Gathered Round a Roaring Television, Part 2
It took ten days (all year!) but I'm finally done with the backlog of TV that I let build up over December while I was busy with other things. And once again, all of these shows, good and bad, are infinitely more interesting than what the networks were cranking out in the fall. Though it must be said that along with these miniseries and SyFy series, I also watched several network pilots--such as The Colony, Second Chance, and Angel From Hell--that were just as conventional as the now-cancelled dreck they're replacing, and once again not worth talking about. Is it simply time to give up on the networks producing worthwhile, interesting TV? Happily, even if that's the case, we still have plenty of other venues supplying us with new shows to discuss.
- Tripped - This cute but inessential Channel 4 series feels like a cross between Sliders and The Wrong Mans. It follows the by-now extremely familiar template of two lifelong friends, one an unrepentant slacker happy to wallow in eternal manchildhood, the other struggling towards something that resembles adulthood through the simple expedient of latching onto a loving but long-suffering woman, who are whisked off on an adventure. In this case, deadbeat Milo (George Webster) is stunned when a bearded, sword-wielding version of his newly-engaged best friend Danny (Blake Harrison) appears in his bedroom telling him that all versions of themselves in all alternate universes are being hunted by a mysterious villain, who promptly appears and attacks both of them. Actually, Milo isn't that stunned, because he was epically high at the time. But when the buzz wears off and there's still a dead body in his bedroom, he quickly finds Danny and the two end up bouncing from one universe to another, trying to survive and figure out why they're being hunted.
There are some original touches in Tripped--the reason for Milo and Danny's predicament turns out to be cleverer than expected; there's a nice touch when it's revealed that Milo, whom Danny sees as an albatross around his neck keeping him from growing up, is actually a positive influence on him, and that in all universes in which the two weren't friends Danny became a selfish, villainous person; and also it's nice that the show at least tries to give Danny's fiancée Kate (Georgina Campbell) a bigger role than such stories usually do, and more of a personality than the humorless nag who just wants her man to grow up and settle down. But in the end, this is a very familiar type of story that doesn't deviate from its predictable template, in which Milo and Danny constantly teeter on the verge of annihilation, only to win through with a combination of dumb luck, unexpectedly useful skills, and the strength of their friendship. If this is the sort of thing you like, then Tripped is a pretty good example of the genre (and the fact that the season only spans four half-hour episodes keeps it from overstaying its welcome). But one can't help but wish that this genre was a little less popular and evergreen, or that somebody might make some twists to it like--gasp!--telling this same story about a pair of female friends.
- London Spy - In the opening moments of this miniseries, Danny (Ben Whishaw), an aimless young man with a complicated personal and sexual history, meets and falls head-over-heels in love with Alex (Edward Holcroft), a mysterious, naive, and emotionally repressed genius. The two embark on what seems like a storybook romance, only slightly hampered by Alex's obvious secretiveness, and the fact that so little of what he tells Danny about his life makes sense. When Alex disappears and is later found dead in what looks like an S&M adventure gone wrong, Danny is the only one who believes that there's more to the story. Aided by his friend Scottie (Jim Broadbent), he embarks on an investigation into Alex's life and history that quickly draws to him the attention of extremely powerful, dangerous organizations.
There's a lot to like about London Spy, and a lot to dislike. At the most basic level, the fact that this very familiar, very common type of spy thriller (the whole thing reminded me very strongly of The Constant Gardener) is being told with a central love story between two men--and in which the love story is both swooningly romantic and unabashedly sexual--is something to celebrate. The best version of this miniseries is the one in which Danny tries to work through his grief and lingering feelings of anger and betrayal, finally coming to the realization that he can still love Alex even though he didn't really know him, and that he can forgive Alex's secrets and lies--that these, in fact, do not change how important a role Danny played in Alex's life. It's also really interesting and rewarding that the show does so much with the fact of Danny, Alex, and Scottie being gay, and with how their sexual histories and proclivities affect how they're seen by the supposedly liberal society around them. It's a sweet and beautiful touch, for example, that Danny's initial realization that the version of Alex being presented to him by the people who orchestrated his death is a fake comes from his certain knowledge that Alex was a virgin when they met, and that this knowledge allows him to see through so many of the lies he's told about Alex over the course of the miniseries (though this also has the, I hope unintentional, effect of treating kink and S&M as inherently seedy and unromantic, as opposed to Danny and Alex's "pure" sex life). In another scene, Scottie, a high-ranking civil servant, is outraged when Danny treats him as part of the establishment, pointing out that he has been distrusted and shunted aside for decades because of his orientation, the suppression of which has left him without a personal life and family.
But while the romantic melodrama aspects of London Spy work really well, the spy story is equal parts turgid and ridiculous. The mini builds up the awesomeness of the forces arrayed against Danny, which systematically break down and destroy his life when he refuses to give up his investigation into Alex's murder, until we can be in no doubt that whatever Alex discovered must have been enormously important and dangerous. But technothrillers of London Spy's ilk rarely deliver on that kind of promise, because they're not really interested in the implications of the McGuffin they posit. So that when the mini starts to talk about algorithms and super-smart internet data mining, it's hard not to let your eyes glaze over, because it clearly isn't taking this any more seriously than we are. (Over at Strange Horizons's year in review piece, Dan Hartland briefly suggests that London Spy can be read as SF because of the fantasticness of Alex's discovery, but to me this seems unconvincing.) Even worse, nothing changes after Danny realizes what Alex left for him to discover, and he continues in the same passive-aggressive game of one-upmanship with forces that, realistically, should already have disposed of him once he refused to back down. London Spy doesn't really know how to end its story, and instead ends up repeating the same beats again and again--another assault that strips away one of the few things Danny still cares about while leaving him still standing, another attempt to prove to him that Alex wasn't who he thought he was. By the time it cobbles together an ending, in which Danny decides that he must continue to try to expose Alex's murder no matter the hopelessness of that cause and the surely disastrous consequences to himself, the winding path we've taken to get there makes it feel less like a climax and more like another step on a samey path. London Spy wants to be a tragic love story, about a man who is willing burn himself up just to prove how much he loved someone who, in life, never really knew this. The performances, particularly by Whishaw, are strong enough to carry this kind of story, but the bitty, repetitive, and ultimately unconvincing plot lets it down.
- The Magicians - As regular readers of this blog know, I genuinely disliked Lev Grossman's bestselling novel, on which this new SyFy series is based. I found it to be an unnecessary, indulgent celebration of a self-pitying child of privilege, who seemed genuinely injured by the world's failure to simply hand him a sense of purpose and a life-long adventure. So if you'd told me, going into the first episode of The Magicians, that it takes profound liberties with its source material, I probably would have been pleased. The problem is that the things I disliked about Grossman's novel are clearly not the things that the showrunners of The Magicians saw as flaws, while the things that worked about the novel are the ones they seem to have been most eager to get rid of. I never had any problems with Grossman's core project with The Magicians--to dismantle the central trope of portal fantasy, in which a single (usually white and male) Chosen One must defeat an ancient evil, and in which crossing over to a world that has magic immediately makes one's life brighter and more meaningful. My problem was rather that Grossman wrote as if no one before him had had this idea, when in fact there have been dozens of fantasy writers who have explored it, most of them with a great deal more intelligence and nuance than Grossman showed. (M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, for example, makes The Magicians look like the children's novels it claims to be deconstructing, not least because it lacks its fawning British-philia and overpowering, embarrassing undertone of class envy.) The Magicians, the show, serves these tropes straight up. Its Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a callow, upper-middle-class young man who is offered a place at Brakebills, a university of magic, actually is the Chosen One, and there actually is an ancient evil that he needs to defeat. Honestly, what was the point?
It's possible that later episodes will move the show back into alignment with the novel, but there's a lot about the pilot that makes me reluctant to stick around and find out. The novel, which was locked into Quentin's self-pitying, depressed point of view, at least implied that his perspective was an unreliable one. The show seems to expect us to take his sense of himself as an underdog seriously. You see this most especially in the character of Penny, a future villain (Arjun Gupta), who in the novel is the uber-geek to Quentin's cool, lovable geek, turning their shared love of the Narnia-esque children's series Fillory into something joyless and possessive. In the show, Penny is a tattooed, musclebound jock who always has a hot girl draped over him, and who looms over Quentin, mocking his nerdy literary tastes, the better to validate Quentin's persecution complex. (The fact that the show also changes Penny's race from white to Indian has implications that I don't think anyone involved with it has realized.) Add to this a scene in which Quentin's friend Julia (Stella Maeve), who was rejected from Brakebills, is recruited into an underground magical circle by a sinister figure who threatens to rape her in order to expose her latent magical powers (he later says that he never "really" meant to rape her, as if this makes an actual difference), and I really don't feel compelled to give The Magicians a second chance.
- The Expanse - All due respect to Childhood's End and The Magicians, but The Expanse was the show that SyFy was banking on to jumpstart its moribund genre credentials and reestablish it as a channel for people who like science fiction. And having watched the first half of the season, it's easy to see why. This is meat-and-potatoes space opera with a slick, obviously costly appearance and a setting that offers huge scope for interesting storytelling. In an unspecified future, Earth and a partially-terraformed Mars are vying for control of the asteroid belt and its resources, while the space-born miners who supply both planets with the means for their advancement feel oppressed by planets they could never survive on. The series kicks off with a crooked cop on Ceres stations (Thomas Jane) being hired to find a missing heiress who has involved herself with separatists from the asteroid belt, and an ice-mining freighter investigating a distress signal that turns out to be a trap, which leaves only a handful of survivors to discover why their ship was destroyed and their friends killed. Back on Earth, a ruthless politician (Shohreh Aghdashloo) fears that the cold war between Earth and Mars is about to heat up, and is willing to do anything to prevent this, or at least make sure Earth has the upper hand.
My one real problem with The Expanse is actually less with the show and more with the PR and hype that have surrounded it. SyFy clearly wants this to be their new Battlestar Galactica, and have thus stressed the political aspect of the story. But though the show's worldbuilding is really interesting--some of the best scenes involve minor characters expressing how the people of Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt see each other, the resentments and prejudices that have built up between them--what it does with this world is thoroughly conventional (and, as much as I ended up resenting its desperate bid for political relevance, doesn't even come close to the sophistication and depth of Galactica's storytelling). Except for how much more expensive it is (which is to say, better looking and peopled with better actors) it's hard to see what makes The Expanse so much better than Dark Matter and Killjoys, the low-rent, decidedly cheesy but slightly more fun space operas that SyFy aired last summer.
Certainly when it comes to playing games with gender and sexuality, The Expanse falls way behind those two shows, Killjoys in particular. The two male leads who drive its more propulsive storylines are so boringly familiar that they might as well be placeholders, and both of them are driven by motivations that treat women as means to an end--the leader of the ice-freighter survivors wants revenge for his murdered girlfriend, and the detective has become obsessed with the femme fatale he's searching for, who exists only as an idealized image in his mind. Meanwhile, the more interesting women around both characters--a crewmember on the spacer's ship who is curiously overqualified for the job and might have a checkered past, and the detective's captain and fellow officer--get shunted off to the side, even as secondary plotlines include such stories as a principled cop who becomes infatuated with a kindhearted prostitute. (Aghdashloo is obviously the glaring exception to the predictable, constrained roles that The Expanse gives women, but of the three main characters she's the one who is forced to be the most passive, to observe and plot where the spacer and detective get to fight and work their way towards plot developments.) There's still a lot to enjoy and keep watching for in The Expanse, but its vision of the future is ultimately hidebound--we haven't even mentioned the show's assumption that the disaffected workers on the asteroid belt exist in a binary state, either downtrodden victims or terrorists; the word "union" is never mentioned, possibly because nobody involved with the show realizes that it's an option, and of course the possibility that societies in space might organize themselves along principles that differ from 21st century capitalism is never considered. Which means that, fun as it is, The Expanse's claims to be the next big thing in televized SF should be taken with a grain of salt.
Holden is a middle aged man, not a buff 20-something. Amos should be scarier. Miller wasn't that corrupt: just drifting far away from what he thought he had been. Which is another great aspect of the books that I don't see them being able to put into the filmed version. The way characters find themselves suddenly forced to realize that they aren't what they thought they are.
That's a good point about the thin justification for the working class demeanor of the space miner characters. The show even highlights this when it tells us that Nagata, who has multiple advanced degrees, is too good to be working on an ice freighter. I'd be interested in this if I thought there was any chance of a meaningful statement about class, but like most TV The Expanse has serious blinders when it comes to this issue - see, for example, how Holden's girlfriend clearly doesn't display the same class markers as the rough-and-tumble ice-miners around her.
I suppose the writers would say that episode five addresses the issue of strikes in space when it shows us a strike being brutally suppressed by killing the striking workers. But this is to ignore a) the huge cost of such a tactic (forget the workers' expertise; what about the station you just blew up?), and b) the fact that companies on Earth did the exact same thing to striking workers a hundred years ago, and unions still ended up happening.
Maybe they've changed since then though, as that was some years back.
In the meantime, however, any so-called unskilled labor these days demands a lot of electronic and digital skills -- and stuff is always breaking down and the unskilled laborers are still needing to fix it on the ground. Which now even that is denied by the corps that own the equipment, as its digital and they claim copyright infringement when a farmer fixes his tractor himself.
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