Friday, March 24, 2017

The Immortal Iron Fist

I have a Marvel Unlimited subscription. There was really no question that I was going to watch the Netflix/Marvel Iron Fist for reasons of completeness if nothing else.

Marvel's Defenders: Gotta catch 'em all.
You have questions. I have answers. Mild spoilers for this show (and Daredevil as it builds on that) below.

1) What's this show about?

It's the story of Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a billionaire orphan who ended up stranded at a trans-dimensional Tibetan monastery and learned how to turn his fist into a steel-door denting weapon. Now he's back in New York, and vigilantism will occur. 

No, it's really not more complicated than that. To reiterate: billionaire orphan rescued from fateful plane crash by monks, develops magic martial arts punching power, comes back to New York, fights ninja-themed crime. 

2) How ethnically insensitive is Iron Fist?

There's been a lot of controversy about this issue, so I thought I might get this one out of the way early. The portrayal of Asian ethnicity and culture in Iron Fist is, I feel, what would count as "really good for 1987." There's a notable lack of East Asian folks behind the camera (maybe one director, and I'm not including the RZA, who did direct an episode, but yes, I am aware the Wu-Tang Clan are not, in fact, from Asia) which comes out in the treatment of settings, characters, etc., even though there's a definite effort not to be completely stereotypical.

What I mean by the above is that the show is clearly "Asian through non-Asian people's eyes." That's not the worst crime against humanity, but with a big budget product with years of development, it's not a great look, and I hope Marvel tries harder in the future. 

One thing that tweaks me just a little, though, is that Iron Fist gets so much flak because the main character learns martial arts in a trans-dimensional Tibetan monastery but is not Asian, whereas Daredevil hits all of the same major plot points in a more insensitive manner, but we give it more of a pass, possibly because it's so much worse at cultural sensitivity we don't even see the appropriation. Here's a chart:

Plot point
Daredevil treatment
Iron Fist treatment
Young white boy who develops special powers is orphaned at an early age and gets martial arts training from an Asian-themed organization...
Of mostly white guys, run by an old white guy with a John Wayne-y accent
Of Buddhist monks, mostly played by Asian actors
The hero’s main antagonist is The Hand, a ninja death cult best described as...
A weird Asian magic ninja group straight out of a Sax Rohmer (author of The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu and many, many other racist pulps) novel.
An Asian-themed Hydra with magic, but clearly including a lot of normal people with normal-ish motivations and not just a weird death cult of zombie ninjas all the way down.
The hero’s martial-arty love interest played by an Asian actress is...

Elektra, a one-woman killing machine.
  1. One of three women with more than a couple speaking lines in the entire season; 
  2. An antagonist with severe impulse control issues, leading to Daredevil basically trying to "fix" her; and
  3. As the only notable Asian member of the Asian-themed martial-arty organization that trained Daredevil, clearly also a [mild spoiler] Macguffin for The Hand, because you know, that had to be the Asian character.
Colleen Wing, a down-on-her-luck martial arts instructor.

A complex, but fundamentally good, character who is treated by the Iron Fist as an equal.

For the record, not the only non-pushover woman on the show, unlike, say, Daredevil.

The character of Madame Gao, played by Wai Ching Ho, can be summarized as…
“Inscrutable” dragon lady combined with evil grandma.
A complicated and clever adversary to the Iron Fist, less rooted in an Asian-ness than from a wisdom that comes from being super-old.
Asian organized crime in the show is...
Run by Madame Gao in a weird magic way or by Hand ninja in an often weirder magic way.
Partly the Hand, but also some Chinese Goodfellas types who, while they do martial arts, aren’t treated as some sort of different type of criminal like “the Triads” or “the Yakuza” are in other shows; they’re an ethnically-homogenous organized crime group that happens to be Chinese.

This is not to absolve Iron Fist of its sins, but to say that, if we call out Iron Fist but just sort of let Daredevil slide, we're basically just reserving sensitivity to Asian culture for explicitly Asian-branded shows.

Now, on top of this, Iron Fist's treatment of women is a significant improvement over Daredevil. Most notable is that the Iron Fist for much of the show rolls in a team of three, that three usually being Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Much of the time, the Iron Fist is planning to do something impulsive and stupid, and Claire and Colleen tell him, "no Danny, that's impulsive and stupid," and guess what? That's treated by the show as good advice, and half the time the Iron Fist actually listens. That's right, a superhero show where the white guy superhero doesn't just blow off or become emotionally unavailable to the women in his life when they tell him not to do something dumb! Also he doesn't lie to them all the time!

3) Does that mean Iron Fist passes the "Bechdel Test"?

Sort of! 

The problem is that, often, two women are talking about a man in a non-romantic way. For example, there's a long scene where Colleen and Claire are looking after an unconscious man with a sucking chest wound, and arguing over whether it's safe to bring him to the hospital. For the Bechdel Test, does that count as a conversation "about a man"? Other examples of where this is complicated:
  • Claire and Colleen talking with Danny over whether or not to kill a particular man
  • Colleen and Jeri discuss some legal trouble that Colleen and Danny have gotten themselves into
  • Two members of the Hand, both women, where one is upbraiding the other for being disloyal to the organization due to not following the orders of a male superior.
So, yes, women are far more visible in Iron Fist than in Daredevil; they're clearly half of society and in a wide variety of roles. But, as we've established, being better than Daredevil is kind of a low bar.
Average number of actresses with lines in a scene with Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup).
If neither Claire or Colleen are in the scene, the likelihood of two women having more than a line in a scene drops logarithmically. Joy Meachum (a childhood friend of Danny's and major corporate power player) operates in a world where the only other women, except very occasionally Jeri Hogarth, are assistants or less senior board members with few if any lines. If it's not to Claire or Colleen, I don't think Madame Gao ever speaks directly to a woman in this show. 

4) So, apart from that, how's the show?

Perfectly acceptable. If you are willing to watch Marvel's Agents of SHIELD for an entire 26-episode season without shutting it off mid-way through saying that it's "too comic-booky," then you'll find Iron Fist perfectly diverting. 
Shirtless Finn Jones. You're welcome.
The big problem with Iron Fist is that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were bigger than just a comic book punchy-punchy story; they dealt with being a comic book character in a world with sexism or racism; a world where punching through doors and not worrying too much about being shot wasn't sufficient to protect someone from man's inhumanity to his fellow man. Iron Fist is not that deep, and doesn't mean to be. He's a guy who makes his fist glow and punches ninjas with it. I mean, if you want it to be a story about white privilege, he basically buys his way out of being arrested at least once on the show. But that's so not the point Iron Fist is trying to make. 

Pacing is decent, acting is pretty good (great performance from Carrie-Ann Moss reprising her Jessica Jones role as attorney Jeri Hogarth). 

Characterization is a little spotty. Danny Rand has some PTSD and anger issues, but they don't manifest consistently or always plausibly. The Meachum sibilings Joy and Ward (Tom Pelphry) -- the chief corporate officers of Rand Enterprises, the company that gives the Iron Fist his billionaire fortune -- keep switching sides between "good," "self-interested," and "evil" in ways that seem to fit the plot more than any sort of organic development. 

The martial arts scenes are some of the best I've seen. One of my complaints about a lot of shows (CW shows like Arrow especially) is that the fight choreography does not distinguish between when a superhero takes on a ninja master and when he/she takes on a guy who has no training at all except in the duration of the fight. Iron Fist does. When the Iron Fist takes on less-well-trained people, he moves like water through them. It's only on the better adversaries that it even looks like it's hard for him. 

The martial arts scenes are also entertaining when they're set up to pay homage to various Hong Kong action films. Keep an eye out!

Also, one of the better comic show depictions of a functional drug addict, surprisingly. 

5) Does there happen to be a minor plot point that depends on a legal controversy that makes you dumber about the law?

Why yes, there is! 

Midway through the season, there's a plot point about whether a Rand Enterprises plant on Staten Island is causing cancer. 15 people in a half-mile radius around the plant have gotten cancer. And there's a legal action by the cancer sufferers against Rand.

I won't tell you how the plot point is resolved, but the big problem with this plot point is that key facts as to whether this case is meritorious are left vague so the main characters can have a moral dilemma about it. The writers wanted some characters to say "no money for you!" without seeming totally heartless, but also didn't want to go so far as to actually show that the plaintiffs didn't have a case.

The problem is, it's really mostly one way or another depending on the science.

I used to do toxic torts, so I know these cases and the way they're litigated pretty well. In order for a plaintiff to actually have a chance of winning in court, the plaintiffs need more or less three things:

  1. biological plausibility - science that shows that the Rand plant emissions could cause the cancer in question. For example, I worked with estrogenic chemicals alleged to cause breast and reproductive cancers. Those same chemicals weren't linked to, say, lung cancer or leukemia. Benzene is linked to blood cancers but not, say, prostate cancer.
  2. science showing level of risk - If I increase your risk of cancer by .0001%, should I be liable if you get cancer? Courts in America basically have said that I have to at least double your risk of cancer before there's liability. So the Rand plant emissions would have to be scientifically shown to double or more the risk of whatever cancers they cause.
  3. elimination of other causes - plaintiffs can't have been exposed to large amounts of other carcinogens, have bad family histories of cancer, etc. and expect to prove that the Rand plant caused their cancer. This is super-problematic for the linked Marvel universe as we know at least the following fictional environmental issues:
    • New York suffered an attack by alien robots that probably were made of toxic metal and almost certainly released a crap-ton of ionizing radiation. 
    • And do you know where NYC dumps debris from stuff like "the Incident"? The Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, probably somewhere near the Rand plant given zoning laws. That's where all the toxic metal shards and radioactive monster corpses went if they were too mangled for SHIELD, the U.S. government, or Tony Stark to grab for study.
    • We know from Agents of SHIELD that a teratogenic substance -- Terrigen -- has been introduced into the American food supply through contaminated fish.  
Now, if we actually knew how close plaintiffs were to proving any of the above, the moral dilemma becomes less fuzzy, it's either, "they probably were poisoned by the plant, but we have better-paid and better-sounding experts so we can roll the dice and bury them with endless litigation" or "these plaintiffs have bad luck but they almost certainly didn't get cancer from the Rand plant any more than they got it from vaccines." 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Great Place to Get Away With It All

Even if you’re not a comic book fan, there’s a story that I promise you already know about the “All-American Teen” who could never decide between which two girls he liked most. Archie Andrews has been a staple of the comic book world since his debut in 1939. He’s been imagined and reimagined in books, movies, radio, and TV shows steadily for nearly 80 years. Now, with their new series Riverdale, it’s the CW’s turn.

See? Milkshakes! Totally family-friendly, right?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a network knows for its teen-friendly audience would be eager to get their hands on such an iconic property as Archie. What may be new is the particularly CW-y gloss that the network has applied to the story. The Archie comics have typically been a slice of small town Anywhere, USA, with a largely non-threatening cast of characters telling innocent stories.

Like most comics which have had to figure out ways of telling stories about characters that don’t age even as the world around them does, Riverdale has attempted to keep up with the times, beginning to add non-white characters and plots while mostly keeping to non-offensive, apolitical storytelling. In that way, the crux of the characters always remains the same with the DNA of the story remaining remarkably similar to the comics.

Archie, as usual, is presented as a fairly typical boy next door. He struggles with normal teen problems like balancing schoolwork with football practice and trying to become a musician. The girl next door, terminally sweet and understanding Betty Cooper, nurses a long-standing crush on Archie. Meanwhile, rich girl from New York Veronica Lodge moves to town with her mother seeking to escape the legal troubles her financially criminal father has made for them back in the city. And thus we get the classic set up of All American ginger boy choosing between Blonde good girl and Raven-haired sophisticate.

Fact: Google's autocomplete suggestion for searching images of Betty and Veronica is "Betty and Veronica kiss"

But! A twist! This is the CW. A simple, down-home teenage coming of age story was never in the cards. Riverdale adds some new dimensions, taking us away from Pleasantville and dropping us right smack in the middle of Twin Peaks. The driving action of Riverdale is focused much less on dates to the prom and much more on the dead body of Jason Blossom, fellow teen who went missing over the summer and is found at the river with a bullet in his head. His twin sister, Queen Bee Cheryl Blossom, is cagey and also the only witness to his mysterious disappearance. Meanwhile, Archie’s affections for Betty and Veronica are significantly overshadowed by his own secret – he’s been having sex with one of his teachers since the summer and the two are struggling to stay under the radar. There are even hints that the teacher herself may not be the sweet, lovelorn sop she appears to be as her subtle manipulations of Archie begin to show themselves over the first few episodes. Meanwhile, a much more emo Jughead narrates the action, recounting the story and how it dovetails with his own falling out with his old friends in classic Philip Marlowe style.

"She smelled the way a good hamburger looks after midnight..."

Despite growing out of the wellspring of all modern teenage drama, Riverdale owes almost an equal debt to other teen-focused genre benders as it does to its source material. Veronica Mars and Vampire Diaries, two shows that also focused on the lives of teenagers told through a noir-coated lens, are particularly evident inspirations. And like those attempts at presenting more mature, nuanced teenagers, Riverdale strides confidently up to some provocative themes, albeit in a sometimes clunky way.

When Archie wants to write music for girl supergroup Josie and the Pussycats, Josie herself shuts Archie down, rightfully pointing out the unlikelihood that white boy Archie can write in the voice of three black women. “No, baby, you don’t,” Josie tells Archie when he tries to tell her that he understands that the girls face obstacles. While the set-up is a little strawman-y, it’s still significant that a primetime network showed a black girl unpacking privilege to the white boy hero of his own story.

In the same episode, Betty and Veronica confront the boys of the football team who have been dating and then ranking the girls they go out with using a secret journal after Veronica is made the butt of a social media joke by the captain of the team. “I will not be slut-shamed,” Veronica huffs before joining with a group of girls, including Ethyl, played by guest star Shannon Purser (Barb of Stranger Things) who gets a much better ending to her story than in her last series. One characters even winks to the audience at the end with the line, “Hashtag JusticeForEthyl.” And while the pushback against slut-shaming smacks of empowerment, it also lacks the courage of its own convictions. None of the girls in the players’ book, after all, actually did any of what the players said. As such, they weren’t reclaiming their right to enjoy their sexualities, merely defending their good reputations.

Riverdale’s updating of its classic themes and motifs actually isn’t without precedent. That Archie has taken such a turn away from his staid reputation actually isn’t much of a surprise when you consider that somehow, over the past several years, Archie has become one of the more subversive properties in American comics. For example, here are just a few of the things that have ACTUALLY HAPPENED in his books:

·         In 2010, Archie Comics introduced the character of Kevin Keller, an openly gay high school student who becomes part of the gang. The character has carried over into the CW series and even has a will-they-or-won’t-they storyline with Moose, another classic character from the comics.
·         Jughead officially came out of the closet in 2016 as asexual. Really, this shouldn’t be a surprise given that Judhead’s only real love stories have ever been centered on hamburgers.
·         In 2015, Archie and his friends faced off against the Predator. Yes, that one. It…didn’t end well.
·         Archie finally married Betty.
·         Archie finally married Veronica.
·         Betty and Veronica finally got sick of Archie and married each other.
·         Archie died, albeit in a future timeline. In the story, Archie is shot in the stomach saving Kevin, who has become a US Senator, from an assassination attempt.
·         Possibly best of all, the long-running series Life With Archie was cancelled and somewhat replaced with a new series called Afterlife With Archie, in which a zombie outbreak occurs in Riverdale (thanks to Jughead) and the crew must contend with a Walking Dead-esque future. The series is played for straight-up horror, not an ounce of camp to be found.

So it’s not crazy that Archie, typical American teenager, finds himself in this iteration at the forefront of murder, intrigue, and not a little sexual tension. (Seriously, Archie’s abs are actually a plot point in multiple episodes.) The show leans into the camp factor, fully aware that it’s occupying the middle space in the Venn diagram of teenage love stories, 80s-era evening soap operas, and modern social awareness. And while it may not be the most innovative thing on television, it’s proving highly watchable.

Archie DAAAYYM-drews

Riverdale airs Thursday nights on the CW.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Yasssss Queen

Is your domestic political situation getting you down? Is it mirroring that of your average banana republic? Is your political discourse devolving into an ever-festering sewer of hyperventilating outrage and batshit insane conspiracy theories? Is someone trying to build a wall out of tacos and rage on your southern border? 

Well, never fear. ITV has installed teevee's Jenna Coleman (Dr. Who) as the queen of bloody England. Literally. She is now the queen and will henceforth be in charge. Stand aside and let Miss Thing run this bitch.

Sashay, shante

So, here's what happened. George III of England and Hanover (yes, that George III) had a fuckton of kids. A literal fuckton. What's the best way to ensure a smooth succession and have heirs to spare? Fuck like rabbits

There has been much speculation that Queen Charlotte's brandishing of her dairy products caused the royal squires to assemble posthaste to the sovereign quadrangle.

One would think with all of these offspring, keeping the Hanovers on the throne would be no biggie. Actually, not so much. It turns out that keeping your daughters locked in the palace, and not allowing them to marry isn't a good strategy toward procuring an heir. Neither is being unable/unwilling to stop your sons from having licentious (and public) affairs with every passing tart.  George III's sons who made it to adulthood, George (Prince Regent, then George IV); William (William IV); Edward, Duke of Kent; Ernest Augustus (Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover); Prince Frederick, Duke of Albany and York; Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge; and Augustus, Duke of Sussex, all failed to produce legitimate offspring (or they entered into morganatic marriage, which by definition made their children ineligible to inherit). 

Well, that's not entirely true. George IV put aside his drinking, whoring, gambling, and skirt-chasing aside long enough to marry Caroline of Brunswick, whom he hated, but impregnated and then abandoned. Caroline gave birth to a daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales. Thus securing the monarchy, George and his fellow brothers went back to drinking, whoring, and gambling. Accompanying these vices were good doses of immorality, wickedness, iniquity, villainy, lechery, and moral turpitude. Everything was going along swimmingly. Princess Charlotte was popular -- viewed by the British public and the press as a welcome antidote to her father's and uncles' debauchery.

Look at Miss Thing snagging King Leopold of Belgium.

AAAAAnnnd then Princess Charlotte died in childbirth. THUD. 

Princess Charlotte's tomb monument...I'm not saying you shouldn't blink, but...


Enter Clara. 

I mean Queen Victoria. 

The remaining male offspring of George III and Queen Charlotte (who were well into their 50s and 60s by the time of Princess Charlotte's death in 1817), rushed around to find a willing woman of childbearing age upon whom to beget a child. The first to the finish line (HA!) was Edward, Duke of Kent, who married Victoria, Princess of Leiningen, sister of Charlotte's widowed husband King Leopold. Princess Victoria of England was born in 1819. 

Having fulfilled his duty, the Duke of Kent dropped dead the following year.

Princess Victoria was left to be raised by her (by all accounts) controlling, parvenu mother, and her mother's advisor (some say LOVAH), John Conroy.

Side note: There is a conspiracy theory among some royal historians that the Duke of Kent was not actually Victoria's father. Rather, the conspiracy posits that John Conroy was her natural father. The line of reasoning comes from Victoria's introduction of the gene for hemophilia into the royal bloodline. There were no known hemophiliacs in the Hanover line until Victoria (the suspected carrier) passed the gene onto her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (infamously, Tsarevich Aleksei of Russia). However, Conroy was't known to have been a hemophiliac, and hemophilia has been known to arise in children of older fathers.

So, given all of that unnecessary historical context, what should we make of Victoria, airing on PBS this month?


Hold onto your ovaries, ladies.

Seriously. I am not all into the serious, moody, brooding type (shut up, Clovis), but OMG. That floppy hair. That dickish, condescending attitude. 


Get it, girl,  

Episode I: Homegirl Awakens 

Episode I begins at the time history takes note of Victoria -- upon the death of her uncle, Princess Victoria becomes queen at the age of 18. 

Victoria, however, shows her immaturity pretty much right off the bat. Screenwriter Daisy Goodwin has chosen to focus on the Flora Hastings affair, which really happened, and which did indeed mark a turning-point in Victoria's reign.

A side note about Daisy Goodwin. I was a little hesitant to watch this drama when I discovered that Daisy Goodwin wrote the screenplay. I have read one historical fiction novel by Goodwin, and I can't say that it was terrible, but it was THE SILLIEST book I have read in a long, long time. It was amazing. Go read it. I giggled through the whole thing.  

However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the level of detail and relative historical accuracy displayed in Goodwin's screenplay.  The miniseries is based on Goodwin's novel, also called VictoriaFor this, Goodwin drew on her reading of Queen Victoria's diaries.

Goodwin  takes some...creative liberties with the relationship between Lord Melbourne and Queen Victoria. It is entirely possible that Victoria had feelings for Melbourne, because let's face it, she probably had a ton of daddy issues, but there's no extant evidence to suggest that Victoria was in the lovez with Melbourne, nor he with her. Their relationship certainly was very close, but Victoria tended to get close to her PMs, forming a close bond with Benjamin Disraeli later in life. It is all very juicy to watch, though. 

Rufus Sewell and Jenna Coleman are both very well cast in this. Coleman is especially noteworthy, convincingly playing an 18-year-old (she's 30).

Yo, dawg.
The action of the first episode is primarily centered around Victoria's struggle for independence from her mother and the presumptuous Conroy. Is he portrayal of Conroy and Victoria's mother entirely historically correct? Well, from what I have read about Conroy and the Duchess of Kent, it's not far off. In fact, the portrayal of the duchess is actually more flattering than some biographical accounts that I have read. Victoria was undoubtedly much more attached to her governess Lehzen than she was to her actual mother, and had more daughterly feelings toward her. Conroy is generally viewed as something of a villain, out to control Victoria, and, according to some accounts, to inveigle himself into the monarchy itself. In any case, the movie does a good job of setting up the conflict between Victoria and her mother and Conroy. 

Even those unfamiliar with the actual history behind all of this can get some satisfaction from how delightfully bitchy Victoria gets to be toward them.

However, Victoria's inexperience and immaturity are brought to the fore in the Flora Hastings affair. Basically, members of Victoria's court decided that her mother's lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora, was pregnant. In the movie, it is Victoria who accuses Lady Flora, but in actuality, it was Lehzen. Hastings had been visiting Dr. Clark because of pain and swelling in her abdomen, and I imagine after bleeding and sweating her, he decided she was pregnant, and not, you know, dying of fucking cancer. You have to remember this is 1839 and an unmarried pregnant woman at court was ESCANDELO!

Lehzen passed her suspicions onto the queen and Lord Melbourne, and Queen Victoria wrote in her journals that she suspected Conroy was the father. So, the takeaway is the Flora Hastings affair did happen, only not exactly as it goes down in the movie. 

Of course, the only problem with the whole scenario was that Lady Flora wasn't preg. She agreed to be examined by royal physicians, and that is when they discovered the tumor. She died a few months later, but Victoria did reportedly visit her on her deathbed.

I gonna haunt dat bitch her dreamz yo.
The political intrigue following the affair wasn't quite as complex as it is in the series. Flora's father, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, was actually a Whig.

However, Flora's brother and Conroy stirred up some press hysteria, in an attempt to get Victoria to LEARN HER LESSON ALREADY and appoint Conroy to some kind of advisory position. 

Homegirl wasn't having it. As guilty as Victoria felt about the Hastings affair, she kept Conroy at a distance, and eventually finagled a way to have him leave court for good. 

Welp, that's all for Episode 1. Stay tuned for Episodes 2 and 3, brought to you by the letter Z. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Westworld: the Game is Not Meant for You

So, Maggie asked me, now that I've seen all of Westworld, two questions:

(1) Is it good?


(2) Should I watch it?

The answers to those are, in brief, as follows:

(1) It is amazingly well-crafted. I liked it.


(2) Depends.

Let's start with the first question.

Westworld is, for those who aren't complete sci-fi nerds, a television reimagining of the Michael Crichton-written 1970's movie (starring Yul Brynner!) about a western-themed amusement park full of androids. In the film, the androids go nuts and start killing the guests.

Crichton would, as you know, go back to this well for another book and movie, replacing androids with dinosaurs.

The HBO show imagines Westworld as a sort of Truman Show set in the old west and filled with androids. Everything about the park, including the fauna, is artificial -- park overseers can even program whether or not explosives go off or whether the androids' (called "hosts") guns jam.

Like the movie, the androids are starting to rebel. They have plenty of reason to; the "wild west" created by the park is basically built for guys who want to Grand Theft Auto-game the world. An android's day can often be: walk into town to do old-timey chore, get sexually assaulted by some guests, then get shot in the head and dragged behind a horse down the street by same (or different) guests, then back to the factory downstairs to get patched up, memory wiped, to go back to attempt to do that old-timey chore again next morning (risking abuse and death again). They're starting to remember what's been done to them, though, and they are not happy about it.

Everything about the park and its hidden corporate offices and android factories is lovingly rendered. The park itself is, for the most part, filmed in Utah and a constant tourist attraction for the state. It's beautiful. The sets and costumes are great.

And the acting...amazing. Yes, Sir Anthony Hopkins (who plays park creator Robert Ford) is at his Hopkins-iest. And Ed Harris is both sinister yet not cartoonish as "the Man in Black," a customer of the park who has murdered his way through the park until he's bored by it, and now wants to murder his way to what he thinks is the ultimate easter egg.

Best, though, are the androids, especially Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton as "Dolores" and "Maeve." Both of them have to be alternately human, human-ish, and completely robotic as the scene allows, and they both pull it off quite well.
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores and
James "30 Rock's Double Hitler" Marsden as Teddy
Between the two of them, Thandie Newton has the meatier part. Dolores's main programming is to be "the good girl," and so the spectrum between that programmed personality and being shocked, saddened, and horrified as she achieves sentience is a smaller range than Maeve, who we meet as the brothel-keeper of Westworld's introductory city.
Thandie Newton as Maeve and Rodrigo "I did not get to shoot
this many people in Love Actually" Santoro as Hector Escaton
Maeve's programmed to be a brash, unflappable good-time girl, and when she starts reliving old memories and breaking away from her programming, you see a much broader range of emotions. My watching companion and I both agreed that Thandie Newton should be an Emmy contender.

So, to Question 2: Should you watch it, if you haven't already?

After watching all of it, I'm finding that Westworld is less of an accessible show than it looks.

There is a puzzle element to Westworld; I'll give you a mild spoiler in that the guy who wrote Memento is also going to play tricks with you regarding time and memory in this show. Time does not run linearly through the show, although the only way to know that is to look carefully for particular "anachronisms" if the scene has them.

I played the puzzle with everyone else on the internet, and it was fun, but I realized by the end that doing so made the show less fun, because I was focused on the puzzle, and that wasn't what the show was about.

The show is about some deep concepts involving free will and what it means to be "good," especially to things you don't think are human. Those questions and the amazing acting surrounding them remain salient long after we know who "Arnold" is and what exactly is going on with the hosts' programming.

Honestly, I feel I could spoil the whole show for you, and it would still be worth watching, because knowing that a person is going to fold a piece of paper into an origami crane doesn't make the origami crane less impressive. But it's not the same experience as watching a person fold a piece of paper into a surprise origami shape, so I won't spoil it for you because the surprises are a little bit fun; if you want to come into this to watch a mystery, don't read the internet.

But also, honestly, don't speculate. Yes, you might be right, but part of Westworld is that it's a show about thinking like it's a video game when the stakes are far higher. A bunch of folks on Reddit spent three years trying to decipher a pictogram on the side of a mountain in Grand Theft Auto V, hoping that there was some sort of special item in a hidden room. Frankly, the speculating and the second-guessing is you meta-gaming the show about the game. You may end up like the folks in the sub-Reddit, finding yourself with a lot of gaming time but no special cool item. There's at least one character in Westworld trying to do the same thing in that world's "game,"and he's not sympathetic.

On a similar note about bad gaming, there's a lot of violence, including sexual violence, that is perpetrated on the hosts in a completely arbitrary manner. One of the difficulties in looking at this show as a "cool" puzzle is that, from that perspective, most of the violence is deeply gratuitous and exploitative. If the whole point is just to be entertained by the next plot twist, then you're trivializing all of the bad things that happen to the hosts just to wonder what you'll find next. Or, conversely, you'll say to yourself, "why is this world so horrible," and not get to the philosophical questions.

Switching gears, a criticism I've read about the show that I don't think is justified is that many of the characters seem "flat" or under-developed. This is, I think, intentional. They are robots whose backstories are partly designed to enslave them.

One of Thandie Newton's best scenes is where she, newly clued-in to the true nature of Westworld, listens to one of her co-worker robots talk about her tragic backstory (there is an actual plot-based reason most of the hosts have tragic backstories). The look on Maeve's face as she realizes that (A) the tragic backstory is completely fabricated, none of what she's hearing ever happened, and (B) her co-worker is feeling all of these painful emotions based on a fiction written by some other people, is heartbreaking.

Until at least mid-way through the plot, every tic or mannerism or thing that we might find interesting or amusing about Dolores or Maeve or Teddy or Hector Escaton is part of Westworld. Someone in Delos Corporation's "Narrative" department came up with their backstories and how they act, and are able to adjust aggression, perception, and other attributes on the fly. Getting to know those fictions is irrelevant to the story; the point is not who the hosts were programmed to be, but who they might be if they weren't. And you don't know that until they break free of the programming.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Fall TV: Part Deux

It's been a rough few days here in the good old US of A. The TV Sluts have been particularly demoralized by the latest political happenings, so I figured this was as good a time as any to get back to blogging and talk about something frivolous. Namely, the new Fall television shows.

When we last chatted, I let you know that The Good Place was definitely worth watching. It's doing fairly well in the ratings and is a critical hit, so it seems likely it will stick around.

One of my other favorite new series this Fall is Pitch. The series follows the first female baseball player to make it to Major League Baseball. Ginny Baker, as a pitcher with the San Diego Padres, has to prove herself to the MLB leadership, the public, and most crucially, her teammates. This goes just about as well as you would expect.

I'm not a huge baseball fan--I've been to some Nationals games and follow their season--but you don't have to be a sports lover to enjoy this show. It has a healthy dose of Girl Power and (I never thought I would say this), Mark-Paul Gosselaar is pretty fantastic on the series. I almost didn't recognize him because of his beard, but he's just as charismatic here as he was all those years ago on Saved By The Bell.

Pitch hasn't been stellar in the ratings, but it appears likely it will return for a second season.

Look at that glorious beard. AC Slater eat your heart out.

The third show I can recommend this Fall is Notorious. According to the PR monkeys at ABC, Notorious "centers on the symbiotic relationship between defense attorney Jake Gregorian (Daniel Sunjata) and powerhouse TV producer Julia George (Piper Perabo), as they attempt to control the media, the justice system and ultimately each other."

Basically, it's a typical ABC drama with lots of "shocking" twists similar to Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder.  Its' entertaining and frivolous, but doesn't exactly depict the reality of producing a news show or working as a criminal lawyer. Still, it's fun.

Familiar faces on this one include Piper Perabo (who was the naive songwriter main character in Coyote Ugly) and several Joss Whedon alums including J. August Richards (Gunn on Angel). I think of it as a good "background show." It's something you can have on in the background while you do something else, like write a blog post, but it's not necessary to give it all your focus.

Alas, there is a shocking lack of dancing on bars so far in Notorious, but hey, the show is young.

Notorious has been struggling in the ratings, but so has all of ABC's Thursday night line-up. In late October the first season order was cut from 13 episodes to 10 which isn't a good sign, but who knows what will happen. I'll keep you all updated.

Both Pitch and Notorious air Thursday nights at 9PM on FOX and ABC, respectively. I hope you have a DVR. Also, episodes are available online and On Demand. So you have no excuse.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Fall TV: The Good (Place)

Yes, gentle readers, it's been a while, but with the triumphant sounding of trumpets and a whole parade and procession through the center of the city, I have returned!!

It's exactly like this.

Over the next few weeks, I will be your guide through the Fall television premiere season, along with my fellow slutty bloggers, of course. A lot of new shows have already started, but I like to give things a couple episodes before I make my mind up whether to like, hate, or meh them. Unless I hate it right off the bat, and let's be honest, sometimes those reviews are the most fun to write.

But I thought it might be nice to start things off on a positive note with a show I am really enjoying. It's new this season, features an interesting female lead of the kind we haven't seen before, and it even had a promising start in the ratings. But will the Nielsen gods continue to smile on The Good Place? Will I get attached to a show to see it yanked cruelly away? Should you spend your time watching The Good Place?


Well, that was easy. Goodnight, everybody!

Just kidding, of course. Let's establish something right off the bat: if you tell me there's a show on television starring Kristen Bell, I'm in. Full stop. Everyone here at the blog is a Veronica Mars fan and our Kristen Bell love is pretty much eternal. So I didn't need to know anything else about The Good Place to give it a chance. But the show actually has a lot of other stuff going for it:
  • The executive producer, Michael Schur, also brought us such gems as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Master of None;
  • Ted Danson has a starring role; and,
  • The look, feel, sense of the absurd, and color palette is very reminiscent of Pushing Daisies.

Just look at their cute little faces!

And I am happy to report that the show is actually good! It's fun, cute but not treacle, with fantastic performances. In fact, Kristen Bell basically saves the show. Before I explain what I mean by that, let's give the network PR folks their moment to shine:
When a tractor-trailer carrying erectile dysfunction products strikes and kills Eleanor Shellstrop, she's surprised to find herself in the "good" area of the afterlife. She quickly realizes she has been mistaken for someone else when her wise, newfound mentor tells her she earned her place by helping get innocent people off death row. She decides that she wants to shed her old foul-mouthed and hard-drinking ways and find a way to embrace the good person within -- at least when she isn't considering finding a way to return to her mundane existence back on Earth.
Everything in The Good Place hangs on Eleanor. Having a unique concept and great supporting players is only going to get you so far. The sad truth is that if the audience hates your main character, the show is not going to work.

Eleanor is a very difficult person to like--she had almost no redeeming qualities when alive (there are some very effective flashbacks to Eleanor's mortal life sprinkled throughout the show), and she treated every person with disdain. She wasn't that far removed from a sociopath, to be honest.

"Oops! I'm a horrible person!"

The thing is though, Kristen Bell is so charming and funny that you don't hate Eleanor. You actually kind of like her and want her to learn how to be a good person. If they had anyone with slightly less charisma and talent playing Eleanor, The Good Place would not work. But it does and I for one am really looking forward to following Eleanor on her journey to redemption. Thankfully, Kristen Bell is back and once again proving nobody is a better lovable misanthrope.

The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30PM EST on NBC. The first three episodes are available for streaming on the NBC website.

There is no reason for me to post this picture of Veronica and Logan. Except that I want to.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ghost Rider and Agents of SHIELD

So, if you haven't become aware yet, the current season of Agents of SHIELD features an iteration of the comic book character Ghost Rider.

For those not familiar with the Marvel Universe, Ghost Rider is in some ways like the Marvel version of the Green Lantern: he's had multiple iterations (different fictional people are "the Ghost Rider") each with different powers. Traditionally, he's a guy with a flaming skull for a head on a motorcycle, because he made a deal with the devil and now hunts evil for eternity or something similar.

However, recently Marvel moved him to being a guy with a flaming skull for a head in a muscle car because he died during street racing and is possessed by the ghost of his serial killer uncle, whose evil inclination he defies to be a vigilante.

As you can see from the trailer, the newest version of Ghost Rider is the one we're seeing in Agents of SHIELD.

I welcome the appearance of Ghost Rider, because I've been finding Agents of SHIELD becoming more and more stale.

To explain this I need to spoil some things. If you don't like spoilers, you should stop now. Below the horizontal line/blogger break I will spoil three seasons each of Agents of SHIELD and The Blacklist, as well as the ending to the Kurt Russell/James Spader film Stargate and probably some other things too because I'm on a roll.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Hannibal - Why it was great and why it was canceled

So, two years ago, my fellow TV Sluts blogger Clovis gushed about the season two finale of NBC's Hannibal. Having now binged it all the way into the midst of Season 3 on Amazon Prime, I feel qualified to render my verdict.

The first season was genius. The second season was fun to watch. The third season got decadent and, in my opinion, boring.

For those of you just tuning in and who also hate to click on links, let me summarize NBC's Hannibal. It is based on the Thomas Harris novels involving the character Dr. Hannibal Lecter, whom you may remember Sir Anthony Hopkins playing in a movie over twenty years ago.

I'm not the biggest horror buff, but apparently what makes good serial killer horror fiction is to put Batman-worthy supervillains in a "normal" world where Batman doesn't exist. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer who eats parts of his victims. He also happens to be in excellent shape and a decent martial artist. And that "Dr.?" It's because Lecter's both a capable surgeon and an incredibly talented psychiatrist, not to mention an all-around super genius with encyclopedic knowledge of modern police forensics. He also draws, plays the harpsichord and theremin, arranges flowers, and has a sense of smell so good he can identify when someone he recognizes is in a room with him. As you can see from the picture above, Hannibal Lecter's a snazzy dresser.

Seriously, I'm not entirely sure how someone not a member of the Justice League stops Hannibal Lecter.

The TV show features the continuing cat-and-mouse between Dr. Lecter and Will Graham, an FBI profiler who is "super-empathic," meaning he's basically psychic when it comes to looking at crime scenes - able to see how it was done and why. While this is sort of a super-power, it's kind of a crummy one, especially since Mr. Graham feels very hard, like an Imagine Dragons song, so the more he does his super-killer-detector mojo the more it hurts him psychologically.

In the TV series, Dr. Lecter is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who brings a more "coiled spring" energy to Dr. Lecter than Sir Anthony.
Obligatory joke.
The other notable thing about the show is that the killing is truly, truly disturbing, even for a show about deranged serial killers. One of the things Hannibal loves to do is feed people to other people without them knowing, like a sick joke. He's a gourmet chef; NBC had DC-area chef Jose Andres and a "food stylist" consult on every episode, so most episodes Hannibal Lecter will serve something to a police officer or innocent civilian that looks like this:
He said it was pork. It looks really tasty.
And then, often, you have to guess whether it's the person he killed earlier in the show. Sometimes that's explicit, but not always.
"I love organ meats," said Tom, heartily.
They all look amazingly good.
This was said to be fois gras. It would be improbable for it to be a person's liver, but Hannibal Lecter does have a giant murder dungeon under his Baltimore home where he does things like pickle people's body parts in wine and feed them to snails to give the snails an extra "oomph" of flavor. So unclear.
And the show spends long, lingering shots watching people eat them.
Prior to these passed appetizers being made, we watch a montage of Hannibal Lecter selecting folks to murder. Are these little flowers beef tartare? Some of them are, certainly. But how many? 
As I said in my summary above, the first season is great. It's a tightly-plotted "serial murderer of the week" where Will Graham is chasing down multiple crazy people for the FBI while Dr. Hannibal Lecter acts as Will's therapist to keep Will's psychic powers from making him feel too hard. As a horrible human being who eats people, Dr. Lecter does not do this. Instead, he plays games with Will and other folks.

In season two, Will Graham has figured out that Hannibal Lecter is actually a cannibal serial killer with really good aesthetic taste, and Will tries to set traps to get Hannibal caught or killed. This season is suspenseful and well-timed, but a little crazier. Plausibility drops a bit. There are many too many dream sequences and hallucination scenes, as well as sex scenes that illustrate why you shouldn't bother having sex scenes on network TV (oh boy! People writhing artily under sheets or with CGI for three minutes! This is both uninteresting and unnecessary!). There's a B-plot involving a murderous pig farmer and his Italian good squad that added nothing whatsoever to the story other than some gratuitous violence and grossness. That said, I cared about what happened and didn't think the plot twists were too manipulative. And the finale? Like Clovis, I thought it was well-done. If the show ended there, it would have been great. But it didn't.

In season three, Hannibal Lecter, having blown his cover in America when basically the rest of the cast showed up in the season two finale to try to kill him (and he does a much better job trying to kill them in return), is now in Italy having some weird cannibalistic murder-themed codependent relationship with his ex-psychiatrist, played by Gillian Anderson. Everyone's still doing a great job acting, but the plot has become decadent. It goes from twisted murder to twisted murder, with gross revelation thrown in from time to time, without any real suspense. By the time Will Graham found a random Japanese woman guarding a prisoner in Dr. Lecter's snail-filled abandoned Lithuanian castle, with no good reason for any of those things to be and after multiple pointless and gross flashbacks where Eddie Izzard was forced to eat parts of himself, I said to myself, "Netflix has season 3 of The Blacklist on now, so I can see over-the-top plots with murderiness without all the self-seriousness." And I dropped the show like a hot potato. As did NBC.

Season 3's decadence also made me intolerant of the DC-area ignorance of the show's writers and editors in the first two seasons. Will Graham lives in "Wolf Trap, Virginia." This is actually a census-designated place in Fairfax County, but apart from the census bureau no one calls the area around the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts "Wolf Trap, Virginia." Even Wolf Trap's physical address is "Vienna, Virginia." I don't know what kind of 3 to 5 acre farm Will Graham owns in "Wolf Trap," but he's crazy not to sell it to a townhome developer like every other large tract of land in that part of Virginia has been since at least 20 years now; seriously, people are taking parking-lot sized chunks of Fairfax County to build new homes on, housing there is that crazy. The show was filmed in Canada. The police did not wear Fairfax County police uniforms, probably because having policemen who look like city police in gray uniforms would make no sense in crazy alternate universe farmland Vienna, Virginia ("where'd those suburban cops come from?"). But I noticed that they just pulled the sheriffs' uniforms from Fargo out for costuming. Don't get me started on driving times between Vienna, Baltimore, and Quantico. Traffic alone would make Will Graham crazier than analyzing a murder scene.

Okay, I got that out of me. Trust me, you'll ignore it too if you only watch the first two seasons of Hannibal.