Sunday, November 11, 2018

Streaming in the Fall

A few weeks ago I noted that this year's fall network TV crop has been singularly unimpressive, so much so that I didn't even bother to review any of them.  At this point, there aren't any new shows that I'm following (I briefly hate-watched A Million Little Things, a This Is Us clone about suicide and depression that is just as risible as that description suggests; but life is too short to subject yourself to that kind of tripe for too long). And for whatever reason, the cable networks haven't kicked off any of their prestige shows yet (we'll be getting The Little Drummer Girl and My Brilliant Friend in a few weeks, though).  Never fear: the streaming networks are here to fill the gap.  I didn't love any of these shows, but at least they offer more to talk about than their network counterparts, as well as suggesting some new directions that TV in general could move in.
  • Chilling Adventures of Sabrina - Netflix's stylish, spooky remake of the cheesy 90s sitcom (both of which are based on the Archie Comics character) has a lot of quirks and details that make watching it a rewarding experience.  There is, for example, the show's careful attention to visual detail, whether in its richly decorated sets or its impeccable costuming, from Sabrina's adorably moddish outfits, to her aunt Zelda's 40s-style dresses and suits (always accentuated with a dramatic fur or veil), to the sumptuous gowns worn by the show's various witch characters.  Or the fact that one of Sabrina's friends, Susie Putnam, is clearly coming to terms with her gender identity, and is played by a young non-binary actor, Lachlan Watson.  Or the delightful scene-stealing of Sabrina's cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), who turns on a dime from too-cool-for-school loucheness to genuine vulnerability, not to mention dismay at Sabrina's willingness to thumb her nose at anyone more powerful than her.  Or Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto as Sabrina's aunts Hilda and Zelda, who effortlessly find the beating heart beneath the show's thick layer of camp, and craft a dysfunctional but ultimately loving sisterly bond.  Or, for that matter, the rest of the show's cast, which is stacked with ringers all perfectly happy to chew the scenery as Sabrina's foils and helpers--Richard Coyle as Faustus Blackwood, the headmaster of Sabrina's witch academy who is sometimes her ally and sometimes her enemy; Michelle Gomez as Ms. Wardwell, a teacher at Sabrina's human school who is nudging her towards embracing her witch heritage; or Tati Gabrielle as Prudence, the imperious mean girl at Sabrina's school whose deeper substance does nothing to curtail her cruelty.

    Unfortunately, the litany of things to praise about Chilling Adventures comes to crashing halt with Sabrina herself, and with the story the show weaves around her.  Kiernan Shipka is perfectly game to deliver anything the show's writers (the same team that gave us Riverdale) want from her, but her skill only serves to reveal how thoroughly empty and poorly defined the character she's been given actually is.  The crux of the season is that Sabrina, half-mortal and half-witch, has to commit to the latter side of her heritage on her sixteenth birthday, and leave her mortal life, including her friends and boyfriend, behind forever.  When she chooses not to, and to remain in both worlds, she sets off a chain reaction in the highest reaches of witch society, which reveals that there are dark plans afoot for her.  But Sabrina herself never feels interesting enough, or compelling enough, to justify all this hullabaloo around her.  She occasionally balks at the sadism and indifference to human life that run rampant through witch society, but she also does a lot of ethically questionable things without seeming terribly affected by them.  As Sonia Saraiya writes, she's more Harry Potter than Hermione, reacting to challenges that are right in front of her, but never developing any sort of coherent worldview.

    Beyond a certain pluckiness, Sabrina doesn't seem to have much of a personality, and she doesn't grow, or even gain much self-awareness, over the course of the season.  When she makes a dramatic choice in the season finale that finally forces her to pick between her two worlds, it rings hollow, because we've gotten so little sense of who she is that it's hard to know what this choice actually means--or, for that matter, to believe that the second season won't quickly roll it back.  At a shorter length, this hollowness at Chilling Adventures's center might be easier to ignore--there is, after all, so much else about the show that is fun and entertaining.  But the longer it runs, the more obvious it becomes that beyond its style and its cool moments, this show has no idea what it is, or what story it wants to tell.

  • Homecoming - Amazon's latest miniseries is produced and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, which tells in both the show's look, and its dominant tone of paranoia and alienation.  Julia Roberts plays Heidi, a counselor at the titular center, which advertises itself as offering a program to help soldiers returning from overseas deployment to prepare for civilian life.  In conversations with her oily, fast-talking boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale), however, it becomes clear that Homecoming's actual project is to treat PTSD, and that it is doing so by surreptitiously introducing a drug into the soldiers' food.  Heidi forges a particular bond with one of her subjects, Walter (Stephan James), who grows suspicious of Homecoming's project, and whose personality changes eventually alarm Heidi herself.  A second storyline takes place several years later, when a DoD investigator played by Shae Whigham starts looking into complaints about the now-shuttered Homecoming center, and tracks Heidi down.  Her cryptic responses to his questions initially seem like stonewalling, but it eventually becomes clear, to both Heidi and to us, that she has lost all memory of her time at Homecoming.

    As he does in Mr. Robot, Esmail deploys a distinctive visual style to convey the smallness of his characters when set against a joint government-corporate edifice to whom they are merely items on a budget.  Early scenes in which Walter and the other patients try to figure out the catch to Homecoming's combination of luxury and isolation have a definite Prisoner-ish vibe.  Familiar tics--the copious use of negative space, long pans across office parks or cubicle farms, characters shot in extreme long takes amid countless rows of storage racks, a jangling, discordant soundtrack--combine, as they do in Mr. Robot, to create the sense that what's happening to the characters is at once deeply sinister, and depressingly mundane.  When we get a glimpse of Homecoming's corporate overlords, they come off more like a cult, each level promising the one below it that enlightenment, and some kind of master plan, are just around the corner.  But then the curtain is pulled back, revealing just another layer of pointless grasping at status and wealth, to which end people like Walter, Heidi, and even Colin are merely chips to be played.

    As in Mr. Robot, however, this is a level of cynicism that eventually comes to feel hollow and uninteresting.  There are some good ideas circling around Homecoming, that might have turned it into a Black Mirror-esque examination of how capitalism exploits even the most altruistic of endeavors to perpetuate itself, as when we learn that a memory-altering drug initially developed to treat PTSD is being used by the corporation's top honchos to give themselves deniability for the atrocities they've signed off on.  But Homecoming is much more interested in the gotcha moment of revealing how much the corruption of all its institutions is baked into the system to develop this idea in interesting directions.  The same might be said of Heidi, whom the show treats with what seems like excessive sympathy given that she knowingly signed on to administer a completely unethical experiment on a vulnerable population.  A more thoughtful script might have delved into her reasons doing that--what we learn of Heidi makes her look like a thoroughly mediocre person who was so desperate to feel like a hero that she allowed herself to become an instrument of evil.  But Homecoming's handling of her (coupled with Roberts's apparently indefatigable charisma) is bizarrely focused on soft-pedaling her failures and trying to give her a happy ending.

    What's left in Homecoming, then, is basically what you get in Mr. Robot, but in a more condensed form.  Great performances--Roberts is typically winning, but James also does a great job of making Walter likable and making us wish for things to work out for him, and at the other extreme, Cannavale is terrifyingly excellent at portraying a complete sociopath, who is capable of faking any emotion, and of manipulating any situation, to his own benefit.  And, of course, the look and feel of the show are so effectively overpowering that they frequently make up for the thinness of the script and of the ideas running through it.  Esmail and his writers made the smart choice to limit the show's episodes to a half hour each, something that very few dramas (much less ones as self-serious as this one) would be willing to do, and this makes Homecoming into a tight, intense story that one can't help but want to follow along.  It's only when the final credits roll that you realize there wasn't much there there, but the journey was entertaining enough that it doesn't really matter.

  • Titans - Like everyone else, DC Comics wants its own streaming service, but it got off to a rough start when it premiered the trailer to Titans, the first show in its planned streaming-only slate (other planned series include Doom Patrol and Swamp Thing).  The trailer seemed to indulge in all the most juvenile tendencies of dark-n'-gritty comics storytelling, climaxing with a grim-faced Robin (Brenton Thwaites) choking out "fuck Batman!", as if to promise that this show will finally be the one to crack the code, and manage to transform indiscriminate violence and thoughtless profanity into sophisticated drama.  In context, the "fuck Batman" scene turns out to be less egregious than you might think--Robin is reacting more in exasperation than in defiance, as the criminals he's trying to catch single-handed treat him as an afterthought and worry that Batman might be around.  This isn't to say that Titans doesn't suffer from a lot of the typical (and extremely annoying) flaws of "dark" comics storytelling, chiefly in finding violence a great deal more interesting and dramatically fruitful than anyone over the age of thirteen should.  (It also has some typical streaming superhero show problems; much like the Netflix MCU shows, it has a flat, murky look that belies what must have been an extremely expensive production to deliver a show that looks ugly and boring nearly all the time.)  But in between those tedious tics, the show turns out to be better than it has any business being, and this is almost entirely down to its willingness to be weird.

    That weirdness is concentrated in the series's three non-Robin protagonists: Rachel "Raven" Roth (Teagan Croft) is a twelve-year-old who has spent her life trying to suppress a dark force within herself, which may be an alternate personality, and may be her true self, but either way has tremendous destructive abilities; Kori "Starfire" Anders (Anna Diop) seems to be a superior being, able to withstand any attack, speak any language, and deal out significant punishment, but she also has no memory of her life until shortly after the show starts; and Gar "Beast Boy" Logan (Ryan Potter) was saved from a fatal disease by a serum that changed his appearance, and gave him the ability to transform into animals (four episodes into the series, he is thus far its least developed character).  Not only are the characters' powers specific and interestingly realized (you quickly find yourself looking forward to the next idiot who tries to get in Rachel or Kori's way, simply for the pleasure of seeing what inventive method they'll come up with to take them apart--for once, the gritty approach to comics violence delivers something that is fun to watch), but their reactions to their abilities also feel specific and grounded in their circumstances.  Kori is bemused by her abilities, and inspired by them to cut through bullshit and prevarication--when a gangster she'd been scamming cries that he loved her, she thinks for a moment and replies that although she has no memory of their relationship, she probably never loved him--but also to be kind to people she sees as worthy of her protection.  Rachel, on the other hand, is terrified of her powers, convinced that she harbors a monster within her.  It's not a terribly original storyline, but Croft's performance and the specific depiction of Rachel's dark counterpart are interesting enough to keep you engaged.  Even one-off characters, like the struggling superhero duo Hawk and Dove (Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly), or the freak collection Doom Patrol (presumably a stealth introduction for their own show) have enough verve and oddball characteristics to make the time spent with them worthwhile.

    All of this might be for nothing, however, because the place where Titans is weakest is probably also the character whom the show clearly expects to be its main draw, Robin.  It's startling how quickly the air comes out of the show every time the story pivots to focus on Robin and his drama.  This isn't Thwaites's fault, but the fact that he's been given a storyline that is at once vague (he's left Gotham to strike out on his own as a superhero because of some unspecified break with Batman) and tedious (he seems to suffer from anger issues, leaving scores of broken, bleeding bodies behind him every time he goes out in his super-suit, but also claims to be trying to overcome the violence that Batman taught him, even though he's clearly going way past the line the Caped Crusader tends to draw) makes him extremely hard to care about.  That we're obviously going to spend much of the season learning the exact contours of the trauma that brought Robin to his current state is enough to make one drop the show, and especially when you contrast that with Rachel and Kori's more compelling, more pressing storylines (hell, even Gar, who doesn't have much of a story yet, is at least fun to be around). 

    Robin's angst is only barely alleviated by his determination to protect Rachel, but given that she seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself, and that his emotional problems are probably far worse than hers, it's hard not to feel that she's better off with only Kori and Gar to act as her surrogate family.  It's hard to see what Robin brings to the show besides name recognition (and the opportunity to bring in other Bat-family characters like Alfred and Jason Todd, though obviously not Batman himself, for guest appearances), and hard not to suspect that as the story increases its focus on him, the delightful weirdness that made Titans worth watching despite its many flaws will leak away, and leave us with nothing but another "dark" superhero show that doesn't understand what that term means or how to make anything of it.

4 comments:

Kate Nepveu said...

I listened to the first season of Homecoming as a podcast, and the main things I remember were that the boss character--then David Schwimmer--was so intensely, believably awful that I almost couldn't make myself listen, and that it stopped at absolutely, positively _nothing_ like a reasonable season break point. (I also have a note to myself that the sound design was rather loud.) I gather that the show isn't necessarily following the same plot, but I have no idea what the podcast plot is any more, since I couldn't work up the interest to listen to S2.

My experience of the Titans is through reading the kid-appropriate versions in the Tiny Titans comics and being in the same room as Teen Titans Go, and based on those, I'm entirely willing to believe that Robin is always both the least interesting and composed of 90% Daddy issues by volume.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I knew that Homecoming was based on a podcast, though I haven't read much about it so I don't know how the two versions differ. I can guess, though, that a lot of the phone conversations between Heidi and Colin have been preserved, because they act as a backbone to a lot of the story, and also let you get a sense of how much Colin is steamrolling Heidi and any objection she might have to what they're doing (which still doesn't absolve her of the responsibility she obviously had to put a stop to the experiment, but at least you understand that she's in the grip of a manipulative psychopath).

The TV season ends on a very definitive note, to the point that I'd be surprised if there's a second season. I certainly imagine that Roberts only signed on for a single season, and it would be hard to find another character to spin off, given how the rest of the cast end up. Despite my problems with it, it is worth watching, and especially because it's relatively short.

I was also vaguely aware of the existence of Teen Titans, which just makes the TV show's self-seriousness all the more amusing. I think it's based on a specific comics storyline, but that doesn't mean there wasn't room to lighten up the tone, and downplay Robin's daddy issues.

Kate Nepveu said...

There's both _Teen Titans Go_ (or possibly _Go!_), which is currently airing (indeed, seems to make up a majority of the Cartoon Network's schedule; shakes fist at the lack of new _Steven Universe_ episodes) and _Teen Titans_, which I understand to have been pitched at an older audience and well-regarded. Because kids' media has long been on top of flexible canon and different tellings for different audiences.

Chuk said...

There's also _Young Justice_ , which had an overlap in some characters (more in the comics than in the cartoon) and has a third season coming any day now. That is a good writeup of _Titans_ -- I'm enjoying watching it mostly for seeing what they do with various bits of DC history more than for the show itself. Too many of the characters have backgrounds that are too mysterious.

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