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.

1 comment:

guv said...

Enjoyed your review of Undone - thanks for the Russian Doll rec, never heard of it! Undone had me thinking Waking Life for a good bit, which has similar strands of dream-reality-subconscious running through it. I really like the use of it for this show and would be keen on knowing if other movies (Scanner Darkly? Not a fan) and shows that use this tech to aid in storytelling.

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