Dec 202016
 

I’m not a fan of teen or young adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against it, but it has never been my thing. So imagine my surprise when MTV’s Teen Wolf shut down my life with a bout of binge watching that spanned three seasons and lasted the better part of a week. How could this happen?

Well, what I discovered after watching the first episode is that Teen Wolf is the gayest straight show I’ve seen in years and it is howlingly, talk-out-loud-to-the-TV good. Sometimes I even have to stamp my feet and clap.

I mean these guys—and it is relentlessly, undeviatingly a show about guys—seem to live in their school’s locker room, and when they are overcome, born down, and need to have long deep conversations about the troubles in their lives, they prefer to have them bare chested in towels with the other guys on the team (although sometimes older guys in leather coats also drop by the school to talk with them in the locker room). When the guys get dressed and go elsewhere, which they sometimes do, it’s usually to class, but even there, they have long deep conversations, usually about very secret things that no one else must learn. And while they talk—and they talk at length, spun around in their chairs and hunched together—the teacher goes on and on, clueless, at the front of the room and the nearby students pay no attention at all.

Ostensibly the show is about Scott Macall’s struggles to adapt to his new life as a werewolf, which we are made to understand is complicated and difficult because of all the excitement and adventures it forces him to deal with.  But this is just window-dressing. At it’s core, this show is a gloriously off-kilter exploration of 21st century masculinity and the problem of becoming a man.

The show’s model of successful masculinity is a minor recurring character, a gay man named Danny who is handsome, does well in school, has a job, has a fake ID, goes to parties (and knows what to do when he’s there), has an older boyfriend (not from school), and most importantly (given the frustrations of his classmates) has sex without being hung up about it. In short, he’s an openly gay high school student leading a secret life as an adult. Everyone in the school knows it, everyone likes him, and even the popular kids text him. What’s a straight guy to do when faced with this paragon of masculine success?

If you’re Stiles—Scott’s best friend and the best thing on the show—you worry about whether or not Danny finds you attractive.

If you are Scott you fall for the new girl in school, Alison. Scott has a problem though: when he becomes excited, especially when he becomes emotional, he risks turning into a flesh-eating monster. So what happens if he and Alison get serious? Fortunately for Alison, it’s the guys on the lacrosse team that get Scott’s heart racing, so they are the ones forced to deal with the violent, hairy beast. Scott wants to keep things together out on the field though, so he needs a way to stay calm even when the other guys are giving him a hard time. Enter Alison! It turns out that if Scott thinks of Alison, sweet perfectly coiffed Alison, his heart slows, the heat fades away, the beast retreats. She is his anchor, his true love, his cold shower.

This is so perfect I could die.

Camp aside, I think this first season is still fascinating stuff.  It sets out to be a boys-becoming-men tale but the content of the masculinity they’re after is up for grabs and largely unpoliced which makes everything a bit like a fun-house mirror: familiar but out of whack. The show is not a revolution or a political intervention. It’s carnival, an old-fashioned critical concept, but apt I think. Teen Wolf is a grotesque and it’s full of (or at least provokes) a laughter that eats away at the powers that be. In later seasons, I think it begins uneasily to realize it. But more on that later.

 December 20, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Sep 252016
 

games-of-thrones-i

I’d seen this season a long time ago and was uncertain about whether to continue watching the show. But by last Spring, I’d accepted that it had become a cultural phenomenon and that I should make an honest effort to see what it was about.

Because a friend had given me all of the books when he’d moved a few years ago and was cleaning his shelves, I decided that I’d read them over the summer rather than bothering with the adaptation. This plan was a bust. The books are well-written but, to my eye, are detailed beyond all reasonable bounds. Halfway through the first one, I realized that reading them would take all the effort and energy required to puzzle together a history of medieval England, but without the payoff of being true. So I dropped the series without regrets and without any nagging curiosity to pull me back.

I did have the first two seasons on my computer though, and so at the end of summer, I decided that I would start from the beginning, watch them both, and see what I made of them. And I’m glad I did.

The first season is much better than I remembered, and with the knowledge of the half of the book I had read providing context, I saw the places where the writers are making very clever choices about the adaptation. The omissions and elisions make the television series reasonable in a way the books struck me as not being. So absent a drastic change that pushes me away, it appears I’ve lined up my TV viewing for the coming winter.

 September 25, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with:
Sep 022016
 

London Spy Poster

This is the gay spy thriller the BBC put out last year and that has finally come to Netflix in Quebec. For celebrity obsession reasons, I liked it, but it is a dark and strange show.

The key early moment comes when Ben Whishaw speaks with his dead lover’s mother and she feeds him a very credible lie. Whishaw responds that “I haven’t read a lot of books or seen a lot of places, but I’ve fucked a lot of people.” He then exposes her lie and figures out a bit more of the puzzle.

In this moment, the series announces what I take to be an important but implicit project: to reimagine Sherlock Holmes in such a way that sexual experience supplants rationality and knowledge as the object and tool of deduction. As absurd as it sounds, Whishaw will peel back the lies and secrets hiding an MI6 plot simply by refusing to let go of his memories of the sex he had with his lover (and with those who came before) and by listening to the feelings these memories provoke. Because it’s Ben Whishaw suffering his way through this ordeal of emotional detection, I was on-board, but I wonder if that would be the case otherwise?

Ben with Big Ben

What was perhaps most shocking to me though was the image the series paints of government. This story operates in a world where agencies we don’t see or control are willing to discredit a critic by having a doctor purposely infect them with HIV. These same people kill a man by locking him into a luggage trunk and then leave him there to rot. They kill a different man and disguise his murder as a suicide, lighting the tableau in ways that remind me of a scene from The Silence of the Lambs.

The narrative does not however treat this brutality or the people who perpetrate it as if they were exceptional or fantastic or required explanation. In this London, the sun rises, the Thames flows downstream, and high-level government employees are psychopathic. Yes, Whishaw sees this and resists, but the very fact that he is so alone as he fights and that the others he meets are so oblivious to (or accepting of) what’s going on suggests that it is his sense of the world and not theirs that is the problem.

I’m guessing this paranoid world view is simply part of the spy genre, but by the end, the darkness of it was oppressive, and I’d had all I could take.

London Spy (Beach)

 

One final note: although the show is very well done, I think it missteps badly when it identifies the contents of the USB key that Whishaw finds in the first episode. The specifics of the contents are unimportant and when spelled out sound silly. In my opinion, let the MacGuffin be a MacGuffin.

 September 2, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
May 152016
 

Daredevil season 2 posterThe second season of Daredevil is chatty enough that by episode three, I was making mental comparisons to Interview with a Vampire. (“Oh Louis, Louis. Still whining, Louis.”)

And this chatter just never stops. Over and over, characters spend whole episodes tied down in small rooms or living previous events through a flashback, and they spend that time talking peudo-philosophical claptrap to each other as if it meant something. Technically, it’s the noire-crime-vigilante equivalent of Geordi and Data explaining that maybe they could recalibrate the positronic emitter: it’s incidental genre-flavored business that moves you to the next plot point. Only here it is treated as the thing itself and goes on forever.

Worse most of these interminable monologues are delivered by either Charlie Cox, who I find near unwatchably dull, or by Jon Bernthal, who played my least favorite character on Walking Dead (a show in which I disliked everyone, so there was serious competition for the spot of “least favorite”).

Daredevil only ever lurches forward at moments when people are untied, let out of their rooms and things actually happen. In the final episodes, when the story has to be wrapped up in a rush, events pick up speed and life begins to gleam through the gloomy cracks. It’s even exciting. I just wish that it didn’t all feel like a quick push to get to the long list of “unresolved and soon to be revisited issues” of the final episode.

This show is trying something new and is figuring things out as it goes along. I also really like Jessica Karen (a fave from True Blood). So I am willing to cut some slack. But I hope that it will get over this hump so that I won’t have to.

 May 15, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Feb 262016
 

Jessica Jones

This show is a superhero version of Sleeping with the Enemy. It’s gut-wrenching, relentless and left me anxious enough that I had to watch episodes one by one, slowly over a span of weeks. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that I hated my way through most of the season.

And yet, I kept going back to the show because unlike Arrow, nearly every character in the series — and there are a lot of them — is authentic and compelling. (The notable exception is Simpson, a troubled white guy super-soldier cliché.) Unlike Daredevil, in which ethical posturing mostly reduces to a decidedly non-ethical preoccupation with self-definition and identity, Jessica Jones explores both the nature and the extent of the mutual obligations created when people share trauma. These constitute genuinely complex ethical stakes, and the story, despite remaining a superhero series, doesn’t pull away from them or dodge their implications.

By the end of the final episode, I’d come around: this is the best cinematic/televisual story Marvel has ever done, and I’m all in for the next season.

 February 26, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Feb 182016
 

Wide sense8 spread

Sense8 is a difficult series to get started. The focus shifts constantly between characters and locations without any shared story (or any hope of a shared story). Plus, it takes time for the ten characters — 8 principals, and two marginal — to accumulate enough screen time to gather substance and come to life. All of this added up to an urge to move on to other things, but I remained “invested despite,” and I stuck with the series. I suspect some of it has to do with loving Speed Racer and some of it with my head-over-heels admiration of Lana Wachowski (for reasons).

Whatever the reasons, I kept watching, and things began falling into place. Step one: the Karaoke number shared across continents at the end of episode four, “What’s Going On?” Step Two: the genuinely moving conversation between the African man and the Korean woman and the specter of the terrible wedding in episode five, “Art is Like Religion.” By the endlessly screencapped episode five, “Demons,” the full-on crazy, pot-head on acid concept of what the show was doing began to sink in. Plus it was clear that Lana and the fraternal unit were committed to keeping things both relentlessly sexy (Max Remelt!) and jaw-droopingly beautiful (South Korea! India!). I was hooked.

But cross-cultural, cross-continental (mental not physical?) sexy time aside, what is going on here?

My sense is that the Wachoski’s are making classical cinema but that they are carefully breaking two fundamental rules of the form and exploring the consequences. The first broken rule relates to scope. A classical Hollywood feature is 90 to 120 minutes long. In special cases, especially auteur or prestige films, a runtime might stretch to 180 minutes. Sense8 constructs a story that is reportedly complete and that spans sixty episodes or five seasons (lets call them acts). This amounts to roughly 2900 minutes of story. Managing something of this length, I now realize, poses specific challenges. For example, I’ve watched 12 episodes, and by the end I recognized familiar signals that indicate the conclusion of “Act One.” In other words, after 10 hours of television, the initial presentation of the conflict was complete and the drama was about to begin. This is — judged by any ordinary standard — insane. How do you develop a coherent story of such length that is barely (and perhaps non-) episodic? Sense8 is attempting it and appears to be operating within the traditional structure of the five-act play. That’s interesting.

The second rule of classical cinema that the series breaks relates to the construction of space across the cut. Méliès made magic by moving objects in front of a fixed, static camera. Hollywood constructed stable, coherent spaces by cutting from one camera view to another in a rational, cumulative sequence organized by visual matches between shots. Sense8 uses the matching of traditional Hollywood editing in the service of an impossible, magical space. Scenes within the series occur — almost by default — in multiple locations. Conversations, for example, regularly take place between people separated by thousands of miles. The editing, however, takes no account of these physical realities and cuts shots together by the same logic that governs the representation of a conversation at a single table in a restaurant in the most banal of romantic comedies. By the end of the first season, scene after scene plays out in two or three (or more) locations, characters bounce back and forth between locations, and all of these shifts — organized and enabled by the techniques of classical editing — cohere without confusion. The result is a representation of a purely fictional mental space that I feel I have seen and that is integral to the plot but that makes no sense at all when I try to describe it to people who have not watched the show because it is entirely fantastic and completely experiential.

This is all fascinating — and portentous and overblown (yes, I admit it) — but also very entertaining.

I ended the season eager to find out if Netflix would spring for another season. It turns out they have. So I’m excited, but, because I am greedy, I would like to hear that they have green-lighted the full five seasons: I want to see the entire arc and how it works.

 February 18, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Feb 162016
 

Arrow_promo_-_Destiny_leaves_its_mark_-_city_backgroundMy brother finally decided to watch this show and once he got going, tore through all three seasons one after the other. He conceded it had a rough start but insisted it was much better than I had allowed. Based on his reaction, I decided to at least watch to the end of the first season.

And what do I think now that I have?

The show does get better and seems to be trying to cut loose its original framing and replace it with something new. This is most obvious in the move away from the idiotic book-as-motivation that drove the plot early on. There is also a move toward a longer-term and more complex cross-episode narrative arc. As part of this the sister and the mother have receded a bit into storylines that make more sense than those they started with. The ex-girlfriend plot line can’t disappear but seems to be shifting toward less annoying ground. (The death of the best friend in the final episode helps with that.) Most importantly, with Felicity, the show has found its first genuinely likable (even if stereotyped) character. At last.

There are still things to dislike. The show is written in large part for a tween/teen audience and this results in painfully stilted posturing in the relentlessly central romantic relationships. When characters talk to each other romantically, they say what I imagine a teenager might imagine an adult saying or doing at that moment, and it kinda makes me nuts.

I’m also not a huge fan of the through-the-roof machismo. I take it as an attempt to disavow the way shirtless male bodies are subject to an eroticized gaze in every single episode. (Exhibit A: the chiaroscuro pecs and abs in the series poster.) Still, it’s pretty off-putting.

So what now? Well, I suppose that, despite my reservations, I’d be willing to watch the beginning of the next season just to see how the reinvention that is clearly under way proceeds.

 February 16, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Aug 092015
 

I love Glenn Close too much not to have finished this series, but I hated it more and more each season.

To survive, I watched for “the moments.” Say, Patty drinking red wine out of an enormous glass at her beautiful dinner table or maybe on her white couch. Or Patty sitting with reading glasses in hand, as someone leaves her office, silent, still, but watching closely and thinking hard.

Despite the time I put into watching the show, I’m left with nothing substantial except the two final images: Patty, alone in her limo, riding through the city streets like the Olympian she is, and Ellen, with her child, buying a cupcake or something.

What gets me is that the series clearly thinks that Ellen is the hero.

And that was the problem with it.

 August 9, 2015  TV Logs Tagged with:
Jun 302015
 

I stopped watching this series early on, and then, encouraged by my brother who loved it, and the positive attention it was receiving from people I read on the web, I pushed through to the end and finished it.

I understand the attention it received: it’s a good series. There are inspired moments both in the directing and the acting. The writing is also top-notch first-season work. Ultimately though, I couldn’t tolerate the violence.

Which got me thinking: what is it about the violence in this show that reads so differently from the violence of something like John Wick? I think there are two things going on.

First, the investment asked of me as I watch the violence in the two stories is not the same. In Daredevil, Murdock acts out of a sense of justice and morality. He is there to solve Hell’s Kitchen’s problems by doing what is right, what is needed. So in a sense, the show asks me to accept that sometimes, you need to beat the shit out of people, break their bones and joints, and even, sometimes, throw them off buildings, and I won’t go there. John Wick is very different. It is a film about grief and anger, and Wick is clearly not doing the right thing. The right thing was leaving violence behind in the life recalled (after its loss) at the beginning of the film. The film’s violence happens after a fall from grace and asks for nothing from me but basic empathy — yes, grief and anger can drive people to doing terrible things — and in exchange, it offers catharsis.

Second, the two stories link themselves to the world outside the story differently. John Wick builds a fantastic, genre-appropriate world that is vast but discrete and the narrative plays out within it in exaggerated but finite terms. Wick’s world is not “the real world.” Daredevil on the other hand — and this is a key aspect of Marvel’s emerging house style — presents its fictional world as an allegory of our world and the “necessary violence” of the protagonist as an insight into what’s needed to solve its problems. I think that view of the world is wrong, ugly, even perverse, and so the allegory ruins the whole show for me.

I’ve written about this same problem in relation to Jack ReacherArrow and Justified.

 June 30, 2015  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Jun 232015
 

The first season of House of Cards was extraordinary television. Frank’s and Claire’s ambition, their intelligence and their controlled advance toward their goal launched the entire show beyond ordinary concerns and into a realm that recalled Shakespeare.

After sitting through the first few episodes of season three, that description sounds exaggerated to me: how could the show I’m watching now have been that good in that first season? It’s hard to believe because the subsequent seasons have shrunk down to mere roman à clef cleverness and posturing.

In that first season, Frank was a post-Nietzschean MacBeth unencumbered by conscience. Now he’s just mean, desperate, and listless. I’m so uninterested that I don’t expect I’ll even finish the season.

 June 23, 2015  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,