Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mad Men: Obergruppenf├╝hrer edition

Guest-poster and Amazon Prime subscriber Zach is here to tell you all about Man in the High Castle. Ever imagine what would have happened if the Axis won WWII? Amazon has you covered. --Maggie Cats

Truth is, I’ve been waiting for Amazon’s adaptation of Man in the High Castle for some time; it’s one of my favorite books, and I’ve been hearing about it’s expertly crafted dystopian sci-fi world since September

The plot in two sentences: In this world, Germany got the atomic bomb first, and used it on Washington, DC, ending WWII and dividing up the United States into the occupied “Greater Nazi Reich” and the Japanese puppet state, Pacific States of America. The series brings us in during the early 1960s, focusing on the capitals of each of these states, New York and San Francisco. 

The two main characters are Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who's trying to figure out exactly what her newly deceased sister was wrapped up in, and Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a Nazi double agent posing as a resistance fighter. 

Will you like it? If you like lush, gorgeous detail, and the intersection of 1960s culture and consumerism colliding with Nazi/Japanese domination, then yeah. The series provides a rich crop of easter eggs and clever visual asides and it's clear the show creators really thought through this alternate universe. I found myself pausing and rewinding constantly, checking out small amusements such as a little boy reading a copy of the kid’s magazine, “Ranger Reich.”

Also, rocket planes are a thing.

Beyond the detail though, is a near-constant gripping drama, with the only lull spent in an early episode in Canon City, a “wild-west” located in the neutral zone of the Rocky Mountains, the last refuge for outcasts (elderly, albinos, Jews, etc.) who would be institutionalized or exterminated in either state.

Drama’s not your thing? Then enjoy the rich secondary characters (who sometimes outshine the leads). Let your stomach get queasy when you find yourself essentially agreeing with the family values espoused by the Rockwellian Smith family, the paterfamilias being a strict but kind husband and father, but also the head of the SS for the Greater Nazi Reich with a prevalence for sadism. Revel in the fascinating social commentary on race and gender--at one point our lead characters are led through a “white dancers only” fetish strip club, run by the Yakuza. The series seems tailored for us to examine our own America through our glimpse at this fictional world.

For me, the only downside to this adaptation is that the eerie version of “Edelweiss” featured in the opening credits is my new nightmare fuel. Here’s hoping it can be yours too.

Man in the High Castle is on, and is free to Amazon Prime members. All episodes are available for streaming Nov. 20th, 2015.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I Am Strange

Close viewers of BBC America or just anglophiles in general may have noticed this past summer that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell got the miniseries treatment from the boys over in London.  Because I love a miniseries and alternate history, this one was high on my must-watch list. And then, natch, I didn’t get around to it until after the weather started to get sucky. Sigh. At any rate, the miniseries was glossy, composed, and very, very English.

Before I say anything else, I should mention that I actually haven’t read the book, so my thoughts are purely limited to the TV show. My understanding is that, despite the show’s seven hours of total screen time, there are still loads of plot points and character bits from the books that were condensed, eliminated, or otherwise altered in the final product. Though, honestly, given the show’s obsession with pondering over what it means to be English, I have to imagine that’s for the best. (Readers, please correct me on this if instead you believe what was actually eliminated was more germane to the plot.)

At any rate, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in 19th-centruy England during the Napoleonic Wars. It presents an alternate history of England where magic, formerly thought to have been eliminated from England a few hundred years before, has begun to make a comeback in the form of Mr. Norrell, a fussy English gentleman who has gleaned how to work magic from his massive collection of books. Being the only Magician in all of England, he somewhat reluctantly goes about reviving the practice of “English Magic”, offering his services to Lords and Royals as he can find them. Mr. Norrell is fastidious about preserving the English decency that he feels magic requires, though to be fair we never really see any examples of what non-English magic would be or why it would be less preferable.

"Yes, yes. Much magic. Quite special. Tea, please?"

Just when Mr. Norrell is about to make good on his fame and fortune as the sole Magician in the land, in comes a young gentleman of property (of course) named Jonathan Strange. Strange it seems has also become awakened to magic after hearing a prophesy from a street vagrant. Like you do. Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil, though the two initially disagree about the importance of a character known as The Raven King. Strange believes The Raven King to be the source of English magic, whereas Norrell sees him as sort of an enemy of the state for practicing a wilder, less organized (read: less English) magic. This small theoretical difference eventually grows into a much bigger rift that generates much of the action for the story.

"Mine is a dashing and brazen magic, much like my waistcoat."

Things are further complicated when Norrell, somewhat out of his depth, is asked to resurrect the wife of a prominent Lord. In doing so, Norrell brings forth The Gentleman, a fairy who agrees to revive the Lady, but at a cost of half of her life.  Unable to admit defeat, or that the magic that returned the Lady to life wasn’t proper English magic but the magic of Faerie, Norrell allows the Gentleman more interest in the “real” world. The Gentleman also soon develops designs on Strange’s wife Arabella as well as a servant in the Lord’s house. And from there the fun starts.

Pictured: Not David Bowie.

The story begs and borrows a lot from earlier English literary traditions. Strange is a classic Byronic Hero; the emphasis on structure and Englishness flies straight out of the Regency and Victorian periods where England was the unquestioned capitol of the world. As such, it spends much of its time focusing on bringing those concepts into a fantasy story, allowing the more fantastic elements to serve as stand-ins for England, its virtues, and its faults. Which sounds incredible, but after about hour four you really do start to feel a little like you’re listening to a stuffy literature professor ramble on about the Romantics when all you really want to do is go outside because it’s such a nice day out.

Plenty of aspects of the show work very well. It’s gorgeous to look at with a very refined and specific art direction that is quite eye-catching. The visuals are lush, costumes are gorgeous, special effects FAR better than I thought they would be. Performances are strong, particularly Eddie Marsan as Mr. Norrell, who nails the fussy, quick-to-offend, yet vulnerable and self-doubting character so ridiculously well that I was completely ambivalent about how to feel about him the entire time watching the show. He’s not exactly an antihero nor a hero outright; that the actor is able to walk the line between someone you really want to know more about and someone you just want to punch in the face is impressive and keeps you paying attention to him.

There's also a lot of dancing at a supernatural ball in Hell. Seriously. 

Where I think the show falters is in taking what is arguably an incredibly immersive reading experience and translating it to a viewing experience that doesn’t have the same heft. The novel takes a story about defining what it means to be English and makes even that process as English as possible, purposefully opting always to describe the magic in the most mundane and muted ways possible. The novel also contains more than 200 footnotes, giving it the veneer of a researched scholarly paper and further bolstering its detached, English sensibility.

Did I mention there are also zombies?

That creative interpretation of a fantastic story is wonderfully ironic on the page and doesn’t translate at all to the screen. Which is understandable. It’s not a good idea, cinematically-speaking, to tell a story about magic and then downplay the magical effects. So where the book would take an almost distasteful approach to describing a scene where Jonathan Strange conjures horses out of sand and sends them charging into the surf to right a frigate that’s shoaled just off the coast, the show is left with no option but to make this a fantastic event.

All of this will depending on your need for the show to be faithful to the book, of course, or your affection for the experience of reading the book to be accurately recreated in your watching of the show. Classic Your Mileage May Vary situation.

Bottom line: If you desperately can’t wait for the Harry Potter prequels to come out and really need a good dose of English people talking about magic and you’ve always nursed a crush on Count Vronsky, Mr. Rochester, or any other literary brooder of that era, this is a fun way to spend seven hours of your time. 

Friday, November 13, 2015


Supergirl feels like a show from another era. Sure, it's got top notch special effects and aside from an awkward green screen here and there, it looks amazing. And nobody is sporting a beehive or a mullet or feathered bangs. But when I watch Supergirl, I feel like I am watching one of those action adventure shows from when I was a kid. The A-Team, Macgyver, or Star Trek. Oh, and of course you can't forget Wonder Woman in that list.

What is it about Supergirl that makes me feel so nostalgic? I think it's the overall tone, and forgive me for using this term, how it feels so earnest. It's certainly not cool to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (which is why Superman is supremely uncool), but I remember watching shows with my family as a kid that held up these ideals. If you were in trouble, and you could find them, you could hire The A-Team. Macgyver used his brain to save others, and you can't get more idealistic than Star Trek.

This doesn't have anything to do with the post. I just wanted to put a picture of Richard Dean Anderson on here.

Supergirl inhabits the same universe, where a young woman with unlimited cosmic power* just wants to use her abilities to help people. I imagine little girls, their brothers, their parents, and all other members of the family watching this show together. Cheering for Kara to catch the bad guy, to realize her cute friend likes her, and to show the doubting secret agent-types that she can save the day on her own.

There's no doubt in my mind we are living in a Golden Age of Television, but everything is just so dark. I'm all for hard-hitting drama, but sometimes you need a break from the bleak. Supergirl is just the thing: an adventure story with a strong (literally strong) female lead who saves the day and loves doing it.

OK, so let's talk specifics. Will YOU love Supergirl? Like I said above, it looks great. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit clunky and I'm not sure we needed a love triangle (though teens will probably eat it up). If you find the basic plot of The Devil Wears Prada untenable, then you might not be a fan of Kara's day job--executive assistant to the demanding media mogul, Cat Graham--but I for one could watch Calista Flockhart chew the scenery and bitch out her underlings all day long. And it certainly makes Kara relateable; who hasn't had a job with a bad manager?

If you also prefer your drama on the more existential side of the spectrum (The Walking Dead, looking at you) you might find Supergirl a bit too...nice. But if you're looking for a good old fashioned adventure, this could be the show for you.

Supergirl is juggling a lot of elements, but as the writers find their legs I think it could really be something special. The show and Kara both need to figure out how to better balance her freelance superhero work (and family issues) with her role as an agent with the black-ops agency tasked with protecting Earth from alien threats. This is a minor quibble though.

At its heart Supergirl is a fun throwback to the action adventure series of old improved with modern effects and more inclusive storytelling. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Supergirl is that at the end of the first episode I wished this show had been on when I was a little girl. It would have been nice to have someone like Kara to look up to.

Supergirl airs Mondays at 8PM on CBS.

*and more than itty bitty living space based on her palatial apartment in National City.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Through the Looking Glass, Darkly

Okay. So. I watched Black Mirror. And while I generally liked it, I don’t know, you guys. There’s some serious shit going down in this one that needs talking about.  And that shit is all about the way the speculative fiction show from England’s Channel 4 treats women.

So, here’s the thing: there’s really no way I can talk about the misogyny issues in Black Mirror without getting spoiler-y, so I’m breaking this into two sections; The first will be spoiler-free (and largely reflect that things about the show that I really liked) and the second will unpack the, let’s call them problematic, issues the show struggles with.

Metaphor! Metaphor!

Part I: Stuff That I Like! (Spoiler-free!)
Black Mirror has been compared positively to The Twilight Zone, something that to my mind is more or less accurate. Just like its predecessor, Black Mirror is an anthology series with each episode being a different story with a different cast and a different setting. Unencumbered by any kind of continuity, it makes for an easy watch knowing that you literally don’t have to know anything at all going into any given episode.

What the show really excels at is being unnerving, which is different from being scary or creepy. Black Mirror is not a horror show; there are no monsters or ghosts or demons or other things hiding under the bed just ready to pounce. If anything, the villains in the show are to the letter all human. For as much as the show has been sold at least partially on the notion of it being about the dangers of technology, the show itself is pretty agnostic on that point. If anything, it suggests that technology is a blank thing, neither good nor evil. In each story, it’s always a human who ends up being the scary one. That notion of ten minutes in the future and There But For the Grace of God Go I is what creates that unnerving feeling you get watching it.

You are 100% guaranteed to make each of these faces at some point while watching.

In that sense, the show wears its anti-transcendental attitude on its sleeve. Each episode gives us another story of people more or less always being forced into making hard choices. The first episode details the British Prime Minister being presented with a revolting choice in the face of a terrorist threat.  One episode pretty ably mocks reality TV by showcasing a class of people whose lives are geared toward literally nothing more than winning a television talent show. Another one presents a woman whose new husband has died when she is given a vaguely Monkey’s Paw-style option for getting him back. The show presents no easy victories.

It also looks great doing it. You could easily confuse almost every episode for a mini movie with high production value, talented actors, and a broad scope. The end result is entertaining certainly and tailor-made for Netflix binging, a fact that Netflix apparently was keen to since they’ve announced that they are going to take over production of the show in its third season from Channel 4.

Now to talk about the ugly bits. If you don’t want spoilers, jump ahead to Part III below.

Part II: Things That Make You Go, “Hmm.”
Clearly, there are things that Black Mirror does very well, which is what makes the rest of it so confounding. Amidst all that really cool speculative fiction stuff, there’s a really unsettling vein of misogyny that I had a hard time dealing with. Let’s unpack, shall we? (Again, a reminder: Here there be spoilers.)

The first hint is in the second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits”, starring a de-Downton Abby’d Jessica Brown Findlay. The episode is about a future where people, possibly everyone, live in a confined building and must spend each day cycling on a stationary bike to earn merits which can be used to buy food, clothes, and of course, avatars for their online selves. The episode tries to say a lot, but its primary story comes from a woman who is gifted the requisite merits needed for the most expensive purchasable item – a chance to compete on a reality talent show and liberate yourself from this dreary life. Findlay’s character performs for a panel of judges who deem her not talented enough as a singer, but perfectly suited to, ahem, other services. This episode almost gets a pass from me given that it’s sort of blatantly underlining the use and abuse of women for others’ pleasure and if that were the end of it, the message would be received, albeit in a heavy handed way. 

"Being sold into pornography and dying giving birth. Note to self: Get new agent."

But let’s look at another example. The next episode, “The Entire History of You” is set in a future where the must-have technology device is actually an implant in your head that allows you to replay everything you see and do and even share those memories with people around you. A man, struggling at his job as a lawyer, comes to believe after a dinner party that his wife may have slept with another party attendee years ago. The jealousy leads to fights between the two as he comes to insist not only that she’s lying to him about having had an affair but also to demand that she show him her memories of the time in question to prove her fidelity to him. If this episode ended there, it would have simply left the main character as an insecure douchebag, but by forcing the issue we learn that his wife did actually have an affair and that, in fact, their young daughter was the product of that affair. In other words, the wife’s character, in the eyes of the show, was not entitled to the privacy of her own memories and the man’s frankly line-crossing behavior is utterly justified because of her lying ways, even after establishing that the man is borderline abusive, demeaning and jealous over perceived slights. While in the end his insistence on learning the truth leaves him hollow and without his family, that fate is cast as the result of her affair, not his inability to not be an ass to his family.

"Reviewing memories now...damn, turns out there was a 'it's all my fault' clause in the marriage vows..."

The trend continues in the episodes “Be Right Back” and “White Bear,” the third and fourth episodes. In the first, a woman (Hayley Atwell) becomes inconsolable after the death of her husband before learning that a company has perfected a way to create a sort of digital copy of his personality based on his online and social media activity, allowing her to get emails and phone calls from her “husband” before eventually even purchasing a life-sized artificial copy of him, a shell that can contain program files to recreate his personality. Throughout the episode, Atwell’s character moves through the stages of grief but becomes shrill and unreasonable. Again, handled differently this could be a powerful story about grief, or at least about how much of our personalities we leave in the world without thinking about it. In the end, what we get is a story about a woman who can’t handle not controlling her husband and so banishes the last remnants of him to an isolated existence.

Likewise, “White Bear” deals with a woman who awakes in a house she doesn’t recognize, unsure of who she is, and is quickly confronted with a kind of zombie-apocalypse style horror where the population has become mindless, focusing only on recording her every movement on their cell phones while she is chased by mysterious people in masks who want to kill her. In the end it’s revealed that she is actually in a kind of correctional facility for the crime of allegedly murdering a young child with her boyfriend and filming the murder and her punishment is to be tortured in front of a live audience every day with her mind wiped clean every night. Despite the presence of another woman (played by Tuppence Middleton) who actually has some agency of her own, the entire episode is one torturous sequence after another for a character who is hardly proven to have committed the crime she’s accused of.

An apt summation of the show in one image.

Part III: Conclusions (Come Back, Spoiler-phobes.)
So there’s my dilemma about Black Mirror: It’s an extremely well-produced and creative show about how humanity relates to technology and each other, but it’s got some major issues with the unstated politics of the show. Your mileage may vary as to how much this of value to you when watching. I’m not usually one to get caught up in a show’s political underpinnings. I can usually shut down that part of my brain and just enjoy the story. Something about Black Mirror made that hard for me, though. And once the switch was flipped in my brain, it made it really hard for me to go back.

I should also mention that I don’t think any of my issues with the themes in the show suggest that it isn’t well written, well-acted, and generally well done. It just makes for some sticky watching for me. Regardless, Netflix has already commissioned 12 episodes, almost doubling the existing seven that have already aired. Look for them on Netflix now with additional episodes due out in 2016. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Latest TV News

We now interrupt your usual Fall TV blogging with some breaking news. I swear that Supergirl review is coming soon, but I've been seeing and reading so much good stuff on the internet lately (all hail the internet) that I just had to share.

First up! The return of one of television's most beloved franchises: Star Trek. CBS announced yesterday that it would create and air a new Star Trek series in 2017. The catch? While the pilot episode will premiere on CBS's television station, all other episodes will only air on the network's paid streaming service, CBS All Access.

I'm not sure I can adequately express how important this news is, not just for me, but for geeks everywhere. Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of my first fandoms and the first show I remember watching as a family. To this day, my brother and I have a tradition of seeing all the new Star Trek movies together (well at least at the same time since we live on different coasts).

As this most excellent article from The Verge points out, CBS is clearly using one of its most promising and popular established properties to send a clear signal that it is doubling down on its streaming service. Will it work? Only time will tell--but I'm not making any plans to subscribe just yet and I consider myself a big Star Trek fan. My current prediction is that CBS will only succeed in making it one of the most pirated shows on the internet (all hail the internet), but that's because the quality of Star Trek series since TNG has not been great. If CBS is really serious about making this work, they're going to need to get an amazing showrunner and fantastic writers to pull it off. If they try this shit with another Enterprise, well, it won't be pretty.

Speaking of networks upping their profile with new shows, Starz is really knocking it out of the park lately. They got on the map with Outlander, are developing American Gods (based on the Neil Gaiman novel) into a series, premiered Ash vs The Evil Dead on Halloween, and I am really excited about Flesh and Bone, an upcoming drama about ballet.

Center Stage fans, REJOICE!

Flesh and Bone is about a dancer getting her last shot! at living her dream! and dealing with mean dance company directors! But it also looks really beautiful, dark, and painful. So I'm on board. Flesh and Bone premieres on Starz on November 8. Break out your pointe shoes and set the DVR now.

Next in the "items I feel compelled to share" category, is this great bracket series over on Vulture dedicated to determining the Best High School Show in the Past 30 Years. If you're looking for something to distract you from the mind-numbing minutia of your everyday life, this series is it. The articles will fill your brain with happy memories of the shows that perfectly documented the angst and pain of teenage life. Early winners are Buffy and Daria (duh), but decisions are going to get really painful the more we need to cull the herd. I recommend reading this while at work, when you don't want to do work. Prefect time waster!

And finally...Jon Stewart is returning to television! Kinda. At some undetermined time. According to EW,"As part of a new four-year production agreement with the premium network, Stewart will create daily short-form content that will be showcased on the company’s streaming outlets HBO Go and HBO Now, as well as on other venues." It sounds kind of like Stewart has carte blanche to release short videos of himself talking about whatever strikes his fancy whenever the hell he wants. That's pretty sweet. But if it means more Jon Stewart in my life I am all for it.

That's all the news that's fit to print! See you soon with a Supergirl review and more fun from the internet (all hail the internet).