Thursday, September 8, 2016

STAR TREK & I: Some Personal Reminiscences

Golden Anniversary Dept. - Fifty years ago today--8 Sept. 1966--STAR TREK made its television debut on NBC. A poorly chosen premiere ep ("The Man Trap"), it nevertheless went on to draw a large and loyal fanbase that unfortunately never really showed up in its ratings. After three seasons, it was canceled, sold into syndication and then rose to become the most successful property ever launched on television, eventually spawning a merchandising empire, an animated series, a string of hit movies that go on to this day and four mostly shitty (but mostly successful) sequel series.

Unlike so many "successful" projects, STAR TREK earned its success. It really is one of the greatest things ever produced for television and that's why it has endured.[1] It certainly became one of my favorite things. It has been with me from the beginning. The show was a big success in syndication before I was born and it occupies some of my earliest conscious memories. Somewhere, I have a spiral-bound notebook with drawings I made when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old; one of them is my crude--ever so crude--rendition of a critter that appeared in "The Galileo Seven" (the 16th episode of the series, for any cultural illiterates out there). I remember my delight as the movies began to appear. One of the ads for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE had Spock blasted with some sort of energy bolt--I was very keen on stuff like that at that age and the image stuck with me. I only started to see the flicks on home video some years later. I saw THE WRATH OF KHAN, which is the single-best Trek adventure ever created, before I saw THE MOTION PICTURE, which wasn't.

When I was young, there was a local Chattanooga UHF channel, WDSI 61, that had been broadcasting religious programming for some years and basically wasn't worth the trouble of all that cranking of the dial necessary to tune it in. But someone there was--or became--a Trekkie and when he wanted WDSI to become an actual tv channel instead of an obnoxious blot on the airwaves, he picked up STAR TREK. More than that, WDSI made the show a sort of flagship for a few years--ran it all the time, ran marathons on various occasions and eventually began sponsoring a Star Trek convention in Chattanooga that, in a run of years, brought George Takei, Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols and Jimmy Doohan to town. I never got to go to any of them, damn it.

When STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION came around, good ol' channel 61 was the one to carry it. I was probably more excited for that show than I'd been for any of the movies before it. On the night it debuted--a Saturday--I remember the hours leading up to it seeming like days. I killed the time reading "The Star Trek Compendium"--a favorite of mine at the time--or just pacing around. Yeah, I had it bad. Then finally, it appeared! And it turned out to be a godawful trainwreck, only my second major experience with the phenomenon people describe as "seeing my childhood raped." That particular case of pedophilia went on for years and the less said about it the better.

And anyway, we still had the movies when we needed an injection of real Trek. Even William Shatner's significantly less-than-spectacular STAR TREK V (which continued the tradition of subpar odd-numbered Trek flicks) was eons better than anything TNG ever did. But all good things must come to an end and the noble starship Enterprise finally reached its terminus on the 25th anniversary of the series with the release of the 6th feature, THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. The cast wrapped it up with one more solid adventure and flew off into the void.

The movies that came later were strictly Trek-in-name-only. The TNG cast took them over, every new installment seemed to be competing with the last for the title of Worst Movie To Bear The Trek Name and by the end, the audience had dwindled to nothing and the run was killed, providing TNG with its one noteworthy contribution to the franchise.

When the current Trek run was percolating, I was vaguely intrigued by the idea of returning to the original characters in their younger days. Harve Bennett had come up with the idea for STAR TREK IV but it hadn't been used at the time. I'd grown older and more cynical about such things. It's a huge-budget studio tentpole picture--I figured they'd just fuck it up, the way they do everything else. I didn't follow its production or even pay it much mind, really. I went to see it one night with a friend shortly after it debuted because it was the most interesting thing showing at the time. And going into it practically blind, I had one of the two best theatrical film experiences of my life. Involving a movie, anyway. J.J. Abrams got a lot of criticism later, assertions that he'd reduced Trek to a simple action movie, that he'd eschewed too much of the intellectual content and so forth and I even agree with a lot of that (and other) criticism but goddamn, that was a GREAT movie! It got into my head and my heart and down deep into all that Star Trek stuff that had been encoded on my DNA from my earliest memories and brought it all rushing back to the surface, lubing all the rough edges I'd accumulated with age and overawing my cynicism with pure joy. I was bouncing in my seat through the whole thing and by the end, when the film did the riff on the closing credits of the show, I was cheering and nearly in tears. I'd gotten my Trek back--something I thought had ended years earlier and that I never even dreamed I'd see again.

And maybe I never will again. The follow-up to that picture was entertaining enough but not special--certainly not in that way. I haven't even seen the third one yet. There's a new tv series on the way too; I haven't mustered any real interest in it. Maybe it or other Trek projects will find success.

Whether they make it or fizzle out and die though, the original is still out there, the qualities that have made it endure still shine, its themes still resonate and even as its "strange new worlds" have become familiar to us, it goes on. That five-year mission became a 50-year one today and it goes on. STAR TREK will outlast those who created it. It will outlast me and everyone else reading these words today. Its final frontier isn't to be found in the stars, it's in immortality. May this Enterprise achieve that--if anything spawned on television has ever earned that, it certainly has.


--j.

---

[1] I disagree with a lot of its fans on the matter of why it's so great and maybe that disagreement would be worth some time to outline but I've left it aside here. Trek touches different people in different ways. That's part of why it does endure.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Killing The PREACHER

I was quite ill the day I first sat down to read "Gone To Texas," the first "Preacher" trade paperback collection. I'm not sure laughter was the best medicine in my particular case; the book made me laugh so hard, I actually threw up. Right after throwing up--which seems, in retrospect, an entirely appropriate tribute to the comic--I went online and ordered the rest of the series. Created by Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, "Preacher" was raucous, wildly imaginative, wonderfully offensive, relentlessly iconoclastic, screamingly hilarious--a particularly fine example of comic art that became a personal favorite.

Its story begins with a clandestine affair between an angel and a demon. This union of holy and unholy produces an offspring, a being who theoretically possesses all the power of Heaven and Hell. The only thing it lacks is a will of its own. The lower angels imprison it in a laboratory for study but one day it breaks free, comes to Earth and bonds with the body of a redneck preacher from Texas. The Rev. Jesse Custer (note the initials) learns it has given him the power of the Voice; when he gives a command, it must be obeyed. Discovering that in the aftermath of the lab escape God has retreated to Earth, Jesse, his car-thief girlfriend Tulip and his new vampire pal Cassidy undertake an odyssey to find God and force him to account for the miserable world He's created. That's the basic story of "Preacher": the Rev. Custer vs. God. It plays out over the course of a long series of darkly comic--and sometimes just damn dark--adventures populated by all manner of quirky oddballs (Northern Irishman writer Ennis makes it an extended love-letter to all things American).

In this age of copious comic book adaptations, people have been trying to bring it to the screen for years. Doing so in any recognizable form, of course, presents some big, obvious problems. The scale of it is enormous. Not only is it a long story, something that could only be done in a series of films, mini-series or a regular show, it travels across the U.S. and abroad, involves Heaven, Hell, stories that go back hundreds and even thousands of years and it's chock-full of set-pieces that would be incredibly expensive to bring to the screen. At the same time, the controversial nature of the material--the sex, the gore, the atrocities, the blasphemy--make it a very hard sell for almost any potential venue that could adapt it. It steps on every toe of every crusading busybody who ever raised a sword against the existence of any form of popular entertainment and faithfully bringing it to the screen involves braving the likelihood of it spawning a LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST-style backlash and being mowed over by it. A courageous premium cable channel seemed its only realistic option.

When it was announced AMC was going to produce a weekly series based on the property, I simply didn't think it could be done. Anyone who has ever cracked a single issue of the comic knew an ad-supported outlet where even nudity and cursing was a problem wasn't going to be able to do it justice. AMC in particular isn't noted for its intestinal (or testicular) fortitude; in tailoring THE WALKING DEAD to a whitebread middle American audience, its execs gelded the property so severely they cut out its soul. Any AMC "Preacher" seemed certain to follow in a particularly dismal Hollywood tradition of purchasing the rights to a book, immediately throwing the book in the trash and creating an "adaptation" whose major similarity with the original is its name.

And that's pretty much exactly what happened. AMC's PREACHER debuted last night. This was my subtle dissection of the pilot, composed immediately after watching it:

"Awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, awful, fucking shit accents, fucking shit "humor," fucking shit make-up, fucking incomprehensible, fuck [producer Seth] Rogen, fuck this fucking awful fucking shit."

I wasn't disappointed, mind you. I understood the improbability of the whole affair and my skepticism had been reinforced by all of the promotional material, which downplayed any supernatural elements and from which it was impossible to discern any sort of plot. Though I had a faint glimmer of hope that, regardless of questions of fidelity, something worthwhile would emerge--oh, hopeless optimist, me!-- it pretty much turned out exactly as I thought it would and there's nothing about knowing its probably about to happen that makes it any easier to watch something one loves being raped.

I've never understood the Hollywood preoccupation with casting Englishmen to play Americans (and, for that matter, Americans to play the English).[1] There are apparently no American Southerners who can play an American Southerner, so as with THE WALKING DEAD (where very English Englishman Andrew Lincoln was cast to play a redneck Southern sheriff), Englishman Dominic Cooper is here cast--and badly miscast--as Jesse Custer. He doesn't have the look for the part and, as with Lincoln, his fake accent is just cringe-inducing. To play Tulip, Jesse's love, who, in the comics, was a blonde, saucy Southern belle, the producers chose Ruth Negga, an actress of Ethiopian-Irish background, whose on-and-off-again "accent" is more over-the-top than Kyra Sedgwick's in the early days of THE CLOSER. There is an actual Irish character in PREACHER, the vampire Cassidy. And to play him, the producers chose... an Englishman. Who looks nothing like the character. At all.

If you ever figure it out, let me know.

I wouldn't slam the actors for this; they do what they can with what they're given. They just don't fit these parts. Casting them doesn't make sense.

Nether does a lot of what happens during the pilot, much of which is a disjointed, badly-paced mess of random events and shifts in tone. It  becomes so concerned with setting up various things for later that it doesn't bother to tell an engaging story itself, the primary mission of any pilot. Some mysterious force comes from "outer space," zips through the galaxy and into the body of some preacher in Africa, who promptly explodes. What does this have to do with anything, you ask? Nothing at all. But it happens repeatedly to various clerics around the world as the story proceeds, an utterly needless complication of what had been, in the comics, a straightforward scenario ("the entity comes to Earth, bonds with Jesse").[2] Between these incidents, we meet Jesse, see how badly he sucks as a preacher, follow him around while he interacts with various denizens of the town. Remarkably boring stuff. Cassidy is introduced while tending bar on a private plane in flight. He goes to a bathroom, finds a marked-up Bible then steps out, realizes the plane is flying in a different direction than he thought and picks a fight with everyone on board. His foes immediately pull out an arsenal of archaic weapons and have it out with him but he kills them all, taking blood from the last two before diving out of the plane without a parachute. So he's a vampire and these guys, it would seem, are vampire hunters (one of them pours holy water on Cass). What's the story? Who knows?[3] Tulip shows up much the same way, fighting with a guy in an out-of-control car rushing through a cornfield. She eventually gets the car stopped, puts down her assailant and takes something from him.[4] She meets a pair of random kids, puts them to building a homemade bazooka then stashes them in a storm-cellar while she shoots down a helicopter with it. What the fuck is all of this about? Who knows? More stuff for later. Or not.[5]

This description may make it sound action-packed but it's really quite dull, something a Preacher project should never be, and this made its 90 minutes feel much longer. Viewers have no investment in anything I've just described. These moments come out of nowhere and disappear the same way. The wicked, black sense of humor from the comics is entirely absent here. The ep makes a few attempts at being funny; most of them as bad as the accents. It radically downscales the story as well, probably for budgetary reasons--it appears as if we're going to stay in Annville for the foreseeable future. By the end, Jesse is ready to give up being a preacher. He asks for a sign from God and the entity appears, slamming into him and taking up residence. He decides this is the sign he wanted and instead of stepping down vows to become the best damn preacher in Annville, Texas. If followed through--and there isn't even a hint it won't be followed through--this is a complete negation of the comic story. Instead of "Rev. Custer vs. God," it's "God blesses Rev. Custer with the power and the will to do good in His name."[6]

For the life of me, I can't imagine why this series even exists. Obviously, money is behind the creation of any television show. Existing properties are acquired because, in part, they have an existing fanbase to which the adaptation can be sold but AMC's PREACHER goes out of its way to entirely alienate those who enjoyed the comic. It positively begs the question: Why go through the trouble and expense of buying the rights to something if you have absolutely no interest in bringing it to the screen? Just cut all pretense of any tie to the existing material, call it something else and you'd own it outright. As it stands, AMC's PREACHER fails as an adaptation and fails on its own merits. Miserably. I was expecting the worst and even I was surprised by how very bad it is.

--j.

---

[1] Does anyone in Hollywood know Gweneth Paltrow isn't English? Does anyone know Jamie Bamber is?

[2] The pilot is full of these sorts of ill-advised changes that seem to have no rhyme or reason behind them. In the comic, Jesse's father was a Vietnam vet who became a bartender, a good-hearted tough guy who was eventually killed by his wife's evil family because he wouldn't bend to them. The pilot keeps the angle about his being killed by someone but makes him a minister who worked in Annville. For some complicated reasons--the evil family being an instrument of God--this suggests much of the backstory on that family, which takes up a lot of Jesse's formative years and is some of the best storytelling in the comic, will be discarded.

[3] This sequence threw away what was, in the comic, a great surprise reveal of Cass's vampirism.

[4] It's a paper with some sort of "job" on it. She talks with Jesse about it--the "job"--later but never says what it is or explains that earlier chaos. All we know is that Jesse doesn't want to do it.

[5] The pilot fundamentally changes Jesse's relationship with Tulip. In the comic, he'd met her as a teenager after he'd escaped from his mother's incredibly evil family. His uncles later tracked him down and brought him back to the family compound, threatening to kill Tulip if he didn't come with them. That's how Jesse's initial relationship with Tulip ended--he just disappeared and she never knew what happened until they met again years later. In the pilot, they grew up together there in Annville and just seem to have broken up at some point. This suggests major sections of their respective backstories have simply been discarded.

[6] Elements from a storyline that, in the comics, occurs much later and in an entirely different place and stage of the characters' development are present here, which saws away another huge swathe of the comic. More to the point, the series will presumably stay in Annville and involve itself, for the foreseeable future, with material pillaged from that later story rather than proceeding in the direction of the comic.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD Puts Blood In The Streets of the Pacific Ocean

Sigh.

If the declining quality of my articles in recent weeks hasn't made it plain, it's becoming more and more difficult to muster much energy to write about FEAR THE WALKING DEAD. As with the parent series, FTWD's creators seem to be competing in some sort of private contest to see how little actual content they can use to fill a full hour of television. They're making a game effort to win too. That doesn't leave much about which to write.

Take (please) the plot of "Blood in the Streets," tonight's installment (which is set almost entirely at sea). From beginning to end, pirates fake their way on to our heroes' yacht and hijack it, they make off with Travis and Alicia then our heroes retake the boat.

That's not a plot for an episode of an hour-long drama; it's a pre-credit sequence. To pad out the time, the ep throws in some flashbacks giving us some irrelevant details about Strand's past. There's lots of posturing by the dimestore hood pirates, who wave guns in everyone's faces and talk tough, the way such Cheap Hoods caricatures do in bad movies. These, it turns out, were the pirates with whom Alicia was speaking on the radio back in the first ep (where this matter should have been addressed). Nick, on a mission to reach an associate of Strand, swims to a sort of refugee camp on the Mexican border. The writers seemed confused as to whether it was deserted or occupied, or perhaps there just wasn't money for any extras. A zombie wanders between the zipped-up tents at night but there isn't a living soul in sight. Is everyone asleep? Nick goes inside a tent in order to kill the creature and zombie-flage himself. No one is home but a lantern is burning, so someone was there and recently. Who knows? Travis spends most of the ep going back and forth on the yacht trying to hotwire it for one of the pirates. It's a dull, dreary business.

This was the 4th episode of this season and there hasn't been enough substance in all four combined to fill a single ep of a competently-written series. A voiceover at the end of the ep notes there are only three more eps left. My understanding was that this was to be a 15-episode season. Perhaps AMC is folding the next 8 eps into the already-announced season 3? Or maybe it's just a mistake. Sort of like FTWD.

--j.

Monday, April 25, 2016

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD Is All Wormy

The filtration system on the survivors' yacht becomes clogged so they stop to clean it up, they see wreckage from a plane crash and decide to do a little scavenging, a large number of zombies appear and our heroes flee. That's the 10-or-so minutes worth of plot that was stretched to fill the entire hour of "Ouroboros," tonight's installment of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD.

Throughout the last season of TWD, AMC aired FLIGHT 462, a series of short, short films showing events on a commercial airliner near the beginning of the zombie outbreak. Its final installment reveals this is the plane seen by Nick back in the first season of FTWD, flying over his neighborhood in obvious distress and about to crash (it had been heading back to Los Angeles International Airport). Tonight's ep shows the survivors of that flight immediately after the crash, struggling to get on a lifeboat. The Annoying Kid from the plane is now badly burned and Charlie, the woman who met him in flight,[1] is taking care of him. The effort tonight to tie this to FTWD introduces some big problems of timeline and geography.

Our heroes, still on Strand's boat, have been traveling away from Los Angeles this entire season. They should be well clear of it and of any plane that crashed while heading to LAX yet when they come to a stop for repairs, there's what's left of Flight 462, scattered on and near the beach before them. The opening sequence placed the crash in the water rather than on land but it could, I suppose, have broken apart. Our heroes shouldn't be anywhere near it though.

The younger characters decide to go ashore and scavenge through the wreckage, which features plentiful suitcases full of potentially useful items. Mind-numbingly, the adults object and there's some idiotic drama over it, present for no other purpose than to consume some running-time,[2] but with Daniel joining in, the away-team finally departs. Upon landing, they pull their boat ridiculously too far ashore, so as to render impossible a quick departure in the event of an emergency. Astute viewers will immediately deduce from this that there's going to be trouble.

And, of course, there is. The away-team talks about making haste in their search but just spend most of their time dicking around, opening a case here, toeing another there, trying on this-or-that item of clothing. With an abundance of clean clothes available, Nick opts instead to put on a shirt spattered with blood. Daniel tells everyone to stay in sight of one another, so Chris immediately decides to leave the others--there seems to be a rule in the writer's manual that all plotting on a TWD series must be a consequence of characters behaving like idiots. No one notices Chris has left. He goes poking around in some wreckage, Daniel realizes he's gone and goes looking for him then Charlie from Flight 462 comes charging over a hill with a brigade of zombies on her tail.

It would seem politic to beat a retreat at this point but the writers decided the series needed some action, so instead of simply having the characters return to their landing craft and depart, they have our heroes decide to stand and fight against this impossible army. For a while, anyway. Nick, fresh from a zombie kill and covered with gore, discovers the dead can't see him when he's in this state--the old zombie gore camo trick the parent series introduced then always has the characters forget when remembering would interfere with the arbitrary story they want to tell.[3] Once the action quota portion of the running time has been met, the characters charge down to the beach and, after a way-too-long interlude in which Alicia, with zombies bearing down on them, takes a long pause to hug her brother, start lugging their craft to the sea.

Meanwhile, back on Strand's boat, Madison sees the landing party fighting zombies and declares "We have to move!" Everyone goes into motion. The boat isn't yet repaired, so running it risks ruining it and I didn't see the need for the sudden urgency. As I was watching it, I thought Madison was meaning they were going to have to get the boat underway so they could quickly leave the area when the landing-party returned and was WTFing at the implied fear that these zombies were going to swim out to them. When the boat instead came about and headed for shore, I at least got a laugh--entertainment value missing from the rest of the ep. The yacht, of course, can't go ashore--it sits too low in the water to go into shallows and the large, craggy rocks sticking out of the water well before the beach make even approaching land a deadly proposition. These moments with the characters trying to get the yacht underway aren't there to make any sense though--they're there to try to add some "suspense" to the scene and to ensure the characters on the yacht don't have eyes on what's happening ashore so the writers can try to fudge another matter.

In the opening sequence of tonight's ep, set moments after the crash of Flight 462, the Annoying Kid was badly burned--in such a state that it seemed unlikely he was going to survive. As the landing party is dragging its away-craft off the beach and back into the water, Charlie informs the others they had to make a stop before leaving. The "stop" was to pick up Annoying Kid, who was still lying in that inflatable raft. Our characters had gotten a good view of the shoreline before they'd landed and there was no big yellow inflatable raft anywhere in sight. The "stop" happens off-screen and in a matter of seconds--Charlie apparently casts a spell that made that raft appear from somewhere and the others tow it to the yacht.

Strand is adamant about not allowing Charlie and Annoying Kid aboard. Faced with stiff resistance from his crew, Strand agrees to give the pair some food and water and tow them to a landing but in the final moments, he appears and cuts the line to the raft. Since Michelle Ang--Charlie--has reportedly joined the cast, I guess we'll see where this goes.

In that raft, though, Annoying Kid is in exactly the same condition as he was when we saw him in the opening sequence. His wounds are still unbandaged, he's wearing the same filthy, gore-covered clothing, still unable to sit up, still in that raft and still in the immediate vicinity of the plane crash and the problem with all this, the one FTWD's writers clearly hoped viewers wouldn't notice, is that the plane crash happened over two weeks earlier. The victim would, in that length of time, have either had his wounds cleaned and treated repeatedly and be showing signs of significant recovery or he would be long dead. When Chris is poking around in the plane's wreckage, he finds a survivor, a fellow still belted down to his seat and with his back broken! According to the established timeline, he's been sitting there for over two weeks.

FTWD continues to learn all the wrong lessons from the parent series.

--j.

---

[1] There seems to be some confusion over the name of this character, played by Michelle Ang. On FLIGHT 462, she was Charlie. On FTWD, she's apparently listed as "Alex." Until FTWD figures it out, I've stuck with the original name here.

[2] The ep is full of this sort of arbitrary drama. The characters have learned Strand plans to go to Mexico and this randomly causes a major fuss among them, with characters eating up that running time by arguing over whether they should trust him, though absolutely nothing about the revelation should have inspired a breach of trust. Ofelia reveals to Daniel that her gunshot wound is infected and that she's out of antibiotics. Instead of telling everyone, Daniel instructs her to keep this from the others, another pointless, random move. So when the chance to pillage the plane crash arises, he's slipping around looking for drugs without any knowledge of them instead of having everyone on the lookout for them.

[3] Nick, being the bright guy he is, walks to the edge of a steep crevasse where his footing is unsteady and discovers a half-zombie down below. And, of course, he immediately falls in. He manages to kill the creature but one of TWD's patented teleporting zombies suddenly appears above--it somehow managed to appear on a wide-open beach among the characters without anyone noticing--and tumbles in on top of him. That's how he winds up covered in gore.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

On FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, The Writers All Fall Down

Last week, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD opened its second season with what amounted to a bottle episode, which seems an extraordinarily bad idea--I've certainly never seen it done before--but the FTWD gang knew something we didn't; they'd already been renewed for a 3rd season, something that was publicly announced shortly after that unfortunate episode had aired. While it must be great to be working on a series owned by AMC and never have to worry about turning out a good show in order to get renewals (FTWD was similarly "renewed" for a 2nd season before the 1st had even aired), it isn't exactly conducive to the production of quality television. Exhibit A: that season opener. Exhibit B: "We All Fall Down," tonight's offering.

FTWD's sophomore year has adopted the same approach as the parent series in its just-concluded season; pack in the filler, kill as much time as possible and sell this as building up to a climax that somehow never manages to come. In the closing moments of last week's ep, one in which the plot was "characters drive around on a boat," a bogey appeared on radar, probably a gang of pirates who had shot up another boat encountered earlier. The witless Alicia, mooning over a voice on the radio, had given away our heroes' position. Here comes trouble. Capt. Strand said the unidentified craft was closing fast, could outrun them and then the ep ended on this cliffhanger. But this week, the writers apparently decided they didn't want to follow up on this. As the ep opens, our heroes are still in flight with the bogey still following but it suddenly doesn't seem particularly important. Despite the previous assertion about the pursuing boat being much faster, our heroes seem to be keeping their distance just fine. They decide to put into a cove on an island and try to hide until the potential pirates have passed. It wouldn't be a TWD series if the plot wasn't made dependent upon everyone being an idiot, so as they put into port, they see a light on the island and with heavily-armed pirates hot on their heels and the light representing a possible unknown danger, everyone except the Salazars and Strand decide to leave the boat and go check it out.

Theoretically, the pirates could swoop in at any moment with guns blazing and those in the away party, who are completely unarmed, have no way of communicating with the boat once they leave it. Strand tells them to hurry back. And of course, they don't. Solely because the script says so, the pirates just fade away, along with any real concern over them.

In place of that more interesting storyline, we're given a dull mini-soap starring a family the away team meets. There's lots of talk, talk, talk. No one tells the family about the potential gang of armed pirates bearing down on them. The father is a fatalistic type, just marking time until the end. The mother is dying of cancer[*] and wants our heroes to take her two young children away with them. The oldest boy does his chores, which includes killing any zombies who have washed up on the beach below his home. Travis still doesn't have a clue where he is--when his son kills a zombie, he's horrified by it. Alicia walks around on an island already established as having a zombie population while listening to music through earphones. The writers once again forget Nick is a junkie until they briefly need him to be one for the sake of the plot--though he's still suffering no withdrawal of any sort, he prowls around that faimily's house for drugs and finds some pills. Via a magical deduction from something one of the children said, Nick not only knows they're poison pills of some kind but also that the father intends to one day give them to his family. And so on.

The family soap ends in tragedy, the pirates have disappeared from the radar and the characters leave port with long faces, the entire affair having added nothing to the series but running time.

FTWD has always intended as the lower-budget version of TWD, the show AMC wanted TWD to be back in season 2. Its really only interesting in that it shows what TWD is like with even less interesting characters and without any of the flash. Without major changes--and I don't for a moment believe any such changes will be forthcoming--it seems likely this will crash and burn even more spectacularly than last year (when it only had six eps to bleed audience). That's what happens when a series is guaranteed renewal--no incentive to do better.

--j.

---

[*] Update (18 April, 2016) - Reader VeilluerDeNuit informs me that the illness in this case was multiple sclerosis rather than cancer. It sounded to me as if the mother said "a mass," which I took to be cancer and even reviewing it, it still sounds like "a mass," but M.S. would make more sense.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD A Monster-ous Waste [Updated Below]

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD returned tonight with an episode as underwhelming as the rest of this series, one that definitely isn't going to be winning it many friends as it goes into its 2nd season.

This was an example of what FTWD does best, if that word can be applied to such a thing: a filler episode, one that looks like it cost about 50 cents. As it opens, the characters are forced to flee Strand's fancy home for his fancy yacht.[1] They drive around for a while on the boat then, at the very end, possible danger closes in. The end.

To fill the time in between, our heroes drive past an overloaded boat full of survivors and have a Crisis Of Conscience about maybe helping them. Strand wisely says no; the rest of them make long faces but get over it pretty quickly. Chris, who nearly got his father killed at the beginning of the ep by pointlessly refusing to leave his dead mother's body--they left behind supplies so Travis could take it with them--then throws an emo fit when the others try to hold a brief funeral for her, angrily dumping the corpse into the sea and stalking off.[2] Alicia strikes up a conversation with a fellow on the radio, who says he's on a boat somewhere--won't say where. It wouldn't be TWD if the plot wasn't made to revolve around the characters being stupid, so when Disembodied Radio Voice tells Alicia his boat is sinking, she gives away their position. Strand is very unpleased by this and makes an angry speech about how you're all on "my goddamn boat!" Given that they vastly outnumber him and that chucking him overboard would be a remarkably simple task were he to become too obnoxious, checking his capitalist privilege at the door would seem a prudent move but on FTWD, even Strand, who has proven the only somewhat smart character on this show, is, it seems, subject to the inevitable gravitational pull exerted by the Stupid. After his display, he doesn't confiscate the radio.

Toward the end, the characters discover a boat that's been shot up, those on it left zombies floating on the water. Nick stupidly swims among the creatures without alerting anyone and nearly getting eaten so he could score the ship's log-book, which can't possibly be of any use to them.[3] Finally, Strand detects a fast-moving bogey closing on them, probably the folks Alicia tipped to their location looking to kill them and rob them.

That's it. Like so much of the parent show in its own just-concluded season, it's all set-up for a climax that never comes. Tonight's installment was randomly entitled "Monster." Viewers can decide how this best applies to the ep.

--j.

---

[1] As the ep opens, it appears the military is firebombing Los Angeles, the way it did Atlanta in the parent series, and the dead are marching on Strand's home. This doesn't really make a lick of sense, as, earlier that same day, the characters drove right through the city and it appeared to be almost entirely deserted. No throngs of dead came out to try to eat them. No throngs were even visible. Anywhere.

[2] Everyone suffered the grief over Liza last season. To fill time, we get a brief rehash of it as our heroes prepare to commit her to the sea. After emo Chris dumps the body, Travis tries to talk to him and Chris insists he "could have fixed it" and even becomes violent toward his father. But of course, his mother was pretty horribly bitten and there wasn't going to be any fixing it. Proving it learned nothing from the reaction to the first season, FTWD's writers still makes it a point to go out of their way to make viewers despise absolutely every character.

[3] Though the writer have Nick make reference to it in this very episode, they otherwise seem to have entirely forgotten Nick is a junky. Forced to quit cold turkey, he's suffering no ill effects at all. At one point, he even jumps into the water to "save" Chris when he thinks the emo asswipe may be trying to drown himself (Because the writers needed the two of them in the water, Chris dove into the sea with his shoes and all of his clothes on, then, it turned out, he just wanted to go for a swim.).


UPDATE (11 April, 2016) - Before it had debuted, FTWD's major selling point, stressed in all of its promotion publicity, was that it was going to show how civilization collapsed and was overrun by the walking dead--the series, it said, would fill in what happened while Rick was in a coma. And, of course, that turned out to be a lie. The actual series went out of its way to almost entirely isolate its characters from whatever was happening to the world then time-jumped over that big collapse-of-civilization thing--it was probably well into the period after Rick had awakened before that first season ended. From this new episode, this season could be seen as more of the same. The characters are now on a boat and again avoiding everything. In one improvement, Alicia does at least listen to the radio at one point and hear the reports of the world going increasingly insane--FTWD is a much more modestly-budgeted affair than its parent (which has plenty of money but only looks cheap). The nautical setting is a new one and potentially interesting, so I'm reluctant to criticize it as a continuation of that isolation--that big lie--from the first season but I'll concede it could be seen as such. In season 1, Los Angeles was a setting with incredible potential too. It fell apart off camera and now the characters have left it far behind.

Monday, April 4, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Longest Last Day On Earth [Updated Below]

In the most recent installment of the most excellent "Doctor of the Dead" podcast, Arnold Blumberg addressed speculation rampant among internet fans of THE WALKING DEAD that the series' season 6 finale would build to a climax featuring the first appearance of the archvillain Negan, who would swing his infamous barbed-wire-wrapped bat, everything would go black and viewers wouldn't know who had been killed by him until next season. Arnold suggested this would be an example of quality dramatic television, providing a cliffhanger that would keep people talking. I disagreed with this assessment when I first heard it a few days ago and after that exact sequence of events played out on tonight's ep ("The Last Day On Earth"), I still do.

I am, to be sure, all about good cliffhangers, something TWD has never pulled off, and this seemed an obvious one--that's why everyone thought it would happen. The problem with using it here is really the season that precedes it. Season 6 has crept along at a pace that makes snails look like Indy contenders. This has been the most filler-packed season of TWD since the Mazzara era, to the point that most of what we're shown just feels like something ginned up and tacked on to delay events until something else happens down the line. From the moment Negan's bikers turned up, everyone has been waiting for the man himself. At the time, I wrote[1] that as slow as this season has been, Negan probably won't even show up until the last ep, only to be informed by another poster that this, reportedly, was exactly what TWD's creators were going to do. And it's what they did, which brings me back to my disagreement with Arnold. When the direction of a series becomes so obvious one can predict it with that precision many episodes out,[2] the creators of that series are doing something to which one can legitimately affix many descriptions but "quality television" definitely isn't one of them.

A lot of TWD fans are going to disagree with Arnold as well but for different reasons. The audience has been waiting for a payoff and if the creators are going to throw this extreme an amount of filler at them, there must eventually be one. Viewers waded through the molasses-in-winter slog of the first 8 eps in order to get to a payoff in the midseason finale that never came. The last several episodes have been nothing more than standard TWD delaying actions aimed at getting events to that final moment and, in fact, that's all tonight's ep was as well. And then--yet again--there's no payoff. I don't really care who Negan may or may not have killed. I don't approve of TWD fans who seem to derive such a disproportionate share of their enjoyment of the series from the question of who will be killed next--I've always yearned for a TWD to which people look forward for other reasons, like quality storytelling--and I don't feel sorry for them being denied the blood they crave by tonight's ep but in the context of this season, it's hard not to view this particular cliffhanger as just another example of TWD perpetually setting up, setting up, setting up and never coming through with anything. No climax, just another delaying action that can't help but feel a lot like the writers are mocking their viewers, as they have throughout this season. More significantly, it robs one of the most powerful moments from the comic of most of its dramatic impact.[3]

Tonight's ep begins with a moment that seems absolutely surreal. Everyone at the safe zone knows the Saviors are out there and that they have designs on their town but last week, all of the town's best fighters decided to leave on various missions, leaving the town wide open for attack. Tonight, Maggie is experiencing what may be a miscarriage and needs to see the doctor from Hilltop. Taking her there is a two-man job, maybe three if a second automobile is involved (and there should be a second). Instead, Rick and nearly all of the town's best fighters load into one vehicle, the RV, and leave town again, and as the viewer stares at the screen in utter disbelief trying to absorb this turn of events, Rick then opts to leave the defense of the town in the hands of the cowardly, backstabbing slug Father Gabriel! It sounds like the plot of a Saturday Night Live spoof of TWD. The writers wanted those characters present for the climax and damn every logical consideration, they just wrote it that way.

On the way to Hilltop, Rick and co. encounter a Savior roadblock. In the pre-credit sequence, this particular group of baddies had hunted down a fellow, the lone survivor of a group that had resisted them, and said they were going to make him an example of what happens when one defies Negan. An example for whom, he asks? Everyone else in his group has already been killed. As it turns out, he's to serve as an example for Rick and here, the ep runs into a major plot-hole. What I've just described takes place before Rick and co. had even left the safe zone--absent the power of clairvoyance, the Saviors have no way of knowing they would be leaving the zone that day and no way of knowing they'll be coming up that road yet there they are, before the RV has even departed, waiting in the road for it.[see Update below] This becomes an even bigger hole as the ep proceeds.

Hold that thought.

When the RV comes to the roadblock, Rick handles the matter very badly. Mr. I Don't Take Chances Anymore steps out with his hands raised and tries to talk! "We can make a deal right here, right now." The Savior leader tells him the "deal" is going to be taking everything he has and killing one of his people. Rick's force outnumbers them and shooting them down would not only be a simple matter but should be the immediate reaction--Maggie isn't getting any healthier. Because the writers still have most of a 90-minute ep to fill, Rick instead just opts to back away and leave. The bulk of that 90-minute ep is then filled by having Rick's group attempt alternate routes to Hilltop only to encounter increasingly elaborate and well-manned roadblocks. They try a different way, they run into a different roadblock, repeat, right up to the last few minutes (with plenty of bad speeches in between). There are six roadblocks in all and some of them would have taken quite some time to prepare. Fear those clairvoyant Saviors--THEY KNOW YOUR FUTURE!

The b-plot involved Morgan continuing to search for and soon finding Carol. She's injured and he wants to take her back to town for treatment but she's having none of that. They make speeches to one another and Carol runs away. She ends up being attacked by the last survivor of that group of thugs she shot two weeks ago (yeah, this has been dragging on that long). The guy has had a bullet in his lung for hours but he seems to be gifted with TWD's magical healing powers and is still spry enough to walk around, talk, even power-tackle Carol then outwrestle her. He has the idea of shooting her full of holes until she dies but then Morgan shows up and, having randomly decided to abandon his "all life is precious" philosophy, kills the fellow, perhaps removing that countdown clock from his own head.

When Rick's group is finally captured and meets Negan, Rick reverts to one of his uber-wimp personalities and falls to pieces. There's no trace of any brave leader here--he's weeping, visibly scared to death and won't even look his tormentor in the eye. It isn't an unique display--he behaved the same way back in season 4 when Woodbury 4.0 turned up at his fence--but it's no easier to stomach here than it was then. For all the grief I've given TWD over the years, I almost always spared the actors. No matter how badly they come off--really, really badly, at times--I've always suspected their more wince-inducing moments are much more a consequence of the wretched material they're being given. Andrew Lincoln's Rick in tonight's ep makes me wonder if perhaps I've gone too easily on them.

Overall, TWD season 6 was a spectacular failure. As I've written before, it has become pretty clear that with season 5, TWD entered the stuck-around-way-too-long seasons through which every long-running show seems to stumble when the creators are shot but the ratings are still high enough to keep drawing renewals. This season saw the writers committing major character assassinations of both Carol and Morgan, two characters who were previously quite popular. The writing was sloppier than usual--big, obvious plot-holes abounded, subplots were introduced then never taken anywhere, etc. Every ep featured situations in which the writers seemed to be openly mocking their viewers and the sheer amount of this was a new development and a sign that the series is on its last legs. Perhaps anticipating the lower ratings this season would draw--if I could do this, the professionals AMC employed certainly could--the series began to lean on gimmicks: the big zombie herd; the scene with Negan's bikers, which came from the second half of the season, was released immediately after the midseason finale; Glenn was fake-killed in order to cause an internet firestorm. The amount of underwriting and filler was off the charts. As little happened per ep as possible and every turn of the plot was made dependent upon the characters being written as idiots. This was a throwback to the bad ol' days of the Mazzara era--a complete waste of space.

--j.

---

[1] IOn the Walking Dead board of the Internet Movie Database, which I frequent.

[2] I've done this here and elsewhere many times--it's no trick.

[3] Tv TWD has always shied away from the harsher elements of the comic; it wouldn't surprise me if we're never shown this murder at all and only get details about it in retrospect.


UPDATE (Mon., 11 April, 2016) - I looked at the ep's opening again and this is a slightly inaccurate recounting of the order of events. The RV is, in fact, shown departing the safe zone before we see the Saviors waiting in the road. This doesn't really change anything though because the Saviors hunted down that fellow they intended to turn into an example before the RV had left and when, after roughing him up a bit, they dragged him up on to the road, they already had their vehicles blocking it. The whole multii-roadblock thing was done to specifically impress Rick, the safe zone leader, yet they'd set up their roadblock and hunted down their victim before they knew anyone, much less Rick, had left to go anywhere.

Some readers have suggested the Savors could have just been watching the safe zone and radioed ahead but that's not a tenable explanation unless this theoretical spy had the benefit of clairvoyance or time-travel equipment. The Saviors wanted Rick but if they had such a theoretical spy in place, Rick and Morgan had left town earlier that same day (in the previous ep) and that would have been the time to nab him with minimal fuss, after which they could have just gone back to town and outlined, before its entire population, the way things were going to work from now on.