Friday, March 30, 2012

Game of Killing

This Sunday brings to us the return of two shows, both entering their sophomore seasons, and both heading in completely opposite directions.

The Killing airs on AMC at 8/7c.

Game of Thrones airs on HBO at 9/8c.

Currently AMC has a 5 minute recap of what happened in season 1 of The Killing, but luckily for all you readers, I can save you 4 minutes and 30 seconds.  Rosie Larson was killed.

That's it.

We don't know who killed her, we don't know why she died, we don't know if she was killed because she was a girl or just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It all led to an extremely frustrating season, as we followed red herrings, sleight of hand, false leads and seemingly inconsequential police leads.  The acting was good, but it wasn't enough to cover the fact that the story wasn't moving forward.

This was nothing compared to the offseason that "The Killing" had, though.  It was the greatest example of delusion and a poor showrunner ruining any sort of reputation and positive reviews that a show had garnered.

Making the decision to not reveal the killer of Rosie Larson, creator and showrunner Veena Sudd had the gall to compare her show to "The Sopranos" and its controversial decision to end the series on a fade to black.  The problem for Sudd is that "The Sopranos" is considered to be one of the greatest dramas of all time, and certainly the most important.

Her reaction was arrogant and out of touch with reality.  She couldn't understand that the fans were not talking about her show in a good way, but rather in the way that it had screwed them over.  We had sat through 13 episodes of a show in order to find out the central mystery: Who Killed Rosie Larson?  By robbing the audience of this, Sudd did a good job of alienating her entire audience, and also ensured that the season 2 premiere would lose a number of the audience season 1 had built up.

Fans of great television are better off tuning in to HBO and their brilliant fantasy epic "Game of Thrones."  Based on George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels, Martin is often called the American Tolkien, and the complexity of his stories merit that moniker.  The tale is sprawling, the characters are numerous and dense, and the writing and acting is superb.

Once a niche subject, fantasy has made its way into mainstream America thanks especially to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, which have geekified the entire country.  It's now considered acceptable and even cool to like elves and dragons and wizards.  Lord of the Rings and "Game of Thrones" don't seek out the teenage angst and romance that so many of the vampire stories aim for, and this pleases a lot of people (and also separates them from teenagers).

"Game of Thrones" is set in a fantasy world, but there is no might and magic and no mystical creatures (with the exception of dragons, which let's be honest, make every story better).  Its appeal is not so much the fantasy elements, though, but the very real characters that Martin has created and David Benioff has brought to the small screen.  Their interactions and their troubles, aided by excellent acting (led by Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean, although we live in a world in which every Sean Bean is destined to die an early death, and thus depriving us of a wonderful performance and all around badassery) are what many people can relate to, and what many people are drawn to in a show.

In fact, this is precisely what separates "Game of Thrones" from so many other shows.  The characters are rich and their dialogue is immersive.  But most importantly, there is more at play in the series than what happens in each episode.  There is a deeper philosophical and human emotion at stake; the characters embody and stand for something. 

In the words of Omar Little, man's gotta have a code.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Alcatraz Revisited

The only new show of the midseason that I stuck with is Alcatraz, which was erratic at best, and at times was entertaining, but never approached the realm of brilliant that we had all hoped for.  This was due, most likely, to the nature of the show.  The criminals got the focus each week, as we followed one in 1960, and then again in 2012.  This device led to the issue that there was a new main character every week, and it was nearly impossible to get emotionally invested.

As the season wore on, we started to have recurring non-prisoner characters: the three main characters of 2012 (Hauser, Madsen and Dr. Soto), Dr. Beauregard, Lucy and especially the enigmatic and fascinating Warden James.  This made the show easier to watch, as we delved deeper and deeper into the mystery of the prison in 1960.

The problem is that the mystery remained a mystery, with new places and clues every week.  Sure, we cared about what happened to these prisoners, but only as far as you could swing a cat.  There was no deeper philosophical or emotional rub to make the times between revelations seem like they matter.

Which brings us to the finale.

Using the "door" as "Alcatraz's" version of "Lost's" hatch, we finally broke in.  But rather than wondering if we should break in, or even using the door as some larger metaphor, Hauser just opened it right up with three keys.  Inside, he found...something.  A way to track the prisoners with a giant Light Bright.

The question now exists: Does any of this matter?  I understand the point of most shows is to make money and to keep the story going for as long as possible.  The story is usually secondary to staying on the air and keeping people interested, and in that regard, "Alcatraz" may have succeeded.

It would have been a mistake to bring the warden into the present, so I applaud that decision.  But the big revelation of this finale was a Manchurian like corporation controlling money and possibly more.  And if the writers are smart, they will play this up.

Shows have recovered from poor first seasons in the past.  The best example is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" which is in the top part of many people's lists, certainly at the top of many people's network shows lists.

"Alcatraz" has a good premise in place and an established audience.  It's brave and ambitious, and can learn a lot from other genre shows.  It needs to stick to the shortened seasons, though, and needs to flesh out its characters.  Madsen dying isn't the worst thing it could do, as long as it doesn't treat her inevitable resurrection incorrectly. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Current State of Television

Entering the last week of March, the television landscape is changing dramatically.  Not in a bad way, or even necessarily a good way (although in this case it is, making this sentence relatively useless), but just in a way that old shows are ending and new shows are beginning.

The traditional "seasons" of television are beginning to become a thing of the past, where all shows began in September and ended in May.  This created many problems for the viewers, as they lost interest in a show that took place over 9 months yet was only on 22 times, leaving a number of weeks when there was nothing, oftentimes unannounced.

More and more networks are utilizing the midseasons to debut shows, or starting in January and running straight through.  "Alcatraz" is one such example, a show that started out with a good hook and decent pilot, lost ground, and then is finding it once again, as the writers prepared for a short 13 episode season.  Characters are working, plots make sense, and there is a greater sense of overall mystery and intrigue.

Today, March 25, a time when new shows wouldn't even think about beginning a few years ago, marks the return date for one of the 2 best shows on television, "Mad Men," AMC's 4-time Emmy winner for best drama (which is every year it has been on, for those keeping score at home).  Although not a family show by any means, Matthew Weiner's brilliant character study uses the 1960s to allow the audience to wax nostalgic and be treated to some of the richest characters and best writing ever to have graced the small screen.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is confused and conflicted, having taken on the identity of a war veteran with whom he served.  He used his new persona to build a life as an ad executive in New York, complete with the family (wife, 2.5 children, house, you name it) and mistresses that accompany such a life.  But it's not Don's moral compass that we strive to attain, it's his relationship with people, and how people react to him, that we watch for.  Like AMC's other leading man Walter White, Don Draper is not a moral man; this does not make him unredeemable (some would argue, like Walter White is unredeemable).  He struggles with his life and his decisions.

In short, Don Draper is human.  The focus of the show is his pyche, his nature and his decisions.  We get a glimpse into the human soul through those around him and through the life he leads.  We see people's interactions and relationships with God (especially Don's coworker Peg and her Catholic family).  We see success and failure, and we do so in a world that reminds us of our own, and yet is not.

Mad Men returns for its 5th season March 25 at 9/8 c with a 2 hour premiere.

Monday, March 5, 2012

REVIEW: Awake

NBC - Thursday 10/9c

Jason Isaacs stars as Michael Britten, a man involved in a mysterious car accident in which has son has been killed and he and his wife survived.  He has a hotshot rookie partner (Wilmer Valderrama) and is seeing a psychiatrist (B.D. Wong) to help him cope with the loss of his son.

Jason Isaacs stars as Michael Britten, a man involved in a mysterious car accident in which his wife has been killed and he and his son survived.  He has an aging veteran partner (Steve Harris) and is seeing a psychiatrist (Cherry Jones) to help him cope with the loss of his wife.

Where the hook for Awake lies is that both scenarios are true.  Michael Britten travels back and forth between the two realities, one in which his son is alive, and one in which his wife is alive.  His life is completely changed in both, depending on which reality he is in.  But he is conscious of each world, which makes for some interesting crossover and emotional possibilities.

1.  Does it entertain me?
"Awake" is fast faced and quick, and the pilot does not allow time to breathe.  This works both in its favor and against it, since the concept is ambitious and confusing, but it's also got a lot of ground rules to lay down.  But it doesn't let anything sink in, and it doesn't let you become familiar with any of the characters.  If anything, the pilot could have benefited from a 2 hour premiere.

But if the worst thing I have to say about a pilot is that it is confusing, then that's a good thing.  Remember, it is the show that is being reviewed, not the episode.  All the pilot gives is an indication of what is to come.

And what is to come from the look of things is a very promising show.  There are mysteries galore and questions to be answered.  The writing is very good and tight, and the acting is excellent.  Jason Isaacs, Cherry Jones and B.D. Wong are all very accomplished have a large resume.  They will, undoubtedly, get the bulk of the screen time as the show focuses on Michael's grasp of reality and the people trying to help him discover it.

Aside from the mysteries, though, there is the "crime of the week" aspect of the show, and they nice twist that one reality helps Michael with the other.  There are crossovers (some of which make sense) are there to help Michael and whatever partner he has solve the crime.  It's an interesting idea with a great number of possibilities if executed correctly.

What is exciting about "Awake" is that there are possibilities.  The show can go a number of ways, and the ambition is there to make it happen.  Unlike many of the new shows, there is a certain gravitas involved with this show as well (see below).

2.  Is it realistic?
We don't know what's going on.  The writers want us to know that we don't know what's going on, too, and that the mysteries of the show will remain that way for some time.  Michael wears different colored rubber bands based on the reality he is in, and the world around him changes appropriately.

But in the world which has been created, everything is done for a reason, and even though those reasons are not clear, there are rules in play here.  And for that, I'm willing to stick around to see what's going on.

3.  Are immoral actions defended?
This is where the show could really get exciting as mentioned above.  Not for the immoral actions, but for what constitutes an immoral action.  Obviously both realities cannot be real, because that is not how our universe works.  So one has to be real, and one has to be a dream or a figment of Michael's imagination.

So whatever he does in the real world continues to have the same moral gravity as before and doesn't change.  Makes sense.  But now, what do you do about the dream world?  Is Michael morally culpable for his actions in that world?  And what happens if he believes both worlds to be simultaneously real and a dream?  In other words, they are both reality and yet both a dream.

Moral responsibility will remain the same.  He is responsible for living a moral life in both worlds, really, just in case.

Then there's the question of the soul, of prayers, of living and dying.

It's just nice to see a show with more at stake than just whodunnit.

4.  Are traditional family values upheld?
The nice thing about living in two worlds with your son and your wife is that you never have to deal with the grieving process, because you know you will see one of them again shortly.  Unforuntately, it's hard for the person you are with, who is wondering why you are never crying, or why you talk about seeing your dead son that night.

There was no sex in the pilot, no infidelity, and nothing that would indicate that family will not survive or tough it all out.
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"Awake" is an ambitious new show that follows the split life of Michael Britten, a man who leads two lives, literally.  It is well made and, if handled properly, could become the best new show of the year.  It asks questions and raises possibilities that other shows just don't do.  If it can solve its packing problem, which may just be a problem of the pilot, then there is a lot here to stick around for.

Grade: A-

Friday, March 2, 2012

Blame Shifting in Light of Morals and Responsibility

In The Simpsons episode "Trash of the Titans" Homer decides to run for Sanitation Commissioner, based on the mantra, "Can't someone else do it?"  For Homer, the ultimate satisfaction in life is having someone else do something for him, including taking out the trash, a conclusion he came to following a bitter fight with the Springfield trash service.  The worst part was when the sun hit Diaper Hill of course.

The problem with what Homer believed was that there was no responsibility or reliability in his life.  Sure, he wanted someone else to take out his trash, but how did that help Homer as a person?  It may not have been immoral for him to shirk his responsibility of taking out the trash (surely Bart could do it), but it was a symptom of an underlying problem: the misuse of free will.

We have this wonderful gift of free will, which does not give us the freedom to do what we want.  It is the ability to choose the good.  Uncle Ben would tell us that with great power comes great responsibility, and there is no greater power than free will.  The responsibility of free will, however, is the issue at hand.

And therein lies the rub.  We want free will, but we don't want to accept the consequences of our actions.  We want to do whatever we want, and we don't want there to be anything that comes of it, either good or bad.  Everyone thinks of the bad that comes from a decision, but what about the good?

In Game of Thrones, Ned Stark was presented with a choice.  He was asked to become Hand of the King, the second in command.  Sure, he could have said no, stayed at home and lived his life, even as wars are being threatened and the world is falling apart around him.  That would have been the easy thing to do.  Instead, he left Winterfell, served as the moral compass to the king, made the right choices for the people, and eventually died for it.  It wasn't easy for him to leave his home, but it was necessary, because Ned is a good man, and he knew the kingdoms needed a good man in charge.

Don Draper, the main character of Mad Men, repeatedly makes decisions based on a life that he wants to lead, rather than a life that he leads.  As the head of an advertising agency in New York, he is in charge of convincing consumers that they need his product.  It doesn't matter if they want his project, he makes them believe that they need his product.  He is very good at his job; however his family life suffers.  He sleeps with other women, he lies to his family, and he is only there for his children when it's convenient for him.  Don Draper chose the life of a husband and father, but he did not accept the responsibility that comes with it.

Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth cook of Breaking Bad fame is a little different.  He accepted the life of a family man, raising his son and loving his wife, succeeding as a high school teacher, but ultimately, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.  Knowing that he was going to die shortly, and knowing that he needed to provide for his family, chose to provide for his family, to ensure that they would be taken care of.  However, he chose to do so my cooking meth and joining the lucrative business of drug production.  His heart in the right place, he neglected his soul for the sake of his family's well-being.  He made a decision based on his family, but forgot about the community and God's people in the process.

Admiral William Adama did not turn to anyone else to save the Colonies and its remnants after the Cylon attack.  He knew that he could save everyone, he knew they needed a leader, and they needed hope, that theological virtue that allows us to live our life with the belief that something better is coming.  Bill Adama did not deflect responsibility, made decisions, and saved almost 47,000 people.  When things went wrong, he took the blame.  When they went right, he credited others.  Along with Optimus Prime, he might be the best example of a leader in the history of television.

It is incredibly easy to blame others.  We don't want to be responsible for failure, and we don't want others to think that we are responsible.  So we follow Homer's example, and say, "Can't someone else do it?"  But that does not lead to virtue, this does not lead to honor.  We would live our lives as if someone is going to blame us, so we blame everyone else.

It has become the way of the world.  Society doesn't want to be honorable, it wants to be not dishonorable.  Not doing bad has become more important than doing good, and believe me, there is a big difference.  The former involves courage in making a decision and taking responsibility if it fails.  The latter involves living our life avoiding the possibility of failure, but at the same time not giving yourself a chance to succeed.

The most significant event to happen to our world was the crucifixion of Christ.  This one event made it possible for all men to be saved, to enjoy a life with God in heaven.  He did not have to do this.  That's the beauty of Jesus, he had free will because he was fully man, and so anything he did in life carried with it that much more significance.  He did not have to suffer and die for us.  He did not have to gain for us salvation.

But he did.