Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition, Part 2

This year's fall pilot season is shaping up to be rather muted.  Which, to be fair, is an improvement on the dreck of previous years, but also not much to talk about.  It probably tells you all need to know about the fall pilots of 2016 that there are two different time travel shows--Timeless and Frequency--and neither of them are worth saying anything about.  Nevertheless, here are a few series, good and bad, that I thought were interesting enough to write about, even if I'm not sure I'll be sticking with all of them.
  • No Tomorrow - Over the last few years, I've come to trust the CW and its programming instincts.  Not only does it air some of my favorite shows--iZombie, the smartest superhero show on TV; Jane the Virgin, still going strong and finding real drama at the heart of cheesy soap opera plot twists; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the funniest, most original, most heartbreaking shows in existence--but its DC superhero block is easily the most rock-solid, self-assured iteration on the genre on either the small or big screen (and I say that as someone who has given up on The Flash in disgust, and might let go of Arrow by the end of the year).  So I came to No Tomorrow with a lot of goodwill.  Yes, the premise is absurd--high-strung Evie (Tori Anderson) meets her dream guy, Xavier (Joshua Sasse), falling in love as much with his free spirit and determination to seize the day as with his rugged good looks, only to learn that he genuinely believes that the Earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid in eight months.  But the CW has made meaty, emotionally resonant fare out of even sillier (not to mention potentially offensive) premises, so I was willing to let No Tomorrow win me over.  In the end, what I've found is both less ridiculous, and less promising, than I'd hoped.

    Sasse and Anderson are both extremely charming, and do a great job of selling their nascent relationship as something that is based not only on attraction and zaniness, but genuine connection.  No Tomorrow has the good sense not to hang its every plot twist on Xavier's belief in the coming apocalypse, and the challenges that he and Evie face in their relationship are often as much about their differing lifestyles, or her fluctuating comfort levels with his carpe diem worldview, as they are about this fundamental disagreement.  At its best moments, No Tomorrow is about building a relationship with someone who is very different from you, whose differences are sometimes intriguing but just as often concerning (to its credit, the show faces head-on the very real possibility that Xavier might be dangerous or unhinged, and has Evie and her friends investigate this possibility with all due seriousness).  But it lacks the core of emotion that has made Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend--both shows that are ultimately about very serious things, such as family, or dealing with mental illness--so compelling.  There doesn't seem to be as much beneath the surface of No Tomorrow's quirkiness as there is in those shows, and it's hard to imagine the show finding more than a few notes in its premise, or in Evie and Xavier's relationship.  For the time being, those notes are still quite enjoyable--especially since the show is wisely developing Evie and Xavier's worlds, introducing friends, coworkers, and family members for them to interact with--but I doubt that No Tomorrow will join the pantheon of weird-yet-oddly-wonderful CW shows.

  • Pitch - In the first installment of this year's fall show reviews, I wrote about the dreadful This Is Us.  As several commenters on twitter pointed out, you can feel Aaron Sorkin's influence on that series, particularly its fondness for overheated speeches and general air of self-satisfaction.  Pitch feels like good quasi-Sorkin to This Is Us's bad quasi-Sorkin.  Like the earlier show (with whom it shares a creator, Dan Fogelman), it is fond of melodrama and speechifying.  But unlike This Is Us, Pitch has a premise that is semi-plausible and convincing, characters who are compelling rather than off-putting, and, most importantly, the ability to reach for something raw and real beneath its stylized, self-conscious surface.  The show begins with rookie Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) taking her place as the first woman in major league baseball, and charts her journey in the clubhouse, and as a new national icon to women and girls.  Along for the ride are Ginny's agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter), eager to push her charge to stardom, fading player Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), coach Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), and general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos).

    My biggest issue with Pitch is that it veers unpromisingly between the most blatant sports-movie clichés--in the pilot episode, Ginny chokes during her first game, and is then inspired to make a comeback by an inspirational speech from Mike--and the most obsessive kind of inside baseball details that I have trouble parsing, much less caring about.  What keeps the show together despite these plotting issues are its characters, and even more than that, the relationships they forge--the growing friendship and mutual appreciation between Mike and Ginny, the surprisingly mature romance between Mike and Amelia, and the political machinations between Al, Oscar, and the team management.  But Pitch wants to be more than a workplace drama--it wants to comment about the intersection between entertainment, celebrity, gender, and race--and at this it is only intermittently successful.  An early episode in which Ginny must navigate an insensitive but ultimately innocuous comment from Al, a heavily-publicized case of locker-room sexual assault, and the needs of her own career, makes a powerful point about the constant pitfalls that lie before her as a trailblazer, a celebrity, and an athlete.  But there doesn't seem to be much life in these topics--four episodes into the series, it's already repeating points, about the weight of Ginny's celebrity, the difficulty of her relationship with her overbearing father, or Mike's ambivalence about his waning career.  There are a lot of great ingredients that go into Pitch, but the stew that they make up is already losing its flavor, struggling to justify itself as a story rather than an idea.

  • Westworld - Easily the most-anticipated new series of the fall, the consensus that has already formed around HBO's latest foray into genre is that it represents the channel's attempts to grapple with its own reputation for prurient violence, particularly violence against women (see Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, and Aaron Bady in The Los Angeles Review of Books).  You can see how that consensus has formed--Westworld builds on the 1973 movie to imagine a lush and impeccably-detailed theme park in which customers pay lavishly to indulge their every fantasy, which almost inevitably seem to involve murder, mayhem, and of course rape.  The metaphor for how HBO's pretensions to highbrow entertainment ultimately rest on the sumptuously-filmed and -costumed violence of Game of Thrones, True Detective, and The Night Of pretty much writes itself.  For myself, I'd like to believe that there's more to Westworld than this glib reading, first because I simply do not believe that anyone at HBO possesses this level of self-awareness--this is, after all, the channel whose executives were genuinely taken aback, in the year 2016, by the idea that their shows had become synonymous with violence against women--and second because it's by far the least interesting avenue of story the show could take.

    If you want to read Westworld as a meta-commentary about storytelling (and to be clear, I agree that there's a thread of this running through the show, though to my mind it's far from the central one), you also have to face up to how tedious and unimaginative the stories-within-the-story are.  Leaving aside the questionable notion of anyone spending money to play cowboys and Indians anymore, the stories that take place within Westworld, in which the theme park's guests are invited to track down fugitives, go on treasure hunts, or just fool around with prostitutes, simply don't seem worth the price of admission.  They also take it as a given that the guests' fantasy life is thoroughly conventional (not to mention defaulting to the straight male gaze).  Everyone, we're told, wants to rape the comely, innocent rancher's daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)--this is literally the purpose of her existence in the park.  No one seems interested in raping her paramour, the stalwart Teddy (James Marsden), or, indeed, in having a consensual threesome.

    If Westworld is of any interest to me, it is because of the parallel story about the robot characters' (known as "hosts") growing awakening into sentience, and into an awareness of the brutality to which they've been repeatedly subjected.  That the show comes from Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan is the main reason I'm hopeful that it will tell such a story well and in interesting ways, but so far Westworld is being frustratingly slow in building up towards it.  Each of the four aired episodes advances multiple plotlines only fractionally, trusting the audience to follow along in hopes of an interesting resolution to some of the more opaque questions that the show has been teasing: what is the elaborate new storyline promised by park creator Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and why has he suddenly given the hosts the ability to remember their past lives (and deaths)?  Which, if any, of the park's administrators and technicians are robots themselves?  Who is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest who believes that he is about to unlock the game's "deepest level"?  The result is frustrating, carried along by the show's magnificent production values and some fine performances (Wood is a standout as a being coming into self-awareness who is also, simultaneously, a woman starting to realize her own power in a world ruled by men, but pretty much everyone in the cast is very good), but not yet coalescing into an actual story.  I'm still watching Westworld because I have hope that it will become the story I want it to be--and faith that Nolan is both interested in that story, and capable of pulling it off--but it's not hard to see why so many reviewers are assuming that it amounts to little more than self-reflection.  At this point in its first season, the show still hasn't staked out a claim to being about anything but itself.

  • Class - It's strange to find the BBC, in 2016, getting back in the Doctor Who spin-off business.  It's even stranger for that spin-off to be Class, whose Buffy-esque mixture of genre elements, teen drama, and snarky humor would have seemed derivative and predictable even in the heyday of the NuWho universes's expansion ten years ago.  It's particularly strange that Class comes from the pen of Patrick Ness, whose written novels--particularly the Chaos Walking trilogy--are so original and uncompromising.  In Class, he has instead plumped for the most familiar of tropes--a group of students discover that their school lies on a hellmouth, and must band together to defend the Earth from the alien menaces that emerge from it--and executed them with so little verve that the characters themselves sometimes seem bored with their own story.  There are some original plot points--one of the teenagers is an alien prince, and his slave-cum-bodyguard is masquerading as a teacher--and some nods towards inclusivity--the alien is also gay, and two of the other teenagers are the children of, respectively, Pakistani and Nigerian immigrants, who bond over their shared experience as people of color in a mostly-white environment.  But none of this feels sufficiently fresh to make up for Class's familiarity.  It could simply be that I've aged out of this kind of story, but even kids these days have so many other alternatives if they're looking for something Buffy-inspired--from Teen Wolf to The Vampire Diaries to Doctor Who itself--that it's hard to understand what sort of need Class thinks that it's fulfilling.

20 comments:

Pascoe said...

"the questionable notion of anyone spending money to play cowboys and Indians anymore"

I've seen a few people saying this and it confuses me given the success of Red Dead Redemption and the current hype going round for that game's sequel. Is it that you find it hard to believe the particular kind of guests we see in Westworld would choose to go there?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not a gamer myself, so I've tended to view Westworld from that perspective (as, I think, most of the reviewers writing about it have done). You're right that the gamer perspective is instructive given how much of the show's story is about how a game is constructed and how players interact with it - I hope there's more writing addressing the show from that point of view - but I'm not sure that's a sufficient response to my point that Westerns are an old-fashioned genre that not a lot of people fantasize about anymore. Yes, there are Western-themed games - just as there are a few Western movies that come out every year - but I still think that for most people, if you offered them a chance to play around in a fantasy world, the Wild West would be pretty far down their wish list.

Pascoe said...

Fair points, yeah. And I guess (unlike the film), the suggestion so far is that Westworld is the only 'world' available.

Unknown said...

I would imagine that many non-westerners would ask the same question about western civilization's obsession with the European Middle Ages as filtered through Tolkien. Why do we keep going back there and telling stories about it? And yet we have Game of Thrones and World of Warcraft taking place in that setting and the new Legend of Zelda game hotly anticipated. I think the Wild West is a setting that has broad cultural familiarity for people in this American-seeming society. It would be interesting to see if there is an Egyptian version of Westworld in this universe where people play as Pharaohs.

I think the gaming perspective is the right one to take. Games that are innovative technologically tend to garner attention and an audience. Gritty urban crime was certainly a genre known from TV and movies, but there wasn't a huge video game audience for it until Grand Theft Auto III came out. The sandbox nature of that game's world and the way you could interact with it had never really been seen before and so the game was phenomenally successful. The immersive nature of the Westworld experience and the hyperrealism of the robots (not to mention the wanton sex, violence, and sexual violence also seen in Grand Theft Auto) could itself be a draw even if there's no particular attraction to the setting in and of itself.

gareth-wilson said...

I haven't seen Westworld, but from what I've heard the robots can't harm the guests. There's an obvious problem with that - every game needs some kind of defeat condition to make it interesting. So maybe they do have a way to simulate the guests dying, but they'll only use it when the robots "rebel". So it's not a Western game, it's a science fiction game about fighting off rebellious robots.

Aoede said...

Jeez, and we were thinking of watching Westworld. That sounds terribly dull and unpleasant.

Aoede said...

(I include in that all of the comments as well.)

Stuart Worthington said...

@gareth-wilson

There don't appear to be any "lose" conditions in the park, but guests can be mildly injured, and also incarcerated. So it's not so much a videogame as a lavish, expensive session of dress-up and make-believe. With that said, there are also Easter Eggs and hidden storylines, and those seem to be the main draw for the more "hardcore" guests.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Stuart:

True, but for all that the purpose of the park seems more experiential than "gameological", with the unspoken but very obvious corollary that the experiences most guests crave are negative ones - that the main appeal of the park is the freedom to misbehave, to do anything from sleeping around to murder and rape. See, for example, the guest who explains to his friend during Teddy's first ride into the park that he had so much more fun on his second trip as a "black hat" than on his first trip, in which he simply did Western things like hunting and fishing.

And, leaving aside that this is pretty alien to what I want from my games (again, I'm not that much of a gamer so my perspective is surely not representative), this is also pretty foreign to my understanding of human nature. As I say above, I'm totally open to the idea that what guests get from the park is less a narrative, and more a safe space to explore their darkest fantasies. I just don't believe that those fantasies would be so mundane and one-size-fits-all.

Stuart Worthington said...

I think I agree with you, Abigail. I like the show, but my biggest problem with it so far is that the "park experience" feels uninspired, and also completely male-coded. My mother (also a watcher of the show) asked me what the park offers to women, and I couldn't really come up with a good answer.

We see women guests, of course, but they seem to always be playing male-coded roles, hunting and whoring and so on. Are there "bodice-ripper" storylines? Those would be no more trite than the by-the-numbers bounty-hunting plots, but the show doesn't seem interested in exploring something like that. Hell, it doesn't even seem to be aware something like that exists.

Ruzz said...

Didn't know you liked iZombie - I thought it was my own guilty pleasure. Have you written about it - a quick search of the blog suggested not ... and if so, it would be really interesting to have your thoughts.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I had been vaguely planning to write something about iZombie this summer, but then the end of the second season threw me for a loop. One of the things I like about the show is how it resists the tropes of the zombie narrative, treating even the infected as people, whose lives matter and who can't simply be dismissed with a quick headshot, and frequently criticizing the actions of characters (chiefly Major) who believe that the existence of zombies justifies throwing all the norms of civilized behavior out the window.

Obviously, the second season finale puts a huge question mark on that entire reading, so I'll probably hold off on writing about the show until I see a bit of the third season, and can tell if the show has made a genuine shift in its approach, or if the finale was an aberration.

Aoede said...

So I found myself watching the pilot of Westworld with a friend and... while I found it an unpleasant experience, I wouldn't say that it's because it's unlike games. Video games as they exist today abound in crappy, boring excuse-plots that exist only to enable lots of shooting, as well as players who like to do horrible things in-game (the more realistically gory -- or faux-realistically, an exaggeration of realism twisted to emphasize the gore -- the better). The only thing I'm hesitant to believe is that players would want all this to be in the physical world -- like, do you have to take horse-riding classes? Gun-aiming classes? The typical gamer is certainly not bothering with all that, they just want to jump straight in and start doing stuff.

Like, sure, there's the question "What about all the other kinds of stories you can tell, the different experiences you could create?", but if this company is the only one in the world with that technology (is it?) and it seems hell-bent on creating the themepark version of Hatred crossed with GTA or something, then that is not the least believable thing.

I have to say I often found myself wondering whether the writing was just bad, or whether they were deliberately rendering a faithful emulation of video-game writing, and/or whether they were deliberately rendering a faithful emulation of video-game writing in order to cover their asses and not have to actually write good stories-within-stories.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

One potential spoke in the "Westworld is GTA" theory is that we're repeatedly told that the park is prohibitively expensive, and that the people who go there are the elites. Not that the rich don't play games (including violent ones), but the current gaming market is a relatively cheap form of entertainment with mass appeal. I'm not sure the assumptions of that market port over to a form of gaming that only the 1% can access - in particular, for the money that the guests are paying, I'd expect their fantasies to be tailored for them, not the generic violence and depravity we've been seeing.

(About the horses, there was actually a discussion on twitter about this today, with people wondering why the park has robotic horses as well as hosts. From a practical standpoint, that made sense to me, since as you say the guests wouldn't want to have to learn physical skills such as horseback-riding, and a robotic horse might be more forgiving of that kind of ignorance. But it also occurred to me today that in a world in which you take it as a given that your guests are going to engage in all forms of violence and depravity, you really don't want to assume that they'd draw the line at violence against animals.)

Unknown said...

As more episodes come out, I'm more and more confused about the park experience. We're told, as you say, that this entertainment is for the super-rich. We're further told, by William's douche soon to be brother-in-law that the "hardcore" stuff is physically far away from the center of the park. So, besides William and Douche Bro-in-law, were there any actual humans at the Gold Orgy? Are there roughly a hundred robots on a Gold Orgy loop that maybe 5% of the 1%ers who can actually afford to go to the parks will ever access? How does this make economic sense?

I find myself wishing that they had done some standalone episodes like Dollhouse did in Season 1 that showed how the concept worked. And then I feel bad for wishing that because those episodes were awful.

zahrawithaz said...

That is a dead-on accurate assessment of No Tomorrow. I too went in with a lot of CW goodwill, and found a very well-executed romantic comedy, pleasant to watch and respectful of its female audience, but no deeper core. I might keep watching, and I might not.

I'm curious about why you gave up on The Flash--I haven't seen this season yet and am debating whether or not to catch up. Although I recall you treating that show far more seriously in its questionable world-building than I am capable of, so your deal-breakers may be very different. (And I say this as someone who has not been able to sit through more than one episode each of Arrow: The Manpain Show or Legends of Terribleness.)

I particularly like your point about the nonsensical nature of Westworld being generic violent fantasy given that it caters to the 1%, who would expect a personalized experience (because this is what they expect, and get, everywhere else). I actually work with members of the top 10% for a living, and errors like that bother me enormously; they get in the way of actual critiques of income inequality and the structures that prop it up. This just seems like sloppy thinking (all humans are terrible + all rich people are terrible), or more accurately, "We want to do something ridiculously expensive! Rich people will pay for it." This is not even close to how reality works (see higher education in the US right now for a real-life example).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You can get a sense of my frustrations with The Flash from the show's tag on my tumblr. But in a nutshell: I hated the way the show treated its female characters, and particularly the way it infantilized Barry's love interest Iris; and I grew increasingly disgusted with the show's fascism, chiefly the concept of Barry's illegal secret prison, and the fact that he has no reaction when one of his allies murders a prisoner there. The latter might be taking the show's worldbuilding too seriously, as you say, but given that The Flash bills itself as the lighthearted, happy DCTVU show, it's extremely frustrating to me that issues like this aren't considered serious enough to impinge on its sunny tone. For all their respective flaws, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow actually try to face up to some serious issues, and don't shy away when their characters make morally questionable choices.

(There's a post I keep wanting to write about how superhero stories end up recapitulating the points made by BLM and other anti-police brutality activists, but from a perspective that sees that brutality as justified - and thus reiterates the perception that some people are so inherently dangerous that they don't deserve the protection of the law and due process. When I complained somewhere online about the cell death storyline on The Flash, someone responded to say that yes, but the murdered man was a really bad guy. Which he was, but I had to struggle to explain that this is exactly the kind of thinking that justifies, in some minds, the deaths of people like Sandra Bland or Eric Garner.)

About Westworld, the whole "if we make something really expensive, rich people will buy it" problem was a huge pitfall for Dollhouse, which never managed to convince you that a rich john would be able to tell the difference between a doll designed to their specifications, and a skilled escort. It might have been interesting to see how the show would have shook out if the writers had started from the assumption that Westworld is basically Disneyland - I can't help but feel that that would have offered more fruitful venues for exploring issues of inequality and abuse.

Unknown said...

Abigail, love this. I would really be interested in a Nussbaum overview of 'Westworld' whole-of-season 1. I don't see anything on ATWQ about your views on 'Black Mirror'? Surely a big gap? :)

gareth-wilson said...

The only way the Dollhouse works is if the Dolls are actually cheaper than their natural equivalents. Which implies the whole scheme doesn't actually make any money, but is just an elaborate field test for the technology. The actual show doesn't make this explicit, but the Dollhouse creators did have bigger ambitions than just being high-tech pimps.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Unknown:

I'd have to watch the thing first! It is on my list, but we'll have to see where it fits in, and then whether I have something to say.

Gareth:

In fairness to Westworld, there is a line in the first episode in which one of the executives at the park states that there's another purpose to it, which presumably means that the technology is intended to be used elsewhere.

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