Friday, July 15, 2016

Contain Your Excitement

Did you catch CW’s “limited series event” Containment? No? Hooray! The US public health system works!

Seriously, if you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid infection with this particular bug, you can count yourself lucky. For reasons surpassing my own understanding, I’ve been watching it since it began back in April and as it sputters and spasms into the final stretch, coughing, wheezing, and bleeding from its various orifices along the way, I’m here to tell you about the experience.

The first sign of infection is Resting Bitch Face

First, a crucial question: Have you seen the movie Outbreak? How about The Andromeda Strain? Maybe Cabin Fever? Any of these? Yes? Congrats! You’ve already seen everything that you could possibly see in Containment. You have met your quota for disease outbreak contrivances. Please feel free to take a break and maybe watch a rom-com. If you answered no to any of those, get thee to Netflix and enjoy. There is a world of better viewing options if what you want to see is characters wrestling with an invisible antagonist that turns their own bodies against them, a healthy dose of gory body horror, and the requisite slow, creeping paranoia that attends both.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know about the premise of Containment: After a highly virulent strain of bird flu breaks out in inner city Atlanta, the CDC and a particularly unbelievable government official from the US Department of Homeland Security decide the only way to prevent the disease from becoming a global threat is to literally barricade the downtown core of the city with freight cars stacked on each other and lock in any potential infected until a treatment or cure can be devised. What follows is the usual mix of relationships torn asunder, new relationships forged, people acting like post-apocalyptic asshats, and, of course, blood and coughing. Lots and lots of blood and coughing.

"Hey Bob. Another day at the office in the quarantine zone, amirite? I hear ya, I hear ya."

The characters resemble a paint-by-numbers book: There’s One Good Cop who is on the outside of the cordon and just trying to do right by the people inside. His Strong Female Character sorta fiancĂ© is only inside the cordon because she decided to go to work instead of agree to move her stuff into his apartment because she has Commitment Issues. There’s Innocent Pregnant Teenager, her Initially Evil But Really Loves Her mother, and her Earnest But Misunderstood Inner City Baby Daddy who just wants to be a good father so he actually breaks into the cordon. Attempting to carry the emotional core of the show is Tougher Than She Looks Schoolteacher, who is trapped with her elementary school class inside the cordon on the world’s worst field trip. Tougher Than She Looks Schoolteacher has a meet cute thing going with Trying To Learn About Responsibility Police Officer who has been a slacker most of his life but is being forced into adulthood by virtue of being one of the only armed members of law enforcement trapped inside the cordon. And, of course, overseeing all of this is Nice But Possibly Shady Doctor who is inside the cordon and may know more than he seems to (spoilers: he does) and his counterpart Morally Ambiguous Government Official Who Operates With Impunity and Never Checks in with Anyone Higher Up. Said official is the one to make the decision to lock in tens of thousands of people to potentially die horrible deaths.

Any TV Sluts readers live in Atlanta? Find out if you are in the infection zone!

The Incurable Cough of Death is an uncredited character, though really should have top billing by number of appearances alone. Second billing should go to White Handkerchief/White T-Shirt, which all characters must have on them in order to make that first bloody cough really pop.

Clearly, I don’t think highly of Containment. On technical merits, it’s really not that bad. It’s competently filmed and looks slick. The acting is, well, not great but far from the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s just not greater than the sum of its parts, which is a quality a show needs to have, particularly if it’s treading on very familiar ground. The show unfortunately commits the one error a show is never supposed to make, the cardinal sin of television: it’s boring. Despite a legitimately strong first episode, the overall pacing of the next 10 installments is sluggish at best. Much like the infected characters that start piling up on the screen, the show limps around, gradually getting less and less lifelike. (Sorry, btw: It’s literally impossible to write this review without overly relying on cheap medical puns.)

It didn’t really have to be that way. In its first episode, Containment generates more excitement and more dread than all of Fear the Walking Dead did in the entire first season. I mean, come on! It’s a viral outbreak! That just lends itself to drama. Unfortunately, the few times the show gets interesting it’s only interesting because of characters making decisions that are SO OBVIOUSLY bad ones, you find yourself riled up at the lunacy of people acting how no human, driven by fear or otherwise, would act. It’s not until episode 10 that any real action begins to happen again. Watching the meandering plotlines and characters moving around without any direction only to begin to finally come together in the end made me wonder why the show couldn’t have just been three or four episodes, which likely would have served it better.

My reaction when I was on episode four and realized I still had eight more to go.

If, after all this, you’re still game for binging on the series, it wraps up its final episode next week. Back episodes are available from the CW. Mercifully, this disease is one that we can all get into remission from as the network has already announced that there will be no second season and the storyline will wrap up at the end of its current plot. Apparently the network had hoped that Containment could take advantage of the trend toward anthology shows, presenting either a different outbreak or a story of different people should a second season have occurred. Given that the first exposure was so ill-serving, it’s best to just let this patient go peacefully. 

Saturday, July 09, 2016

What Ben's Watched On Streaming for June/July

I've watched a bunch of things on streaming media recently. Here are my short-ish reviews:

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, Season 3 (Netflix)

A friend of mine recently said, "yeah, I was watching Agents of SHIELD, and then it got really stupid." I think she was referring to sometime in Season 2. 

Which is true, Agents of SHIELD perenially has a plot which I'd describe thematically as "peak comic book," where all plot threads come together into a unified whole no matter how disparate they seem to be at the beginning, and some stuff seems shoehorned in. It is apparently inconceivable to the Agents of SHIELD writers that SHIELD could have to deal with two major issues at the same time and they never team up or subsume each other. 

The show is also knocking off characters at a Game of Thrones rate (okay, pre-season 6 season finale Game of Thrones rate) sometimes seemingly because Joss Whedon doesn't want to pay for an actor anymore. Similarly, the "big bad" for the last half of the season sometimes seemed to be down a henchman because, I think, either the actor they had for him (who's B-list famous) was too expensive to be in every episode if he didn't have lines or he had a prior commitment so he couldn't appear in half the episodes you'd expect to see him in.

That said, as a guy who just read all the issues of Radioactive Spider-Gwen and spin-offs available on Marvel Unlimited (Gwen Stacy is a much more interesting Spider-Person than Peter Parker! Also she's in an alternate universe where Captain America was always an African-American woman and Daredevil is evil! You really should read it!), I have a pretty high tolerance for comic book stupid (I had to read through several issues with Spider-Ham -- yes, the Spider-Man that is an anthropomorphic pig -- crossovers) if a show is otherwise diverting. And Agents of SHIELD remains entertainingly diverting.

Also, Clark Gregg is still clearly enjoying his job and is a joy to watch.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Amazon Prime)

Elevator pitch for this show: "It's Attack on Titan, but with zombie mobs instead of naked giants, and it's set in a steampunk late Tokugawa Japan where most of the action takes place one of the armored supply trains for the rail system that keeps the last few human outposts connected."

The execution is, at best, fair. Writing seems to be done by folks given the directive: "use the formula we know works for shounen [teenage boy-marketed] anime for the elevator pitch you just heard. Do not, under any circumstances, take any risks with plot or characterization or otherwise give the audience something they likely have not seen before in another anime."
It's always magical zombies with glowing hearts covered in some sort of difficult-to-penetrate metal alloy. isn't it?
I could go on and give details, but it would really be a waste of your brain space. It's not good.

Penny Dreadful (Netflix)

This was reviewed before on this blog, but I actually like it a little more.

Let's not get too excited: I don't love Penny Dreadful as high art. I like it as a television version of a gothic horror (which also has influence from - and name-checks - the Grand Guignol style of gory theater) acted by people who are capable of much more substantial work than being "morally compromised supernatural evil-hunting team."

And that's what Penny Dreadful is -- Timothy Dalton plays the rich African explorer father of Mina Harker -- yes, that Mina Harker -- who assembles a semi-random team of dangerous misfits to rescue his daughter from a vampire. They are:
  • the African explorer's mysterious African warrior butler/something (Danny Sapiani)
  • demon-possessed psychic childhood friend of Mina (Eva Green)
  • American gunslinger whose dark secret would be only revealed in the last episode of the first season if it wasn't spoiled by the credits sequence (Josh Hartnett)
  • Dr. Victor Frankenstein -- yes, that Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadway)
In a parallel plotline, for reasons I can't quite understand, there's Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); yes, the Oscar Wilde one with the painting. He seems to be there mostly to create multiple romantic issues with Josh Hartnett's character; Gray has sex with two women Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) is romantically entangled with, plus Chandler himself. I don't think this spoils much in the first season because, as I said, Dorian Gray has no direct relationship to the main plot. 
Here's Ethan Chandler and Dorian Gray making out. While there is a bunch of male full-frontal nudity in this show, sadly not of these guys. 
Also, Billie Piper is in this as a prostitute dying of consumption. She needs a better post-Doctor Who agent. 

As I said above, this show is sort of an update of gothic horror and Grand Guignol; the point is not that it's good, it's that it's constantly entertaining or at least shocking in a visceral way. There is a plot and there is dialogue. As the previous blogger on this beat noted, neither are particularly compelling (although the pacing of the story is good). But the production values, the acting, and the fact that everyone making this is taking it seriously instead of winking at the audience somehow raise it above "dumb" to "weirdly fun."