Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Television Review: Fargo – Season Two

After initially assessing and at least partially dismissing the first season of Noah Hawley’s television adaptation of the Oscar-winning American film classic Fargo for FX as half-baked, comically-challenged Coen Brothers fan fiction, I returned to reconsider. While I did not find a work that rose to the level of the original source material (which, to be fair, is one of the great American films of the past quarter-century), watching the full season on its own terms allowed a unique, idiosyncratic work to emerge of its own accord. It was a more pitiless and sensationalist violent crime potboiler than the Coens’ Fargo (or any of their films, really), and although often funny and amusing, it could never convincingly approximate the Coens’ comic voice.

We can forgive this and resist characterizing it as a failure, given the exceptional nature of the brothers’ precisely modulated, entirely singular writing style. But Fargo the TV show was carried through by strong writing nonetheless, as well as a batch of excellent performances from the likes of Allison Tolman, Keith Carradine, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and even an oblique, seemingly-improvised supporting appearance from comedy duo Key and Peele.

The second season of Fargo therefore became a more anticipated event, especially when reviews and returns labelled it as being far better than the first, even a veritable television classic. Imagine my concern, then, when after observing how the show wore down my preliminary objections as its first season went on, I found those objections creeping inescapably back in as its second season moved forward. The television Fargo is undeniably its own beast with its own ideas and appealing features, regardless of how many themes, character types, plot elements, settings, musical selections, writing and storytelling devices, or filmmaking techniques it borrows, recycles, or repurposes from the Coens canon. But with every callback and reference to the Fargo film or another Coens joint, its fanfic core became harder to transcend, especially when its own extrapolations on top of that core rely so heavily on standard-issue crime drama gangland dick-measuring clichés.

Set in 1979, about 35 years before the roughly current-day events of the first season, Fargo Season Two fills in a darkly hinted-at portion of that narrative’s backstory. In Season One, Lou Solverson is a retired Minnesota state trooper (played by Carradine), father to keen local cop Molly Solverson (Tolman), who is the central detective figure unravelling that season’s web of crime. Recurring dialogue references back to a disturbing and violent event that took place in Sioux Falls, Minnesota while Lou was on active duty as a younger man. The most he ever brings himself to say about what happened there, during a tense conversation at his roadside diner with cold-blooded contract killer Lorne Malvo (Thornton), is that it was more “animal” than human.

The viewer of Season Two, when judging the all-too-human errors, betrayals, pride, and resentments that lead up to a bloodbath at a motor motel in the penultimate episode that caps a series of murders strewn across three states, might find that the older Solverson’s description constitutes a certain abdication of responsibility. Fargo, like the Coens canon it is in creative conversation with, is fundamentally concerned with human choice and the dimensions of morality, but like the Coens’ work it also recognizes, with a bitter ironic sting, the limits of human agency and the ambivalent caprices of an arbitrary universe. Actions have consequences in the world of Fargo, but just as often, those consequences arise unbidden, manifesting not as karmic justice but as cosmic randomness. This combination of human fallibility and forces beyond our comprehension inevitably leads to catastrophe.

This particular catastrophe stems from an organized crime turf war in the snowy northern Midwest (actually shot in and around Calgary, Alberta, like the show’s first season). When the steely, aged patriarch of the Gerhardt family crime syndicate out of Fargo, North Dakota suffers a debilitating stroke around the same time the youngest of his sons, Rye (Kieran Culkin), goes missing after murdering a hostile judge and a pair of witnesses in a diner, the Kansas City mafia decides to exploit this moment of perceived weakness to expand into the family’s sovereign territory. Represented by Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), encyclopedically-minded Mike Milligan (a bemusedly verbose Bokeem Woodbine), and an imposing, mute pair of twin brother enforcers (Brad and Todd Mann), Kansas City seeks to negotiate a favourable settlement of spheres of influence with the interim boss of the Gerhardt clan, matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart), whole rule is supported by her middle son Bear (Angus Sampson), but any attempts at peaceful resolution are undercut and turned towards an all-out war by the belligerence and violence of her eldest son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) and his right-hand man, sinister Native American tracker and triggerman Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon). Meanwhile, Dodd’s rebellious daughter Simone (Rachel Keller) tries to play both sides, and Bear’s son Charlie (Allan Dobrescu) chafes at his father’s protectiveness and yearns to participate in what he sees as the glamourous life of the family criminal business.

Into this volatile situation drops Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst, who’s rarely been better), a small-town beautician with a resourceful but semi-delusional mania for self-actualization, and her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons as a deep sigh in human form), who has modest dreams of saving up to buy the main-street butcher shop in which he works as an assistant. Peggy strikes Rye with her car after he commits the Waffle Hut murders, and rather than go to the police, she and Ed follow a string of decisions that lead to Rye’s death and their pursuit by the vengeful Gerhardts and the inquiring police for their deepening involvement in the gang war. Those police include not only the young Lou Solverson (that perennially underrated gem of a quasi-leading man, Patrick Wilson), whose wife Besty (Cristin Milioti) is dying of cancer, but his stalwart, wry sheriff father-in-law Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) and the squirming, unreliable Fargo PD Detective Ben Schmidt (Keir O’Donnell). Nick Offerman also shows up for a clutch of episodes as an alcoholic local lawyer and, like Solverson, a Vietnam vet with a key role to play.

Hawley and his writers maintain a strong ear for the accented speech and polite understatement that constitutes the verbal element of “Minnesota Nice”. If it’s not the Coens’ ear, well, see the disclaimer in the second paragraph, but it’s still quite good. The dialogue approximates their indie-film avatars’ fondness for contrasting polite middlebrow misunderstandings with vicious crimeland hostility, as well as digressive but thematically/metaphorically reflective monologues and speeches (the writers really like those; some characters, such as Milligan, express themselves almost entirely in them). Punctuated by outbursts of gory violence, such tone and material can veer closer to the influence of Quentin Tarantino as opposed to the Coens, a bit of an easier creative touchstone to try to copy.

A braver and more difficult choice in Season Two’s construction, indeed its most contentious turn, is the way Hawley and his writers insert fantastical science fiction into their essentially realist (although fictionally exaggerated) crime narrative. At two key junctures in the plot – following Rye’s massacre at the waffle house and during the Sioux City shootout – a UFO appears in the night sky, distracting characters at important moments with fateful results. Hawley has only offered vague, cultural-history-type justifications of the flying saucer’s appearances, which vlogger Ryan Hollinger attempts to make sense of here (a little dissatisfactorily, I must admit). I do agree that the UFO has a precedent in the Coens-verse (Billy Bob Thornton sees one in The Man Who Wasn’t There, though its function there is more symbolic or metaphorical and has no direct bearing on the plot, as it does in the show), and that the alien visitation can be understood in terms of the concept of random, extra-human forces acting upon human lives, also a frequent Coens theme, as discussed.

But I can’t shake the thought that the flying saucer, integrated into the world of Fargo as it is, is a device for meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling and plotting itself. It’s a species of atomic-age deus ex machina for a world (in 1979 as in our own times) that can’t bring itself to trust gods to exist, let alone to intervene in human affairs for any sense of greater good. Its interference is nearly indirect; it hovers and spotlights characters, but their paralyzed awe (and the ability of others around them to overcome that sense of awe to act) carries the consequences, not extraterrestrial chess-mastering. In an America absorbed in wishful, fantastical thinking in its blockbuster entertainments (Star Wars and the sci-fi wave of the late 1970s; the superhero-driven speculative explosion of contemporary Hollywood) as well as in the supposedly more sober political sphere (Donald Trump now; Ronald Reagan in 1979, played here in a masterful satirical cameo by Bruce Campbell), a UFO as catalyst for human drama, for tragic, pointless slaughter, is an apt image, both reflective and a subtle critique of rampant fantasism. Contrary to popular blather about destiny and fate, Fargo and its UFO shine a spotlight (quite literally) on fraught human decisions. The responsibility for, and thus the crushing weight of, those decisions lies with us, not with lights in the sky, divine, extraterrestrial, or otherwise.

With such ideas in play, I can’t be entirely clear-cut in declaring Fargo an elaborate but pale Coens homage as opposed to a sophisticated and original (if highly referential) engagement and exploration of the world and the themes of their films. There are times, in the space of a single episode for certain and even in the space of a single scene, at which in can be both. Doubts aside, Fargo remains a rewarding watch. Even pale Coens homages are superior to a vast swath of what’s on television screens, just as their films are greatly superior to a vast swath of what’s on movie screens.

Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #32

January 15, 2017 1 comment

Hannibal (NBC; 2013-2015)

Bryan Fuller’s ornately gory and boldly intriguing take on the world of Thomas Harris’ serial-killer novels is magnificently stylish and written with simultaneous obscuring sophistication and bloody-minded brutality, much like its titular genius psychologist and murderer-cannibal, played with coldly-controlled unpredictability by Mads Mikkelsen. Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s viscera-splattered psycho-dramatic pas à deux with FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, an average-to-good actor who appears woefully inadequate next to Mikkelsen’s magisterial work) unfolded over three seasons on NBC, and the impressive feat of sliding quite so much artful gore (not to mention so much gory art) onto American network hannibaltvtelevision was tempered by the critically-favoured but insufficiently-watched show’s cancellation, which unfortunately truncates its narrative.

Though perhaps three servings was enough of this particularly rich dish. The flavours were suitably changed after each season: Season One took the fundamentally generic form of a murder-of-the-week procedural, Season Two batted that form around before moving into more baroque thriller-horror territory, and Season Three went in whole other directions entirely. Despite its variation, its fearlessness, its visual invention, its evolving symbology and slippery metaphorical implications, Hannibal is a dinner guest that wears out its welcome to some extent by the end of its second season, in my estimation.

But until then – and even mostly after that point, if we’re being honest – Hannibal is engrossing and frequently gorgeous television that genuinely draws blood. It can take itself too seriously by half, and the morbid gallows humour of its early episodes (mostly the domain of the crime scene lab rats played by Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson) drains away as the psychological duel between Hannibal and Will gains in dimension and importance, pivoting ever more into the involved inner mythology of the show. It increasingly relies on recurring guest stars (most prominently Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Michael Pitt and Joe Anderson, and Raúl Esparza as various figures in the Lecter-verse) for new narrative direction and thematic impact, as well.

But the ingredients of the remarkable cinematography, acute writing, and Mikkelsen’s impeccable, dangerously unreadably Lecter are so consistently strong and uniformly constant that even a misguided episode or two can’t embitter the intoxicating brew. Hannibal may not be truly great, but it’s about as close as a show can get without grabbing that top rung, especially on network TV, with its peculiar artistic constraints.

Trapped (RÚV; 2015-2016)

Created and partially directed by Baltasar Kormákur (Everest), Trapped is a moody, darkling murder mystery drama set in a remote Icelandic town full of dark and deadly secrets. Seyðisfjörður (not going to help you pronounce that, sorry) might seem like a sleepy, isolated settlement at the end of a fjord on Iceland’s east coast that only springs trapped_icelandtvbriefly to mild life when a regular international ferry from Denmark via the Faroe Islands docks at its small port and disgorges a pack of passengers. The town doesn’t need much of a police force, subsisting on a mere three members of the national police (Lögreglan) to keep the order: the hefty, bearded Andri (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a former hotshot Reykjavík detective hiding out in the boonies after a failure on a past case and struggling through a divorce with Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), the mother of his two daughters, and his deputies Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and Ásgeir (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). Still, whispers of past traumas haunt Seyðisfjörður, namely a fire at the local fish factory seven years before the start of the series that claimed the life of Agnes’s younger sister and lead to the imprisonment and ostracizing of her boyfriend Hjörtur (Baltasar Breki Samper), who was blamed for the blaze.

Those ghosts of the town’s past and the demons of its present, which sees the town’s prominent citizens scheming with government figures to buy up fjord-fronting land in anticipation of a potential moonshot deal for a Chinese-funded shipping superport, surface uncomfortably along with a headless, limbless torso found floating in the water in conjunction with the arrival of the Smyril Line ferry. A simultaneous snowstorm closes the only mountain pass road into town, forcing Andri and his overburdened team to alone investigate the murder of the mutilated body and the increasingly sprawling web of crime around it.

Trapped controls its visuals and its keen sense of place with confidence, and fits snugly into the contemporary, internationally-recognized renaissance of Scandinavian television mysteries known as Nordic noir. It draws you in with its impressive scope and tantalizing unknowns, but the interest it earns withers disappointingly on the vine well before its final tenth episode. It’s at least two and maybe even three or four episodes too long, and fills the extra time with subplots (often pointless or perfunctorily resolved ones), misdirections, and half-related scenes of danger and peril: Andri gets stuck in a freezer, Andri gets stuck in an avalanche, Andri wrestles with the most dangerous man in the Faroe Islands (a character actually gives the guy that title, which sounds laughable but might actually be pretty impressive, if you consider what they do to pilot whales on that remote archipelago).

The dialogue, at least in English subtitled translation, also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to expressiveness and subtlety. Perhaps some nuances are lost from the Icelandic, I can’t rightly say, but the cast of domestically-based Icelandic actors don’t exactly plumb the depths of the script’s possibilities either. Few of them stand out and demonstrate distinctive personalities, let alone constitute memorable performances, and with a cast of characters as large as this one, this can lead to confusion and uncertainty about their relationships to one another and therefore can muddy the wider plot.

Trapped isn’t great, and is often no better than passable. What it does provide is a resonant (if not precisely attractive or tourism-encouraging) portrait of its setting, though it could do with some greater depth of social context in this vein: for example, the clutch of deaths and law-breaking acts that afflict the town would equal several years’ worth of total criminal output for the whole of Iceland, a country with an incredibly low violent crime rate. As with so many mystery shows from international television, Trapped is best as a prismatic view into life in a different, unique place well apart from our own location and experience.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review: Westworld – Season One

January 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Westworld – Season One (HBO; 2016)

Based on a cult 1970s film written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, Westworld imagines a theme park of the near-future that utilizes human-like androids to replicate America’s Wild West (at least in its Hollywood Western mythos iteration) for paying vacationers. While Crichton’s film was a pulp B-movie take on this intriguing premise, this HBO series version co-created and showrun by Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan (brother of and frequent screenwriter for acclaimed director Christopher Nolan) delves into its thematic and intellectual possibilities.

Featuring the large ensemble cast and sprawling world-creation imperatives of many other HBO dramas, Westworld focuses on many characters and storylines in and around this theme park, inculcating its guests, robotic “hosts”, corporate overseers, creative directors, and low-level technicians into its processes and meanings. At the westworld2top of Westworld’s pyramid is Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), co-founder of the park and, despite his advanced years and secretive practices, still an active if inscrutable presence in the crafting of the park’s immersive, interactive experiences and storylines, known as “narratives”.

Ford’s plans for a grand new narrative are treated with skepticism by operations manager Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and later by Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), a savvy and ruthless envoy from the board of Delos, the corporate overlords of Westworld, whose interest in the park goes beyond simple tourist business. Below Ford is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), whose team, including the sharp-tongue Elsie (Shannon Woodward), monitors and tweaks the behavior of the hosts. Bernard is also involved sexually with Cullen and continues to the haunted by the death of his young son. There’s also an arrogant writer of narratives (Simon Quarterman), a square-jawed head of security (Luke Hemsworth), and a pair of bickering, host-repairing lab techs (Leonardo Nam and Ptolemy Slocum) onsite in the vast behind-the-scenes complex.

Inside the park is much more intriguing (and, outside of Hopkins and Wright, the location of most of the better performances). The hosts – the lifelike, Turing Test-passing robot denizens of Westworld – while away day after day in the park in endless repetitive loops, used by the guests however they see fit: killed, maimed, beaten, screwed, then reset, mended and returned to the start of their pre-set path without any memory of what was done to them. Although specific hosts may play a series of roles over the decades (or may indeed be retired to a spooky, light-flickering basement vault), those we meet at the opening of the series fill a series of Western archetypes. There’s Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the virtuous farmer’s daughter romantically yearning for a fresh horizon; Teddy (James Marsden), the gunslinging man of action tending an unrequited (and unrequitable) flame for Dolores as well as a dark, violent secret in his past; Maeve (Thandie Newton), a hard-bitten saloon/brothel madam with a history of painful loss; and in the background, the usual coterie of ruthless, colourful outlaws and killers, lawmen and laymen, Mexican peasants and Indian raiders, Confederate Army guerrilla dead-enders and Union soldiers.

There are also three guests of particular note: uninhibited park vet and corporate investor Logan (Ben Barnes) and his more timid and morally conscious future-brother-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson), a park neophyte through whose eyes the depths of the place are revealed; and the mysterious, cruel, implacable Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest of long standing who has wearied of even Westworld’s more involved entertainments and is searching doggedly for the secret meaning at the end of the park’s metaphorical “Maze”, supposedly planted there by Ford’s now-deceased co-founder, Arnold. Logan and William’s adventures coincide with what seems to be a scattershot awakening of sentient self-awareness for Dolores, while Maeve likewise begins to remember things and question her reality and the park’s patriarch Ford is increasingly threatened with removal by Delos’ reps.

Westworld‘s storytelling is of the puzzle-box variety, and like the most notable examples of that type (Lost comes particularly to mind), frequently employs subterfuge and delay and obscuring incident to kick the can containing its core mysteries down the road. This can be frustrating, but their revelation in later episodes (especially the finale) as the pieces come together cannot be said to be unsatisfying. There are some strong performances: Wood, Wright, and the ever-underrated Newton are all quite good, though the elite-level work of longtime veteran actor Hopkins – who can turn a simple dialogue scene into a thespianic masterclass – outshines the lot. The musical selections by Ramin Djawadi include contemporary pop-rock songs in re-orchestration (Maeve’s eye-opening tour of the backroom facilities is lovelily scored by Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”) and in arrangements on player-piano (which doubles as a recurring metaphor for the hosts’ invisible automation) which subtly comment on Westworld’s eeriely artificial nature. Indeed, the show’s entire premise presents an obvious opportunity to critique the American mythmaking project around westward expansion. But Joy and Nolan are less interesting in that artificial creation than the God-proxy intellectual implications of creating artificial intelligence and the invisible dance of freedom and control.

More than anything, Westworld is keenly aware of the milieu in which it is presented and signals that awareness in its thematic construction. As a showpiece prestige HBO drama, Westworld displays the hallmarks of that once-bulletproof, now-faded honorific: noted for its graphic violence, nudity and sex, and general adult content, but redeemed from mere cynical sensationalism by a self-serious core of anxiously questing meaning, a quasi-literary focus on the Big Questions about society, morality, and human nature. From Oz through The Sopranos and The Wire up to the network’s current juggernaut Game of Thrones, top-shelf Emmy-favoured drama series have shared this character and grappled with its baseline dichotomy.

Interestingly, Westworld enacts this fundamental framing of the HBO drama, which presupposes a critical view that inclines to the negative, within its very text. The elaborate Old West theme park is a romantic but detailed simulacrum of its historical setting, inhabited by intelligent robots painstakingly programmed to exhibit convincing – if simulated – human expression and emotion, its daily rhythms directed by constructed narratives rooted in base drives, governing passions, social conflicts, and moral choice. But despite all this focus on the skilled crafting of meaning, most of the guests at this intricate attraction are understood as only being crassly interested in fucking and killing, both of which they can (and do) engage in with the artificial hosts with impunity.

Of course, Westworld certainly is about the deeper questions. Its creators’ intent of representing not merely hedonistic excess but exploring philosophical quandaries about artificial intelligence, consciousness, memory, and the nature of sentient existence is carried out, just as the similar intent of Ford and Arnold endures through the visceral amusements favoured by the guests. Perhaps even the struggles and conflicts of the park’s creative element with their grasping corporate overlords are meant to reflect the not-dissimilar negotiation of artistic and capitalist interests that the show’s brain trust experienced at HBO, a network in dire need of the non-Westerosi drama division success that Westworld represented. For its steely meta-intelligence as well as its dogged watchability, Westworld is enough of a success to do the trick, for HBO and for discerning television audiences.

Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #31

October 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Mr. Robot (USA; 2015-Present)

Opening its first season with a blast of consumerism-critiquing iconoclasm and highly particular potentiality, this acclaimed series about troubled anti-corporate computer hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his inculcation in a daring, revolutionary hacktivist plot led by the unpredictable titular figure (played by Christian Slater) reverts to soapy melodramatic plot turns before too long (murder! sadomasochism! gangland intrigue! murder again! secret family connections!). But it never abandons its sharply questing writing, its uneasily-framed cinematography, and its committed, mercurial performances. And it is always eminently watchable.

Working as an engineer at cyber security firm Allsafe, Elliot’s practical and intellectual brilliance melds with near-debilitating psychological problems and social awkwardness. Perhaps to assuage manifest misanthropic tendencies as well as to address latent guilt about past family trauma and corporate servitude, Elliott hacks the people around him, learning every private detail of their lives through email, social media, bank and credit card records, and anything else about them that is within his digital reach: his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), her doofus boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport), his boss Gideon (Michel Gill), his neighbour, drug dealer, and semi-girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw), even his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben).

Elliott also wields his hacking prowess as a tool for social justice and personal retribution. The series’ arresting opening scene shows him exposing the child pornography habit of a coffee shop franchise owner to police; he later blackmails the married man having an affair with Krista into breaking it off (and giving Elliott his dog) and gets Shayla’s drug-lord supplier jailed for this crimes as well. But his true outlet is an insurrectionist anti-corporate hacktivist cell known as fsociety, helmed by a loose-cannon fanatic known only as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and also including a firebrand hacker named Darlene (Carly Chaikin). fsociety recruits Elliott (or is it vice versa?) for a grand anarchist scheme to infiltrate the vast server farms of the world’s largest corporation, technology and financial giant E Corp (nicknamed Evil Corp by Elliott and other critics of its activities, and sometimes even by its employees), and permanently wipe the reams of data stored there.

Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is such a particular piece of television craft with such rich and often nuanced things to say about modern corporatism and technology-inf(l)ected life that it’s easy to miss its clear influences. David Fincher is the most obvious point of reference. The chilling noir-ish view of digital age alienation suggests The Social Network, whose memorable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is taken as a model for Mac Quayle’s flittering (and, if anything, superior) electronic soundtrack to Elliott’s mounting troubles. Fight Club is an even bigger inspiration, although Mr. Robot thankfully leaves out its tendency towards fascistic masculinity. It does borrow a key portion of Fight Club‘s revolutionary activist group Project Mayhem’s grand plan to undermine corporate capitalism by wiping out all consumer debt, as well as (double spoiler coming) the protagonist’s disassociative identity disorder. The show tips its hat to these roots by utilizing an instrumental version of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”, featured at the conclusion of Fight Club, at a key moment late in the first season.

Mr. Robot‘s dominant tones of paranoia and alienation are consistently, strikingly conveyed through its cinematography, and specifically through its framing, technically referred to as lower-quadrant framing. Without getting too deeply into the technical visual theory (which James Manning does for us in this helpful video essay), this show looks different from anything else on television on a consistent basis and therefore feels different. Its characters are stranded and disoriented within the frame, especially the wide-eyed, heavy-lidded Egyptian-American Malek, who finds the distinction between reality and fantasy, the tangible and the digital, ever more difficult to discern. Mr. Robot has its foibles and its melodramatic tangents and can take it self too seriously by half, but it might be the sharpest and most trenchant narrative and metaphorical exploration of how we live now airing on American TV.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review: Stranger Things

October 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Stranger Things (Netflix; 2016)

The early fall’s undisputed internet buzz champion of online video streaming series, the Duffer Brothers’ exercise in nostalgic Spielbergian/Carpenterian genre film homage has generated far more involved discussion than has been strictly earned by the text itself. Despite its sci-fi subject matter of telekinetic abilities and shadow dimensions inhabited by predatory monsters, Stranger Things is predominantly concerned with broad, conventional themes: high school hierarchies, teenage hormones, secretive and oppressive authorities, grief and loss, family and friendship. But when those recognizable themes and speculative elements are put together with narrative verve, visual flair, and solid characters played by likable actors, a slightly-above-average success in genre entertainment can present as much more.

Stranger Things is set in the 1980s, and from its period clothes and technology to its pulsating synthesizer soundtrack and constellation of popular culture references and period movie homages, it doesn’t let the viewer forget it for a moment. In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, two concurrent mysteries arise simultaneously: a boy disappears, and a girl appears. The boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), vanishes from the vicinity of the run-down home he shares with his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) on the edge of the woods, after leaving an evening game of Dungeons & Dragons (the game’s fantasy nomenclature provides the boys with frames of reference with which to discuss the odd happenings to come) with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). Around the same time, a wordless young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) with a shaved head wearing a hospital gown wanders into a roadside diner. Both children and their mysterious ordeals have something to do with a well-guarded Department of Energy laboratory on the edge of town, lorded over by the white-haired Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

Joyce remains convinced that her son is alive and has been communicating with her, even when presented with firm evidence to the contrary and disagreement on that point with Jonathan. She outfits their home with strings of Christmas lights, believing (and not wrongly, it seems) that Will, wherever he might be imagined to be, can blink out messages to her through lightbulbs. Also convinced of their friend’s endurance are Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, into whose protection the girl, soon dubbed Eleven (“El” for short), drifts after fleeing pursuit at the diner. She speaks few words, shows little understanding of the world, and displays an impressive and unexplained ability to, well, do things with her mind. Additional allies include Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), whose best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) disappears soon after Will does, and the Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose astute investigative skills lead him to suspect that there is more to both disappearances than meet the eye.

What proceeds from this premise, and indeed what informs it, is fairly standard genre classics of the time period, much of it telegraphed through overt allusive references: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (Mike’s crew rockets around town and outskirts on their bikes, hiding their precious visitor from the sinister government authorities that wish to capture her), John Carpenter’s The Thing (the movie poster is conspicuous in Mike’s basement), Stephen King (in one scene, a suburban mom is reading It). Other reference points are not signposted quite so clearly but are still hard to miss: the shadow-dimension of the Upside-Down from which the titular stranger things emanate is a slavish (and thus distinctly unimaginative) homage to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (Nancy even enters it at one point by crawling through a goopy aperture in a tree trunk), and the monster that inhabits it is a hybrid of that film’s terrifying Pale Man, the xenomorph from Alien, and the carnivorous plant from The Little Shop of Horrors.

Another 1980s film totem for the Duffers would appear to be John Hughes high school movies, and much of Stranger Things‘ episode runtimes is taken up in school social politics. Nancy, a bit of a staid straight-A student, is dating rich, opular big-man-on-campus Steve (Joe Keery) but increasingly feels a tug towards awkward loner Jonathan, whom Steve and his dickweed friends pick on, as their shared paranormal mission heats up. Mike and his friends are harrassed by a pair of bullies as well, and Eleven’s telekinetic powers help to even the score.

Indeed, for the most part, Stranger Things‘ character interactions and sci-fi mythology serve to build up to big, dramatically-satisfying standoffs that are resolved with violence: Jonathan against Steve, Nancy and Jonathan (and a special, redeemed guest!) against the creature who snatched those close to them, Eleven against that monster, the school bullies, the DoE thugs, and her surrogate father Dr. Brennan. That these resolutions are telegraphed does not make them unenjoyable or dissatisfying, but the inevitability hews to a generalized feeling while watching Stranger Things. It’s a reasonably involving experience (though like a lot of narratives with a secret enigma at its heart, it becomes less engaging the more of its central mystery is revealed) that is well-made and well-acted (Brown is a particularly riveting young actress, and Ryder is excellent as a mom who refuses to give in to grief, no matter how outlandish her reasons for hope become) but could benefit greatly from pushing at the boundaries of its formula, of expanding its borders at least a little. Stranger Things could, in other words, stand to be stranger.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Sports Documentary Review – 30 For 30 #9: O.J.: Made in America

It’s hard to say what it is about the current American social and cultural moment that has inspired a retrospective burst of re-examination of that mid-‘90s news colossus, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. But there’s no doubting that it’s back in the public view in 2016, over twenty years after its shocking, divisive verdict. First, FX’s furiously-acted, fictionally-tinged, high-drama miniseries, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, aired to critical acclaim and enough Emmy nominations to fill a white Ford Bronco. More recently, ESPN’s prolific sports documentary series 30 For 30 went to air with the troubled, searching, complex, and subtly pained five-part, nearly eight-hour film O.J.: Made in America.

Directed by Ezra Edelman, O.J.: Made in America delves into the life of the football star, actor, advertising pitchman, television personality, domestic abuser, acquitted double-murderer, and convicted armed robber. Utilizing interviews with people whose paths he crossed, court depositions from his various legal cases, and reams of archival footage and photographs,  paints a shaded, deep-cutting, but not unsympathetic portrait of Orenthal James Simpson and his times that emerges in degrees as a Sisyphean (and/or Icarean) saga of tragic proportions. The greater part self-destruction with ample helpings of external societal forces to help it along, Simpson’s spectacular fall from fame, fortune, and grace speaks volumes about a host of endemic American issues, racial and otherwise.

Emerging from a San Francisco ghetto in the late 1960s to become a star running back at USC then in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills and briefly his hometown 49ers, “Juice” (as everyone calls him, whether they are his familiars or not) parlayed his gridiron heroics into lucrative endorsements, television football commentary gigs, and a B-level acting career (most notably in the Naked Gun trilogy of broadly farcical police movie parodies, opposite Leslie Nielsen). One of the first African-American athletes to break the colour barrier of American mass media representation, Simpson scrupulously managed his public image and made every effort to appeal to and indeed to belong in the comfortable realm of white wealth and privilege, a gilded kingdom consistently closed to black Americans referred to by Ta-Nehisi Coates as “the Dream”.

The Juice lived the Dream, moving in the corporate world, golfing and schmoozing with rich white friends, maintaining a fine mansion in Los Angeles’ toney suburb of Brentwood, and even discarding his first (African-American) wife to marry a beautiful young California blonde, Nicole Brown. He fancied that he had transcended race and been accepted by all of America, black and white, not as a black man but simply as O.J.

With the acceptance of white America, however, came doubts from the black community about his commitment to the collective political and social advancement of African-Americans, which seemed to be non-existent. As a prominent black Los Angeleno, his silence on the forefront issue of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – the Los Angeles Police Department’s record of discrimination and violence against black citizens and the justice system’s impotence or reluctance in punishing it – was deafening. While Rodney King’s uniformed assaulters were acquitted and less-remembered shocking cases of miscarriaged justice unfolded, O.J. Simpson palled around with star-struck LAPD officers in Brentwood. Some of those officers even chose to look the other way when O.J. and Nicole’s marriage began to unravel and repeated 911 calls were made to report his recurring physical abuse of her.

Everything changed when Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman were brutally murdered in 1993 and Simpson became the prime suspect. Anyone of a certain age remembers at least the broad strokes of the rest of the so-called “trial of the century” as it consumed the American media for more than a year: the Bronco chase along L.A.’s freeways, Simpson’s all-star legal team and their decision to shoehorn the LAPD’s notorious racism into the trial as a key plank in his defence (and n-word-spouting Detective Mark Fuhrman’s obliging of that narrative), the disastrous pantomime of O.J. trying on the blood-soaked murder gloves in open court (“If they do not fit, you must acquit”, and they did not), and the stark racial divide in the reaction to the Not Guilty plea, with white watchers aghast and black watchers jubilant. The telling in American Crime Story, exaggerated and subtly dramatized as it was, likely covers the totality of the trial and its aftermath more completely, but Made in America’s placing of the trial in the larger context of the defendant’s life and the city’s powder-keg of racial tension, as well as its role in Simpson’s decline after the verdict, is far stronger, more comprehensive, and thematically richer.

The observation has been made, but Made in America draws it out at length: O.J. Simpson worked very hard to be seen as white, or at least as not black, and succeeded as well as could be considered possible in America (Edelman makes time to deal with Simpson’s aggressive pursuit of the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the film version of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, whom he identified with intensely as a black man who refused to limit himself with or even acknowledge the rules imposed on him by either white or black society). Or at least he was a success up until he was arrested for murder, at which point he became immediately and irrevocably black, to his shorter-term benefit but to his longer-term detriment. This was true in some ways but not true in others: the LAPD took a kid-gloves approach to arresting Simpson which they never would have taken towards a non-celebrity African-American, creating the televised spectacle of the Bronco chase, but there is also the matter of Time magazine’s infamous mugshot cover, with Simpson’s face noticeably darkened in a disturbing invocation of the image of the criminalized black male that has buttressed racially discriminatory views and policy in the country for decades.

A common criticism leveled at Simpson’s lawyers – and distinguished, eloquent, flamboyant African-American solicitor Johnnie Cochran in particular – was that they helped their client get away with murder by “playing the race card”. This charge even emanated from inside the Simpson camp, with defence lawyer Robert Shapiro (whose rivalry with Cochran huffed plenty of dramatic oxygen in American Crime Story) repeating the line in a post-verdict interview and adding that the “race card” was “dealt from the bottom of the deck”. What these accusations of the OJ-Made-in-America-30-for-30sleazy and cynical application of the canard of racial discrimination by the LAPD against Simpson on the part of his defence team fail to acknowledge is that the race card was already played in the public mind at least, and therefore unquestionably in the minds of the jury as well. Simpson was being judged as a black man who had murdered his white wife, an unconscious framing that only served to strengthen the prosecution’s already very strong case of domestic violence history and damning physical evidence. Centuries of systemic racism did not simply evaporate in the heat of Simpson’s 100-watt smile. Cochran would have been remiss as a defence lawyer not to seize on any and every strand that might unravel the tightly-woven prosecution narrative of his client’s guilt.

But what Cochran did in that Los Angeles courtroom was more than just that, and Made in America comes closer than any other document of the O.J. Simpson trial ever has to articulating what it was. Although Simpson’s race was increasingly a factor in the public perception of his alleged crime, it was not a discernably active factor in the investigation or prosecution of the murders, despite the sensationalist history of Fuhrman’s bigotry exposed during the trial. It could be simultaneously be true that African-Americans are frequently targeted by the police and railroaded by the courts due to their skin colour and that O.J. Simpson escalated years of domestic violence and viciously stabbed two people to death in a fit of rage (and it is indeed probable that they both are true, given all that we know now). Cochran and his team used the explosive racial issues of the LAPD of their time to inveigle a decisive measure of doubt into the jury and obtain an acquittal for Simpson, but he also used to Simpson trial as a spot-lit platform upon which to display for a captive (and captivated) audience the injustices inflicted upon black people by the white authorities not only in Los Angeles but across the United States.

Cochran’s gambit worked in the moment for his famous client as well as in the hearts and minds of African-Americans: O.J. was found Not Guilty and blacks across the country rejoiced at the rare spectacle of a black man escaping the grasp of a discriminatory justice system. But as the necessitous rise of the Black Lives Matter movement twenty years later demonstrates, the precise issues that Cochran worked to expose in the O.J. trial have not been resolved, improved, or lessened. No one inside the Simpson defence team or in the black community, no matter how activist their mindset, would have anticipated that a Not Guilty verdict would instantly erase the racial bias of police or the courts, but the strategy of that defence as well as Cochran’s provocative rhetoric (comparing Fuhrman to Hitler, for example) could only really be morally justified by its service to the greater cause of increasing black civil rights, of diminishing injustice.

What was achieved with the acquittal of O.J. Simpsons was a moment of cultural catharsis for Black America on dubious grounds. The white majoritarian order did not blink and miss it, and did not forget it (not that it ever needed concrete examples or motives to delegitimize the black liberation movement). Cochran, the black leaders of L.A., and African-Americans across the U.S. worked for and then celebrated Simpson’s acquittal, but the victory was fleeting and may have done more damage to their cause than the feeling of triumph was worth. The freedom of a famous black athlete with few connections to the community or its politics and a high likelihood of guilt for a double-murder is one hell of a hill to choose to die on.

But the O.J. Simpson case is much knottier and more problematic in its racial implications. Many white Americans, persuaded of Simpson’s guilt by the weight of the evidence as well as by their own prejudices (disavowed and otherwise), seized on Cochran’s “race card” courtroom strategy as a cynical exploitation of the spectre of racism and extrapolated it to apply to the entire continuing African-American civil rights project. Beyond the Simpson case, the awareness of discrimination and political prominence of black rights issues in the early ’90s found little purchase in terms of concrete social progress. Police departments across the country, perhaps chastened by the LAPD’s lack of reward for their rare caution and diligence in dealing with such a high-profile African-American suspect, ramped up racial profiling in inner cities and increasingly militarized their forces even as urban crime steadily declined.

America, too, had a long, slow punishment in store for O.J. Simpson, Not Guilty verdict notwithstanding. His endorsements evaporated, his ties to respectable corporations were severed, his revenue streams dried up. The family of Ronald Goldman won a civil suit for wrongful death against him, and capitalized on his questionable decision to have a cash-in semi-confessional book ghostwritten, If I Did It. His Brentwood mansion was sold, his possessions scattered, and his fame tipped into infamy. O.J. did not make much of a distinction between these two similar but sharply divergent states, and his clean-cut, suburban-friendly grin became a seedy leer. In the company of porn stars, two-bit dealers, and other unsavoury hangers-on in Florida, the once-proud Simpson became a garish self-parody as he flirted with a bad-boy image that he had diligently worked to avoid for years. A relapse into criminality seemed inevitable, and when Simpson led a chaotic armed robbery of a memorabilia dealer that he felt had stolen from him, the justice system that he had thwarted and humiliated threw the book at him.

Now incarcerated in Nevada for a 33-year sentence (the severity of which seems incommensurate with the severity of his crime, if the account provided Edelman’s film can be believed), O.J. Simpson stands as a case study in the American pursuit of the Dream and the dark underbelly of sunny image-crafting. The Made in America portion of Edelman’s title is vital: O.J. Simpson took advantage of the opportunities afforded to him in America, but America demanded a price from him, too. Its racial politics allowed him a singular place in the sun for him for a time, but ranks closed when matters became serious. The system worked for him until he exposed some of its core faults, and then it lowered the boom in response. Fame and fortune made O.J. Simpson more than he was, but they could not help him overcome his base impulses and personal faults and could not fully shelter him from their consequences as they might have for a white man. America made O.J. Simpson, and it unmade him. His grand tragedy, though it is very much of his own making as well, lays bare many fundamental truths about what America is at its core. But no conclusion or message in O.J.: Made in America is easy or simple, and preserving the saga’s troubling complexity is the finest accomplishment of Ezra Edelman’s sprawling opus.

TV Quickshots #30

Letterkenny (CraveTV; 2016)

A sophisticated Canadian small-town comedy of maximal linguistic inventiveness and expert deadpan timing, Letterkenny comes across as being scripted by a particularly foul-mouthed Tom Stoppard, to paraphrase a colleague. In fact, it’s the creation of Jared Keeso (best-known to Canadian television audiences for his Gemini-winning role as hockey-commentating demagogue Don Cherry in a pair of CBC TV movies), who also stars as poker-faced semi-farmer local tough guy Wayne. Keeso co-wrote the six-episode initial season with Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky), who also directs and appears as the barely-closeted local preacher, and the former draws extensively from his youth experiences in Listowel, Ontario letterkenny(population 6,867) for the comic scenarios, oddball characters, and nigh-impenetrable slang dialogue of Letterkenny (which is itself an Ontario town, albeit a ghost town).

Much of Letterkenny, especially in its early episodes, consists of Wayne and his buddies (Nathan Dales, K. Trevor Wilson, and Michelle Mylett as his attractive sister Katy) reclining on the family farm – next to a dust-collecting produce stand, on the porch, in the dining room, or in front of the barn – and shooting the breeze in colloquial language so colourful as to make Trailer Park Boys seem bowdlerized in comparison. These scenes alternate with and sometimes cross paths with sequences featuring a group of local black-clad, alternative-culture “skids” led by Stewart (Tyler Johnston) as well as the dense hockey lingo of local junior players Reilly (Dylan Playfair) and Jonesy (Andrew Herr). The latter figures especially function on the sidelines of the main episode plots as hilarious Shakespearean clowns, going on extended runs of jargon-y jock braggadocio about working out, scoring goals, and scoring girls while doing little or none of the above. Their material is likewise drawn from Keeso’s experiences, as he himself played hockey extensively in Ontario’s lower junior leagues.

Letterkenny infuses small-town hick life with a rapid-fire complexity of expression that one associates with cosmopolitan urbanity, or perhaps it simply uncovers and amplifies a complexity of expression that was already there in the rural context, waiting to be given a proper artistic voicing. Keese and Tierney patiently tease out running jokes over the six episodes before resolving them very enjoyably in the finale (there’s a slowly-growing tale of two locals who allegedly committed carnal acts with an ostrich with a particularly glorious drawn-out punchline). Tierney utilizes his experience and skill as a prolific under-the-radar Canadian filmmaker to compose the Sudbury-shot Letterkenny in a series of symetrically-framed shots reminiscent of the po-faced comedies of Jared Hess or snatches of Wes Anderson.

But it’s the dialogue that hums and crackles, an inspired rough-hewn music of yokel expressiveness that punctuates in laughter coaxed out as much in appreciation of the sheer creativity of its constituent words as on the strength of its zingers or punchlines. Even if Letterkenny sometimes calls out for subtitles (which the streaming platform which commissioned and shows it, Bell Media’s CraveTV, does not provide), it’s an excellent and linguistically unpredictable slice of a certain kind of vestigial rural Canadian life that frequently makes for our country’s most notable television comedy. I dare you to watch the first episode’s cold open below and summon the fortitude to give this inspired Canuck comedy a “hard no”.

Categories: Culture, Reviews, Television