Feb 252017
 

This show proposes that a story might emerge from a mash-up of the popular sensations alluded to by its title and of the familiar monster tales evoked through its choice of characters. However it resists inventing that story. Instead it turns the raw material this way and that considering the initial premise’s possibilities in the light of the various, endless options, and only ever settles on the narrative’s path forward when it absolutely must.

The result is not unpleasant and can even be beautiful if you like late-20th century Goth-influenced takes on Victorian furniture and clothing. The wallpapers are gorgeous. There is velvet and lace galore and even smatterings of glossy leather. Corsets and vests are de rigueur. Everything is cut and coloured—like the actors hair—to read as cool and everything at every moment is macabre.1

The narrative however goes nowhere, lurching from one subject to the next and one genre to the next until the sprawl begins to place a sizeable burden on the “Previously on Penny Dreadful…” introductory montages. I remember one montage that worked through previous events three different ways before things had been sorted out enough to make some sort of sense, and then incredibly—and this says everything about how the series operates—the episode that followed had nothing to do with any of what had come before!

The result is a sense that things are being made up episode by episode, that anything can happen, and that we are expected to watch not for the story but for the style, which is to say, the spectacle of the style and of it’s presentation in ostentatious poses drawn from fashion photography. Any resulting pleasure is a product of the moods this style and these poses conjure, which means the show’s appeal rests squarely in the domain of taste: you either like these moments or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s very little for you to hold onto.

For my part, I found the stretches between the moments I loved—even though there were many of them—bleak and long. So the season was heavy going.

 February 25, 2017  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Feb 202017
 

After a season where they were only incidentally students, the kids1 are back in school. They meet incoming freshmen, discover a (gay) werewolf playing for the Lacrosse team’s ‘cross-town rival. They also have to figure out how to deal with a mysterious figure hiring assassins to knock off supernatural teenagers, cope with some kind of were-jaguar or something, and also, Berserkers.

The big news though is that Scott gets a beta, a major event that rejuvenates the established theme of masculinity by introducing questions about mentorship and about boys’ relationships to their fathers. The whole thing works because the young werewolf, Liam, is so convincingly frightened and so desperately needs an older brother/father-figure to help him cope. The moment near the end of the season when he saves everyone by trusting that Scott hasn’t become a monster is pretty great.

Teen Wolf isn’t Sophocles, but at this point, it has established its terrain and generates serious and genuine turmoil under the surface.

 February 20, 2017  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Jan 032017
 

This is the season that broke my binge.

The script and direction are under control in a way they weren’t in the weirdly wonderful first season. As a result, this season manages to gather up loose ends and weave them all tightly back into the fabric of two main story arcs.

In the first of these, Scott becomes an alpha wolf (read: real man). In the second, Stiles overcomes and banishes a mischievous trickster spirit that operated as a second personality. Both arcs signal that fun time is over, and by the end of the season, the group of guys has broken up into a gang of three straight couples (some real, some potential), and the gay characters have either left town or dropped out of sight.

This shift is obviously a let-down and more than earns Teen Wolf a spot on my long list of those TV series in which I have over-invested by rooting for off-story readings that cannot possibly pan out as the show develops.1 Unlike these previous series though, the disappointment I feel this time around is friendly and free from frustration. I like the cast, like the set up, and still like the show.

And yes, if I’m honest, I knew all along that the fun couldn’t last: a mainstream show directed at adolescents, especially one with a break-out star with a budding movie career, cannot (or at least will not) pick apart the seams of contemporary masculinity for very long, even if it’s fun to pretend otherwise while binging. The best that can be hoped for, I think, is for the show to be “cool” and to signify that coolness by being “cool with” gay people.

And that’s what’s happened here in spades.

 January 3, 2017  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Jan 022017
 

On the surface, Season Two throttles back on the guys-in-the-locker-room gayness of the first season, while doubling down on Scott and Alison’s romance plot. There’s also some kind of killer lizard on the loose, a menacing grandfather up to no good, and a dive into lore through subplots that lays the groundwork for future seasons. Which is a lot of ground for a single season. Of all of this, my favourite sub-sub-plot involves a mid-teens rich kid giving his girlfriend a key to his parent’s place. It’s a silly but sweet fantasy vision of what it’s like to be a grown-up that turns out to play a vital role in the resolution of the central storyline.

That all said, no matter how far you pull back on the throttle (and the writers are clearly trying to do so), it’s hard to quell the anarchic, queer connotations unleashed in the first season in one go. And it’s going to be that much harder if you make the villain a frequently shirtless Abercrombie model who also happens to be one of the guys. Or if you let a running joke be about how Stiles knows everything about how Scott looks. All of which is just my way of saying that this season remains ripe for willful misreading even if the low-hanging fruit is gone.

The season’s highlight—and when googling for images I discovered it is a scene that has driven the internet into a frenzy—takes place in a pool and involves Stiles, Derek and the lizard monster. The lizard is afraid of water (don’t ask), so Stiles treads water for hours at the center of the school’s pool holding a helpless Derek in his arms and saving them both from the increasingly frustrated lizard.

The internet believes this is love, and I concur.

Writing this post (and the last one as well), I realize how ridiculous everything about this show sounds. And it is. But is also too much damn fun. And “Sterek” must be celebrated.

So:

(You’re welcome. But enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve seen the next season and there is trouble on the horizon.)

 January 2, 2017  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 222016
 

This adaptation of the first half of Leviathan Wakes is an odd combination of imagination and shyness. It leaps forward, building the world in detail but pulls back from the narrative, hitting the main events while fiddling with the character relationships that wove them into a story in the book.

Nothing here is great, but nothing’s a failure either. Instead, everything feels provisional, like a long test run made before the decision to commit. I like the choice of actors for Holden and Avasarala, and think Miller has the most unexpected and effective haircut I’ve seen in a while. Surprisingly, that’s enough to have my hopes up for season two.

 December 22, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Dec 222016
 

I have a complicated history with this show. I over-invest in the best parts, and gripe about the rest.

The best parts are easily identified: anything centering on the gloriously bitchy Pam or on Eric or on Lafayette (*snap*) or on Jessica (“I’m a virgin again!”) qualifies. These characters represent (or in some cases aspire to) a sophisticated and fashionable cosmopolitan ideal that I love.

Across the seven seasons of the show, this ideal has survived in a narrative space nestled between two other strata of society. Above the cosmopolitan, sits the soulless bureaucratic, commercial and political interests of the Vampire Authority, the Fellowship of the Sun and the various Senators and Governors that come and go. These interests operate like weather. They set conditions the cosmopolitan characters work around and cope with. Occasionally they kick up a storm and do damage. The cosmopolitans can’t escape this strata but keep their heads down and try as much as they can to do their own thing and to stay out of sight.

Beneath the cosmopolitan ideal are the provincials. They’re Bon Temps and they know little about the world. They mistake folksy common sense for wisdom and often wind up tolerating the inevitable ugliness of ignorance.

A folksy character like Sookie is, at her best, open-minded and full of unspoiled life. At her worst, she is just the small-town outsider’s version of open-minded and acts like a square and a scold. The show, which is deeply Rosseauian in its approach to noble Bon Temps (a stance that comes from the source novels) usually doesn’t distinguish between these two ways of being and treats them both as “spunky.” This is deeply annoying. 1

The provincial is not simply a function of place though. Bill is, to my mind, the worst of the rubes and nearly unbearable to watch. He’s seen the world, and yet he rejects it, choosing instead to embrace folksy values (from a previous century) and weds them to extensive political ambitions. Worse he speaks continually about love. He’s awful.

The cosmopolitans are nothing like Bill. They know how to live (even those who are dead) and aren’t fooled by the folk or sucked in by the organizational tools. They are fabulous.

 

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m rooting for Sookie, Jason, Sam, Tara and the rest of the gang. And I adore Arlene. But face it: she lives in a small world, and she and her friends are all convinced that remaining small is a kind of victory.

In my True Blood, a series that exists only in my head, events take place in the bigger world we’d find if we followed Jessica after she got over Hoyt and left Louisiana or if we visited Pam and Erik in their new digs in Tokyo or maybe Hong Kong.

In that world, I am Ginger.2

 

 December 22, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
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: , ,