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 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 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.

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[*] 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.

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[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.

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[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.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

WALKING DEAD: L'East [Updated Below]

Carol leaves, meets some random Saviors on the road, shoots them all. Rick and Morgan, trying to find her, happen on the aftermath of this and, trying to find Carol, follow a blood-trail across a field for a while. Meanwhile, Daryl goes off in search of the armed group he encountered last week; Rosita, Glenn and Michonne follow; all end up captured by said group (and Daryl shot).

Such is "East," this week's installment of THE WALKING DEAD. As so often happens on the show, it's 15 or 20 minutes of actual plot packed with padding as plentiful as it is pointless. Anything to drag it out until it fills the contractually obligated hour.

As usual, getting it there involves a lot of stupid decisions.

There are groups of armed hostiles in the area who both know of the safe zone and have designs on it and our heroes are uncharacteristically concerned about it and looking to beef up their defenses but when Daryl leaves, no fewer than three of the top fighters also leave in pursuit. Their purpose isn't to help him track down and battle the baddies, which would actually be a somewhat acceptable excuse for such a force. They just want him to come back. They're obviously not going to wrestle him down, hogtie him and bring him back against his will, so why do three of them need to go? And when they do catch up, the writers have Glenn display a spectacular lack of self-awareness by making him try to guilt-trip Daryl for leaving the safe zone shorthanded. "We need you. And everyone back there needs us right now." Daryl is on the trail of an enemy that could be very near; deep in Injun Country, the others opt to loudly argue with him.

Last week, Carol left Tobin, a stranger, a Dear John letter as if they were involved in some sort of romantic relationship--she told him she was leaving town. At the beginning of this ep, the writers include a short bit intended to retroactively shoehorn into the series the relationship between the two they'd entirely failed to establish up to that point. Tobin apparently didn't get the memo that he was the retconned romantic interest; he doesn't go after her. Instead, Rick, learning that five of his best fighters (constituting nearly all of his muscle) have left town, displays some of those same keen leadership skills so often lauded on this blog: he decides the best course of action is that he and Morgan should also leave in pursuit of Carol. And yes, a little later, he repeats his "I don't take chances anymore" line.

While Morgan and Rick and trailing Carol, they talk about her having killed those sick people at the prison and Rick exiling her. Aware that this continues to be a real stain on Carol's character, the writers have Rick tell Morgan that if that happened today, he would thank Carol--probably the low point of this episode. Morgan prevents Rick from winging a fleeing fellow who could have provided them with some information then goes into an incredibly obnoxious "all life is precious" speech. It seems to go on forever but unlike last week with Denise, no arrow streaks through the air to put a merciful end to it. Morgan confesses he captured one of the Wolves and kept the fellow locked up, tells about Carol trying to kill said Wolf, the Wolf getting free, kidnapping Denise and rushing right out into the zombies outside. That Wolf, as he tells it, then ended up saving Denise from the zombies. This, he says, means people can change. And because that Wolf saved Denise, she was there to save Coral. "It's all a circle. Every thang gets a return." Of course, if Morgan hadn't imprisoned that Wolf, whose actions in protecting Denise were self-interested, Denise wouldn't have been in any danger in the first place and, in fact, would have been in the infirmary when Coral needed medical attention, but while such a gap in this logic can't help but be apparent to any reasonably intelligent viewer, it still manages to entirely escape Morgan.[see Update below] Earlier this season, I noted Morgan had been reduced to a one-note caricature and ever since, this "all life is precious" schtick has become Morgan's one note in his every scene. His character has been as thoroughly assassinated as any currently on the show--he can't die quickly enough.

When Rick and Morgan follow that blood trail off the road, one of the Saviors whom Carol had shot emerges from hiding and appears to follow them. A little later, Rick returns to his vehicle and drives back to the safe zone but he never encountering this fellow. Back in town, Maggie is having tummy pains, probably the start of a miscarriage. At the end, Daryl and Rosita are made to get really stupid, walk into an obvious trap and get themselves captured. Dwight, the leader of the thugs who catch them, then shoots Daryl. Blood spatters the camera and that would have been a good last image but the writers haven't the guts to make it even appear as if they're killing Daryl, so they have Dwight offer a final line, assuring viewers Daryl isn't dead.

"East" was a lousy, underplotted episodes full of scenes that go on and on but don't actually go anywhere. A delaying action to get to the season finale.

--j.

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UPDATE (28 March, 2016) - Morgan's logically empty "circle of life" argument in this ep brought to mind something I'd written earlier this season in reaction to "Here's Not Here":

"Morgan, when he was introduced, was a fellow who just couldn't bring himself to kill the zombie that had once been his wife. This made him very human. It's the reason the character became so beloved. Later, in 'Clear,' it was revealed that he'd continued to put off killing the creature until, one day, it killed his son. In last night's opus, he senselessly murdered a fellow but didn't pike the fellow's brain. As Lebeau notes, that was an entirely arbitrary decision and as I wrote, the fellow Morgan murdered came back as a zombie and bit Morgan's Jedi sensei. 'One can see this as being Morgan's fault for killing the fellow but given Morgan's recent actions, the reading of it that screams to the viewer is that this was a situation with which Morgan failed to properly deal and that came back with disastrous consequences--if he'd have piked the fellow in the brain, his sensei would still be alive.' Toward the end of last season, one of the Wolves turned up at the now-'enlightened' Morgan's camp. He announced his intention was to take everything Morgan had, including his life. Morgan allowed the fellow to live; the same fellow later came back with his Wolf buddies and carried out horrendous atrocities against the Alexandrians. When Morgan faced those marauding Wolves, he stood around like a naive idiot who had never lived so much as a day in this zombified world and didn't know what to do, trying to reason with them while they were committing gruesome murders he could have prevented. When he faced down the final group of them, he told them to run away and allowed them to escape. Minutes later, storytime, they attacked and tried to kill Rick. In arbitrarily imposing this "all life is precious" business, the writers have not only reduced this once-very-human fellow to a one-note caricature--his one all-time-worst mistake repeated into infinity--they've now made him ideologically committed to being nothing more. Morgan, the dumbass who gets others killed because he can never learn his one lesson."

When those Wolves attacked Rick, they had the gun they'd stolen and shot the RV Rick was using, rendering it inoperative. As a result, Rick wasn't able to lead away the zombie herd then marching on the safe zone. The safe zone was surrounded, the creatures eventually got inside and a whole hell of a lot of people died. Morgan is trying to make a case for a "circle of life," but his own life has become nothing but a circle of death for everyone around him--death for which he is responsible.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Devil of a DAREDEVIL (Season 1)

As Netflix has just released the second season of Marvel's DAREDEVIL series; it's probably about time I got around to delivering on my long-promised review of the first. I'd watched most of it in a fairly rapid burst shortly after its release but then, as so often happens, life intruded. I only just got around to seeing the final episode last week.

My pokiness in finishing it certainly shouldn't be taken as any indication of my estimation of its merits. DAREDEVIL was released last spring to almost-universal praise and it earns it. This is a very good piece of television, one of the best Marvel or Marvel-based productions to date. It works as an adaptation and stands up as a very good series in its own right. That isn't to say it's flawless. One of the pitfalls of seeing this particular series through the eyes of a very longtime Daredevil fan is that one is acutely aware of the potential of such a project and of where it fails to live up to it. On that score, the series sometimes hits and sometimes misses.

DAREDEVIL is the story of Matt Murdock, the son of a broken-down fighter, who, as a child, is involved in an accident wherein he's struck by some radioactive gunk that takes his sight but amps up his other senses to superhuman levels. His father is later killed by gangsters after refusing to take a dive during a fight; Matt grows up, becomes a lawyer as his father wanted but he assumes another identity by night, that of a costumed crimefighter. Daredevil.

This story was adapted to the screen once before, a creative abortion of a feature film from 2003 that certainly did the property no favors. Marvel reacquired the screen rights from 20th Century Fox and produced this series in-house. It was good to see carried over here a heaping helping of the "pulp noir" aesthetic of the book during all of its finer moments and this and the overall quality of the series marked a bit of a comeback for a Marvel Daredevil. At the time it appeared, the comic of the same name had been a mess for years; Mark Waid, its contracted scribe, seemed determined to upend, undo and defecate upon everything that made DD great and unique and had, for nearly four years, been grinding out an overbearingly lighthearted stew of silly, jokey, Silver Agey trash--a "Daredevil" that was still called Daredevil but was otherwise thoroughly unrecognizable. The series wisely steers clear of anything reeking of that particular run. For longtime DD fans, it was good to finally get the character back in a recognizable form and being done well.

This DD is set in a recognizable place as well. When Marvel first announced DAREDEVIL and its other Netflix series were going to be shooting in New York itself, I was pretty skeptical of that decision. Shooting Marvel stuff in New York, where so much of it is set, seems, on the one hand, a dream--something one wishes could always be done--but New York is an extremely expensive place to shoot, needlessly expensive, and my filmmaker bone felt it would probably be better to spend a television budget on recreating the city somewhere much cheaper. It's impossible to argue with these results though. From the waterfront to the rooftops to the view of it all from fancy apartments and expensive restaurants, the city just looks awesome. DAREDEVIL needed even more of it--more broad vistas, more stuff from the street, traffic, people to-ing-and-fro-ing, local color, atmosphere. It isn't enough just to have the characters talk about the city and what they think of it (and there's plenty of that); the series needs to show it, and while DAREDEVIL uses the city well, it doesn't use it enough. Hopefully something future seasons will remedy.

Matt has only just started his nocturnal activities here and his crimefighter persona is still a bit of a work in progress. He's privy to a lot of the ugly things people do to one another, carrying around a lot of anger and at the same time seems afraid of that part of himself, the "devil" in him that makes him want to do very bad things to very bad people. A Catholic, he goes to confession as the series opens and soon strikes up relationship with the priest, Father Lantom, who proves to be an interesting character and counsel as the series moves along.

The entire supporting cast is excellent, not a miss in the batch. When it comes to writing them, the series uses the comic to great advantage. Instead of looking down upon the book and approaching it with the idea of "fixing" it, the series' creators are very respectful and closely port over a lot of what has made the original work for so many years. The characters are strong, their relationships mostly well-played, a terribly watchable tableaux of very human and very likable characters. Some of the more colorful personalities in the Daredevil universe are brought to life with great gusto. Scott Glenn as Matt's ninja-master mentor Stick, Rob Morgan as Turk, low-level hod and Daredevil's frequent informant, Vincent D'Onofrio as archvillain Wilson Fisk, Bob Gunton as his chief money-man Leland Owlsley,[1] Toby Leonard Moore as his well-spoken right-hand man James Wesley. The comic version of Karen Page was a young innocent who worked as secretary for Matt and his law partner Foggy Nelson then, in later years, saw her life take a dark turn into drugs and prostitution. The series version, essayed by the breathtaking Deborah Ann Woll, has her history reversed, her shady future becoming instead a shady past she's trying to escape. In the comic, Ben Urich was a reporter for the New York Daily Bugle who figures out Matt's secret identity then becomes a frequent Daredevil ally; the series reimagines him as a sort of hybrid of the comic Urich and Spider-Man newsman Joe Robertson, giving him a promotion, making him older and changing his race. Vondie Curtis-Hall is rock-solid in the part but near the end of the run, in what's probably the single biggest misstep of the entire series, the writers opt to bump him off. Urich features, often centrally, in a lot of the best stories in the comic--a lot of potential adaptations of great Daredevil lore died with him.

The writing breaks down in a few places. Some sharp dialogue is often made to rub elbows with some significantly less-than-sharp lines. Some arbitrary drama plays out near the end of the season when Matt's law partner Foggy learns of his powers and vigilante activities. Up to this, Matt and Foggy are best pals, thick as thieves going back years, and Foggy becomes way, way too angry upon learning of these things. It doesn't really affect him in any meaningful way and he should be as fascinated as he is upset but he treats the matter as if Matt had sex with his wife--absolutely furious and doesn't even want to know the guy anymore.[2] Throughout the series, Wilson Fisk's criminal empire is shown to be massive, pervasive and he's a master of covering his own tracks but toward the end, when Matt manages to find a key witness and get the guy talking, this empire unravels far too easily. What should have been a gradual process taking months or even years and maybe never touching the man at the top at all is relegated to a brief montage in the final episode and ends with Fisk being marched away in cuffs. Should have been done better.

One thing that probably couldn't have been done any better is the appropriately visceral way DAREDEVIL handles its violence. Villain Fisk is a real sadist--nearly beats one of his own men to death in a pointless rage, kills a Russian gangster by slamming the fellow's head in a car door until it comes off, doesn't mind having old ladies killed. DD lacks super strength or speed and doesn't carry around a lot of anti-personnel gadgets; he puts down his opponents the old fashioned way, by beating them until they don't get up anymore. In one spectacular sequence, he shows up to rescue a kidnapped child from a building full of hoods. In a single shot, he goes down a hallway the thugs have staked out, bashing every one of them to a pulp until he gets to the room at the end with the child. The fight scenes in this first season are excellent, some of the best I've seen in a television production.

The series adopts the noir aesthetic so central to the best Daredevil work. Its darkness is ever-present but not indulged in a silly, juvenile, aren't-we-kewl-to-be-so-"dark" way like MAN OF STEEL (and, by most reports, the just-released BATMAN V. SUPERMAN). A few relatively minor items do, at times, bring it close to that territory. Matt, in the early episodes, walks around looking unkempt and with unshaved beard stubble, the way comic Matt sometimes looks when he's at the depths of a downer. But tv Matt isn't at the depths of a downer at that point and this definitely smacks of a production trying a bit too hard to sell the idea of Dark Character. Thankfully, that bushy look disappears as the series continues. It's also the case that the characters are way too quick to turn to massive amounts of alcohol to deal with their troubles, to a point that it becomes rather silly and feels more like lazy writing. Something to fix in the future. On the other hand, I would have liked to have seen some of the darker thematic elements taken much further, with, among other things, much more Expressionistic cinematography[3] and a more ambiguous wrap-up (as evil that pervasive is never entirely defeated).

There's a lot to like about DAREDEVIL and despite the fact I would do some things quite differently if I was behind it, there isn't a lot to dislike. In an era that so often produces safe, mediocre screen translations of popular comics, it's definitely a keeper and I'm looking forward to taking in season 2.

--j.

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[1]  The comic version of Leland Owlsley is also known as the Owl, a mutant crime-lord. The series mostly ditches the character's comic persona, carrying over only Owlsley's past as a bigshot Wall Street money man. Gunton's ever-acerbic Owlsley is--forgive me--a hoot.

[2] In the comic, Foggy learns Matt is Daredevil only after they've been law partners--and Daredevil had been active and often involved in their lives--for many years. Karen had known of Matt's dual identity for years as well and Foggy is initially angry with her, thinking she must have known Matt was alive when he'd faked his death (a long story). His anger, which was much more justified, doesn't last beyond that initial outburst.

[3] And better-managed cinematography as well. At one point, there's a classic noir moment, two people in an office at night with light coming through the window blinds, but the characters (Karen and Foggy) are having a warm, friendly discussion. This set-up would have been better employed for some of the darker moments that came later but which, paradoxically, often aren't photographed to reflect the mood.

Monday, March 21, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD Takes Twice As Long To Get Half As Far 2.0

If one was writing a TV Guide blurb for "Twice As Far," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, it could read something like "Idiots randomly crashing into one another." For that matter, that description would be entirely adequate for more eps of TWD than not. I think I'm more forgiving of it at some times than at others. This evening, I didn't feel inclined to grant its perpetual shortcomings much mercy. The filler, the Idiot Plot Syndrome, the random characterizations--this one had it all in spades. Whatever else one may say about it, this was a damn sorry excuse for dramatic television. An aggressive insult to every viewer.

The one feature of TWD against which I've probably raged more than any other is the random characterizations. I'm a firm believer in strong characters who are conceptualized as real, three-dimensional human beings and plots that go where they go because of who those strong characters are. When, as with TWD, characterizations are dictated solely by the plot of the moment, have no internal consistency and are radically changed on a dime then changed again then changed again, one doesn't have characters, just a random mess--stand-ins for the real thing that have no continuity beyond having the same faces and the same names. There's no point in even trying to develop any affinity for such "characters"; if you find something you like, it will be gone when the next storyline comes around, whenever the plot dictates they become someone else entirely.

Daryl is a rare example of a character who was actually developed during the course of TWD, rather than just subjected to this process. In the series' first season, he was just a unidimensional hot-headed asshole caricature. In response to the godawful Sophia storyline, he actually grew and matured into the noble, uber-capable redneck with a heart of gold that quickly made him the most popular character on the show. Whereas there have been many entirely different versions of every other major character, he's pretty much stayed the same since. While every other character on the show has had entirely new personalities grafted on to them over and over again, he's been the rock, the one they haven't touched. When Rick 5.0 appeared and wanted to turn Michonne over to GINO, Daryl was the one who said this was wrong. When Rick 8.0 appeared and was casually plotting against the Alexandrians, Daryl was the one who recognized it was the wrong path to take. That's his role in the show; he's the hero. I like Norman Reedus and I like this aspect of Daryl a lot.

In the current storyline though, he's suddenly getting the same treatment as the rest. It started when Jesus first appeared; Rick had undergone the latest of his random transformations and had suddenly decided it was a good idea to recruit new people to the safe zone while out of the blue, Daryl was suddenly the fellow very skeptical of this, the one who, after Jesus was injured, just wanted to leave the guy laying. This has continued since. Near the beginning of tonight's ep, he's talking to Carol about the people who, earlier in the season, stole his motorcycle. Carol notes that he had saved them. "It's who you are. We're still stuck with that."

"No, we ain't." Daryl replies. "I shoulda' killed 'em."

But no viewer of that ep would have considered that an appropriate response. These were people who had just escaped a dangerous cult and, for understandable reasons, didn't trust anyone. One of them was afflicted with diabetes, a real curse in a post-apocalyptic world and a reason for the others to be particularly defensive. They caused Daryl some inconvenience and at the end, they stole his bike, which wasn't very neighborly, particularly after he'd saved them, but it's hardly a hanging offense. This callous, murderous Daryl who comes to the dumb and inappropriate conclusion that he should have simply killed them is Daryl 2.0--entirely at odds with the Daryl we've known since season 2. His new outlook isn't a consequence of anything he's experienced.

Carol is another who, when the storyline changed, became a different character. To date, I've sort of looked at the new characterization that has been imposed upon her as making her a bit of a throwback to some of the earlier, less appealing Carols but tonight made clear she's definitely Carol 5.0--an all-new version. I really liked Carol 4.0, the sly wisecracker who is always on top of the situation, always with a twinkle in her eye and always ready to do what needs to be done. I'll freely concede this version of Carol had practically no connection to any of her previous incarnations--this was another arbitrary characterization created in the shadow of Z NATION--but it worked. Even when she was wrong, such as when she was plotting with Rick against the Alexandrians, she was a delight to watch.

In the current storyline, that personality has been entirely abandoned.

When, last week, the Saviors captured the new 5.0 model, her apparent panic, which looked at first like a typical Carol 4.0 ruse, turned out to be real. She spent tonight's ep smoking and looking droopy-faced then at the end wrote Tobin a "Dear John" letter. Says she's sorry, she never meant to hurt him, didn't want it to have to end this way--every cliche to which TWD is heir.[1] The big reason she says she's leaving not only Tobin but the safe zone as well is that she just can't kill people on behalf of those she loves anymore. This is entirely inconsistent with every previous version of Carol. Carol 2.0 is the one who, in order to protect everyone else, mercilessly killed two people merely because they got sick. The one who taught children to kill and insisted even the weak ones learn it. Even the much wimpier 1.0 model told Andrea to screw GINO silly then pike him in his sleep. And of course, 4.0 took on the whole army of Wolves and even executed the one Morgan tried to capture. Immediately before the current storyline began, she was willing to try to take down Morgan in order to eliminate even the perceived threat of that last Wolf he'd imprisoned. That's Carol. She does what has to be done because she understand the consequences of not doing it. Now, the new 5.0 appears and writes Tobin to say that if she stays, she'll have to kill on behalf of the others and she just can't bring herself to do that anymore. Meaning she knows there will be trouble but she, one of the few capable ones, is going to leave the others to the mercy of whatever it may be.

Nothing--nothing--has happened to lead Carol to such a radical change of personality. Like Morgan earlier in the season, she's caught the "all life is precious" bug as if it was some airborne disease. As usual, the writers want the story to go a certain way and they just change their "characters" in whatever way is necessary to get it there. To put the matter bluntly, their character assassinations of both Carol and Daryl suck.

When it comes to redshirt characters who have been targeted for death, TWD's usual formula is to suddenly thrust the mark into the spotlight, giving them lots of time and trying, in their final hour, to make the audience care about them before they're put to rest. Tonight, Daryl, Rosita and Denise go off in search of a pharmacy. Denise has never been out in the zombified world and being the closest thing they have to a medical professional--should be a blue shirt instead of a red, btw-- never should be allowed out in it but while the other two don't want to bring her along, they do finally acquiesce, for no other reason than that the writers want them to do so.[2] In the field, Denise proves to be one stupid, potentially fatal screw-up after another. While in the pharmacy, our heroes hear a zombie but it's behind a closed door so no need to worry over it. Denise, who has never fought or killed a zombie in her life, opts to break away from the others without alerting them and go check out the noise. And she opens that door. That time around, she gets lucky enough not to get eaten or to unleash a zombie herd on the others but later, as they're walking home, she comes across a derelict vehicle with a zombie in it. There's a cooler on the car-seat and for no reason at all, she decides there could be something useful in it, a cooler that has obviously been sitting there for years. Daryl and Rosita tell her to forget it and walk on, the experienced hands paying no attention to their amateur charge solely because the writers want things to go that way. Heedless of her experienced comrades, Denise opens the car door, unleashing the zombie and nearly getting herself killed. When it's over, Rosita and Daryl are very disapproving of this course of action and Denise goes into one of TWD's trademark speeches to try to justify it but her random diatribe, which isn't going anywhere anyway, is interrupted with an arrow from the forest mercifully pierces her brain.

The arrow came from Daryl's old crossbow and the fellow wielding it turns out to be the guy who stole his motorcycle. He's now suddenly an utter villain and leading a group of armed, like-minded thugs. He demands Daryl take them back to the safe zone so they can loot it. Daryl 2.0 really, really wishes he'd killed that guy. The thugs have captured Eugene, who had earlier been in the field with Abraham looking for a machine-shop at which Eugene intends to manufacture bullets. Eugene manages to distract them then bites the dick of the bike-stealer, allowing the others to get to their weapons and put the thugs to flight.

Yes, that actually happened. And for a moment on which TWD's writers had imposed some gravity, it was actually pretty funny. Humor is nearly non-existent in the world of TWD but Eugene and Abraham are sometimes given amusing dialogue. This week, they were allowed to go at one another in some brief verbal jiu-jitsu. At one point, Eugene set out to prove his new manliness by piking a zombie and it turned out to be one on which molten metal had, at some point, been poured, encasing its head in an impenetrable coating! Though it looked as if this material was edited in from some entirely different program--*cough* Z NATION *cough*--it was genuinely amusing.

A lot more of this and a lot less of everything else that happened in this ep would have been most welcome. I've been analyzing recent TWD as having entered the "stuck around way too long" seasons. Its bad habits have gotten much worse, it openly mocks its viewers and it has now taken to eating itself, a process that is presently chewing up two of its only good characters, who happen to be two of the only good things left about it. Too bad.

--j.

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[1] This choice is, in itself, an utterly bizarre and arbitrary plot imposition. Carol has no relationship with Tobin to end with a "Dear John" letter. The two have only ever shared maybe 3 or 4 scenes. There were two very awkward attempts at kisses, but no larger relationship has been shown or even hinted. They're essentially strangers but when Carol decides to leave, she writes him and not any of the people with whom she has lived for years.

[2] She argues she knows what meds to choose; when they get to the drug store, they simply opt to take everything, which is obviously what they would have done all along.