- In the Flesh - Despite its unnaturally long afterlife, the zombie craze is at least five years past its peak, so it's a bit surprising to find anyone, much less the BBC, trying to put a fresh spin on it. Still, the premise that In the Flesh comes up with is at least a little bit different, as its focus isn't on surviving the zombie uprising (which has already happened, and been quelled, by the time the series begins) but on one zombie's reintegration into society. In the series's world, zombies are actually suffering from Partially Deceased Syndrome, and can be returned to their old selves (if not to full life) with regular courses of medication. Teenager Kieran (Luke Newberry) is one such PDS sufferer, and at the series's beginning he is reunited with his family and returns with them to a small, insular Northern village, whose leaders--particularly Bill (Steve Evets), the head of the anti-zombie militia which emerged during the rising and who is now missing the respect and social status he gained during that period--are unhappy that Kieran and his kind are being released back into the population. To begin with, there's some interesting handling of the villagers' hostility to the policy of reintegrating PDS sufferers. In particular, the choice to fold that reaction into a historical distrust that rural Northerners feel towards Southern government (which, we're told, left the countryside to fend for itself during the worst of the rising, concentrating the army in the cities) feels nicely nuanced, since after all, not wanting Kieran and people like him in the neighborhood isn't an entirely unreasonable stance--he did kill people, and could return to his feral state at any time if he went off his meds. In fact, the series's opening scenes reveal that there are zombies who are choosing to do just that.
Before long, however, In the Flesh comes down on the side that sees anti-zombie sentiment as narrow-minded prejudice, and specifically an extension of the kind of small-town conformity that made the sensitive, weird, artistically-inclined Kieran feel out of place in his home town even before his undeath. The show finally draws a parallel between hatred of zombies and homophobia, as it slowly and delicately reveals that Kieran was involved with Bill's son Rick (David Walmsley), and committed suicide after Rick was killed in Afghanistan. When Rick turns out to be a PDS sufferer as well, the show gets to draw attention to the way that prejudice can sometimes seem irrationally distributed. Rick, who can perform traditional masculinity, gets a pass on his father's, and the town's, hostility, even though everyone knows that he's just as dead (and just as gay) as Kieran, and despite being vocal in Kieran's defense. The hypocrisy of forcing Kieran to sit in a designated PDS area at the local pub until Rick insists that he be allowed to sit with everyone (and Rick's hypocrisy in downing drinks he can't digest, and which make him sick, just to seem alive) draw attention to the fact that prejudice is sometimes less about what people are and more about how they present themselves--Rick is tolerated because he's "properly" ashamed of what he is and tries to perform normalcy, while Kieran is ostracized for not hiding it.
None of that, however, gets around the core problem of paralleling gays and zombies, which is the same core problem of any work that tries to parallel a discriminated-against group of humans with supernatural creatures who have the potential to be extraordinarily dangerous--works which nevertheless keep being made with no acknowledgement of how flawed their premise is. Not helping matters is the fact that In the Flesh is weirdly coy about actually using the G word, and won't even come out and say that Kieran and Rick were lovers even though there's no other way to interpret its insinuations. The result feels weirdly retrograde--as if we were back in the day when naming homosexuality on TV was impossible, and so PDS was needed as a metaphor for it. That's not to say that there's nothing worth watching for here. Kieran's arc of returning to life, going from numb and monosyllabic when he first returns home to a slow rediscovery of his emotions, his sense of humor, and his rebellious streak, is well handled, especially by Newberry, and a joy to watch (and all the more impressive given that it's accomplished over a mere three episodes). His relationships with his family--parents who are burying their pain and anger over his suicide beneath social niceties, and a sister who is torn between loyalty to her family and her new role as Bill's anti-zombie disciple--are meaty and affecting, and the suppressed yearning between him and Rick almost palpable. But when it comes down to it, it's hard to understand why In the Flesh needed to be a zombie story, and the most likely reason seems to be that if you told the same story about young gay people in a small, conservative town, it would come off as familiar to the point of being trite, and its ending tragic in a way that is nowadays considered exploitative and melodramatic. The series's end leaves some open threads, and it's possible that a second season will better develop the zombie side of the story, but as it stands In the Flesh feels like a well-made miscalculation.
- Rectify - Part of the reason that I'm coming down so hard on In the Flesh is that I'm writing this piece after having watched Rectify, one of the first original series produced by The Sundance Channel, which tells a very similar story without resorting to a genre twist that it isn't ultimately very interested in, and ends up doing much more with it. After nineteen years on death row, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released when DNA evidence sheds doubt on his conviction for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend. Like In the Flesh, Rectify is a series about a character who is returning to life, rediscovering not only the world he's been locked away from, but feelings and aspects of his humanity that had been allowed to whither during his years of incarceration. And as in the BBC's zombie show, the small Georgia town that Daniel returns to is not entirely welcoming, with many townspeople still convinced of his guilt, either because even as a teenager Daniel was an oddball who never quite fit in, or because their careers have been made on the back of his conviction (the premise of Rectify obviously draws very strongly on the West Memphis Three case, which makes it rather disappointing that the series's creators opted to replace the victims in that case with a raped girl). Even as he enjoys his newfound freedom, the authorities are planning to retry Daniel, and other townspeople might take the law into their own hands.
The focus of the first, six-episode long season (which spans the first six days after Daniel's release) is less on these developments, however, and more on Daniel's rough reintegration back into the world, and on his family's attempts to reconnect with him and help him with that process. The result can sometimes be a little stagey--Daniel in particular is prone to making long speeches that spell out his inner turmoil and the shock of being out in the world after having resigned himself to death--and the show sometimes can't seem to decide whether Daniel is suffering from arrested development, still the eighteen year old who was locked up all those years ago, or whether those years have allowed him to grow learned and introspective (his primary activity in prison, we see, was reading), only for the bustle of the real world to knock his serenity aside. But Young is a strong performer in either case, and the low-key, often dialogue-light scripts give him plenty of scope to convey how painful, and yet also wonderful, it is for Daniel to be back in the world after being locked up for so long. Rectify is at its best when it shows us Daniel experiencing the world--lying in the grass, or riding a bicycle with his teenage brother--or trying, and often failing, to process what's happened to him--at the instigation of his sister-in-law, he decides to be baptized, hoping to wash away the ugliness of what's happened to him, but the feeling of exhilaration proves temporary, and his interest turns out be more in the woman than in God. (The show is equally strong at showing the reactions of Daniel's bewildered, well-meaning family to his unexpected return, with Abigail Spencer and J. Smith-Cameron in particular shining as his sister and mother.) Rectify is less convincing at constructing the story of Daniel's new trial, or teasing the mystery of who really killed his girlfriend (including the question of whether Daniel might not, after all, be guilty), and towards the end of the season these plot strands veer towards the melodramatic, sharply contrasting with the low key naturalism of Daniel's regrowth. I'm a little concerned, given the events of the season's end, that the just-greenlit second season will veer more towards this melodrama, but for the time being I'm content to admire Rectify as a narrowly focused character drama, a window onto how the soul can be brutalized by incarceration, and how it can return to life.
- Top of the Lake - Continuing our theme of repressive small towns and the misfits who are victimized by them, the New Zealand-produced miniseries Top of the Lake begins with the attempted suicide of twelve-year-old Tui (Jacqueline Joe), who is discovered to be pregnant. When the girl disappears soon after, the police call in Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss), a former local who now works for the Australian police investigating sex crimes in minors, and who has returned to New Zealand to nurse her dying mother. The premise sounds like the beginning of a mystery, and in terms of its style and atmosphere Top of the Lake does share a lot with the moody, miserabilist Scandinavian sex crime mysteries that are all the rage these days. But the show's focus isn't really on the mystery (which anyway isn't a murder--Tui runs off on her own, and though the characters repeatedly stress how dangerous that is in her condition, she seems able to look after herself in the wild) so much as it is on the town of Laketop and its secrets, most of which touch on gender relations. Tui's father, Matt (Peter Mullan), is the town's local crime-lord, used to getting his own way in all things, and happy to resort to violence to get it, but driven by an abusive relationship with his mother. At the beginning of the series he's incensed because a lakefront plot of land called Paradise, where his mother is buried, has been sold out from under his nose to a commune of middle-aged big city women who have followed an androgynous guru (Holly Hunter) on a voyage of self-discovery, and find Matt's bluster and intimidation both ineffective and typical of what they came to Paradise to escape. Matt's youngest son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), and the only one to get out of the family business, is Robin's high school sweetheart, who like her is haunted by the night on which she was raped by several older men, who were never prosecuted. The police officer in charge at the time, Al (David Wenham), is Robin's current boss, who despite his urbane exterior is in too deep with Matt, and prefers to run the town according to an old-fashioned, eye-for-an-eye code of propriety rather than Robin's law and order approach.
The result is that Top of the Lake feels patchy--various plot strands, such as Matt's lingering dysfunction where his mother is concerned, or Robin's strained relationship with her mother, who compelled her to carry the baby conceived by her rape, are raised but neither delved into nor resolved--and a lot like a crash course in rape culture 101. Sometimes this can work, as the ways that the characters are shaped, and deformed, by the expectations of gendered behavior and roles they were raised with feel fresh and organic--when Johnno finds himself incapable of confessing his love to Robin until he runs the ringleader in her rape out of town, or when Al proudly tells her that her rapists "got theirs" because after she left town, he and several other men gave them a whuppin', and clearly expects her to be satisfied by this act (something, he explains, that Robin's father would have done if he had been alive). At other points the story is intriguingly slippery in the way it handles gender roles--in one scene, one of Hunter's disciples walks into the local bar and imperiously offers to pay for a quickie that takes place entirely on her terms, and the man who abides quite happily with those terms turns out to be Robin's chief rapist. But for the most part, Top of the Lake feels like it's parroting the basic talking points of your average feminist internet discussion, as when a boy who is the town misfit turns out to be gay, or when Matt, searching for the worst possible insult to hurl at the commune women, finally settles on "unfuckable."
It's no doubt a little churlish to complain at this obviousness, since for a lot of people the ideas that Top of the Lake handles are by no means obvious, and it lobs them at the screen with such speed that viewers who have never heard the term "rape culture" will no doubt feel overwhelmed by how baldly co-creators Jane Campion and Gerard Lee boil the balance of power in Laketown down to gender and the essentialist, supposedly chivalrous but really pernicious attitudes of the men in charge of it. On top of which, the show is beautifully shot, making excellent use of the New Zealand scenery, and often quite tense, and it delivers a moving performance from Moss, as a tough woman who has never been allowed to process a terrible trauma, who falls apart when forced to confront it again and then has to put herself back together. But none of that gets around the fact that to someone who has a bit of grounding in these issues, Top of the Lake doesn't feel as revelatory as it clearly wants to be, and that in the absence of that revelation, it's easier to notice how lackadaisical its approach to its central mystery is, how slack the pacing is in some of its episodes, and how abrupt its ending is. I don't want to come down too hard on Top of the Lake, because there isn't a lot of TV that is even trying to deal with issues of rape in a way that is non-sensationalist, and that recognizes it as a sickness of the whole community, not a single perpetrator. But on top of this admirable accomplishment, I wish that Top of the Lake were also better TV.
- Hannibal - Of all the many things that are weird about this prequel series to Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps the weirdest is how of a piece it feels with showrunner Bryan Fuller's still-lamented Pushing Daisies. Like that show (and Fuller's earlier Wonderfalls), Hannibal is an intensely visual series, one that often concentrates on interiors, and on the quirky, idiosyncratic design elements that some hardworking set designer has painstakingly collected and arranged just so within them--a weird labyrinth pattern on a bathroom tile that no sane person would ever want in their house, some beautifully carved wall paneling. One could, in fact, argue that the two shows have the same visual sensibility with different color palettes, Hannibal's being much darker and gloomier (that shift certainly expresses itself in the two shows' fondness for food porn--Pushing Daisies was all technicolor desserts while Hannibal is all meaty main courses in dark reds and browns, but both are somewhat disturbingly mouth-watering). And the truth is, for all the supposed difference in their subject matters, Pushing Daisies was arguably as preoccupied with death and darkness as Hannibal is, and its main character was, like Hannibal's (and despite the latter's title) a young man with an affinity for death that he doesn't fully understand, and which has warped his life. In Hannibal this is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a character from Red Dragon who is preternaturally empathetic towards violent killers--in Thomas Harris's version of the story, because he's just on the cusp of being one himself, though Hannibal is less convincing on this point. Emotionally fragile and rattled by the horrors that chasing serial killers confronts him with, Will resists the FBI's top profiler Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) when he tries to return him to active duty, so Jack suggests a release valve in the form of sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who quickly becomes entangled with the entire FBI team.
Hannibal is beautifully shot, well-acted, and has sharp, witty scripts that often riff in interesting ways on the canon established in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, but seven episodes into the season, I'm still not clear on what it's trying to do. Fuller has stated that he doesn't plan to tell the story of Lecter's capture until the show's second season (which at the moment seems an uncertain prospect), but that leaves the question of what story he's trying to tell in his first season. At various points in the season so far, Lecter has tried to hobble the FBI's investigation of his murders, drive a wedge between Jack and Will, torment Jack over the death of an FBI trainee, and encourage Will to give in to his murderous urges. But he hops between these schemes haphazardly, dropping one half-finished and picking up another, and sometimes seeming perfectly happy to actually help the FBI in their inquiries. There's no sense of what Lecter wants, or indeed of who he is as a person. This is a problem that afflicts Will as well--for all the show's harping on it, his growing disconnect from reality and alleged propensity for murder don't feel as urgent or as convincing as Hannibal needs them to be. (The only character who escapes this sense of malaise and comes off seeming like a real human being is Jack, and Fishburne's performance is surprisingly nuanced, especially to someone who has gotten used to thinking of him as little more than Morpheus.)
The result is a show made up of great scenes that don't seem to add up to any sort of whole. Most of the time, it feels as if Hannibal is putting all its eggs in the atmosphere and visuals basket, and here's where the comparison to Pushing Daisies makes Hannibal look not only like the lesser show, but like a heartless one. Pushing Daisies presented its audience with an over the top, heavily stylized visual aesthetic, and then pushed through it to reveal the real, raw emotions pulsing beneath all that carefully arranged set dressing--pain, grief, anger, yearning. Hannibal takes those emotions, and the terrible acts of murder and mutilation that express them or cause them, and reduces them to aesthetics. A major component of the show's visual style is how it arranges the bodies of murdered people--one killer uses his barely-alive victims as a growing medium for fungus, and the camera lingers over the grotesque sight of naked bodies with mushrooms sprouting out of them; another skins his victims' backs and rearranges the strips of flesh to resemble wings. It's all beautifully shot, of course, but also emotionally numb--we're not meant to feel pity for the victims of these mutilations, or even for their killers for being compelled to such horrible acts; we're just meant to feel awed (and a little horrified) at their inventiveness. With the invention of Hannibal Lecter Thomas Harris is largely responsible for pop culture's fascination with the urbane, sophisticated, impossibly intelligent serial killer, despite the fact that in reality most serial killers are pathetic mouth-breathers who get off on murders that are as unimaginative as they are cruel. Hannibal seems to be taking that fascination to its illogical conclusion, asking us to not only sympathize with Lecter (something that Harris's original books did already, by having Lecter target people who are rude or unpleasant) but to see human beings as he does--as pieces of meat to be artfully arranged and then eaten. The result is a smart, compelling show that I can't let myself think too much about, because when I do I find myself getting rather sick.
- Defiance - SyFy (and the various media sites that have been publicizing it like crazy) has proudly touted Defiance as a return to proper, future-set science fiction, with aliens, spaceships, and futuristic technology. And "return" does feel like the right way to describe the show, since despite an original premise, there's almost nothing about Defiance that isn't depressingly derivative. That premise is that several decades ago, a convoy carrying refugees from several alien species arrived on Earth, and promptly began terraforming the planet to suit their needs. A war ensued but ended indecisively, and now the transformed Earth is home to humans and aliens, who sometimes manage to live peacefully and sometimes not. There's an enormous amount of potential here: you've got an alien planet that is also Earth; humans living on a world that both is and isn't theirs; alien cultures forced to rub shoulders in the wake of an unforgivable violation. So it's sad but, given the venue, somehow unsurprising that instead of trying to explore this premise and all the questions it raises about the concept of alienness, what Defiance does instead is repeat the basic plot of Eureka--a sarcastic, bull-headed outsider (Grant Bowler) rolls into the titular weird town with his aggro daughter (Stephanie Leonidas), clashes with the goody-two-shoes, rule-following female leader (Julie Benz) who sees him as nothing but an oaf, and somehow manages to save the day through the sheer power of his masculinity, which leads to him being made the head of local law enforcement.
There's a healthy dollop of Firefly sprinkled over, so the hero is Mal Reynolds-ish ex-soldier and lout, his daughter is actually an adopted alien who has mad martial arts skills and psychic powers, the town is a ramshackle frontier settlement struggling to survive alien hordes and stay independent from surrounding empires, and one of the main characters is a madam (Mia Kirshner). (As an aside, when the time comes to sum up Joss Whedon's contribution to feminism in pop culture, let it not be forgotten that he has single-handedly convinced an entire generation of writers that no futuristic setting is complete without a Miss Kitty.) None of this, however, does much to conceal how conventional Defiance's storytelling ultimately is. This is a series whose main source of tension, so far, comes from local politics--a squabble for power between the town's two premier businessmen. That one of these characters is an alien and the other is excavating the ruins of St. Louis turns out to matter a lot less than you'd expect. In itself, of course, this needn't be a bad thing--a lot of science fiction series have gotten mileage out of telling entirely mundane stories in an alien setting. But to do that, you need sharp writing and well-drawn characters, and Defiance is derivative and unoriginal all the way down. In four episodes, there hasn't been a single surprising moment or character beat. Even stories that touch on alien cultures are thoroughly conventional--in one episode, human and alien authorities clash over an alien ritual that the humans see as cruel, but the story progresses with depressing predictability, and with no recognition of the fact that these are invading aliens we're talking about.
Only two characters on the show--Irisa, the hero's adopted alien daughter, and Stahma (Jaime Murray), the wife of the alien businessman who turns out to be the brains of his operation--feel like more than obvious types, but on their own they can't combat the predictability of the rest of the cast and the show's storytelling. Especially since, when given the chances to shade in these predictable characters, Defiance resolutely backs away. The most recent episode had the opportunity to portray the stick-in-the-mud mayor, Amanda, as an ambiguous figure when it reveals that she has for years lied to her sister about their mother's death--in reality, the mother chose not to go back through an alien attack to retrieve the younger sister, and told Amanda to meet her at prearranged location, which Amanda didn't do. Instead of suggesting that Amanda's good qualities, such as her devotion to her sister, come from the same rigid, unforgiving place that led her to cut all ties with her mother, the episode reaches the most simplistic conclusion, painting Amanda as a saint and her mother as a villain. It's an approach that is sadly typical of Defiance's storytelling, and doesn't leave me with much hope that this show will find--or that it is even searching for--its own identity.
- Orphan Black - For all of Defiance's inexplicably positive reception, the undisputed winner of the spring's genre show buzz wars is BBC America's Orphan Black. The show begins with Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), a grifter and ne'er-do-well who has just left her drug dealer boyfriend and stolen his stash of drugs, witnessing the suicide of Beth, a woman who looks just like her. She immediately switches identities with Beth, scheming to empty her bank accounts, but soon discovers that the dead woman was one of several doppelgangers, or rather clones, who are now being hunted and killed off. It's easy to imagine that the idea for Orphan Black came from someone watching Dollhouse and wondering what that show would have been like with someone who could actually switch personalities on a dime in the lead role, and Maslany is indeed the chameleon that Eliza Dushku wasn't, so convincing as several very different people that it's sometimes easy to forget that these characters are being played by the same actress (especially when the clones appear in the same scene together, which is handled seamlessly not only by the production but again by Maslany, who has to act against herself and carries off this task, too, as if it were effortless). Impressive as this is, however, what it amounts to is an acting exercise, and when called upon to wrap that exercise in a plot, Orphan Black stumbles. To begin with, Sarah, though impressive for her quick thinking and resourcefulness as she insinuates herself into Beth's life, is frustratingly short-sighted. It takes her forever to realize that something strange was going on in Beth's life, or to fully commit to investigating her other clones. For the most part this is because of her focus on getting at Beth's money, but this too is in service of a short-sighted goal--Sarah wants to regain custody of the daughter she abandoned, and doesn't realize that merely having a lot of money isn't enough to make her a good mother. Later in the first season, Sarah grows as a person and starts caring about people other than herself (well, technically, since the people she comes to care about are her clones, she still is concerned only with herself), but this redemption arc feels unearned--no one whose first response to witnessing a suicide is robbing the dead should find it so easy to rediscover their moral compass.
What's particularly disappointing about this is that Orphan Black had the chance to do something different and new with the reformed grifter premise. The encounter with her clones could have spurred Sarah to introspection, to wondering what makes her who she is, and what kind of person she would be if she'd grown up in different circumstances. Instead, Orphan Black's writers don't seem to have considered the importance of the fact that their main characters are genetically identical, fundamentally the same person. They've taken the Dollhouse approach, in which the clones are merely masks to be worn--a cop, a housewife, a scientist--and in constructing these characters they've often plumped for the most stereotypical versions of these types. So Alison, the affluent housewife, is uptight and a little bit racist, and Cosima, the scientist, is geeky and slightly weird. Maslany brings both of these characters to life--Alison, in particular, is a delight, barely tamping down on her rage at the fact that her picture perfect life is being disrupted by her being a freak of nature--but she can't find the common thread that lies at both their cores, because it doesn't exist. Orphan Black had the opportunity to ask some interesting questions about identity--what does it mean, for example, that Cosima is attracted to women while none of the other clones are?--but its choice to construct its characters from stereotypes scuttles that chance--Cosima's queerness feels like yet another trope, like the fact that, as a scientist, she naturally wears glasses even though none of the other clones seem to need corrective lenses. What's left, then, is a technothriller, and an effective and interesting one at that, and I suppose that it's not fair for me to criticize a show for not telling the story I would have liked it to tell. Still, I can't help but wish that the most successful new genre show of the year had a little more ambition.
Monday, May 13, 2013
The (Belated) Pilots of Spring
The original plan was for this post to go up a month or so ago, when all of these shows were really at the pilot phase or just a bit after it. But with one thing and another, here we are already at summer's doorstep (and thus, at the doorstep of the summer pilot season), and some of the new shows I'm about to write about have already wrapped up their debut seasons. Still, there's a lot here to talk about--some interesting ideas even if the execution sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, and several venues that I hadn't been paying much attention to and which now might be worth a closer look.