Monday, December 12, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Hearts Ain't Beatin'

There's a moment in "Hearts Still Beating," tonight's midseason finale of THE WALKING DEAD, when Negan becomes rather disgusted with Spencer. The alcoholic half-wit had been trying to convince the evil overlord that he should bump off Rick and put a new guy in charge of the Safe Zone--none other than Spencer himself, of course. Negan didn't like that. Rick, said Negan, has guts. While Rick is out there in this zombified world risking his life to try to scavenge supplies for the Saviors so no one in the Safe Zone will die, Spencer had been there sucking up to Negan behind Rick's back and talking this smack. You've got no guts, says Negan. And then he guts Spencer. If viewers were concerned about the big hole the writers put in Negan's reasoning here--Spencer himself had, only moments earlier, returned from a supply run laden with choice goods he'd turned over to the Saviors and they'd been so pleased, they'd made some overtures toward eventually recruiting him--it was no doubt overawed by their delight at finally seeing the obnoxious Spencer ended.

Spencer's death conformed with the usual conventions. He was a redshirt and so a prime target in a finale ep. He was a character written in such a way that no viewer could possibly be upset if he went away and most would be far more likely to be pleased by the development. His death was heralded by his sudden decision to really start hating on Rick. As longtime viewers of TWD know, that last is an even shorter path to an early grave than being the established black guy character when the new black guy shows up. The writers play a rather silly game here. They consistently write Rick as a dangerously incompetent leader--I've covered that point here since my very first article on TWD--then to try to compensate--because it isn't really cool if your lead alpha-male hero is a dimwitted buffoon--they have the other characters speak of his leadership in glowing terms, trying to cut a dodge around their own work and convince viewers to share such a view, rather than the one suggested by what they've actually written into the show. Believe the words of praise offered by these characters, this says, not your lying eyes. This eventually took an ugly turn: any character who was written as criticizing Rick was suddenly signing his own death warrant. This is a ridiculously overly defensive reaction to critics who question how they handle Rick and it can't help but beg the obvious: If they're so bothered, why not just write Rick as a good leader, for a change?

Tonight was another 90-minute ep--85 minutes, actually, just as was last week's. Something I wrote about that previous ep:

"Negan is sitting on the front porch with Coral and a sleepy baby Judith, sipping lemonade, waiting for Rick and grousing about how maybe he should move to the suburbs, then the ep just stops, in a way that makes me think there's some heavy editing going on. There's no ending, no dramatic capper. It feels like we're right in the middle of an ep and it's suddenly over. The obvious dramatic conclusion, Rick returning home, won't be happening for a while yet--he still has to try to navigate that zombie water-hazard. The end credits tonight informed viewers that next week's midseason finale will be another 90-minute ep, which makes me wonder if the extra half-hour in this ep had originally been part of the subsequent ep then had been edited into this one, either to greedily suck up another hour of commercial time or because they just didn't like what they had with the originally-shot eps. Given the extraordinary amount of filler this season, it seems incredible to me that TWD would do this--basically assemble an extra ep worth of material when they're barely even filling the eps they have--but this one left me somewhat convinced that's exactly what has happened. If that's the case, I guess we'll learn of it eventually."

Still no word on whether anything like this actually happened but several plotlines from roughly the first half-hour of tonight's ep seemed to wrap up stuff launched in the last half-hour of last week's.[1] In the aired versions, these are half-plots that seem to belong together but that have been divided. Spencer, as noted, returns with his supplies and turns them over to the Saviors, who are pleased. That hole I mentioned in my own opening above--Negan's faulty rationale for eventually killing Spencer--would be more explicable if both of those moments were originally the work of different writers working on different eps and just not really reaching harmony. Negan, who had been hanging around Rick's house, finishes preparing a meal. At first, he's waiting for Rick to return so they can all eat together. Then at one point, he just decides to go ahead and eat--a beat that feels very much like a finished-for-now moment. Rick and Aaron complete their adventure through zombie-infested waters to a boat full of supplies, load up said supplies then leave, only to have the camera reveal that some mysterious figure has been watching them. That feels like the conclusion of an ep--a final scene--and the rest of the material tonight, in turn, feels like one cohesive hour-long ep. The idea that these were originally three eps instead of two is speculation on my part and perhaps a bit of an aside but I am curious about whether this was the case and if so, why? TWD airs half-seasons in batches of 8 eps but if these were originally three, that could mean the stuff from the first half-hour tonight was originally the end of the midseason finale. Was the intended conclusion of the midseason ender, that mysterious figure, judged to be an insufficient note on which to end? Doesn't seem likely. TWD's creators have never been troubled by their own serving up lame-ass finales. Here's one better (and more likely): Maybe these were three eps and all were meant to be shown in the first half of the season then, for some reason (probably greed having to do with ad revenue on two half-hour eps), they were combined and a new ep was cooked up (probably at the conceptual stage), shot and inserted earlier in the season to fill out the half-season order (similar to what happened in season 2). The obvious choice for the extra ep in such a circumstance is, of course, "The Cell," a filler ep which covered nothing of any import and that replicated some things that happened in last week's ep, making it entirely redundant, as well.

One of those things it replicated was Daryl's predicament, which was another of those half-plots continued tonight. Daryl is locked in a room at the Saviors' compound when someone comes to him with a message, just as happened in "The Cell." In that earlier ep, the door to his room was left unlocked; tonight's message came accompanied by a key to open it. And Daryl goes through trying to escape again, just as before (though this time, he succeeds). The dramatic problem involved in this particular bit of Xeroxing is that, the first time around, the business of leaving his door unlocked turned out to be a trap and Daryl took a beating for it, yet only a few eps later, he's faced with essentially the same situation and does the same thing again, as if the first time had never happened. Mind-numbing repetitiveness, characters failing to learn and plot progression being made dependent upon them acting in incredibly stupid ways are all hallmarks of TWD, so it may be a mistake to read too much into this. Still, food for how much ever thought one wants to expend on this matter.[2]

Michonne hijacked a Savior last week--still another half-plot--intent on forcing the woman to take her to Negan. Tonight, in an utterly bizarre twist, she tells her captive that she isn't going to kill Negan. She's taken an action that will mean her death in order to get to Negan and she isn't even intent on killing the man once she gets to him? None of this leads anywhere either. When the pair get close to the Savior's compound, Michonne just turns around and leaves, apparently liquidating her hostage. Perhaps this will leave some viewers wondering what in hell was the point of any of this but seasoned viewers will recognize what this subplot brings to the ep, the most valuable things in the world to TWD's writers: it eats up screentime.

Other items: Ezekiel's right-hand man, whose name escapes me, is still trying to get Ezekiel to fight the Saviors, more material we've already seen. He tries to recruit Morgan and Carol to his cause. Morgan is back to his peacenik routine, while the writers' character assassination of Carol continues as she declares she wants no part of it or of anyone either. Both refuse to help, making this yet another meaningless screentime-consuming subplot. When Negan kills Spencer, Rosita draws her gun and shoots at him with her only bullet.[3] It hits his baseball bat instead. He isn't pleased. For no reason other than one of those idiotic fiats of the writers, Negan picks up and examines the shell-casing from this single round. He decides it was home-brew and demands to know who made it. Of course, even if Negan could determine the round had been reloaded at some point, there's no reason at all to assume this was done either recently or by anyone in the Safe Zone and, indeed, the fact that Rosita had only one is enough to make that an entirely counter-intuitive assumption--no one would bother going through the trouble involved in reloading ammo just to do a single bullet--but this is TWD.[4] When no one will tell him who made the bullet, he has one of his underlings shoot Olivia, another redshirt to fill out the finale-dictated death-quota that seems to be the only reason TWD's fans follow this series.

In the comics, Rick was only pretending to go along with Negan while secretly working against him. TV TWD has opted, instead, to do yet another tired version of Broken Rick, wherein Rick is the milksop with the blank stare who entirely gives in to Negan--more of those stellar leadership qualities. In discussing last week's ep with Lebeau over at Le Blog, I wrote:

"It wouldn’t be TWD if it didn’t have all the subtlety of a jackhammer. I think something will happen next week that will set Rick on the path of opposing Negan. Maybe that’s even how the ep--the midseason finale--will end, with Rick giving one of those patented TWD speech about how they’ll overtly play along for now but they’re secretly a’ gonna’ be workin’ against Negan fer however long it takes. 'We survive everything. We’ll survive this!'"

And that's pretty much how it played out tonight, except it was Michonne giving that speech. Negan's killing of Spencer and Olivia proves to be the miracle cure that unbreaks Rick's back. Most of our major characters go to Hilltop and are reunited--lots of hugs and semi-teary smiles set to emotional music--and decide they're going to find a way to take the fight to Negan. Just as soon as the next tv ratings sweeps period comes along.

--j.

---

[1] It isn't as mathematical as that--there's plenty of editing going on.

[2] The awful soap material with Dwight and his former wife was also repeated between those eps.

[3] Last season, Rosita, in the emotional backwash from Abraham's so cruelly dumping her, slept with Spencer. She never seemed particularly fond of him and this season, Spencer has gone out of his way to alienate her. In still another example of the writers trying to convince viewers of Rick's great leadership, she became furious with him for his ranting against Rick. If Spencer had been some little glimmer of hope on to which she'd been holding, she'd clearly lost her grip--she spent the entire ep plotting to kill Negan, knowing this would mean her death. Tonight, as Spencer was on his way over to kiss Negan's ass, he stopped and talked with Rosita for a while and they ended up flirting and parting on good terms, with the suggestion of dinner later, which didn't make a damn lick of sense. Spencer not only hasn't done anything to smooth over their divide, he immediately went to Negan and tried to convince the villain to bump off Rick and make him the leader, while Rosita watched.

[4] In another amusing bit of nonsense, the single shell-casing that Rosita recovered and that Eugene reloaded came from a Desert Eagle fired by Negan himself--probably a .44 Magnum round--yet the gun Rosita uses is a Beretta 92, which is a 9mm. Not compatible. Negan's bat stopped the bullet, which is credible in the case of a 9 (but wouldn't be credible at all in the in the case of a .44).


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, December 5, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Dirge Continues [UPDATED BELOW]


THE WALKING DEAD offered up yet another 90-minute episode this evening, the 2nd in only four weeks. This one--"Sing Me A Song"--has quite a bit more meat than did "Service," the previous effort, but it lacked any payoff. It just fills the allotted time then very abruptly ends.

When a nowhere character on TWD is suddenly made the focus of an ep or storyline, it usually doesn't bode well for his future health and this was a tale centered on Coral, a character who is usually treated as a background-noise redshirt but whom, it's conventionally assumed, wears the same indestructible plot-armor as Rick.

Several of my Golden Oldie Gripes were on full display this evening. Arbitrary shifts in characterization, nonsensical turns of events that happen only because the writers want them to happen, magical coincidences and setting up the main story, plot progression being made dependent upon the characters being written as complete idiots. Coral infiltrates Negan's compound in the back of a supply truck armed only with a knife and intent on doing away with the smiling no-goodnik. What, exactly, is the plan here? To somehow use his knife to kill Negan in the heart of the villain's lair, surrounded by Negan's heavily armed henchmen then... what? He isn't suicidal. The ep makes that plain. He's just out for revenge. The writers want to do an ep wherein Negan sort of takes him under his wing for a while, so they have him intentionally put himself in a situation he can't possibly survive, just because. Fortunately, the truck comes rather conveniently equipped with a fully-automatic weapon, which appears right at the moment Coral needs it. Unfortunately, Coral is no more intelligent with a gun in his hand than he was with the knife. When Negan's men begin to unload the vehicle, he shoots one of them, bursts into the open and declares he only wants Negan. "No one else has to die!" Negan is there--he'd come out to meet the truck. Instead of gunning down his intended target on sight, the way he just had that faceless minion, Coral just stands there, lets Negan prance around chewing the scenery for a bit then some guys rush and disarm him (in the scuffle, Coral manages to dust another of them).

Negan decides he likes Coral, the kid being so tough and all, so he spends most of the A-plot showing Coral around parts of the compound and doing his campy, '60s Batman villain routine. It's a one-note act that was already tiresome by Negan's second appearance on the show. It hasn't improved with age (and I've started to feel sorry for Jeffrey Dean Mogan). At one point in the proceedings, he manages to make Coral cry and drops it for a moment--yeah, it's as bad as it sounds ("I didn't mean ta' hurt your feelings or anything..."). And the camp only stops for that one moment. The rest of the time, he's taking Coral through various aspects of his operation and we get some soap opera nonsense about Dwight and his ex-wife, all of this rehashing utterly nonessential ground already covered in "The Cell" (further underlining the complete worthlessness of that ep).

This is one of the few eps this season to feature secondary plots, and these grant some screentime to some of the other cast-members (though Tara, who made her way back home last week, has now disappeared without explanation or mention). Rick and Aaron are still on their supply-run on which they left a few eps ago. Spencer and Father Gabriel go on one as well and Rosita and Eugene are paired up for a mini-plot. This felt like the writers, who have done almost nothing with the six previous eps, were suddenly trying to cram in a lot of material, which can't help but tug at another of those Golden Oldie Gripes--how badly structured, badly paced and packed with filler this season has been.

Gabriel is initially riding with Spencer but he doesn't like Spencer's attitude, has him stop the car and opts to walk back home.[1] By one of those cosmic-scale coincidences--TWD, the mark of quality!--the place Spencer stops is just where he needs to be to hear a zombie grumbling in the forest. Merely because the writers want him to do so, he goes to check it out and finds a zombified hunter still buckled into a tree-stand. How in the world did that hunter... ? No, never mind. Anyway, the hunter has a bow and a note in his pocket that proves to be the hiding-place for a big cache of supplies. Spencer digs them up, returns to the safe zone and announces his intention to give it all to Negan. Go Spencer!

Meanwhile, Rosita and Eugene trek to the shop Eugene intended to turn into a munitions factory. By the time this angle was introduced last season, Eugene, though still a comic-relief character, had toughened up, become a lot less cowardly--brave, in fact, to the point of being rather stupid. It was presented as a major turning-point for the character. When, a few eps ago, Rosita found a gun and asked him to make a bullet, he was on board. But at this point, if the show didn't feature arbitrary character shifts, could we even call it TWD anymore? Eugene is now back to being a coward who gets cold feet and has to be berated shamed into making that bullet.

Michonne piles a bunch of dead zombies in the road and eventually, a Savior vehicle comes along and stops. The driver is traveling alone, something that, outside of emergency situations, simply isn't done in a zombie apocalypse, but the writers want Michonne to be able to take the truck. She does so and, for whatever reason, wants to be taken to Negan.

Rick and Aaron find some property on which the owner has posted warning signs for any travelers who happen upon it. They look into it and find a possible store of supplies from a possibly dead man but it's on the other side of a lake bobby-trapped with zombies--the sort of device one sees on Z NATION.

After a lot of his usual mugging and camping it up, Negan takes Coral back home. With Rick gone, he asks for and receives a bizarre little tour of the place wherein he acts quite pleased to see utterly mundane things he saw only a few eps ago when he and his men combed through it. It's presented like a sequence in a comedy, a montage featuring upbeat music and goofy moments, as if the creators suddenly forgot what show they were making.[2]

Negan is sitting on the front porch with Coral and a sleepy baby Judith, sipping lemonade, waiting for Rick and grousing about how maybe he should move to the suburbs, then the ep just stops, in a way that makes me think there's some heavy editing going on. There's no ending, no dramatic capper. It feels like we're right in the middle of an ep and it's suddenly over. The obvious dramatic conclusion, Rick returning home, won't be happening for a while yet--he still has to try to navigate that zombie water-hazard. The end credits tonight informed viewers that next week's midseason finale will be another 90-minute ep, which makes me wonder if the extra half-hour in this ep had originally been part of the subsequent ep then had been edited into this one, either to greedily suck up another hour of commercial time or because they just didn't like what they had with the originally-shot eps. Given the extraordinary amount of filler this season, it seems incredible to me that TWD would do this--basically assemble an extra ep worth of material when they're barely even filling the eps they have--but this one left me somewhat convinced that's exactly what has happened. If that's the case, I guess we'll learn of it eventually.

--j.

---

[1] Spencer shares with Gabriel his hatred for Rick and Gabriel doesn't like it. Gabriel speaks of Rick in an admiring way, tells Spencer he's being an asshole then leaves. This is TWD attempting one of its usual end-runs around one of its major dramatic problems. Rick has never been shown to be a good or even mediocre leader. He's flat-out awful. He's stupid, he makes terrible choices and he gets people needlessly killed. To prop up one of the central conceits of the series--that he is the leader and that his people continue to follow him--the writers have the other characters describe him as a good leader. Which, of course, just makes them look like idiots and insults the viewers. The writers don't mind taking it an extra step either--anyone who criticizes Rick or his leadership tends to end up on a slab.

[2] Coral killed two of Negan's men, which Negan makes plain can't go unpunished. Earlier, in a moment that was supposed to be creepy, Negan had Coral, who was obviously scared to death, sing "You Are My Sunshine" while he menacingly practiced his brain-smashing bat-swings only a few feet away. By this montage, they're like buds.


UPDATE (7 Dec., 2016) - I haven't been doing many comparisons of comic TWD to the tv version lately but after I wrote this piece and posted it in various locales, I immediately started getting feedback to the effect that the business with Carl's assassination attempt came straight from the comics. This was used both by critics of my article in an effort to defend the series and by critics of the tv scenario who were sometimes blaming the comics for this dumb bit of plotting and its poor execution. Unlike myself, Lebeau over at Le Blog had the right instincts regarding this matter--in his rundown on the ep, he brought in the comic, not spending a lot of time on it but at least pointing out the huge difference in what happened there vs. what happened in the tv version.

It's still another of my Golden Oldie Gripes that tv TWD is constantly pillaging moments from the comic while entirely removing the context that, in the comics, made them make sense. Events often happen on tv TWD merely because they happened in comic TWD and the television writers don't bother to create any new context that makes these moments work. Carl's assassination attempt on Negan is yet another example of this. Mechanically speaking, the tv version played out almost exactly as did the comic version. The gremlin in the works is that Carl, in the comic, is a little kid--prepubescent, small. His actions are explicable by his lack of maturity (and his particular character development). When, however, these same actions are given to Chandler Riggs' Coral, who is 17 and basically an adult, they look a lot more like utter idiocy, just as I described them.

The age of comic Carl also informs everything that follows.

He's so small, he can barely even hold the rifle he's carrying and whenever he cuts loose with it, he can't control it. He liquidates several of Negan's men and opens fire on the villain as well but the gun is simply too big--he sprays wildly, taking out some more Saviors while the main baddy himself hits the dirt and the recoil from the rifle knocks Carl on his ass. That's how Negan's men are able to disarm him.


TV Coral, by contrast, can handle fully automatic weapons just fine--not only is he fully proficient with one here, we've seen him do it more than once in the past. He also has Negan in his sights and dead to rights at point-blank range for about half a minute but never even tries to shoot the guy, the thing he'd gone there to do. He just stands there like an idiot, tracking Negan with the gun and not pulling the trigger.

The fact that comic Carl is so young is a big part of why Negan is fascinated by him and doesn't just gut him on the spot, a mercy a 17-year-old is very unlikely to receive. Later, Negan makes Carl sing "You Are My Sunshine"; when he makes Carl cry, he feels bad about it; and so on. As these pages I've included help illustrate, Negan, throughout the comic dialogue, is clearly addressing a child. That's the dynamic in play in all of this. Incredibly, the tv version ports over all of this material and most of the comic dialogue, with little change!

It's impossible to so radically alter the circumstances of something that happens in so specific a context and still have it play out the same. The tv adaptation is an ill-conceived fail.


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Sunday, November 27, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD Makes Viewers Swear [UPDATED BELOW]


It isn't exactly news here that THE WALKING DEAD is in a death spiral. This author predicted it had plateaued back in the midst of season 5 and isn't really surprised to see that the ratings for this season have not only suffered their sharpest decline in the series' history but have fallen to their lowest levels since season 3. Still, TWD is the highest-rated series on cable--it would still be doing relatively healthy business for a cable series if its numbers were 1/4 what they are now. So while the show is over and dead, it's probably going to be a while before it's finally shot in the head.

TWD's creative collapse isn't just a matter of writers who are running on fumes. To be brutally frank, no one working on the show in that capacity ever showed much evidence of having much in the tank in the first place. They're not suddenly doing particularly bad work, as some of the series' increasingly weary fans have suggested. It's just that all of their bad habits, uncorrected over the years by their seeming indifference in the face of big ratings, appear to be finally wearing on more and more viewers.

Tonght's installment, "Promise," isn't going to be arresting this trend.

Showrunner Scott Gimple loves to break up the cast and scatter them to the four winds in order to do eps focused on only a few characters. To note the obvious (as I tend to do while often noting I'm doing it), this is entirely unnecessary--Gimple could still do eps like that with most of the cast remaining together. Among TWD's many borrowings from daytime soaps, the series moves with the speed of a drowsy snail on a slow day and Gimple's love of fragmentation only exacerbates this. The series has presently regressed to Mazzara Era levels of filler. What now passes for a "plot" is usually no more than a one-line item--one story point or development that actually matters or moves things somewhat forward, with everything else just extraneous stuffings used to pad out the rest of the hour. The main cast of TWD has only been together once in this entire season--in the opener in which most of them didn't have so much as a single line of dialogue. Every ep so far has been set at a different location with a only a few of the central characters present, while other characters entirely disappear for long stretches. Of the six eps so far aired, Rick, who is the star of the show, hasn't appeared at all in three and was only present for a few minutes in one of the others. Tonight's ep focused on Tara, who has been entirely absent from the series for 9 or 10 eps (this sudden spotlight on her doesn't bode well for her health).

Tara is out scavenging with Heath, they're attacked by zombies and get separated and, repetition being the soul of TWD, she finds an all-new survivor community--the second in only four eps. This one is a hidden community of fearful women, who, it's revealed, have tangled with the Saviors, lost and fled after the Negan's thugs killed all of their men. Now, they're paranoid about any outsiders--as in, they usually just try to kill them. They try to kill Tara too, but she escapes, promising a girl who aids her that she wouldn't reveal their existence. Tara gets away solely because the women on her tail, who are supposed to be so terrified at the prospect of their location being compromised that they murder anyone who happens upon it, are afflicted with TWD's patented Stupid Character Syndrome and simply decline to pursue her. Also noteworthy is that Tara, for this ep, received one of TWD's patented personality transplants and is suddenly acting like a silly teenager, which has been no part of her character up to this ep. As the story opens, she and Heath talk about having been out scavenging for two weeks, which should put them pretty far from the Safe Zone but after she escapes the women, Tara is able to easily walk home in what appears to be a single day.

Like last week's installment, this wasn't as badly underwritten as the other s7 eps have been. It just isn't very interesting. Tara is a very minor character and no one will recognize the "Tara" who appeared tonight anyway. Maybe this new version will find some favor. There's nothing here, though, to bring back those viewers who have been leaving the show.

--j.

---

UPDATE (28 Nov., 2016) - The premise and various story elements of "Swear" are similar to "Sisters of Mercy," an episode from the first season of Z NATION. It, too, featured a community of women who had been abused by men and were ruled by a stern matriarchal figure, they also killed strangers, albeit apparently only males ones, and also tried to get one of the series' regular characters to stay. The ZN version exiled their male children upon their reaching pubescence; in the TWD version, all male children over the age of 10 were killed by the Saviors. The two stories themselves are quite different and I initially resisted writing about this because I thought this community may have come from a point in the TWD comics beyond what I've read. From some reading I've done today--and if I get anything wrong about the comic here, I'm sure someone will correct me--it seems the Oceanside community is drawn from the comic but the the comic version included men, was very laid back and friendly instead of hostile and had never been mistreated by men. The changes made to the tv version were, it seems, all in the direction of aping Z NATION, which, of course, isn't the first time this has happened (ZN lifts elements from TWD as well but tends to make much better use of them). The Oceanside community doesn't turn up in the comics until quite some time after the material the tv series is currently exploring. This ep ended with Tara keeping her promise and declining to share any information about the community with her own people and since it's likely, given the comic timeline, that Oceanside may not even reappear this season, this can't help but make this entire ep feel like an exercise in filler. A diversion from what little plot there is, one that didn't need to be addressed for a long time to come.

Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, November 21, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Get-Up-And-Go Done Got Up & Went


On THE WALKING DEAD tonight, a few of the writers came back from their month-long vacation to author up "Go Getters," and while their plotting is still plodding and their filler still fulsome, there is at least some work going into their end of the show for a change. Not in the graveside melodrama moments[1] and certainly not in the insipid "romantic" scenes between Coral and Enid, about which no one could possible care, but this ep engineered, however, clunkily, a substantial change--a power-shift at the Hilltop community. Maggie, who is suffering a problematic pregnancy, has taken over.

The Hilltoppers essentially commissioned the Alexandrians to wipe out the Saviors, which didn't work out as planned. Now, the Saviors are displeased by this. They launch an attack--I suppose one could sort of call it that--in the dead of night. Maggie and Sasha awaken, look out the window and the main gate is open, a car parked inside with loud musing coming out of it and there are several bonfires suddenly burning inside the walls. Zombies are pouring through the open gate and this leads to a big zombie-killing action scene in which Maggie acts as a sort of field general. Hey, if she's going to take over, she has to prove she's up for leadership, right? Heaven forbid she be written as a competent leader character all along, so this quality in her didn't have to be established in this crude way. She gets to drive a tractor over the welded-up car. Isn't that sweet?

Absent the aid of magic they're not supposed to possess, how in hell did the Saviors stage this scene? They didn't crash the gate--that would have been heard and the gate would be damaged. They didn't drive up in that car with the music playing either--we hear its sound-system kick in and it's already parked inside the gate. The car also appears to be welded shut and inaccessible, this done so no one can turn off the music. There are four large bonfires and piling up the material for them would have taken time as well, and everyone seems to have been locked/sealed into their living quarters too![2] Negan's men not only somehow managed to get inside the gate without being seen but spent a substantial amount of time working on this prank inside the compound while no one noticed and then successfully made their retreat before anyone realized anything was happening, right through the midst of the zombies pouring through the gate. No one was on watch at the gate to sound an alarm? No guards making rounds? And while the idea of the music and the bonfires seems to be to draw into the compound a horde of zombies, TWD established last season that zombies don't just come to fire but walk right into it, burning themselves to a crisp, which renders both the Saviors' plan--to unleash these zombies on the population--and the big action scene wherein the Hilltoppers go out and fight off the critters entirely gratuitous and spectacularly idiotic. Just stand back and let them do themselves in. But that wouldn't allow Maggie to prove herself, now, would it? And it wouldn't have those kewl fires as a background for the action sequences!

The next day, the Saviors show up in force. Well, as much of a force as they've managed so far this season--about 25 people, with some editing trying to make it look like more. Here, I'll give the creators props for at least trying. Negan's lack of a visible force of any real size has been a plot problem throughout the season. At one point, Maggie tries to cheat a bit, saying of them, "there are a lot, maybe hundreds." Or maybe not.

The Saviors carry out a retaliatory looting of Hilltop. Gregory, the community's cowardly leader, has Maggie and Sasha hide in a closet. They end up in a different closet than he intended--Jesus correctly anticipates Gregory would spinelessly try to betray our heroines and moves them--but it doesn't make any sense that this ruse works, regardless of the closet. The Saviors are picking the community apart, filling four big panel trucks and a pick-up with booty. They don't look in the closets?

By the end, Maggie is in de facto command and Sasha, who has it in her head to kill Negan, dispatches Jesus to learn the location of the Saviors' main base. Jesus sneaks on to one of the Saviors' trucks and--what a remarkable coincidence!--it happens to be the same one on which Coral has stowed away, himself intending to try to find and kill Negan! Last week saw Rosita asking Eugene to make her a bullet for a gun she'd found. Resistance percolates among the underlings while Rick, their always-inspiring leader, is out trying to find supplies for Negan. With only three eps left before the midseason break--yeah, that much has already gone by--will the remaining writers return from their vacation or will those who came back this week rejoin them? I'm sure everyone is just as excited to learn that answer to that as I!

--j.

---

[1] As this is the first ep that returned to Maggie after Glenn's destruction, I'll give the show credit for not spending an inordinate amount of time on teary faces and showing the characters despairingly rehashing what viewers have already seen. That's absolutely S.O.P. with TWD and I'm glad the writers decided not to proceed in that direction.

[2] To get outside, Sasha and Maggie have to climb out through the roof of their trailer, while Jesus and some others had to climb out the second-story window of the big house. How in the world did the Saviors manage this? There are no visible obstructions to the doors. Sasha descends from the roof right in front of one of the trailer doors, Jesus kicks away a zombie that was clawing at the door of another and we get a shot of the door of the main house--there is no obstruction there either. Doors to residences that can't be opened from the inside and to which the Saviors--but not the residents--have keys? Jesus had to climb out that second-story window, though there was a door leading out to the landing there, which we're meant to believe was locked as well. The Saviors scaled the walls in order to somehow lock the second-story door? The entire scenario is impossible without the aid of magic, including a spell to seal the doors.

Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Monday, November 14, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Service Without A Smile


So far, the 7th season of THE WALKING DEAD has achieved Mazzara-era levels of filler. The sole substantive plot-point of the opener was a few minutes that should have been covered in the season 6 finale, instead stretched until it burned through an entire episode. Week #2 introduced the Kingdom but most of the running-time was again spent on entirely extraneous material. The third was entirely extraneous; viewers can simply skip the whole affair without having missed a thing. Tonight's installment returned to the show's main cast with a 90-minute episode but if anyone thought the extra half-hour would mean the writers would finally have to actually write something, they haven't been watching TWD long enough. "Service" turned out to be yet another one-line plot: Negan's first visit to the Safe Zone.

When he first appeared, I got a kick out of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his reveling-in-his-own-ruthlessness rendition of Negan. Unfortunately, it seems the TWD creative team did as well. Apparently so pleased with having found something that actually worked for a change, the writers have managed, in only a few eps, to turn an initially entertaining villain into a one-trick pony who has already worn out his welcome. The Negan Routine: Negan shows up, offers through a smile a way-over-the-top, villainous, mocking monologue in which he seems very entertained with himself, gets in the face of anyone evincing any defiance and threatens them until they back down, repeat. In only three eps in which he's so far appeared, the character has run through this same routine perhaps a dozen times, half of which were in tonight's show. Negan is likely to be a regular cast-member right to the end of this series and he's already a tired cartoon.[*]

It doesn't help matters that all of his men who have been given any sort of attention have behaved in a similar manner. They get in people's faces, posture and act menacing while offending the dignity of their victim but without any of their boss's flair. We've been getting essentially this same scene from them since they first appeared last season. We got it several times last week. We got it several times tonight. TWD has, of course, been chronically recycling itself for a long time now. In the Mazzara era, the show would routinely repeat the same scene over and over again. These eps don't just take things back to those bad ol' days, the repetition here is much more concentrated--not only the same beat but the same moment recycled over and over again in the same ep, ep after ep, while little else is going on

TWD's Idiot Plot problems were again front and center. Rick, knowing Negan and his men are coming to rip them off, has days to prepare but doesn't do the first thing to hide any guns or supplies in advance of the visit; he doesn't have any plan at all. Is Rick an inspiring leader or what?[1] His total capitulation to Negan is also a bit of a narrative hole. Last season, it was implied that Negan has a substantial force but his men proved to be a bunch of dimwits whom Rick and co. easily defeated in every encounter. How lousy at villainy do you have to be to get repeatedly trounced by the zombie apocalypse version of F Troop? Even when Negan finally caught our heroes, he only had maybe 30 or 40 men on hand and talked about the extraordinary resources this constituted. Tonight, Negan turned up with about 20 of them. There's no reason at all why the Alexandrians, who were exceptionally well armed, couldn't wipe them out as well, taking the head of the serpent in the process. Rick spoke of Negan having overwhelming numbers. Such numbers are nowhere in evidence.[2] While Negan's thugs are stealing things, Coral displays his intelligence and experience by drawing a gun on one of them and making threats. As a consequence, Negan decides to cart off all of their guns. And, it turns out, our brilliant heroes keep a complete list of their firearms holdings that the villain can use to make sure he got all of them![**]

Some other items: Michonne is shown practicing with a rifle. She's lousy at it and repeatedly misses the zombie at which she's aiming but manages to accidentally nail a deer in the distant forest! It appears to be throat-shot but obediently lies down and dies right where it was hit, the way real deer do when shot. Negan lieutenant Dwight has apparently cracked the secret of the teleportation abilities so often displayed by TWD's zombies. When he makes off with Daryl's motorcycle, he cranks it, moves out of the immediate frame and vanishes into thin air, the sound of the bike's engine abruptly ceasing and his retreat nowhere in site when the camera angle immediately cuts to show the road on which he allegedly left.

As badly written as this review feels--and sorry, folks, it's been an awful week and I just ain't feelin' it tonight--it's still award-worthy by comparison. Lebeau, if you're out there, you gotta' bring this one home!

--j.

---

[*] UPUDATE (14 Nov., 2016) - While a fan of Morgan's Negan, "mjwm44," one of my readers on the Internet Movie Database Walking Dead board, came up with an apt comparison: "...I admit [TWD] does present Negan rather like the sadist version of a 60's Batman villain."

[1] Father Gabriel, one of the least useful members of the cast, opts to fake Beth's death, digging and filling in a phony grave. Neither he nor anyone else thinks to bury any guns or supplies in that empty grave.

[2] This may be a consequence of budgetary restrictions but seeing as how everything is now premised on it--this allegedly overwhelming force that is nowhere in evidence--it is a problem.

[**] UPDATE (14 Nov., 2016) - Negan's men displayed these same teleportation abilities, along with clairvoyance, in the season 6 finale, when the things they do are entirely impossible absent these superpowers. Perhaps they're more formidable than I give them credit for being.

Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Cellulite On THE WALKING DEAD


"The Cell," tonight's installment of THE WALKING DEAD, was just another filler episode. It didn't manage to get back to the main cast (again) or the Safe Zone cast (which hasn't appeared at all yet this season) and there was nothing of the Carol/Morgan/Kingdom subplot that was allowed to pointlessly consume last week's ep. Lacking any sort of competent pace or plot progression, it burned through an entire hour with nothing but Daryl as Negan's prisoner, mostly locked in the cell of the title and learning how Negan's people are loyal and fearful of their boss--stuff viewers already knew. Even Negan's trademark sadism was pretty reserved and ho-humm. The second bottle ep in only three eps so far this season, it seemed packed with an unusually high number of commercials, though it always seems that way when nothing is happening.

There isn't much to say about the ep beyond that. At one point, the door to Daryl's cell is left unlocked, he discovers it and having apparently never seen the 10,000 or so previous tv shows and movies in which this same device has been used, he goes right out and tries to escape. It goes about as well for him as it did for the previous 9,999 who tried. In a development I'm sure left every viewer speechless with shock, Daryl ultimately refused to give in to Negan. Nothing that happened here progressed the story so much as an inch. The unbreakable hero Daryl remains the unbreakable hero Daryl (and only has two lines of dialogue in the entire ep centered on him), Dwight remains the conflicted villain's henchman, we get hit over the head again with the fact that Negan rules by fear--is there any chance anyone, even TWD's fans, isn't clear on that one yet? While Daryl is trapped in his cell, Negan's men pipe in the same loud pop tune in an endless loop to torment him. It inadvertently offers a perfect metaphor for this ep, which viewers could freely skip without having missed a thing.

Next week promises a return to the main cast for a 90-minute ep, meaning all the material a competently edited series would have intercut with the previous two eps is going to be jammed into one overly long one in which, in all likelihood, very little will happen.

--j.

Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Sunday, October 30, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Well Runneth Dry

The most interesting reaction to last week's season 7 premiere of THE WALKING DEAD is the absolute horror and disgust with which many fans of the series greeted the violence and sadism of the episode. So extreme was this in some quarters that people were declaring they'd never watch it again because of what they'd just seen. Arnold Blumberg, who does the excellent "Doctor of the Dead" podcast, announced that he would no longer be reviewing TWD on his show.[1] I'm a horror fan from way back. My experience with the genre comes primarily from literature and film, as well as my own often-fertile imagination--sources featuring much more extreme content. I'm rarely bothered by the level of brutality allowed within the fairly restrictive constraints of television. With TWD, I even tend to welcome violence, as I did last week, because it at least means something is happening, on a show on which that's rarely ever the case. Anecdotally, these stronger reactions--people saying they're going to quit the series over it or are ready to do so--are a minority but there was a lot of this kind of talk. The "why" of this is the part that's interesting.

One of the ways tv TWD alters the comic source material beyond recognition is in watering down any sort of unpleasant content. I've written about it here for years. The series isn't aimed at horror fans; it's essentially a soap opera aimed at a general middle American audience, with most of the horror and survival elements--the core of the comic story--toned down to virtual non-existence. Last week's killing of Glenn, on the other hand, was lifted straight out of the comic, a virtual panel-by-panel reproduction with none of the usual attenuation. The violence in the comic is off the scale compared to anything in the tv series. By the time the comics got around to killing Glenn, even our heroes had committed these sorts of atrocities. When, for example, they caught the cannibals, the ones who formed the basis for the tv series' Terminus group, they didn't cleanly dispose of them as they did on the show; they spent the rest of that night slowly torturing them to death in the same ways those cannibals had tortured their own victims. When the Governor fell into Michonne's clutches, she'd tortured him for an extended period, scooping out one of his eyeballs with a spoon, chopping off one of his arms, pulling out his fingernails, nailing his cock and balls to the floor and generally getting Medieval on his ass with a wide assortment of creatively-employed household tools. Michonne was extracting revenge on the Governor for having sexually tortured her on a recurring basis but that material was also removed from the tv show, where, in the comparable scene to those sexual assaults, GINO merely demanded Maggie remove her shirt in his presence. Conforming to the usual twisted American prejudices, things having to do with sexuality are a strict no-no on TWD, things that blend it with violence particularly so. While, in the last two eps, the series duplicated Negan's comic dialogue almost word-for-word (minus his frequent "fuck"s), it left all of his profuse sexual taunting on the cutting-room floor. The reaction against the violence is both an indication of just how far from the book (and from what it should have been) the series has gone and a commentary on the audience it has drawn.

Part of the reason for the upset is obvious: Glenn was a beloved character. Shows can't just go around destroying characters who have developed a fan base--general television audiences won't stand for it. Whenever the TWD writers make the decision to exterminate one of their long-established principals, they almost always spend some time demonizing that character to the point that viewers are glad to see him go. Glenn's death was telegraphed well in advance--something else the writers always do--but the writers never turned him into an unlikable asshole. Barely mentioned in any of the angry commentary about last week's ep is the fact that Abraham too was killed. Part of that is because the writers showed him behaving abominably toward Rosita, his longtime girlfriend and a beloved character whom he abandoned on a whim for another woman.

It's also a matter of context. Creatively speaking, TWD is now in its third stuck-around-way-too-long season. This far down the road, the series' bad habits have really been weighing on the audience. The writing openly insults viewers, the series' repetitiousness is becoming mind-numbing, its becoming more and more dependent upon shock tactics and cheap stunts--it just isn't offering its audience much to counter its negatives. And now, on top of this, it poured on the sort of violence and sadism that a lot of its general-audience viewers find actively distasteful.

Another factor is no doubt the long delay between last season and this. Viewers waded through a terrible season last year just to get to the finale, when Negan was to finally arrive and run riot. And then Negan showed up and didn't. This robbed that moment of any dramatic weight, adding to the impression that the series was in decline. Compounding this, last week's ep appeared six months after the previous one and was a bottle episode that delivered nothing except that violence and sadism, offering nothing else to viewers who are put off by such content.

I don't know how substantial any damage to the viewership wrought by this may prove to be[2] or if "The Well," tonight's installment, will be able to affect any sort of repair job. It repeats another of TWD's bad habits, entirely abandoning the main storyline in order to burn through an ep with a b-plot. It introduces "King" Ezekiel, an amusing character from the comic,[3] and his "Kingdom." It's much lighter in tone.

TWD's magical healing makes a return here. At the end of the previous season, Carol was in a really bad way. Some of the Kingdomites find her and Morgan, take them back to their community and she sleeps for two days. Upon awakening, Morgan suggests she'll be sufficiently recovered to allow her to leave in maybe a week. On TWD, it seems, it only takes 9 days to recover from three gunshot wounds. And then Carol is on her feet and ready to leave in what appears to be less time than even that.

TWD simply doesn't do character development. Radical character changes are, instead, suddenly imposed by the writers, depending on what story they want to write, with no organic transition. Last season, the writing staff assassinated Carol, suddenly making the great uber-confident and uber-capable woman they'd established into a violence-averse weakling who just wants to go off by herself and... something. It never made any sense, which makes this ep's effort to milk it, by having Ezekiel try to restore some of... her will to live, I guess?... fall entirely flat, dramatically speaking. Carol can't be written to hold up her end of any such conversation. She can't enunciate what's on her mind because there's nothing on it--her present state of mind is an arbitrary imposition by the writers. She doesn't need Ezekiel's melodramatic speeches about life and hope. She just needed the writers to leave her alone.

"The Well" seems like a needlessly dull way to introduce the Kingdom. The ep's only other significant development was in establishing that this community, too, is under the thumb of Negan and his thugs. It isn't a terrible ep, certainly not by TWD standards. It's just one that doesn't offer much. It doesn't have characters being beaten to death,[4] so perhaps those who were whining about last week will find it soothes their anatomy.

--j.

---

[1] Blumberg intends to fully explain his decision in his next podcast. Meanwhile, he's just released a good installment dealing with the great zombie flicks of 1985.

[2] After many TWD fans were very mouthy at the end of last season about how they were done with the show, last week's season opener drew the second-biggest rating in the series' history. Shockingly, it would seem many TWD viewers are entirely full of shit. I do expect a pretty big big drop-off for tonight's installment though.

[3] Ezekiel is here played by an actor much younger than the character in the comic.

[4] Unless you want to count the brutal massacre of a Bob Dylan classic that happens at one point.

Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Day Will Come When THE WALKING DEAD Won't Be


THE WALKING DEAD kicked off its 7th season tonight with what should have been the ep that ended the last. Instead, season 6 wrapped on a pretty dire 90-minute snoozefest absent any real pay-off. Tonight, "There Will Come A Day When You Won't Be" turned out to be pretty dull too, but at least it brought a little diverting violence and sadism to the party.

This was essentially an episode-long continuation of Negan's already-long monologue from the end of that previous installment--before its last few minutes, there probably weren't four lines of dialogue by anyone else. It was a bottle episode--mostly just Negan and Rick in two locations, with everyone else as merely window-dressing. Such eps are done by tv series for budgetary reasons. Typically substandard by design, they're usually tucked away somewhere in the middle of a season where they'll draw the least amount of grumbling from viewers. I've never seen a show open a season with one. That seems a fairly bizarre innovation.

It's tempting to simply dismiss this one as just another example of TWD's writers stretching minimum effort to the maximum running time but the point of the ep--to show the psychological breaking of Rick--could have justified this if it was particularly interesting. The reason it isn't--and the reason that particular bit of business could probably never work with TWD now--is that we've already seen Rick psychologically broken. And seen it. And seen it. Not only has it already been done to death, it always brings out the most unbearable variant Rick, the sniveling, stuttering, glassy-eyed pussy, the one you just wish someone would put our of your misery. TWD has been doing little more than recycling itself for a while now. This doesn't just recycle an old beat, it's recycling a particularly bad one. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan makes for a great villain but it's all wasted when this is the point.

I'm interested to see how this ep will do in the ratings. Its big (and, in fact, sole) draw--finding out who Negan killed--is also the thing that seemed to alienate a particularly loud contingent of its fanbase, who, when Negan's victim wasn't revealed last season, took to their machines to howl their rage across the digital moors and swear they were done with TWD forever. The show threw a bit of a curveball tonight by killing both of the characters whose deaths it telegraphed last season, rather than allowing one of them to be a red herring. By delaying the reveal on who was murdered for nearly six months, it robbed those deaths of any dramatic impact they would have had if the killings had been shown at the end of last season when people were watching it week after week. I noted this at the time, as did Lebeau over at Le Blog, but it isn't as if this wasn't really obvious to everyone except TWD's writers. In this ep, the victims didn't get to do anything, barely got to say anything--Negan just walks up to them, after six months, and beats them to death. I've long expressed my contempt for a series that uses as one of its main draws the question of who will be killed next. Using this as a faux-cliffhanger was, I suppose, the next logical step in this effort to milk the deaths. Wouldn't it be great to instead have a TWD that had as its draw, say, great storytelling?

But that's a repeat beat of my own and TWD ain't listenin' anyhow.

--j.

Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

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.

Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

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.

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[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.

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[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.