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TV Quickshots #36

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC; 2014-2017)

A frothy, semi-desperate attempt to replicate the critical and cultural success of AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men when its first season aired in 2014, Halt and Catch Fire lost its network predecessor’s relatively robust audience in its early, imitative days but responded in its final three seasons by becoming one of American television’s finest, truest, and most emotionally well-tuned dramas of the social connectivity consequences of our modern technological reality.

Opening in the early 1980s in Dallas, Texas’ Silicon Prairie and running through the mid-1990s internet explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area, Halt and Catch Fire follows five primary core characters as they navigate the computer boom, forever chasing the next big frontier of development while struggling through office politics, life struggles, and relationships romantic and platonic. Husband-and-wife engineers and on-again/off-again tech entrepreneurs Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) open the series toiling as lower-mid-level cogs in corporate machines. Donna balances subordinate tasks at Texas Instruments with motherhood (their two daughters, Joanie and Haley, are background children for the first two-plus seasons but move closer to the core of the cast as teenagers in the closing act), while Gordon nurses the disappointment of his fallen ambitions (he and Donna designed a computer together that failed to win investment or distribution) at a company called Cardiff Electric under Texan good-old-boy senior VP John Bosworth (Toby Huss).

The Clarks’ fortunes change (though not immediately or even entirely for the better) when Bosworth hires a hot-shot former IBM sales exec named Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). A hyper-driven, semi-sociopathic maverick with a closet full of secrets from his past, Joe is (at first, anyway) a microchip-age Don Draper who manipulates Cardiff’s product development direction with passion, vision, and frequent dishonesty and bullying, elevating Gordon to the lead on a team aiming to produce a portable IBM clone personal computer. He brings in Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant programmer with a prickly personality and punk-rock anti-establishment attitude, to program the operating system as well, though that is partly because they’re sleeping together.

As mentioned, the initial period-specific, workplace-focused, anti-hero-driven focus of Halt and Catch Fire faded after its first season, as Joe’s self-destructive, edge-seeking behaviour and principles alienated prior collaborators and burned previous professional bridges. Pace is superb at registering how Joe’s brush-torching actions, and the connections he builds with Cameron, Bos, and the Clarks despite them, exact a real and permanent toll. While it’s reductive to pigeonhole Jon Hamm’s excellent work in Mad Men this way, his Don Draper was allowed to reset the board time and again, suggesting that none of the pain he caused or felt stayed with him or changed him fundamentally in any way, even in the end (this was also a result of the general character philosophy of Matthew Weiner and his writers on the show: people do not change). Pace’s Joe becomes more fragile, more fallible, more human, just as his fellow cast members do, despite the stock-figure nature their characters begin with. This is especially true of Davis and Huss, who craft one of the most endearing relationships in recent television. Bishé was doing surprisingly nuanced work from the get-go and soon enough takes over a great swath of the show from the inside, and although McNairy’s Gordon goes through long arcs of being a pathetic twit, even he rallies near the conclusion.

Ultimately, Halt and Catch Fire became, prior to its perfectly-pitched and subtly moving finale which aired last year, a more endearing and humane take on the themes of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. It leaps off from the core irony of that film – that technology brings us closer together while holding us inherently apart – but takes its time drawing out those themes while treating them with none of the smugly superior boomer-generation disdain that creeps into Sorkin’s script. Halt and Catch Fire is about the relentless, unforgiving bleeding-edge forward momentum of American capitalism and its human costs, yes. But it is also about connecting with others (and breaking with them) via technology and in person, and how similar and different, how satisfying and insufficient, each of those scenarios can be.

 

The Night Of (HBO; 2016)

Based on the 2008-2009 BBC crime drama Criminal Justice, HBO’s The Night Of follows a single defendant through the American criminal justice system, from arrest and police investigation to incarceration and trial. The defendant is Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed, who won an Emmy for his performance), a college student and son of a Pakistani-American cab driver whose abortive attempt to attend a Manhattan party lands him instead in a desultory drugs-and-sex evening with a free-spirited young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia). When Naz awakes to find her dead but with no recollection of what happened, the wheels of justice begin to turn, providing Naz (and the audience) with a detailed (if hyper-dramatized) view of the inner workings of the interlinked system including the police, the courts, and the prison.

Written by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian and directed by Zaillian and James Marsh, The Night Of is superbly crafted and incorporates examinations and critiques of not only the criminal justice machine but also peeks into other American pathologies, from media fervour to economic discrimination to anti-Muslim sentiment. Many of these perspectives come via Naz’s on-and-off again lawyer John Stone (a wonderful John Turturro), an exzcema-afflicted low-rate huckster barrister who customarily makes a living on plea deals for hopeless offenders. He’s well over his head in a high-profile, complex, politically touchy, and increasingly ambiguous murder trial, as is big-firm junior associate Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), who takes the lead in court after her boss unexpectedly drops out of a publicity-minded handling of the case.

Through Stone as well as through soon-to-be-retiring investigating detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who leaps on the surplus of evidence pointing in Khan’s direction at first but begins to entertain doubts as to his guilt, The Night Of delves more deeply and more ambiguously into American justice than is usual on television, with the forensics-and-profiling-heavy moral certainties of its big-ratings police procedurals. It even outflanks the increasingly common, superficially grey-zoned, moody neo-noir troubled-detective genre springing up on channels and streaming services around the globe (largely influenced by detective noirs of Scandinavian television).

Ahmed is a huge part of the show’s success; Naz is physically transformed by his ordeal, gaining muscled bulk, tattoos, and a shaven head while in prison, but Ahmed holds himself differently, walks and speaks with subtle gradations of hardness, as experiences work themselves upon him. Even so, when put on the stand in the trial (usually a huge defense no-no that Stone hasn’t the power to talk Kapoor out of), Ahmed summons the essentially decent and frightened young man trapped in a whirlpool that threatens to drag him down. Like The Wire (which it resembles in a more limited way and, like many HBO productions, shares a few cast members with), but perhaps more so, The Night Of couches its depiction of systemic machinations in bare human drama, grounds its sociological observations in expressions of empathy.

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Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #35

December 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Stranger Things – Season 2 (Netflix; 2017)

The much-anticipated Halloweentime return of Netflix’s buzziest binge-watching favourite about paranormal happenings and the pitfalls of growing up in the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana rewarded and frustrated in alternating measures. When last we peeked in on the Duffer Brothers’ 1980s genre-film revivalist homage Stranger Things, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) had been rescued (though far from unscathed) from the shadowy, creepy alternate universe of the Upside-Down by the efforts of his family and friends, while Eleven (the poised-beyond-her-years Millie Bobby Brown, perhaps the chief child actor here likely headed for greater things in adulthood), the mysterious young girl with psychokinetic powers, vanished after destroying not only the Demogorgon monster who had snatched Will (and others) but also the sinister Hawkins Lab government agents who had imprisoned her.

A year later, the still-haunted Will is experiencing frightening visions from the dark-mirror Upside-Down of a looming, terrifying being that is the terrible, mind-conquering power behind the Demogorgon(s) and an imminent threat to Hawkins and the world. As his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), her new boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin, hilariously avuncular and squarely decent enough to justify the period-reference joke of his casting), and Will’s best friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard, a good young actor whose name sounds like a discarded line from the cult-fave MST3K Space Mutiny bit) try to work out what’s affecting Will in semi-cautious interactions with the kinder-gentler Hawkins Lab administration of Sam Owens (Paul Reiser, an inspired piece of casting while also a 1980s gag), his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) seek out a reclusive, free-spirited anti-government conspiracist (Brett Gelman) who they hope will help them wring out and spread the truth about the disappearance of Nancy’s wet-blanket best friend (and almost-inexplicable Season One fan favourite) Barb (Shannon Purser). Meanwhile, local sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is secretly keeping Eleven in hiding in a cabin in the woods, though her chafing at confinement and desire to learn about her past will not allow this situation to endure long. Also, Mike and Will’s best buds Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are dealing with a fast-growing amphibian/reptile creature (named Dart by Dustin, after D’Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers), the new girl in town (Sadie Sink) and her bad-boy stepbrother (Dacre Montgomery), and the bumpy road of puberty.

There’s plenty happening in Stranger Things: sci-fi/horror action, suspense, and CG effects, silly jokes and melodramas, superficial themes and metaphors, and relentless period-specific pop-cultural allusions. The Duffers shuffle and recombine their cast members, looking for productive chemistry sparks and sometimes finding them in unexpected places: Harbour and Brown take big meaty chunks out of their tension-filled surrogate father-daughter approximation subplot, and the copiously charismatic Matarazzo strikes up an unlikely partnership with Joe Keery, who plays Nancy’s jock sometimes-boyfriend Steve Harrington.

Stranger Things is a good time and consistently compulsively watchable, although the penultimate episode’s sidetrip with a former lab-mate from Eleven’s past, played by Linnea Berthelsen, simply doesn’t work, despite the bravery of the Duffers to cut away from the main action. But it remains a bit of a mess that is simultaneously over-plotted and under-plotted. Consider Dustin’s adopted pet Dart, who grows into a juvenile dog-like Demogorgon: the creature whiplashes from cute to menacing and then vanishes for much of the building and climactic action completely; it is given a moment of emotional redemption with Dustin and an absolutely heartbreaking ending, but the series can’t decide if it ultimately wants Dart to be cute or scary or both at once. Plenty of more important characters are likewise handled this way, too (Wolfhard’s Mike rallies around the afflicted Will and hangs around until the telegraphed reunion with object-of-affection Eleven), while others (like Montgomery’s greasy jerk Billy, whose bullying nature is patly explained late in the season) remain nothing but gimmicks.

In a saturated television series landscape where even boilerplate mainstream network sitcoms and dramas feature rich veins of implication and meaning, Stranger Things‘ complete dearth of subtext can be galling, as well. It’s even more frustrating when the Duffers gesture towards such subtexts and then don’t bother to follow through. This is the case in Season Two, in which the fall of 1984 presidential election between Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale is established as significantly upcoming but never materializes into anything more than background detail, a set of in-universe jokes about which Hawkins homes would have which candidates’ election signs on their lawns. Stranger Things is already (very) nominally about a disturbing shadow world lying behind the safe white-bread image of 1980s suburban Middle America. It would have been uniquely positioned to build to a subversion of the cagey, disingenuous optimism of the Reaganite “Morning in America” political propaganda, but it misses this golden opportunity and furthermore seems blithely unaware of it. In this and other ways, Stranger Things is an entertaining but shallow potboiler that you just find yourself wishing would reach for more.

Dark (Netflix; 2017)

If you find yourself yearning for compelling, mind-scrambling conceptual reaches and roiling thematic subtext from a Netflix-produced sci-fi genre thriller, however, give the German-language drama Dark a whirl (do yourself a huge favour if you do: leave aside the English-dubbed version and choose German audio with English subtitles instead). Superficially similar to Stranger Things – odd quasi-dimensional happenings emanate from the high-security-science-facility-adjacent woods, embroiling families from a nearby small town – Dark is nonetheless very much its own strange and unique trip.

One hesitates to say too much about Dark‘s plot, characters, and challenging timeline ourobouros, as spoilers diminish its impact more than is the case with most texts. But suffice it to say that Dark is about disappearing children in a small German town in three time periods precisely 33 years apart, and how time-travelling quests to prevent, reverse, or solve the sinister abductions instead make the troubling events inevitable and worsen their multi-generational blows.

The co-brainchild of Swiss writer/director Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark is built out of the dramatic ironies of time-travel theories (the hoary old grandfather paradox forever haunts the margins) and more dense, significant allusions to quantum physics, nuclear power, electromagnetism, existential philosophy, Christian scripture, and classical myth than in any television work since Lost. The family connections through time can become confusing (the show’s Wikipedia page features a handy branching hereditary tree, though be warned There Be Spoilers), and the unfamiliar cast of German actors does not aid in differentiation (I personally had only seen Oliver Masucci before; he starred as Hitler in the sly satire Look Who’s Back). But in truth, this only serves to sink the viewer deeper into the enigmatic swamp of Dark. And while it is never explicit about it, there are resonant echoes of recent German history in a story of the dangers of meddling with the past. What Dark does well, it does very well, and in a streaming TV landscape where surface-level entertainments like Stranger Things huff much of the oxygen, a deep and enigmatic work that breathes mystery in and out is extremely welcome.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season One (Hulu; 2017)

Recently awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, The Handmaid’s Tale is a quality production marked by visual flourishes, powerful performances, and resonant themes amplified by contemporary political applicability in a revanchist era of resurgent authoritarian ideologies and empowered anti-woman figures. It’s also deliberately an extrapolation and an expansion of its seminal source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 dystopian novel of the same name. In opening up the imagined totalitarian American theocracy of Gilead and the key role that the red-robed Handmaids play in it, the show’s creator Bruce Miller and his collaborators re-direct and re-focus its implications and meanings.

Told entirely from the first-person narrative perspective of a young woman known only as Offred (a slave name linked to her controlling male authority figure), Atwood’s novel imagines an alarming but eerily familiar near-future in which the United States of America as we now know it is no more. Taking advantage of social and political crises related to plunging birth rates caused by pollution and STDs, Christian fundamentalists have launched a violent coup and gained power over an indeterminate portion of the country: the Eastern Seaboard for certain (geographical clues place the immediate setting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood attended Harvard University), with the Midwest as an apartheid-type mass internment zone for African-Americans and unspecified “Colonies” spoken of as hellish penal settlements where the most undesirable are hidden away to expire. A perpetual territorial war is fought by young soldiers known as Angels, who battle Baptists in Appalachia and the South and serve as convenient vessels for unifying national propaganda efforts.

The Republic of Gilead organizes itself as a fascistic patriarchal theocracy. Democracy is abolished, religious freedom has been eliminated, and adherents of other faiths who do not convert are executed, their corpses exhibited publically as medievalesque warning about the costs of defying authority (along with homosexuals – called “gender traitors” – and anyone else resisting Gilead’s power). All political and social power is held by the Commanders of the Faithful, a rich white male cabal who decide policy on strict Old Testament grounds (though, typically, do not hold themselves to such pious standard of personal behaviour) and enforce it brutally with jackbooted armed men called Guardians and secret police known as Eyes. Women cannot work, hold money or property, read, or manifest any independence outside of subordinate roles to Gilead’s men; they are the either blue-dressed Wives of the ruling class, the lower-class Econowives who marry men of lower status, the household servant Marthas, or the red-clad Handmaids, who are trained and monitored by the strict nun-like subalterns of state power, the forbidding Aunts.

The Handmaids are women identified as fertile in an increasingly infertile society and therefore are treated as valuable if unfree human breeding stock. They are to live with Commanders for two year terms, where they are regularly forced to have sexual intercourse (in a twisted ritualistic “Ceremony” involving not only the Commander but his presiding Wife as well) in hopes of becoming pregnant and delivering the children of the ruling class. They are allowed out of home confinement only for brief walks to shop, as well as for ceremonial occasions such as rare births by their fellow Handmaids and propagandistic communal executions of enemies of the state called Salvations.

Atwood teases out these details entirely through Offred’s narration, interweaving them with memories of Handmaid training and of her life before the Gilead revolution (when she had a husband, Luke, and a young daughter, who was taken from her), as well as her heroine’s psychological reactions and observations on her plight and small notes of defiance. The television version of The Handmaid’s Tale accomplishes the same effect with a primary focus on Offred (played with steel and commitment by Best Drama Actress Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, whose cloistered and intimate perspective is smartly imparted in cinematographic terms) but with tangents, backstories, and multiple perspectives filling out the picture of this world (not to mention some punchy, interesting musical choices, including an uncertainly-pitched but definitely memorable closing-scene use of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”).

We see things not only through the perspective of Offred but also of Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who gets his own standalone episode detailing his escape north into Canada (the series was filmed in Southern Ontario, a Hamilton mansion serving as the Waterford house and Cambridge, Ontario’s riverfront standing in for that of Cambridge, Massachusetts); of Offred’s Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a power couple within the Gilead-establishing Sons of Jacob movement who tensely see the arrangement of influence shift considerably once the unforgiving gender hierarchy is in place; of Offred’s pre-Gilead-era best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who escapes Handmaid school and is relegated to duty as a Jezebel, a caste of entertainers and prostitutes used for the amusement of the ruling men; of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s strolling partner, a resistance underground member, and a lesbian; of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer), a fellow Handmaid whose successful pregnancy exacerbates her mental problems; and of Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords’ driver, Offred’s clandestine lover, and either an Eye or a member of the resistance group Mayday (or perhaps both; the second season may portend more revelations on this point).

The expansion of Atwood’s vision of Gilead and its translation into a visual storytelling medium involves not only this widening of perspectives, but also any number of other additions, some more successful than others, that alter the course of The Handmaid Tale‘s thematic streams and render the series as a deeply related but ultimately unique artistic statement. Gilead is simultaneously more open and more repressive on screen than on the page; Offred’s resistance to the order of the regime comes to be more open and undeniable, providing stronger impetus for her supposed arrest at the narrative’s end than merely her trysts with Nick or nocturnal Scrabble sessions and illicit gentleman’s club visits with the Commander. Luke and Moira’s scenes in Canada and a diplomatic visit by Mexican officials present opportunities to provide an outside view of the workings of Gilead’s society, as well as hints about how other nations are coping with declining birth rates.

Furthermore, the Waterfords are not only named and given a backstory and related believable tensions in their marriage, they are aged down from the older couple of the novel. This not only adds sexual tension to Offred’s interactions with the Commander (Fiennes is memorably reptilian here), but it erects a whole new dynamic between Offred and Serena Joy. In the novel, Serena is a former televangelist singer, now aged and cynical and implacably bitter towards this younger, more fecund woman entering her household. Strahovski’s younger Serena is a generational contemporary of Offred, thus emphasizing not only their rivalry for the Commander’s interest but also establishing a curious solidarity, a weirdly deferred sisterhood (even if Serena, as an architect of the Gileadean order, is one of the masterminds of both of their objectifications). An expanded role for Handmaid enforcer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, who won the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her performance) gives Offred a firmer antagonist than the good cop-bad cop Waterfords or “the system” itself, and allows a more nuanced and detailed exposition of the Handmaids’ symbolic role in Gilead beyond their practical reproductive function.

The biggest shift from novel to screen for The Handmaid’s Tale must surely be its ramping-up, in tonal terms as well as tangible visible subject matter, of the oppressive violence of the totalitarian state in Gilead. Rebellious Handmaids are physically punished, dissenters, enemies of the state, and gender traitors are put to death, street protestors are brutally smashed by military force (although the racial divisions of Atwood’s Gilead are left aside; there is no suggestion of specific state discrimination of African-Americans, and Moira – Wiley is African-American – is set on the path to Handmaid status). These violent fascistic eruptions and open crackdowns on dissent were alluded to by Atwood, hinted at, but only rarely integrated with Offred’s own experiences as fixed-perspective narrator. The novel took form as a memoir of a single individual in the midst of a totalitarian theocracy, her resistances minor and perhaps ineffectual, her own awareness of Gilead’s horrors too slow to arrive at first and too narrow to act meaningfully on in her current situation. It would seem that onscreen, this violent oppression is the ultimate trump card in the effort to establish Gilead’s dictatorial bonafides, while on the page the disturbing details of women’s lives under this order are more the point and the thrust of Atwood’s political satire. Those details are very much drawn out effectively in the series, too, don’t get me wrong, but Miller and his team feel the need to bold and underline This is Fascism for their audience.

Although it might have been assumed that Atwood’s impetus to write The Handmaid’s Tale (the title gestures to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in the 1980s lay in the emergence into American public life and political influence of conservative Christian Evangelicals during the Reagan years, the ideas grew from other sources with more authentic dictatorial bonafides. Atwood’s readings on American Puritans while at Harvard revealed a people alighting on fresh land seeking not freedom of worship but a theocratic dictatorship where only their own beliefs were tolerated (Atwood’s own ancestor, Mary Webster, survived a hanging sentence for witchcraft in Puritan New England, and the novel is pointedly dedicated to her). Atwood observed the utopian extremism of social-engineering totalitarian regimes in Romania and Cambodia, whose restrictive laws often fell hardest on vulnerable women. And her feminism informed the misogynistic rhetoric underlying Gilead’s unforgiving reproductively-ordered gender hierarchy, taking discriminatory attitudes about women’s appearance, temperment, and sexual status in free, secular, tolerant North American to their logical and oppressive extreme.

But in a fruitful accident of timing, The Handmaid’s Tale series has seen its themes amplified by contemporary political conditions in the country where it is actually set. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, with Mike Pence as his Vice President, has made a dystopian vision of a religiously-mandated gender hierarchy in American society that has dire consequences for women seem troublingly current. Of Trump’s many defining character faults, his bluff chauvinism and privilege-fed objectified treatment of women is among the ugliest, if not the very pinnacle of his towering mountain of moral deformity. A twice-divorced serial adulterer with a history of nasty statements about women, Trump infamously bragged on tape about sexual assaulting numerous women and getting away with it, behaviour which has destroyed the careers of other powerful men but which barely touched Teflon Don on his road to the White House. Pence, meanwhile, is a near-exact match for a Commander of the Faithful, with his fundamentalist faith, legislative history of curbing abortion laws and women’s health policies, and unnerving insistence on never being alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife. If they have not instituted a full Gileadean order as of yet, there’s little doubt (especially in the case of the quiet fanatic Pence) that they wouldn’t much mind doing so, if for almost diametrically opposed (but equally misogynistic) reasons.

As compelling as it was in its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale promises to proceed into true uncharted territory in its second season. Though it takes a different path to get there, its finale episode ends just where Atwood’s novel does, with Offred leaving her forced home and entering a van into the unknown of either deeper suffering or desperate freedom. Miller and his writers will have naught but their own inventiveness to guide them, as well as Atwood’s curious academic conference presentation coda for her short novel, which suggests that whatever else happened to Offred, she did at least briefly get out of Gilead, as well as that the regime is now studied as a curious historical phase in America. We might hope that the current American phase will also be studied as a historical curiosity by more enlightened and secure future thinkers, and that the troubling views and wider policy intentions of current leaders do not portend a real Gilead in the States. Whether on the page or on the screen, The Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of art that warns of the darkest potentialities of politics and culture so as to argue for course corrections that allow us to evade those possibilities.

TV Quickshots #34

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Mindhunter (Netflix; 2017-Present)

Mindhunter, the new Netflix crime procedural drama created by Joe Penhall and produced and partly directed by David Fincher, is more of an inventive hybrid than it might appear at first glance. Set in the late 1970s (topical references to Operation Entebbe and revival screenings of Dog Day Afternoon place its start in 1977), Mindhunter follows FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they shepherd embryonic practices of criminal psychology and profiling into increasing usage in law enforcement as the now-famous and popularly glorified Behavioral Science Unit at the Agency, featured in cultural products such as the Hannibal Lecter franchise in books, movies, and television, as well as the long-running CBS drama Criminal Minds (which focused on the BSU’s successor department, the Behavioral Analysis Unit or BAU).

With Fincher directing the 10-episode initial season’s first two and last two hours, Mindhunter assumes the visual signatures and structural and tonal dimensions of the acclaimed auteur of handsome, tense, thoughtful mystery thrillers. Zodiac in particular, a labyrinthine and absorbing take on the Zodiac killings in and around San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is a key touchstone, but Fincher and the other creative minds also mine a fertile vein as regards the audience’s familiarity with the conventions and practices of the police profiling procedural drama. Mindhunter sees those conventions and practices being worked out and honed, often by trial and error. It’s an origin story for the prolific profiling genre.

Ford and Tench (respectively based on BSU pioneers John E. Douglas, whose co-written book on the unit is the primary source material for the series, and Robert K. Ressler) are versed in established psychological policing techniques, but the younger, more idealistic and adventurous Ford, who comes from hostage negotiation, which he is seen doing (unsuccessfully) in the series’ opening scene and later teaches to new Agency recruits at the academy in Quantico, feels that current psychological and sociological frameworks from the academic world can be of benefit in identifying and arresting a new breed of murderer that he awkwardly dubs “sequence killers” (the precursor term of the more familiar “serial killers”). He faces an uphill battle in convincing hardboiled cops of its potential efficacy, from the initially-sceptical Tench (a veteran of the FBI’s nationwide travelling seminar presentations on these methods to law enforcement) to his old-school unit chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) to local detectives and police.

Mindhunter is a bit slow-moving in its premiere episode, but once its premise is established, the show add layers and key players at a steady pace. These include academic and psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) who sees wide-reaching value in what Ford and Tench are proposing to do, Ford’s intellectually challenging sociology student girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross), and talkative, self-aware serial killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), whom they interview repeatedly in order to glean insight into the mind of a sociopathic murderer.

Mindhunter is most interesting in how it depicts Ford’s earnest boundary-pushing of the classic, ossified police conceptions of criminals as mere evil monsters and the introduction of psychological and sociology analysis of criminal behavior. Police dramas are frequently politically and socially conservative morality plays, good vs. evil fables that elide the web of psychological complexities, environmental triggers, and systemic oppression and inequality that feed into criminal activity. They can’t all be The Wire, and Mindhunter isn’t either. But it introduces a limited progressive viewpoint that, while it does not promise to destabilize the established institutional structure or thrust of American law enforcement, does introduce a tension between the old-fashioned conservatism and a fresher, more humane, more intelligent set of processes.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix; 2014-Present)

Speaking of refreshingly original extrapolations on existing generic television tropes, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman has built occasionally audacious new elements into the colourful comic misadventures common to the animated adult-oriented sitcom format for four seasons (the most recent 12 episodes were recently premiered for streaming on Netflix). Single episodes and larger arcs of the show alike tackle controversial and even taboo subjects with trenchant but never entirely cynical humour and often climax with surprising, sometimes deeply affecting moments of emotional honesty.

At its core, BoJack Horseman is a sharp satire of the madness of American society in general, and of Hollywood and the entertainment business in particular. Its titular protagonist (voiced by Will Arnett) is a washed-up former family sitcom star always searching for a career comeback angle while struggling with alcoholism, doubtful depression, and recurrent self-destructive behaviour. He’s also a talking bipedal horse, part of a richly and amusingly imagined world which human beings and anthropomorphic animals share. He lives in a modern star’s home in the Hollywood Hills with his couch-crashing live-in housemate/verbal punching-bag Todd (Aaron Paul). His Persian Cat agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) arranges for BoJack to work on a juicy tell-all memoir with a ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who is also dating his frienemy Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a cheerful but dim dog who was his sitcom rival from the 1990s.

BoJack Horseman skewers easy targets of American satire like Hollywood’s insularity, greed, indulgence, and ostentation, consumer capitalism’s saturating inanity, and the corporate media’s decontextualized and dumbed-down controversy hunger. But it’s braver and more iconoclastic than that, too. When the lazy, unthinking glorification of the American military is openly questioned in only the second episode of the series (BoJack runs afoul of a Navy SEAL who is, of course, actually a seal), you know that BoJack Horseman is set to be more challenging vis-à-vis social norms and cultural assumptions than we are accustomed to from American animated comedy (outside of a show telegraphed to be political agita like The Boondocks).

Sure enough, later episodes tackle everything from factory farming (the harvest of animals as food being an issue given extra frisson in a universe in which animals are equal citizens to humans) to prominent men in showbiz leveraging their power to take advantage of women and quash any who would expose them (although likely targetted at serial sexual assaulter Bill Cosby, “Hank After Dark” has gained renewed relevance given the recent revelations around producer and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein) to a thinly-veiled multi-episode critique of Scientology (via Todd’s inculcation into a cult-like improv comedy company). Even more impressive is how BoJack Horseman pivots from standard sitcom gags about damaging misbehaviour, substance use, and emotional abuse to more nuanced and poignant explorations of the triggers for and consequences of these easily-lampooned but personally destructive forces.

The emotional scenes that typically close out episodes, a semi-meta reproduction of the easily-digestible “morals” at the end of family sitcoms, transcend the standard platitudes and reveal emotional scars inside of BoJack, Diane, Carolyn, and others that will not be healed before the credits roll, or else constitute choices and actions that will not be tidily forgiven and forgotten. The jokes are often laugh-out-loud funny, but the social and political critiques and emotionally raw admissions of sadness are given extra attention and weight. This has made BoJack Horseman an unlikely but appropriate standard-bearer of the animated sitcom legacy of The Simpsons. Indeed, BoJack Horseman takes The Simpsons‘ episodic model as a template and both amplifies and specifies its satire and its emotional core for a complex contemporary America more fractured and anxious that that encapsulated by the nation’s greater animated comedy program at its peak more than two decades previous. It’s a true heir.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Twin Peaks, The Original and The Return: An Ambiguous American Dreamscape

September 24, 2017 Leave a comment

David Lynch and Mark Frost’s cult television classic Twin Peaks was ended abruptly in 1991 after 48 episodes on ABC and a truncated, troubling cliffhanger. 26 years later in the real world and 25 years later in its own peculiar narrative world, Twin Peaks: The Return unspooled 18 more episodes on cable network Showtime (as well as on Showtime’s streaming service and on Bravo and CraveTV in Canada), ending in early September of this year with a finale of disequilibrium and non-finality. A quasi-nostalgic reboot series with many key differences, The Return found Twin Peaks operating outside of the notorious network television conventions and channeling artistic restrictions that weakened Lynch and Frost’s vision through its protracted second season after its briefer, cultural-phenom first season.

The Return is Twin Peaks for television’s new impossibly crowded, creatively robust, artistically prestigious Golden Age. This is a zeitgeist for the form that the first two seasons of Twin Peaks at the start of the 1990s (or the first more than the second) seemed to portend, or more accurately to reach for, hopefully and aspirationally but impossibly and fruitlessly. It cannot be said that Twin Peaks singularly created our current pervasive TV trend of intelligent, morally and symbolically ambiguous, serialized long-form storytelling, though it played a key embryonic role (along with HBO dramas like Oz and The Sopranos, and even the later-season extended arcs of the syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). It may have aimed for that kind of art, but never really got there. But The Return shows Lynch and Frost’s woolly, unwieldy serial entirely at home with the contemporary TV milieu while also productively pushing its boundaries and unsettling its assumptions, as the earlier version managed to do at its best.

Before digging into the rich, distinct, surreal, and often entirely ambiguous American dreamscape of The Return, it’s important to understand what Twin Peaks was before this summer, in its venerable original broadcast run. At once an extended murder mystery, a melodramatic soap opera, a drybones comedy, and a supernatural conflict between forces of good and evil, Twin Peaks was set entirely in and around the fictional titular town in northern Washington State. Organized originally around the unsolved murder of local high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and the efforts of the idiosyncratic FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Lynch favourite Kyle MacLachlan in his signature role) and the local sheriff’s department to delve into the mysteries around the crime, Twin Peaks got away from its creators, encompassing any number of sideline subplots of varying degrees of silliness, especially after the circumstances of the Palmer murder were revealed part-way through the second season (quite against Lynch and Frost’s artistic intent, apparently). Those circumstances were further elaborated on by Lynch’s divisive feature film, Fire Walk With Me, which provides important context for The Return (and which, to provide full critical disclosure, I have not seen).

It mattered less, perhaps, what Twin Peaks did with its plot from episode to episode (after Laura’s murder was “solved”, the malevolent entities behind it were transferred to a conflict between Cooper and his former FBI partner, an unstable genius named Windom Earle, played by Kenneth Walsh) than how it felt as it did so. Many of Twin Peaks’ characters, flawed or mean or selfish or dim-witted but ultimately human and sympathetic, became enduring fan favourites: Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), respected stand-up cop and devoted lover to Josie Packard (Joan Chen), the inheritor of the local sawmill with a troubled Hong Kong past; Audrey Horne (Sherilynn Fenn), the savvy, sexy daughter of hotel owner Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer); sheriff’s deputies Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) and Hawk (Michael Horse), the former a mentally-slow but surprisingly heroic sort with a longstanding on-again-off-again romance with the sheriff’s office receptionist Lucy (Kimmy Robertson); longtime screen acting veterans Piper Laurie and Jack Nance as a mismatched couple frequently involved in various Twin Peaks happenings; and many more, from the loopy, lumber-carrying prophetess the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) to the eccentric local psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) to Cooper’s FBI colleagues Gordon Cole (Lynch himself, with an eye for younger women and a comic-relief hearing aid device) and Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer, with a dry sarcastic wit and withering disdain for the parochial townsfolk) to decorously-speaking, secret-government-project-linked Air Force Major Garland Briggs (Don Davis) to supernatural figures like The Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson), MIKE the One-Armed Man (Al Strobel), and the prime antagonist Killer BOB (Frank Silva).

At the centre of everything, though, was Dale Cooper, Coop to his friends. A bit of an eccentric who breaks leads with the help of Tibetan mysticism and can be disconnected from others through his weirdness, Cooper ultimately is the core of Twin Peaks‘ warmth and decency. He deeply appreciates the good-natured, all-American simplicity of the town’s rhythms, greets the coffee and pies of the local Double R Diner with effusive praise, and holds numerous townspeople in warm regard. Protecting this decency from the forces that would destroy it drives his sense of justice but does not dent his kindness or his moral standards. Especially considering the flawed anti-heroes of television’s current age, Dale Cooper is a breath of fresh air, albeit one tinge with odd flavours; to use a phrase in dire danger of becoming stale self-parody, he made it okay to be weird.

Twin Peaks was cancelled after its second season in 1991, forcing Lynch and Frost (who word has it had retreated from the day-to-day creative process anyway, disillusioned with the demands of meddling ABC executives) into an abrupt conclusion steeped in the show’s self-constructed mythology (malevolent spirits, dancing dwarves in the red-curtained Black Lodge, that backwards-talking dream with the flaming cards, etc.) that nonetheless felt naggingly open-ended to fans. Enter Twin Peaks: The Return a quarter-century later, which simultaneously expands, extends, and further explicates the vision of this peculiar, symbolically-charged world while radically transmogrifying its metaphorical implications.

The Return greatly diminishes the melodramatic elements that ran rampant in the second season of the show but which were, and remain, a vital aspect of David Lynch’s style and emotional appeals (it also, perhaps as a related consequence, marginalizes composer Angelo Badalamenti’s heart-string-plucking, recurring synth themes). At the same time, it expands the scope and settings of the show as well as its particular surrealistic visual mythology, which takes up a much greater share of the running time, often taking over episodes entirely, to indelible but often head-scratching effect. Furthermore, it is a show obsessively occupied with time and death, acknowledging and textualizes the aging of its characters and, in very many cases, their passage into death. Silva, Davis, and Nance all died years before development of the revival began, yet all appear in it, in some form. Ferrer, Warren Frost (who played local physician Dr. Hayward), and Coulson all died after filming their scenes but prior to the season’s airing; in Coulson’s case, she passed a mere four days after completing her onscreen work, and her character’s death is incorporated into the text itself. Crusty veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton, who plays a supporting role, died most recently, shortly after the finale aired.

Summarizing generally, The Return revivifies the original run’s recurring motif of the doppelgänger (think of Lee’s dual role as Laura Palmer and her identical cousin Maddy, who suffers the same fate as Laura) and applies it to Dale Cooper in triplicate. Last seen in the second-season finale being possessed by evil BOB as the price to defeat Windom Earle, Cooper himself remains imprisoned in the Black Lodge 25 years hence, while his malevolent doppelgänger (The Return offers the term tulpa for the entity) runs rampant in the criminal underworld and a second double, a good-natured but imprudent insurance agent named Dougie Jones, dwells with his wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and their son in the suburbs of Las Vegas. Meanwhile, a mysterious but brutal murder draws the attention of the FBI, namely Cole, Rosenfield, and newly-elevated agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell), to Buckhorn, South Dakota. And in Twin Peaks, events continue as they always have, with small dramas and larger mythological connections dripped out in equal measure: Harry Truman is direly ill (Ontkean has retired from acting and could not be persuaded to return for the new season) and has been replaced as Sheriff by his brother Frank (Robert Forster, who was cast as Sheriff Truman in the 1990 pilot but was replaced due to scheduling conflicts), waitress Shelly (Mädchen Amick) was married to now-sheriff’s deputy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) and had a daughter (Amanda Seyfried) but they appear to be on the rocks, the Double R has franchised to half-a-dozen locations and caused owner Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) greater stress, the popular Roadhouse bar has top-notch musical performers every night (Nine Inch Nails, Eddie Vedder, and numerous indie-rock acts, often with a shoegaze or dream-pop bent, guest on the show, often playing episodes into the credits), and Audrey Horne appears very late in the process, arguing incessantly and hysterically with her nebbish husband Charlie (Clark Middleton).

If this set-up sounds like The Return is set to be more of the same for this property, then be prepared for the numerous, gleefully obtuse left-turns, u-turns, and rabbit-hole descents engineered by Lynch and Frost. A protracted sequence (nearly all of them are in these 18 episodes; Lynch delights in dragging visuals out with hypnotic absorption, and his brief scenes are interludes of near-abstraction) early on establishes an unexplained monitoring experiment in a New York skyscraper, which becomes one piece of Cooper’s hyper-surrealist sort-of escape from the Black Lodge. Cooper is plunked into Dougie Jones’ body as a quasi-lobotomized figure, barely capable of the basic necessities of living but gradually, almost magically succeeding and triumphing in every sphere of Dougie’s life despite his prodigious slowness. Laura Dern shows up as a highlight supporting performer, embodying the unseen Diane figure to whom Coop frequently addressed his tape-recorded observations of the Palmer case and life in Twin Peaks in general. And certain Twin Peaks returnees appear in greatly modified and bizarre form: Dr. Jacoby is now Dr. Amp, a species of online and radio anti-government, anti-elites invective-spewing ranter and huckster (InfoWars’ Alex Jones is a clear satirical target here) who sells gold-painted shovels for listeners to use to dig themselves out of “the shit” of modern neoliberal capitalist America; FBI agent Phillip Jeffries, played by David Bowie in Fire Walk With Me, has left the human realm entirely (fitting, considering the life and death of the man who played him), now manifested as a kind of man-sized steampunk teapot; Benjamin Horne’s worldwide-schmoozing brother and business partner Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) has become a bearded hippie social drop-out who spends most of the season lost in the woods, his own foot at one point telling him that it isn’t his foot; and although Andy and Lucy are happily married, they also have a Marlon-Brando-esque biker-seeker-poet son, played in a single desultory scene by Michael Cera.

Many scenes in The Return are desultory when taken in isolation, and even recurring sequences and visual elements hardly add up in the conventional sense of narrative or character arcs. But when The Return, and Twin Peaks as well in a retroactive sense, is understood more as a surrealistic dream-logic tone poem on American decline and dislocation – indeed, on all decline and dislocation, on precarious human mortality itself – it begins to adhere in a greater sense. In the original two seasons, Twin Peaks could be understood, for all of its Lynchian abstractions and melodramatic tangents, as a moral metaphor for America’s loss of innocence (or for the terrifying lack of an innocence that was never really there in the first place). The killing of Laura Palmer was both the consequence of and the catalyst for divisive and malevolent forces being unleashed upon the town and its people, but it portended wider forces of this sort in America at large. Echoes of the forceful dispossession of Native American peoples came through Hawk and in cryptic elements of the mythology (the symbolist map during Season Two, for example). Ben Horne’s mania for Civil War re-creation was not simply an amusing conceit to display his mental disquiet, but a personal crucible to allow for him to atone for his past mistakes and misdeeds, much as the historical war itself was a delayed judgement in blood for centuries of brutal, exploitative slavery in America.

The Return makes these associations between Laura Palmer’s murder and larger historical crimes both more explicit and more abstract. In the season’s most surreal, visually arresting and interpretively baffling hour, “Part 8”, the atomic age is blamed for birthing the evil spirits that haunt Twin Peaks. The first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert is depicted by Lynch with slow-paced, aesthetically stunning detail, in the midst of which a translucent orb containing the iconic, terrifying face of BOB floats into existence. The splitting of the atom, in Lynch and Frost’s understanding, cleaved a permanent evil apart from a vulnerable good; the same dark forces can likewise split human identity, morality, consciousness, even corporeality, as Cooper’s trippelgängers demonstrate. Laura Palmer herself is portended as a balancing force to BOB in the same episode (created by the Fireman, “the giant” from the original series, in the black-and-white-and-sepia edifice above a purple sea), as are the ominous Woodsmen. Glistening black and clad in plaid, they emerge from the radioactive smoke and crackling static (electricity is an important marker of the mysterious shadowy powers here) to occupy an abandoned roadside convenience store. Then, in New Mexico a decade after the first atomic test, one woodsman passes motorists on a nighttime highway before lethally invading a remote radio station. He intones “Got a light?” menacingly, bloodily cracks open skulls of his victims, and hauntingly repeats the following cryptic phrase over the broadcast airwaves:

This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.

Radio listeners pass out in their homes, and a young teenaged girl lies on her bed while an insectoid creature that hatched at the bomb site crawls into her mouth.

These images are never “explained”, in the conventional sense (and whatever else they were, they remain phenomenal, purely surreal television), but they gain dimension through interconnections within the text. A huge print image of an atomic explosion hangs behind Gordon Cole’s desk in his FBI office, and the secretive “Blue Rose” task force he leads delves into the various supernatural mysteries at the core of the show’s mythology. Such a character as conduit for exposition being played by the director and co-creator himself is a meta feint typical of David Lynch: “Here I am to tell you what the deal is,” he seems to imply, but really he isn’t going to do that at all. The art itself, as Lynch stated recently, is the explanation.

A real clue to Lynch’s method, and his self-awareness of the audience’s impressions of that method, with Twin Peaks: The Return comes earlier in the season, however. In Twin Peaks, Hawk is spurred to reopen the evidence files of the Laura Palmer case by cryptic prophecies from the Log Lady. Sitting in the sheriff’s office conference room with old evidence covering the table, he speaks vaguely to Andy and Lucy about what he’s looking for. A mortified Lucy sees an empty chocolate bunny box and admits to eating the candy rabbit, then wonders aloud if the consumed bunny might be the missing clue that Hawk is looking for. Hawk confidently dismisses the notion, but then vacillates between that dismissal and the nagging possibility that it just might be, after all.

David Lynch and Mark Frost are tipping their hats here to the obsessive fanbase, now bolstered by the internet, searching for clues in every symbolically charged moment of the show. They are also implying that the interpretive labour is not exactly all for naught, but may very well be misplaced or misdirected. The experience of Twin Peaks itself is what matters, and carries its own essential meaning. Hours, days, weeks, maybe even 25 years (maybe even 2740 words of a blog essay), could be spent attempting to tease out its meanings. These attempts are spin-offs from its rich and surreal visual and informational tapestry, but that tapestry itself communicates more in amorphous, difficult-to-quantify terms than any number of pop-culture thinkpieces or explanatory-theory video essays could ever manage to do.

Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #33

Bloodline (Netflix; 2015-2017)

A sweltering, slow-flickering burn of a family-secrets noir set evocatively in the Florida Keys, Bloodline has very much going for it. Anchored by fine performances, strongly directed, summoning emotionally honest moments and occasional political resonances, and above all a wonderfully atmospheric location, Bloodline has all the pieces in places for something special. Despite all of this, the series is marked above all by its consistently frustrating ability, over a foreshortened three-season run (its creators, Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, originally intended the series to run for around twice that number of seasons), to fail to bring its strongest elements together to make the great show that is clearly lurking somewhere in these storylines, locations, themes, and performances.

Bloodline focuses on the Rayburn family, prominent citizens of Islamorada, Florida in the tropical, sea-threatened Keys (there’s a political undercurrent of the threat posed to this place by climate change as a reflection of the Rayburns’ past trangressions coming home to roost, but it stays mostly an undercurrent). Esteemed patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) and matriarch Sally (Sissy Spacek) run a popular vacationers’ inn, and their adult children have met with varied degrees of success in their professional and personal lives in the shadow of the family legacy. Favourite son John (Kyle Chandler) is a detective with the local sheriff’s department, happily married to Diana (Jacinda Barrett) with two high-school-age children. Intelligent daughter Meg (Linda Cardellini) is a lawyer in a committed relationship with John’s partner, Marco Diaz (Enrique Murciano). Youngest son Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) is a bit more impulsive and wayward, running a financially-troubled local marina and in an on-again, off-again relationship with Belle (Katie Finneran).

But the real wild card among the Rayburn children is eldest son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn). Behaviourally unpredictable and emotionally manipulative, black sheep Danny is perpetually in need of money, involved with a litany of troubled women and crime-connected men, and is a generally destabilizing force in the family dynamic. His return to the family orbit in the Keys at the series’ opening precipitates a spiraling crisis that brings past tragedies and lies to the surface and threatens to tear this prominent clan to shreds.

Mendelsohn’s mood-swinging Danny, wavering between chaotic menace and wounded empathy, is Bloodline‘s secret weapon to such a dizzying extent that the series’ writers seem to immediately regret writing him out of the narrative after a strong first campaign largely focused on him and his volatile relationship with his siblings, especially Chandler’s John. Danny quite literally haunts the show as a ghost in the second and third seasons, and an attempt to substitute in his cynical lost son (Owen Teague) after he departs the scene is only fitfully successful and eventually abandoned. John is the central figure thereafter, and his stubborn attempts to keep the Rayburns’ history of violence under wraps threaten his marriage, his family relationships, and his prospects of career advancement when he runs for sheriff in an election against his superior Aguirre (an underutilized David Zayas). As good as Chandler is at suggesting the weight of consequence and John’s struggles with his position and his choices, his role as the series’ lead actor begins to increasingly reflect his character’s archetypal role as the series wears on: the dutiful son left to carry the weight of not only his own mistakes and sins but of those around him as well.

Despite its dense incident and thematic doom-stalking feeling of approaching, dreadful judgement for all of the sins of the characters, Bloodline remains doggedly watchable but never quite absorbing or entirely impressive. Its third season in particular quite literally loses the plot, stabbing about in the aftermath of the second-season cliffhanger, diving into a mid-season courtroom drama arc, and even indulging a baffling alternate-realities episode when it should be tying up loose ends at the series conclusion. Bloodline is extremely far from a bad show, and always provides reasons to keep watching, but it never fulfills its early promise either.

Letterkenny: Seasons 2 & 3 (CraveTV; 2016-Present)

Speaking of early promise, Canadian media giant Bell Media’s CraveTV streaming-platform smash hit Letterkenny had oodles of it. Built on a near-sublime appreciation of the foul-mouthed but ever-inventive language of groups of buddies in a rural setting (be they hick farmers, underground-culture skids, or cocky hockey players), creator/writer/star Jared Keeso’s blisteringly funny comedy series made a considerable impression in its first six-episode run early in 2016.

It would not be precisely true to say that Letterkenny‘s subsequent second and third seasons (as well as a one-off St. Patrick’s Day special released in between them) failed to fulfill that promise. They continued and extended the show’s involved colloquial riffing while introducing sharply funny parodies of Canadian politics (an ad for the election of the president of the local Agricultural Society lampoons the Conservatives’ harshly dismissive “He’s Just Not Ready” attacks ads targetting Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau in the 2015 Canadian federal election, which look especially shoddy now that he’s a generally popular Prime Minister) and popular culture (funds inherited from a deceased uncle spark a Dragon’s Den-style presentation competition to determine how they are to be invested).

Letterkenny remains funny in the ways that it was always funny, but nearly too often in precisely those ways. Characters mostly reside in their comedy stock archetypes, without considerable variance. Those riffs of comic dialogue, brilliant as they can be, often carry such a consistent structure that they risk becoming stale: there’s a recurring pass-to-the-next-guy bit with the teammates of hockey players Reilly and Jonesy in Seasons Two and Three that does overstay its welcome, although it is varied a touch with a subtext of raw male insecurity made blatant text. Repeated phrases and bits that began onscreen life as amusingly original utterances become mere catchphrases. The frequent motifs of slow-motion fight scenes or sexy-lady struts scored by aggressive Canadian indie-rock pop up again and again. These tendencies become particularly egregious in the “St. Perfect’s Day” special, which reduces the Letterkenny formula to an uninspired cartoon.

But good luck pumping the brakes on Letterkenny. Even as its structuring and comic arcs become more familiar, the dialogue is still so unpredictable and inspired, the timing and delivery of the performers so exquisite, the sociological verve of its setting so self-renewing, that it’s always worth watching. Keeso and co-writer and series director Jacob Tierney are quite smart about how to tweak their self-established formulas, and the instances in which they do so (in dialogue, performance, and visuals) are among the funniest moments in the show’s last two seasons.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review – Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Season 11 (Netflix; 2017)

The revival season of cult geek-comedy television classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, available since mid-April on Netflix, seems fortuitously timed. Its core concept – mad scientists imprison a jumpsuited factory grunt on an orbital satellite and attempt to pickle his brain with awful movies, to which the average Joe(l) (or Mike, or Jonah) responds by endearingly mocking the bad films with the help of two snarky robots to avoid losing his mind – could be considered a metaphor for cultural survivalism in the post-capitalist news-cycle madness of 2017. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether left-leaning political and cultural snark on television and the internet is an effective form of resistance to the reactionary ideology represented by Donald Trump. Whatever effect (or lack thereof) mockery has had on his election campaign and presidency, laughing at Trump, despite its ease, is undeniably cathartic for those who disagree with him and all that he represents.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to its Silent Majority of dedicated acolytes, known as MSTies) is just such an outlet for comforting catharsis. Laughing at sincerely terrible movies might seem like punching down, but the MST3K model has always carried a measure of disrespect for authority and more than a faint shadow of anti-capitalist sentiment. The concept punctures the faux-mystique around cinema by violating its holiest commandment: Thou Shalt Not Talk in the Theatre. From the breaking of this cultural taboo follow small rebellions against the regard for filmmakers and actors, the suspension of disbelief at hackneyed premises and unconvincing special effects, the acceptance of nonsensical plotting and stilted dialogue; in short, against the very spurious claims to authority undergirding the producers-consumers compact that is the foundation of commercial capitalism. This is the bedrock of MST3K‘s trademarked “riffs”, which frequently spiral off into obscure references, topical jokes, and timeless observational humour in an unpredictable, often giddy manner. But it is also the bedrock for a generalized MST3K philosophy: the world is a mad place and it’s out to chew you up and rob you blind, and the only way to make sense of it is to laugh at it.

MST3K originally aired between 1988 and 1999, beginning on public access television in Minneapolis, Minnesota, moving to an embryonic Comedy Central (then known as the Comedy Channel), shifting to the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), and even finding its way to the very movie theatres it treated with such good-natured disrespect with a feature film in 1996 (which was my own inculcation to the franchise and still, for my money, one of the funniest movies ever made). The brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who also starred as its first host/human experimental subject, the low-budget show’s core scenes took place in a simulated cinema through an effect known as “Shadowrama”, with black silhouettes of the host, the robots, and a row of theatre seats superimposed at the base of the “projected” movie (inspired by an image in the liner notes of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). This allowed for not only the flood of verbal riffs but also elements of performance and even visual gags in “interaction” with the movie. To break up this central motif, various sketches would be interspersed around the commercial breaks, featuring the host and the robots, as well as the so-called “Mads” via videolink.

Hodgson left the show after its fifth season, replaced thereafter as host by head writer Mike Nelson, who also headlined MST3K: The Movie. The voices of the robots, the gumball-machine-like mock-sophisticate Tom Servo and gold-clad Groucho Marx-esque Crow T. Robot, also changed during the decade-long run, as did the actors playing the Mads. A certain Joel vs. Mike schism has thus developed in the fan and critical reception of the show, with some fans preferring Joel’s laid-back, ironical style and preference for prop-based humour and others going to bat for Mike’s more aggressive zingers.

This split has likewise transfered into similarly-pitched post-MST3K projects headed by Hodgson and Nelson and featuring former cast members. Nelson produces and sells online-distributed audio-only comedic commentaries to accompany legal copies of movies (B-movie, Hollywood blockbuster, and otherwise) known as RiffTrax with longtime Tom Servo voice actor Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who played Crow near the end of the show’s run. Hodgson, meanwhile, started a (now discontinued) live movie-riffing tour with accompanying DVDs, which he called Cinematic Titanic, with Trace Beaulieu (a core cast member who played head Mad Dr. Clayton Forrester and voiced Crow up until the final three Sci-Fi Channel seasons), Frank Conniff (Forrester’s sidekick, TV’s Frank), Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester, Clayton’s mad-scientist mother), and J. Elvis Weinstein (the first Tom Servo).

With this in mind, the new season of MST3K, largely funded via public donations on Kickstarter (over $5.7 million was raised, a record for the service’s Film & Video section) and distributed by Netflix, is most certainly a Joel Hodgson production. Hodgson directs all 14 episodes of the new season, is on the writing staff (along with head writer Elliott Kalan, Jon Stewart’s former head writer on The Daily Show), makes disguised on-camera appearances, and his sensibility lurks behind the return of the prop-heavy Invention Exchange sketches and other practical effects. Pehl, Corbett, and Murphy also have cameos, but other than that, The Return is marked by a near-total turnover of on-camera talent. The new human subject is Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), with new voice actors for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Crow (Hampton Yount), and female robot Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). The Mads have also turned over, with Felicia Day as Kinga, the new scion of the Forrester mad-scientist clan, and Patton Oswalt as Max (a.k.a. TV’s Son of TV’s Frank). Jonah’s prison home, the Satellite of Love, now orbits Kinga’s lunar base, Moon 13, which features a house band, the Skeleton Crew, that doubles as Kinga’s minions.

Hodgson and his team filmed the new season in Los Angeles rather than the prior 10 seasons’ production base of Minneapolis, and have a far more generous budget to work with. The sci-fi accoutrements of the filmed sketch segments retain a low-budget aesthetic nonetheless, but technical advances are more evident in the theatre: Tom Servo is now able to fly, opening up any number of new visual gags with his hovering silhouette on the movie screen; Crow has visible legs, and moves around the theatre more as well; and even Gypsy, her robotic head suspended at the end of a thick cable, pops into the theatre with a zinger or two each episode (she had previously only riffed along for a brief time in a 4th season episode). The intermission segments, though no longer strictly required on commercial-free Netflix, are retained as respites, often featuring high-wattage guest star spots (by Mark Hamill, Jerry Seinfeld, Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris), limited long-form storytelling (Kinga decides late in the season to grab at bigger ratings by marrying Jonah), and striking faux-cardboard cut-out comedy sequences. These segments even provided MST3K‘s first real meme of the viral video internet era, a hilarious rap rundown of international mythic monsters:

But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is, has, and always will be defined by its riffing along to terrible movies, and it’s the lion’s share of each episode’s running time inside the Mystery Science Theatre (its actual name, revealed in a faux-ad-break bumper) that defines its relative quality. The Return summons some real stinkburgers, and generally speaking, the riffs on these films performed by Ray, Vaughn, and Yount live up to the show’s august geek legacy while adapting tone and material for a contemporary cultural setting that, thanks largely to the internet and the digitally-empowered discourse therein, has moved closer to MST3K‘s barrage of snarky comments than Hodgson must have thought possible back in the still-analog 1980s. For easier consumption, some point-form highlights follow:

  • Episode 1 – “Reptilicus”: The source episode of “Every Country Has a Monster”, this awkwardly-pitched Danish monster rampage flick functions quite ably as a 90-minute assurance to fans that despite the space of years and near-total creative talent turnover, all will be well with MST3K. Featuring super-broad and eminently mockable comedy relief from Danish comic Dirch Passer, “Reptilicus” truly kicks into high cruddy-movie gear as the titular reptilian beast (shoddily executed as a model-scale rubber puppet) runs amok through the Danish countryside and finally in the centre of Copenhagen. The riffs ratchet up during this climax, too, and for me reach a comedic height that the rest of season struggles to match. One fancifully mock-informative behind-the-scenes detail riff from Servo (suggesting that model trees were made from sprigs of rosemary) had me on the floor.
  • Episode 2 – “Cry Wilderness”: Greeted by many viewers as a new MST3K classic, I found this movie’s riffs funny enough but not always up to the genuine loopiness of the film itself. Focusing on a young boy with some sort of psychic link with Bigfoot (who quite enjoys Coke), Cry Wilderness also features repeated forced faux-jocularity laughter and two scenes with a Native-American mystic and his menagerie of animal familiars that looks and feels like something out of Jodorowsky.
  • Episode 4 – “Avalanche”: For me, the revival season’s funniest episode. In this 1970s disaster flick, Rock Hudson (whose besweatered heftiness inspires a litany of jokes about a fondness for lunch buffets) stars as the owner and developer of a ski resort, with Mia Farrow as his ex-wife who visits just prior to the catastrophic titular snowslide. Dialogue-light scenes of furious action are always fine fodder for riffs, and the avalanche sequence in this episode might be the funniest sustained riff run of the season. Bonus points for holding off on the Woody Allen references re: Farrow until a fine extended joke in the final minutes, thus achieving maximum effect. Additionally, Neil Patrick Harris sings a song about online dating with Day (the two co-starred in Joss Whedon’s cult series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) during one intermission but I didn’t much like it.
  • Episode 5 – “The Beast of Hollow Mountain”: With the titular stop-motion beast held offscreen until late in the closing act, this 1956 Western set in Mexico is ribbed mercilessly for its blatant racial stereotypes and insensitive humourous treatment of alcoholism. MST3K at its most woke.
  • Episode 6 – “Starcrash”: An illogical, glacially-paced American-Italian space opera starring frizzy-haired former evangelical preacher Marjoe Gortner, buxom B-movie queen Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, and Christopher Plummer as the Emperor as the Universe, Starcrash has long been a hoped-for target of MST3K riffing among fans. Though the result generally doesn’t disappoint, the riffing can’t quite do the film’s awful weirdness full justice. It does feature the season’s non-kaiju-rap musical comedy high point, a Beach Boys parody called “Come Along Baby In My UFO”, as well as a vaguely baffled Jerry Seinfeld cameo.
  • Episode 7 – “The Land That Time Forgot”: One of two Edgar Rice Burroughs spec-fic adaptations starring Doug McClure (the slightly-puffy B-movie star who was the primary model for the classic Simpsons character Troy McClure) this season, this nutty movie about a WWI German U-Boat taken over by Allied sailors that alights on a hidden prehistoric island edges out the season-ending “At The Earth’s Core”, despite the latter’s eccentric English gentleman sidekick role for Peter Cushing.
  • Episode 9 – “Yongary: Monster from the Deep”: A Korean kaiju movie from the 1960s, “Yongary” features an annoying kid who dances with the rampaging monster shortly before the beast’s climactic death throes, which are disturbingly, uncomfortably drawn out. Jonah and the bots’ discomfort at Yongary’s convincing, squirming agony summoned by the puppeteers pushes through the usual ironic detachment with just the right force.
  • Episodes 10 & 11 – “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I & II”: Amateurish, filmed-in-the-woods sword-and-sorcery non-epics, each with different annoying kids, different vamping villains, and with low-budget kings Bo Svenson and David Carradine as different but equally-diffident legendary swordsmen who can barely be bothered to unsheath their blades. The first is better than the second, for MST3K purposes at least.
  • Episode 12 – “Carnival Magic”: A carnival-set sorta-drama starring a chimpanzee. Some funny stuff, but not enough good riff material to justify such a limp, incorrigibly incoherent movie choice. Good Mark Hamill cameo, though.

Overall, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 revival is a welcome development, and sidles in alongside the revered previous seasons of the show with a reasonable claim to living up to its name. It’s a snarky but generally good-natured comedic balm for political, social, and cultural times that are particularly discouraging for the species of insouciant subcultural smart-asses for whom the show is a shared talisman.

Categories: Film, Hilarity, Reviews, Television