy's target audience, and it's kind of exciting that a major work of science fiction, one that draws s strongly from so many subgenres--not just the zone, but cyberpunk and noir and technothrillers--can elicit that "it's not for you" reaction.  It's a sign of the expansion of the genre, and maybe it'll spur a discussion of its core tropes that'll take us to places I can't yet imagine.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hell is Other People: Some Observations on The Good Place's Experiment

Halfway into its fourth and final season, if there's one thing that fans of The Good Place have learned to expect, it is surprise.  Over the course of its magnificent, exhilarating run, the show has never failed to pull the rug out from under the audience's feet, burning through storylines at a dizzying rate, blowing up its premise and settings, and just generally making people say "what the fork?" a lot.  I think we can agree that only a fool would try to formulate a response to The Good Place's argument before that argument has been fully laid out, but nevertheless, that's what I'm going to try to do here.  In a little more than a day we'll find out how our heroes' experiment, to demonstrate that humans, when removed from the rigors of the world, can improve simply out of the desire to be better friends and neighbors, played out.  (My guess?  Chidi gained points, but lost them for punching Brent.  John gained points, but lost them for spilling Jason's secret.  Simone gained no points because she saw through the experiment from the start, and probably lost points for reasons we're about to discuss.  Brent gained no points except possibly right at the end when he tried to apologize to Chidi.  Not great, in other words.)  But before we get to that, I'd like to talk a bit about the experiment itself, and about its blind spots--which the show may or may not be planning to address.

Given how crucial the experiment was to both the show's story and its central argument about ethics, it's interesting to observe just how little attention the first half of the fourth season actually paid to it.  Far more time is spent on Eleanor's teething problems as the group's leader, or on the discovery that Janet has been kidnapped and replaced, and the mission to rescue her.  The actual experiment subjects and their struggle towards better behavior are given surprisingly short shrift.  But maybe that's not so surprising when you look at the subjects themselves.  Chidi is a solved problem--all Eleanor needs to do is nudge him out of his comfort zone and away from the destructive habits of indecision that made him lose points in life.  John mainly exists because the show has once again realized that it has run out of stories to tell with Tahani.  Simone is, as I said in my discussion of the third season, already a pretty awesome person, and the wrinkle that the show puts on that fact--that she sees through the experiment and refuses to participate in it--isn't really a problem of ethics.  Which leaves Brent, who is really the only experiment subject who matters, if only because of the way he affects everyone else.

The theory on which the experiment was built was that the force preventing people from improving themselves and living ethical lives was the impossibility of making good choices in a bad world.  By removing the pressures of capitalism, placing the subjects in an environment tailored to their comfort and happiness, and gently encouraging them to think about their behavior and how it could be improved, the theory went, you could produce better, more ethical human beings.  Another way of putting it is that the neighborhood the experiment takes place in both weaponizes and neutralizes privilege.  If John, for example, felt compelled to run a catty gossip blog because of financial pressures and jealousy over being left out of the glamorous life, then the neighborhood removes those motivations, making him just as pampered and privileged as the people he once wrote about.  And by equalizing everyone's status and giving them access to the same level of luxury and carefree existence, the neighborhood defangs the privilege of someone like Brent, who can no longer hold other people's jobs or social standing over their heads (something that he clearly rankles at, immediately demanding access to the better class of heaven he thinks he deserves).

But removing systemic inequality and its effects isn't the same as removing it entirely.  People bring their prejudices with them wherever they go, heaven very much included.  We saw this already with Eleanor in the show's early seasons, when she repeatedly forgot Chidi's last name and home country.  This problem is immeasurably exacerbated with Brent, who so visibly chafes at the loss of his white male entitlement that the existence of women (or women-like beings) like Eleanor and Janet, whom he can condescend to and sexually harass, is practically a type of methadone for him.  And, of course, he relentlessly peppers Chidi, Simone, Jason, and Tahani with racist microaggressions, which finally boil over into actual aggression when his self-aggrandizing, breathtakingly offensive novel is received with less than rapturous praise.

Which means that Brent poses a fundamental challenge to the principles on which the experiment was founded.  The best thing for everyone would be to isolate him with a bunch of Janet-babies until he learns to behave like a decent human being.  But the theory the show has presented to us so far is that we seek to improve ourselves through the impetus of human connection and our desire to be good for one another.  That theory breaks down in the face of Brent, who though not actively cruel or malicious, doesn't really seem to care about anyone, certainly not more than he cares for himself and his fragile ego, and whose reaction to concrete proof that he has hurt others is to reject it, and blame them for making him feel bad.  Even worse, Brent makes everyone around him a worse person by forcing them to deal with his entitlement.  He works on Simone's last nerve until she snaps and tells him what she really thinks of him.  He provokes Chidi into physical violence.  He is, in short, toxic to the very group dynamics on which the success of the experiment depends, and yet because he is part of the experiment, Eleanor and the others have to include him in their calculations, and in so doing make the experience worse for everyone else.

What this means is that despite her original intentions, what Eleanor has created in the new neighborhood is another bad place, where people like Chidi and Simone are trapped--for all they know, for eternity--with a man who will constantly make their lives slightly worse and more unpleasant.  What's more, even though Eleanor eventually comes around to Simone's way of thinking when the latter complains that, even in paradise, she has to put up with people like Brent, a purely utilitarian analysis of her situation would suggest that she shouldn't have done that.  Eleanor can't lose points; Simone can, and she probably does lose them when, encouraged by Eleanor, she stands up for herself against Brent (or, at the very least, she sets in motion a chain of events that causes other people, like Chidi, to lose points).  The best thing for all four subjects, for the fate of humanity, and even for Simone herself would have been for Eleanor to make it clear to Simone that she has no backup, and that heaven is just as insensitive to the struggles of black women as the real world was, in hopes that she'd become demoralized and let Brent walk all over her.  (Though this is, obviously, a dangerous strategy, since it risks demoralizing Simone too much, making her less likely to gain points herself.)

I think the show realizes and intends most of this, especially when it comes to Brent.  I'm not sure it realizes the inherent problems of this story when it comes to Simone.  In its struggle to come up with a character flaw that Simone could address during her time in the experiment, the show has landed on dogmatism--Simone, Michael explains, reaches snap judgments about people and doesn't tend to question herself.  That's not entirely consistent with her portrayal on Earth during the third season--Simone is, after all, the woman who kindly but firmly put Eleanor back on the right track after an epic, potentially friendship-destroying meltdown.  It's here that we see the problem in spending so little time with the experiment subjects over the first half of the season, because the show needed to demonstrate that the previously-fantastic Simone has fundamental flaws, and instead it just informs us of them.  All the more so because those flaws are pulling the double duty of demonstrating why Simone is wrong for Chidi while Eleanor is his real soulmate.  When Simone chooses not to stay and help Chidi save Brent--something we know, from long observation of their relationship over many iterations, that Eleanor would never have done--it feels like the show telling rather than showing.  We've seen so little of Chidi and Simone together (and what we have seen is eyebrow-raising--nearly a year into their relationship, Simone can only tell Chidi that she "likes" him?) that it's hard not to feel the writers' finger on the scales.

(While discussing the handling of Simone with Samira Nadkarni, she pointed out that the character squarely embodies the trope of the Strong Black Woman, someone who is so awesome, so righteous, and so self-sufficient that it's OK to deprive her of love and nurturing, often to the benefit of a white woman.  Simone's awesomeness is, paradoxically, used to explain why she's wrong for Chidi and Eleanor is right for him.  The last episode of the experiment even draws a direct equivalence between the two by having Simone, like Eleanor before her, be the member of her group to figure out that something is wrong with the good place--an equivalence that rankles a little when you think about it, since Simone was a kind, accomplished woman in her life on Earth, and Eleanor was an Arizona trashbag--only to starkly remind us of the difference between them, a difference rooted directly in Simone's strength and independence.  Meanwhile, Simone has failed to make connections with anyone else in the neighborhood, which is once again "blamed" on her strength and decisiveness, without considering that she, too, has needs that are not being answered.)

But an even bigger problem with deciding that Simone's flaw is that she's too sure of herself is how it ignores the context from which that trait emerges.  Simone is an intelligent, successful black woman in a world that doesn't value her, and which takes pains to remind her of that fact.  Self-confidence and decisive judgment are survival strategies for a person like her.  For the show to decry them--especially in a context in which one can't even argue that they are no longer necessary--is problematic on a level that I'm not sure it fully realizes.  And while leaving someone to die because you've decided they're not worth helping, as Simone does to Brent at the end of the experiment, is obviously an objectively bad act, the fact that this choice emerges from the same trait that has informed Simone's behavior towards Brent throughout the season creates a continuity that implicitly condemns all of that behavior.  It's not unreasonable to conclude that Simone has been losing points all along, simply for standing up for herself, for making Brent "feel bad" by calling out his racism and refusing to play along with his self-image.  So the show has created a world in which a black woman can be condemned to hell for not coddling a racist white man's feelings of entitlement.  Truly, this is the bad place.

One obvious response here (and one that I got more than a few times when I discussed this issue on twitter) is that the points system is meant to be seen as flawed.  But the thing is, it's not flawed in this particular way (or at least, not that we've been told yet; and six episode before the end of the show, it feels a little late to introduce this wrinkle).  We know that the points system is flawed because it doesn't take into account the unintended consequences of living in a tightly interconnected world where purely ethical action is almost impossible.  But what Simone did to Brent wasn't unintentional at all.  She knew that she would hurt his feelings, and decided to do so anyway because her own dignity was more important to her. 

The show has so far been completely silent on where that behavior falls ethically.  But through the framework of the experiment, it has consistently put Simone in the wrong for it.  Even if she isn't losing points, her decision to write off a person who doesn't deserve a second chance from her is literally dooming the human race, in stark contrast to Chidi, who keeps giving Brent second chances.  And yes, Chidi ultimately calls out Brent and this has an effect, but would that have been the case if Brent hadn't already been given objective confirmation that he belongs in the bad place?  It seems to me that in any other circumstances, he would have brushed off Chidi's criticism as he previously did with Simone's.  And even if we assume otherwise, what does that say?  That we should be endlessly nice to self-absorbed racists on the off chance that this makes them like us enough that our criticism of them finally punctures their veneer of self-regard?

In order to create a world that is truly perfect, that allows its inhabitants to become their best selves, it's not enough to remove hardship.  You also have to add justice, so that the maliciousness that people bring into that world can be addressed.  Which not only raises thorny questions--where does the line lie between righteous condemnation of evil, and acts that are evil in their own right?--but brings me back to my problem with the third season's conclusion, that this entire exercise feels pointless.  Why bother waiting until after people have died to help them become better, if the perfect world that's supposed to enable them to do this still has to deal with fundamental questions of prejudice and injustice?

Where I think the show is going with this is something like the concept of the bodhisattva, where people choose to spend time with the Brents of the world, and tolerate their ugliness, in the hope of helping them advance (and I suspect that this will end up happening in the real world, not just the afterlife).  But that has to be a choice, and by denying that choice to Simone, Eleanor not only makes it harder for her to improve, but literally places her in a form of hell.  I'd like to see the show acknowledge that going forward.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Late Summer Streaming

Fall has begun, which once upon a time used to mean a flurry of writing as I scrambled to review all of the networks' new shows.  I haven't done that in a while, because few network shows feel worth talking about these days, or, for that matter, sticking with for a second episode (the one exception so far: the Cobie Smulders-starring Stumptown, which is basically the older-and-sadder-Veronica-Mars show I wanted but didn't get from the actual Veronica Mars).  That may yet change, but in the meantime, let's talk about some of the (mostly) streaming shows that premiered towards the end of the summer.  They're a weird, ambitious bunch of series that don't always work, but demonstrate a willingness to experiment, and a sense of style, whose absence is only one of the reasons that network TV leaves me so underwhelmed these days.  (Obviously, Good Omens is not a summer show, but I've had this review of it sitting around for a while, so take it as a bonus.)

  • Good Omens - Like a lot of people my age, I read the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman novel on which this miniseries was based in my teens.  I enjoyed it, but though I went on to become a devoted Pratchett fan, it was never entirely clear to me why Good Omens held such a special place for a lot of other readers of both writers.  When I reread the novel ahead of this adaptation, it confirmed my twenty-year-old impression that this is journeyman work for both writers, poorly paced and plotted, whose humor has aged quite badly in some places.  The one thing that makes Good Omens work--and which, I suspect, accounts for its longevity--are the devil-and-angel team of Crowley and Aziraphale, who more or less stumble into saving the world from the looming apocalypse.  It's not just that the two characters pop off the page, or that their rapport--louche bad boy Crowley vs. fussy goody-two-shoes Aziraphable--is instantly lovable, but that it is so easy to read them as a gay couple who love and dislike one another in equal measure, and who mainly can't stand to be without each other.  (Even Pratchett and Gaiman's intended reading for the characters, as Cold War field operatives who discover that they have more in common with their counterpart than with the handlers from their own side who don't understand the reality on the ground, doesn't really contradict this take on them.)  It's easy to see how a fandom starved for queer representation would have embraced Crowley and Aziraphale and memory-holed the problems with the novel containing them, and so my reaction to rereading Good Omens was to think that if that part of the novel was bulked up, and the problems with its plotting and secondary characters addressed, there might be a solid adaptation to be made from it.

    Unfortunately, the Good Omens miniseries doesn't really deviate from the book at all.  The kindest interpretation you can put on this is that Gaiman, who is credited with writing all six episodes and who has spoken on several occasions about his feelings of indebtedness and stewardship when it comes to honoring Pratchett with this project, didn't feel that he had the right to alter the novel's plot (which after all belongs a lot more to Pratchett than it does to him).  But as a result, Good Omens replicates the novel's problems to a one.  It is too long (four hours would have been more than enough), its supporting characters aren't particularly interesting (and the ones with a lot of personality, like Sergeant Shadwell the witchfinder and his neighbor, Madam Tracy the medium-slash-prostitute, spend far too much time repeating the same joke, which is a lot less funny than it is misogynistic), and it tends to get bogged down in storytelling cul-de-sacs that look cool but inevitably turn into a drag (this is particularly true of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse subplot, despite the fact that this is one of the few places where Gaiman has cut the material down the bone; even at their most threadbare version, these characters are a gag that has been done better numerous times).  The crux of the novel--the fact that the antichrist has been accidentally raised as a normal human boy--occasionally gets enough room to breathe, but it is ultimately undone by the biggest change Good Omens makes to its source material, the addition of a voiceover by God (Frances McDormand).  To begin with, this is a way of delivering a lot of Pratchett's jokes, which were narrative- or footnote-based in the novel.  But eventually it becomes a way of smoothing over problems with plotting or making sure the audience doesn't miss a turn of plot.  McDormand's voiceover ultimately becomes incessant and distracting, and this is particularly problematic in the case of Adam, the young antichrist (Sam Taylor Buck).  The story has to convince us that he experiences an awakening in which he realizes that it is better to live in the world than rule over it, but the miniseries is so dependent on McDormand telling us how to feel that it can't sell this moment.

    What's left, then--besides a handsome adaptation that features enjoyable supporting turns from such actors as Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Michael McKean, Miranda Richardson, Derek Jacobi, and Benedict Cumberbatch--are Crowley and Aziraphale.  Here, the adaptation definitely recognizes its duties, and though it doesn't exactly bulk up the two principalities' role in the story (the ill-advised segment close to the climax in which the two are separated is still there, unfortunately) it does give David Tennant and Michael Sheen all the space they need to develop their characters' personalities and their bond with one another.  This includes a long segment in the mini's third episode that is one of only a handful of meaningful deviations from the book, in which we follow the twosome across the millennia as their friendship grows and deepens.  It also includes a much deeper commitment to the romantic reading of their bond--not, to be clear, to the extent of making it explicit, but to the point where Crowley and Aziraphale have extremely loaded conversations, exchange significant looks, and are clearly pained when they fall out.  Tennant and Sheen are unsurprisingly excellent, and for the scenes in which they are on screen, together and separately, Good Omens feels like the genuinely exciting, out-there piece of storytelling that its fans have been painting it as for decades.  It's just that when the credits roll, you realize--as you do with the book--that you'd much rather just hang out with Crowley and Aziraphale, having lunch and reminiscing about the French Revolution, than pay any attention to all that pesky saving the world business.

  • Carnival Row - Amazon seems to be establishing itself as the home of dubiously-premised but surprisingly well-executed genre series (see also The Boys, which I wrote about on my tumblr).  Carnival Row is apparently the dream project of Pacific Rim writer Travis Beacham, which he has been trying to get made for more than a decade.  Accordingly, the premise, style, and some of the focal points of the plot end up feeling somewhat dated and tired, but to a certain extent this is compensated for by a general competence in the realm of plotting and pacing that one can no longer take for granted in this age of "X-hours movie" streaming shows.  In the show's world, fairyland, called Tirnanog, is a real island, which some years ago became a battleground between two colonizing empires--the Burgue, who are English- and Victorian-coded (with a definite Steampunk slant, easily the show's most dated worldbuilding choice), and the Pact, who remain unexplored in the first season.  The years-long war ended with the Pact's victory, and with fairies who allied themselves with the Burgue made homeless and seeking refuge in Burgish cities, where they're met with prejudice, exploitation, and sometimes violence.  It's a premise that brings to mind various American adventures--Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq--and their aftermath.  Which means that Carnival Row's most befuddling choice is the decision to code the fairies as Irish.  Though the show's casting isn't lily-white (and there are more non-white fairies than humans) it repeatedly subjects white characters to forms of oppression and colonialism that, in the real world, tend to be experienced by POC, such a scene in which heroine Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) is horrified to discover that the ancient library she tried to protect in Tirnanog before being forced to flee from the Pact's forces has had its treasures looted and put on display in a Burgue museum.

    Vignette is a freedom fighter turned people smuggler turned refugee who arrives in the Burgue in Carnival Row's first episode.  Once there, she encounters Rycroft "Philo" Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), the Burgish soldier she fell in love with while he was stationed in Tirnanog.  Philo is now a police detective, and much of the season's storytelling focuses on his investigation of a series of murders that seem to mix the Lovecraftian with Jack the Ripper.  Despite billing itself as a two-hander--and despite the fact that Vignette has what it objectively the more dramatic background, as a refugee who has spent years fighting to survive--Carnival Row is really Philo's story, as he realizes that the murders he's investigating are connected to him, and to his concealed fairy heritage.  Vignette ends up disappearing for large chunks of the season, and when she does appear it is often her feelings for Philo--her love for him, her anger at his decision to give up on their relationship, her protectiveness when he is exposed as a half-breed--that drive her actions.  (This is particularly frustrating because Vignette's other important relationship is with fellow refugee and former lover Tourmaline (Carla Crome), who clearly wants to reignite their relationship, but who ends up being left by the wayside.)  Carnival Row thus ends up having a lot less to say about its putative subject, the travails of refugees and the destruction that colonialism wreaks on its subjects, than about its white male lead.  Bloom is good at conveying Philo's anguish and loneliness, and his journey of self-discovery is refreshingly unheroic--a particular highlight is a scene in which he lets Vignette's needling, and his own need for human connection, overcome his lifelong habits of secrecy, revealing his heritage to his human lover, only to be immediately and viciously rejected.  But waiting in the wings is a prophecy about him, which seems to promise that even once that journey is completed, Carnival Row will be much more about him than about people whose life story is more tragic and complex.

    Perhaps because of this choice of emphasis, Carnival Row ends up being much more interesting and compelling in its side-plots and moments than its central storyline.  Small worldbuilding details, such the fact that fairies write from right to left, give the world a concrete feeling, and secondary characters do a lot more than the main ones to convey the theme of dispossession and homelessness.  Simon McBurney, for example, plays a down-on-his-luck artist and academic who loses his only livelihood (and his only friends) due to Burgish bureaucracy and indifference, which he greets with the weary acceptance of a years-long refugee.  The season's most successful subplot revolves around a shallow society lady (Tamzin Merchant) who is at first scandalized when a wealthy fairy (David Gyasi) purchases the house next door, but is increasingly intrigued by him and the opportunities he seems to offer her as they get to know each other.  (In general, Carnival Row is much better at love stories than you'd expect, happily deploying romance tropes that other shows in its genre might scoff at or downplay.  Though it must be noted that while the show acknowledges the existence of same-sex attraction, all of the love stories it features are straight.)

    For all my problems with its choice of emphasis, Carnival Row is never boring or slack, and even characters who seem to have nothing to do with the basic concept of fairy refugees--such as the Burgish lord chancellor (Jared Harris), his wife (Indira Varma), and their callow son (Arty Froushan)--are well-written and engaging.  As the season draws to a close, it does a good job of tying its various storylines together, revealing unexpected connections between characters who had appeared to have nothing in common, and folding Philo's investigation into the larger politics of the city.  Carnival Row thus ends up feeling a lot more satisfying in its whole than its component pieces might warrant, and by the end of the season I was sufficiently moved by Philo and Vignette's troubles to want to keep watching their story.  But I think it's a good idea to manage expectations.  The show will probably never explore its premise as it deserves to, but it might make for an entertaining, well-made bit of genre storytelling.

  • Pennyworth - A prequel series about the youthful misadventures of Batman's butler sounds like the most soulless of cash grabs, so in the interest of fairness, it must be acknowledged that Pennyworth--produced by the American cable channel Epix, an odd choice given that DC is trying to promote its own streaming service, which is home to Titans, Doom Patrol, and others--is anything but lazy or unimaginative.  Set in a stylized, heightened 1960s England, the show is a distinctive mixture of fact and fantasy.  Its London, like the real one in that era, is caught between the traditionalism and stratification of the post-war years, and an explosion of new cultural and social ideas.  But it is also a city in which criminals are put in stocks and public executions are broadcast on TV (the condemned are hanged, then eviscerated).  More importantly, the country is caught in a battle between the Raven Society, an aristocrat-led fascist secret order who want to depose Queen Elizabeth and replace her with her Nazi uncle, and the No-Name League, a socialist movement that seeks to overthrow the government.

    Into this morass strides Alfred (Jack Bannon).  Or, as he's more commonly known, Alfie, cleverly referencing the character's most famous interpreter, Michael Caine, and one of his breakout roles.  Pennyworth's take on Alfred borrows from that movie--he's a sharp social climber with a chip on his shoulder about his working class origins (his father, we eventually learn, is a butler) whom ladies find irresistible--while making its protagonist more straightforwardly heroic.  This Alfie has recently been discharged from the army, after years of doing messy work in Britain's rapidly-contracting empire (the racial and colonialist implications of this background aren't really addressed by the show, though they are palpable whenever Alfie's military career is mentioned), and is trying to set up a security business.  In that capacity, he runs across Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), currently embedded in the No-Name League by the CIA, and Thomas's future wife Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), who is working for the League in earnest.  After being recruited by Thomas and Martha for several operations involving the League's efforts to defeat the Raven Society, Alfie finds himself increasingly embroiled in what could end up being another civil war.

    Especially for a superhero show, Pennyworth is refreshingly specific in its worldbuilding, both real and imaginary.  It pays a lot of attention to details of class, dress, and manners, from Alfred's mother's working class respectability to the no-nonsense country landowner manners of the Raven Society's leader, Frances Gaunt (Anna Chancellor).  But all of this fine worldbuilding ends up adding up to very little.  At the end of its first season, it's hard to discern where Pennyworth is going with its story (beyond, obviously, establishing Alfred in his canonical position as Thomas and Martha's butler in Gotham).  Its various plotlines spin in circles that don't seem to connect to each other on any thematic level (and only glancingly on the level of plot).  The political conflict between the Raven Society and No-Name League, for example, founders because the show is so obviously more interested in the former, with their fancy houses, rich clothes, and snooty accents.  We barely get a glimpse of the League, much less a sense of what its ideas and goals are--except that its leader, played by Sarah Alexander, is a hypocrite who is in cahoots with a mob boss.  Eventually it feels as if the entire conflict is more about aesthetics than politics.  Similarly, the "courtship of Batman's parents" storyline is clearly intended as an old-fashioned enemies-to-lovers trope--think Lily and James Potter--except that the more we see of the two together, the harder it is to wish for their union.  Thomas is revealed as a priggish control freak who constantly belittles Martha's modern-woman lifestyle.  Martha, meanwhile, has infinitely more chemistry and common ground with Alfred, a fact which the show acknowledges and then immediately backs away from.

    All of this could change, of course--will change, in the case of Thomas and Martha--and in fact one gets the sense that along with its detailed worldbuilding, Pennyworth has an elaborately worked-out plot of which we've seen only a first chapter.  (This would explain, for example, why so much time is spent on the character of Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith), a lesbian Raven Society honcho, and her sister Peggy (Polly Walker), a dominatrix with shady connections, even though neither of them have an important role in the season's plot.  Or, for that matter, a bizarre interlude involving Alesteir Crowley (Jonjo O'Neill), who seems to be in league with the actual devil.)  But so far, the only thing that makes following along with that story worthwhile is Bannon's performance.  His Alfred is a familiar but impeccably-executed combination of intelligence, pragmatism, ruthlessness, and a bit of leftover innocence and capacity for joy.  It's hard not to want to follow him along on his adventures.  The problem is that we know where these adventures will end.  The Alfie we meet has dreams--to rise above his parents' station; to marry his actress girlfriend, despite her posh family's objections; to amount to more than an instrument of someone else's intentions--and we know that he is going to end up giving up on all of them.  It's hard to imagine who thought it would be a good idea to depict Alfred as such a dynamic, compelling young person, and then ask us to enjoy the story of how he ended up sublimating himself to someone else's happiness.  At least in its first season, Pennyworth isn't giving us a story that justifies going along for that ride.

  • The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance - Growing up in Israel, I was familiar with the Jim Henson Company's TV efforts--Sesame Street, The Storyteller, The Muppet Show, and eventually Farscape--but not its film offerings.  That might explain why this series, a co-production with Netflix whose story is a prequel to Henson's 1982 classic The Dark Crystal, left me feeling a bit lukewarm.  The original movie, which I watched before starting the show, is visually stunning, not just in its character work but in how it constructs an entire natural environment out of felt and styrofoam.  But story-wise, it is extremely thin, leavened only by the type of woo-woo mysticism that seemed to capture the imaginations of a lot of white male genre creators in that era (most famously, George Lucas).  Age of Resistance does what it can to fill in the blanks in the movie's worldbuilding and cosmology--this is a much less empty and monocultural world than the one we see in the movie, and several characters, chiefly the demigod/caretaker of the planet Thra, Aughra (voiced by Donna Kimball), are given more personality and more complicated motivations.  But its basic story--a conflict between the fundamentally good Gelflings and the irredeemably evil Skeksis--remains thin and uninvolving.  When I compare Age of Resistance to other Netflix series aimed at younger viewers, like The Dragon Prince or She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which have similar premises, it's hard not to notice a profound difference in thematic richness and complex characterization.

    What's left, then, are the visuals, which are truly stunning.  The main difference between Age of Resistance and the original Dark Crystal (besides, that is, a significantly larger budget) is the availability of CGI, and there are scenes that clearly make use of those capabilities--a rock creature brought to life to act as the protector of one of the heroes was probably made mostly in a computer, and is no less emotive and winning for it.  But for the most part, the show still hinges on hand-crafted, hand-operated puppetry (and as a result probably has a longer shelf-life than most effects-heavy work today--the original Dark Crystal still looks amazing, nearly forty years on, while CGI-heavy movies from twenty or even ten years ago often look laughably bad).  The obvious standouts are the Skeksis, vulture-like creatures with elaborately-worked costumes and decorative details.  The Skeksis have convinced the Gelflings that they are benevolent rulers, guardians of the titular crystal from which Thra's natural equilibrium flows.  But in reality they are greedy and possessive, obsessed with eternal life, for which they corrupt the crystal and extract the living essence from Thra's denizens.  The best scenes in Age of Resistance are the ones that simply follow the Skeksis around, at one of their lavish banquets or as they squabble with each other for power and supremacy, the character design and puppetry working together to convey both overall moral corruption and distinct personalities for each character.  (The same, unfortunately, can't be said of the Gelflings, whose broadly-humanoid design lands them firmly in the uncanny valley.  Most of the emotional heavy lifting in their case is left to the voice actors, a storied group that includes Lena Headey, Helena Bonham Carter, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.)

    Equally impressive is how Age of Resistance constructs it environments.  Its story follows three Gelflings who each realize the truth about the Skeksis, and travel their world to try to warn others, which means that the series gets more space than the movie to show off Thra's various environs--luminous caves, verdant forests, austere palaces.  Each is designed from top to bottom to be interesting to look at, and each is animated at almost every level--the moss and lichen on a cave wall, the insects in the forest, and the animals everywhere.  The amount of work that went into crafting this world must have been incredible, and the distinctive richness of what's on screen often distracts from the otherwise unexciting storytelling (though maybe not for a whole ten hours--this is absolutely a series that could have stood to be eight or even six episodes long).  That richness is a bit of a double-edged sword, however, because it constantly reminds us that the end state of all this worldbuilding is to be unmade and brought to where it was in the movie--the planet made barren, the Gelflings nearly exterminated, their culture forgotten (much is made in the series about the differences and strained relationships between the different Gelfling clans, for example, a concept that didn't exist in the movie; the only conclusion to be drawn is that the genocide the Gelflings experienced between the two works eliminated every trace of their ethnic heritage, a conclusion whose horror the show doesn't feel equipped to address).  Not unlike Pennyworth, Age of Resistance is an extremely rich work aimed at an extremely uninteresting endpoint, and between that and its thin storytelling, it's hard to find much to hold onto here except the visuals.

  • Undone - Amazon's most ambitious 2019 series is not quite a slam-dunk, but still a remarkable achievement that is well worth a watch.  The series follows Alma (Rosa Salazar), an underachieving twenty-eight-year-old in San Antonio who begins experiencing visions of her long-dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), following a car accident.  Jacob insists that Alma, like him and his mother, has the power to bend time and change the past, and that she needs to travel to the night of his death--which he insists was not an accident but a murder--and save him.  This kicks off an adventure through space and time during which Alma delves into not only her father's theoretical physics research, and his belief that certain special individuals can cast their consciousness through time, but her tangled relationships with her overbearing mother Camila (Constance Marie), her perfectionist younger sister Becca (Angelique Cabral), and her boyfriend Sam (Siddarth Dhananjay), whose desire for commitment terrifies her.  The series is partly rotoscope animated (scenes were shot on a nearly-bare stage, and the actors' movements traced and then superimposed onto animated backgrounds) which strikes a perfect midpoint between the freedom that animation offers and its limitations at conveying human emotion.  The performances feel human and nuanced, but are set against a backdrop that can change on a whim, with Alma frequently bouncing between past and present, fantasy and reality, and even floating in outer space.  Undone is never less than fascinating to look at, while remaining grounded in very human, mundane relationships.

    Despite its cosmic premise and the mystery at its core, Undone grounds itself in ordinary and very specific details of Alma and her family's lives which give the entire series a lived-in feeling.  Details such as Alma's Native American heritage, and the fact that Camila prefers to downplay it because "people are not so nice to Indians", or Alma's disdain for the cult of the Alamo, situate the family in a specific cultural and ethnic setting.  Sequences such as the one in which Alma, in the middle of a fight with Sam, has a vision of his struggles as a boy who has just immigrated from India, and relates them to her own experiences as a deaf girl who has just received a cochlear implant and has to transition to a hearing school, are not only visually stunning but deeply affecting.  The animation is also presumably the reason that Undone is so short--each of the eight episodes is only 22 minutes long--and as a result the writing for it is tight and effective, delivering volumes of information in a throwaway line--such as a moment in which Jacob, a non-observant Jew, conveys his discomfort with Camila's deeply-felt Catholicism, which speaks to the cracks running throughout their relationship.  The impression formed is of a family that is real, and really troubled--long before Alma realizes it, the audience will have grown suspicious of Jacob and his domineering attitude towards parenting and training her, and it's no surprise to learn that there was more going in in the months before his death than a shady corporation out for his research.  Salazar's performance, which makes Alma lovable without downplaying her self-absorption, emotional volatility, and tendency to express her strong opinions at the most inopportune moments, is the glue that holds the entire series together.  As much as we want Alma to figure out time travel and (maybe) save her father, we also want her to get her life together and form better relationships with the people who love her.

    Where Undone stumbles is in bringing all these elements together to a satisfying ending.  The series that it most closely resembles is another distinctive, remarkable 2019 offering, Netflix's Russian Doll.  Both shows are about brash, messy women who are forced to confront fears of intimacy--rooted in childhood trauma and a family history of mental illness--by a time-bending McGuffin.  But a crucial difference is that Russian Doll quickly does away with the obvious explanation for its heroine's looping through time, that she has experienced a nervous breakdown (if anything, the series's premise functions more as a metaphor for mental illness and the way that human connection can help sufferers live with it).  Whereas Undone, the closer it gets to its ending, becomes more and more enamored by an over-familiar binary--is Alma really bending and changing time, or is her family legacy actually a more tragic one, of schizophrenia and suicide?  (Which, among other things, teeters on the deeply problematic trope of romanticizing mental illness by depicting it as an untapped superpower, which genre fiction is all too prone to doing.)  The series ends on an ambiguous note that leaves it unclear whether Alma has really changed the past and saved her father's life, or whether she has simply had a break with reality.  But what its writers seem not to have realized is that neither of those answers are particularly satisfying--either nothing we've watched for eight episodes has been real, or Alma has erased this version of herself from existence.  What we want is for Alma to find her way through her troubles, with or without time-bending superpowers, and Undone doesn't give us that.  Nevertheless, the journey leading up to this ending is so well-crafted, and so gorgeous to watch, that a messy conclusion can't entirely undermine it.