Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Selina Kyle

I'm trailing behind a bit this week in TV -- a likely sign that I'm DVR-ing too many shows. In the competition not to be cut from that list, Gotham is hanging in there. For the moment. The second episode, compared to the first, was in some ways better and in some ways worse.

On the better side, things were generally more focused than they were in the first episode. The parade of Batman universe faces was still in effect, but to a more restrained degree. The girl who would be Poison Ivy, for example, didn't make an appearance. And the quick pop-up appearances from the likes of the future Riddler were much more brief, and didn't interrupt the flow of the action so conspicuously.

Instead, the episode focused on (as always, Jim Gordon, and) young Selina Kyle. Her storyline felt a bit miscast to me -- I've seen guest star Lili Taylor in a wide number of roles, and none of them helped me accept her as a jovial child snatcher. But Kyle herself was fleshed out a bit, proving to be a relatively interesting character to have in the mix. Certainly more so than Bruce Wayne. It seems the answer to my "how are they going to use him every episode?" question from last week is: "he's going to have a rather pointless 'working to become Batman' subplot every week." No surprise, I suppose, but rather unnecessary, narratively speaking, to the adventures of Jim Gordon.

On the not so good side, though the episode focused more on Gordon, his partner, and their detective adventures in a corrupt city... that adventure was a tired cliche from beginning to end. It was a soup of hard-boiled film noir conventions, served ice cold. We get it already, Gordon isn't going to "get with the program," "play by the rules," "blah blah blah." Ultimately, because the show is primarily about him, if the show doesn't snap out of these cliches really quick, my interest in it will probably be over as soon as they're done exploring all the minor side characters they've set up.

So I suppose that means I'm willing to give them another three or four episodes, depending. Truly, overall, this episode wasn't actually "bad," but TV (hell, CBS alone) offers multiple flavors of cliche cop show, if that alone was what I was looking for here. The clock's ticking, Gotham. I give the second episode a B-.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Game

"The Game" is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where I think the writers believed they were being rather more profound than they actually were. Nevertheless, the result was fairly entertaining.

On Riker's trip to Risa, a mysterious woman shares a strange but simple VR game that he takes back to the Enterprise. It soon spreads like wildfire through the crew, and is ultimately revealed to be a brainwashing tool invented by an alien captain to seize control of first the ship, and then all of Starfleet. The only people that stand in the way are Wesley Crusher, visiting from Starfleet Academy, and Robin Lefler, the clever engineer with whom Wesley has struck up a relationship.

This was another episode with a long gestation period. The original idea to do an episode about video game addiction was pitched more than a year before this aired. It went through several permutations, and two complete written drafts, only to be scrapped each time. Show runner Michael Piller was starting to think the idea simply couldn't be saved, but producer Rick Berman pushed him to keep at it. Piller himself, Berman pointed out, had been saying the show needed more inherently sci-fi concepts. (A criticism Piller had leveled at the immediately prior episode, in fact.)

So Piller decided to give it to "the new guy," new staff writer Brannon Braga. Braga decided to go in a darker direction, influenced in part by Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What if Wesley came home for vacation and everyone was out to get him? And how fun would it be for all the adults to become addicted to a video game while the adolescent looked on from the sidelines?

I think the real success in this reconception was giving up the notion of saying anything deep about video game addiction -- it instead just embraced a fun story. But some of the production staff still talked about this episode in interviews as the "video game addiction" episode. It's kind of hilarious to think about writers in 1991 trying to forecast the future of video gaming anyway, in an age before MMOs or cell phones.

Piller rightly praised Braga's finished script -- for while the episode may not be profound, it is certainly well written. It finds room for many good character moments amid the action. Picard and Wesley share a wonderful conversation about the Academy and the groundskeeper Boothby, first mentioned in "Final Mission." (Patrick Stewart is especially brilliant, making you really believe in the memories Picard is recalling.) Data gets to recall Wesley's mom teaching him to dance. We get to see Riker's idea of a good time on Risa. (And how appropriate, by the way, that his horndog nature makes him Patient Zero for this crisis.) Even a minor character like Nurse Ogawa gets her most substantial appearance to date. Or, as Michael Piller neatly summed up, when Troi can talk about chocolate for half a minute and not slow down the story, you've done something right.

Braga also wrote the character of Wesley better here as a guest star than in any episode where he was actually a main character. Braga deliberately tried to relax the uptight character, believably making him a college prankster with, in his words, some "spunk" and "savvy." The romantic relationship is good too. (Immeasurably better than Wesley's last girlfriend episode.) It helps that Robin Lefler is also well-written. Her "Lefler's Laws" imply an untold personal history in which those life lessons were for some reason learned in that order. (And they're perhaps a spiritual precursor to the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition on Deep Space Nine.) Plus, the fact that she ends up using a medical scanner to run tests on a first date really makes her a great match for Wesley.

The performances are good too. Wil Wheaton is so much more confident in this episode that he's been in past Wesley episodes. Plus, we get the return of future star Ashley Judd. The staff had liked her so much in "Darmok" that they'd been looking for an opportunity to bring her back. They liked her so much here that they wanted to bring her back a third time when Wesley reappeared later in the season, but that didn't work out. (Perhaps her career was already starting to take off?)

Yet the episode does have its share of misfires. There's the dopey look of the video game itself, with the not-all-at-subtle metaphor of guiding a disc into a cone to provoke an orgasmic reaction. (Jonathan Frakes, though a fan of the episode overall, noted hilariously in an interview: "They told me it was going to be this incredible graphic, and all it was... was a tuba on a checkerboard.") There's also a bit of "been there, done that" in this episode, telling another brainwashing story so soon after "The Mind's Eye."

But probably the biggest stretch is the implausible virality of the game. For one, there's the scientific unlikelihood of a single device being equally effective on aliens of different physiologies (Worf, Troi, who knows who else) and even somehow the blind (Geordi). Then there's the question of how certain crew members would ever even try it in the first place. Braga indicated in an interview that this was his ulterior motive in the Troi-Riker chocolate scene, to illustrate that people tried the game because they were encouraged to do so by the people they trusted most. Maybe so, but that really makes me want to see how Worf or Picard tried it. (Troi and Beverly, respectively?)

Other observations:
  • In the opening scene on Risa, the set department took great pains to recreate the look established in a previous episode. There's even a horga'hn visible on a table in the background.
  • I'm not sure I buy that a Sadie Hawkins Dance would even be a thing in the future. Surely there's true gender equality by then, such that women asking men out doesn't have to be a special occasion.
  • Wesley totally fails his perception roll when talking to Picard about the game, by not noticing that the captain has one sitting there on the table right behind him, in plain view.
  • Costuming highs and lows in this episode: the "cadet uniform" makes its first appearance here, and is something of a precursor to the Deep Space Nine uniforms. But Wesley's civilian clothes and hairstyle somehow manage to make him look instantly five years younger.
  • I like the chase scene in the final act. Wesley believably eludes capture for a time. But also believably, he can't keep it up forever and is soon caught.
  • Wil Wheaton proudly noted that he was Ashley Judd's first on-screen kiss.
  • In the scene where Dr. Crusher knocks Data unconscious, Brent Spiner slammed down so hard on the medical bed that he cut his chin and had to be rushed to the hospital. When he returned to the set, they had to complete the scene, and he was obviously much more cautious -- look at how slowly Data lowers himself onto the bed after he's switched off.
This episode asks you to ignore a plot hole or two, but offers enough fun and solid character moments to make up for it. In all, I'd give it a B.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Zany to the Max

Friday night, I had a unique experience at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra: Animaniacs Live! This was the premiere performance of a new show that has been put together to celebrate the Warner Bros. cartoon of the 1990s.

If you haven't seen the Animaniacs, you're really missing out. Molded very much in the classic Looney Tunes style, Animaniacs featured the zany trio of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot -- along with a host of other creations like Pinky and the Brain -- as they stirred up trouble in every situation imaginable. Though digestible for children, it seemed very much aimed at the adults, a far more rare breed then than it seems to be today.

And it boasted plenty of clever and funny music. There was a song to explain time zones, a song to mock California earthquakes, a song naming every country in the world (at the time), a song naming every U.S. state and its capital, a humorous Christmas play on words, and much, much, much more. Animaniacs Live took two hours of this music and presented it with a full orchestra for a wild evening.

The event was anchored and hosted by Randy Rogel, the writer/composer of the majority of these songs, and Rob Paulsen, the virtuoso voice artist behind Yakko, Doctor Scratchensniff, Pinky, and others. Making featured appearances were Jess Harnell and Tress MacNeille, the voices of Wakko and Dot. (Though if you've watched any cartoon made in the last two decades, you've probably heard the work of one or both.)

Together, these performers all rattled off rapid fire songs with the live orchestra. Sometimes, they upped the "degree of difficulty" by playing in sync with the original cartoon as it was projected on a large screen behind the orchestra. In the second act, they brought in some unusual treats, like the original version of a song that was rejected and never used on the show, and a sprinkling of songs Rogel had written for other cartoons -- from a sentimental look at the possibilities of growing up, to a condensed appraisal of all 37 of Shakespeare's plays. There was even a brief encore, in which the "Yakko's World" song was given another verse to update it for the new countries to appear since the original version was recorded.

The audience, naturally, ate it up. We were mostly adults, who had enjoyed the Animaniacs at various ages when it ran new on television. But there was also the next generation of fans, infected by their parents thanks to DVD. And sprinkled here and there were people dressed in costumes -- a few Wakkos, a handful of Dots, and even a Hello Nurse.

Sadly, it was a one-night only performance, so I can't urge any of you to go. (None of you Denverites, anyway. Those in other cities might consider looking for future tour dates.) But it was such a fun night, I couldn't help but gush about it.

Friday, September 26, 2014

R.I.P. Off

Judging from its anemic box office take, you didn't see last year's R.I.P.D. But as it turns out, if you've seen Men in Black, then you pretty much have seen R.I.P.D.

It's no secret that Hollywood studios are constantly trying to bottle the success of their rivals with similarly themed films. But it does seem a bit odd to me for a movie to be this close to an earlier film, yet be so far behind the times (this coming more than a year after the third Men in Black film). R.I.P.D. is the story of a cop suddenly pulled into a world he never knew existed, capturing dead rogues who are stirring up trouble on Earth. (The afterlife substitutes for aliens, though there are hardly any changes, cosmetically.)

Taking on the Tommy Lee Jones role is Jeff Bridges. While Bridges' Roy cuts loose a bit more than the dry Agent K of Men in Black, he's still a prickly stick-in-the-mud forced to train a new rookie he doesn't really like. He revels in the new guy's greenness and failures, shows no reactions to the weirdness around him, and tosses off curt observations on (after)life. The Will Smith role is filled by Ryan Reynolds. His headstrong Nick thinks he knows better than the veteran he's been saddled with, has a chip on his shoulder a mile wide, and mugs for the audience when weird stuff he could never have imagined happens.

Of course, Men in Black was hardly the first film to serve up this kind of buddy cop pairing. But R.I.P.D. is more than willing to steal other cliches as well. In just an hour and a half, you get the "former ally revealed as the ultimate villain" trope, the "disobedient cops kicked off the case" trope, the "villain who gets captured on purpose as part of his plan" trope. R.I.P.D. doesn't feel written so much as manufactured.

But depending on your love of the cast members, it might not be a total loss for you. Jeff Bridges is playing a caricature of a drawling Old West outlaw here, but it is a fun caricature. Ryan Reynolds once again excels in his apparent lot in Hollywood, being very likeable in a drab movie. Kevin Bacon continues his recent trend of playing the villain, and is clearly having a ball twirling his virtual mustache more broadly than ever before. And Mary-Louise Parker manages a few laughs with her deadpan delivery.

Still, I don't think a few scattered laughs really justifies sitting through this wholly uninspired movie. Any one of the actors, even the apparently cursed Ryan Reynolds, has better films in their histories. R.I.P.D. gets at best a D+.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

TNG Flashback: Disaster

Star Trek: The Next Generation served up several homages to classic films over the years. With "Disaster," it presented a take on disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.

The Enterprise is struck by a quantum filament, an interstellar phenomenon that wreaks havoc all over ship. With systems malfunctioning and everyone cut off from other parts of the ship, the crew faces a series of calamities. Counselor Troi finds herself in command on a bridge powerless to prevent an impending explosion in engineering. Captain Picard finds himself trapped in a turbolift with three children. Geordi LaForge and Beverly Crusher are sealed in a cargo bay with a dangerous plasma fire that threatens to detonate several deadly cargo containers. Riker and Data are struggling to get through the innards of the ship. And Worf is leading triage in Ten Forward, and suddenly thrust into the role of delivering Keiko O'Brien's new baby.

Ronald Moore took point in writing this script, bought from a pair of outside writers and then developed by the entire writing staff. Some of them had reservations about the finished product. Staff writer Jeri Taylor thought the fans didn't receive it well. Show runner Michael Piller thought it was fun enough, but didn't reach the "upper echelons" because it lacked a compelling mystery or science fiction element. (He also had issues with one of the story lines, but I'll come back to that.) Perhaps they're critical of the television tropes they used: "trapped in an elevator" and "delivering a baby in awkward circumstances." Or perhaps they're all judging this outing a bit more harshly than normal because this happened to be the final episode of Star Trek to air before Gene Roddenberry's death. (And admittedly, this isn't the sort of high-concept allegory in the classic Star Trek mold one might want to be perceived as Roddenberry's epitaph.)

Though criticizing those things would be reasonable, the fact remains that "Disaster" is still a very entertaining episode. In my view, there aren't many episodes that managed to make better use of all seven of the main characters. This one deftly juggles five storylines in different parts of the ship, each plot thread putting people in danger and/or outside of their comfort zone.

Picard, of course, is forced to deal with children. And, as we've seen before on more than one occasion, he's not at all as bad with them as he thinks. His smart handling of the children makes for a number of great moments, and several great lines ("I want you to know, this is mutiny."). The editors also find the time for a long but effective single shot -- without any dialogue -- in which Picard and the children finally escape from the turbolift shaft.

In Ten Forward (where Guinan's calming influence is appropriately absent), Worf is thrust into the job of delivering Keiko O'Brien's baby. This is undoubtedly the most cliche of the plot threads in this episode, but a healthy dose of deadpan Worf humor makes it well worthwhile.

Geordi LaForge and Beverly Crusher, a rather rare pairing, are thrown together in the cargo bay. They get some great moments, both as characters and actors. We're reminded of Beverly's theater hobby, and see Geordi's awkward forced audition. We see both of them bring their own skill sets to a crisis. And in a refreshingly good moment for a female character (one of several in this episode), it's Beverly who manages to save their lives after the two of them save the ship.

Data and Riker must crawl through the guts of the ship together, leading to a bizarre situation in which Riker must remove the android's head. The writers dreamed up this crazy idea while Michael Piller was out of the room, and were nervous to pitch it to him when he came back. Instead, he loved how wild a notion it was, though he was sure executive producer Rick Berman would have them take it out of the script. (Instead, Berman never said a word.)

Then there's the story on the bridge, where Counselor Troi finds herself in command -- an excellent writing choice. She finds herself butting heads with Ensign Ro, appearing for the first time since her introduction. The Bajoran stirs up exactly the sort of conflict her character was created to cause. O'Brien is aghast at the shortcuts and risks Ro is willing to take (but he'd learn the "spit and bailing wire" approach when he later transferred to Deep Space Nine). Both O'Brien and Troi are shocked at the callous way Ro wants to cut loose the stardrive section of the Enterprise to save the lives in the saucer.

Predictably, Ro's suggestion proves wrong in the end, and this is ultimately where Michael Piller had the biggest problem with the episode. For one thing, he felt like the story was covering similar ground as the season premiere, in which Data butted heads with a reluctant subordinate. Secondly, he felt that Ro was too new a character to be put in a losing situation -- she hadn't racked up enough "wins" to balance out looking so foolish here. Lastly, he hated the way Ro apologized to Troi in the end. He felt Ro should have said, "I still think I was right, and you just got lucky that it worked out this time." Instead, Piller felt Ro's intentionally hard edges were already being buffed out. I would concede that Piller was probably right on all three counts, though fortunately I think Ro's character wasn't hurt too much in the long run.

Other observations:
  • At the beginning of the episode, Miles and Keiko talk about their child as though certain it's going to be a boy. Even now, in 2014, doctors can determine the gender of a baby with almost 100% accuracy. So, since I don't want to think Doctor Crusher capable of such a massive error, I'll assume Miles and Keiko didn't want to know ahead of time.
  • Laws prevent the use of actual newborns in film and television. So in this case, as always, a pregnant woman gives birth to a distressingly huge baby.
  • The names of the three children trapped with Picard -- Marisa, Jay Gordon, and Patterson -- kind of sound like a first name, a first and last name, and a last name only. But when we see the plaque they've made for Picard at the end of the episode, we can see all of the characters' actual last names. (Sort of. The names are just the last names of the actors playing them.)
  • In a nice bit of continuity, Troi attempts (incorrectly) to compare the quantum filament that cripples the Enterprise here to the cosmic string fragment they encountered in the past.
  • As an homage to the disaster movies that inspired this episode, Ronald Moore half-joked that he wanted to cast Shelley Winters in a guest starring role in this episode. Nobody went for the idea.
Despite the holes you could maybe poke in this episode, I found it quite enjoyable. I'd call it an unexpected A-.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shadows

The big question going into tonight's season two premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is whether the show would sort of "reset" itself in the slow and vague attitude in which the series began, or continue the momentum of the strong episodes that ended the first season. In my view, the answer was very much the latter. As with the successful "post-Winter Soldier" episodes, this premiere felt like it really was connected with a larger story in a larger universe, and not merely name-dropping for longtime Marvel fans.

This premiere sure had a hell of a lot going on in it, though that did help in creating the sense that they have a lot of story to tell this season. We got a new villainous thug in the form of Absorbing Man, and he was fairly fun to see in action -- more menacing in just one episode, I think, than Deathlok managed to be in all his first season appearances. We also got a taste of who might be the new Big Bad for the season (for a while, at least) in mysteriously ageless Whitehall (played by Whedon-verse alum Reed Diamond). There were also a host of new "good guy" characters, though the most impactful of them, Lucy Lawless' Hartley, apparently did not survive the episode. (Having your arm slowly cut off, only to die anyway? That's a bad day!)

But by far the most compelling aspect of the episode was the parade of changes we saw in the main characters. Skye, forced out of her naive shell late in the first season by Ward's betrayal, has now moved further into true badassery. She was confident in the field, confident in bantering with the team, confident in her talk with Coulson-- confident everywhere except for her meeting with Ward. (And even then, she didn't shrink from going to see him.) In short, she seems to have a raft of new capabilities to supplement her already considerable ones, which should make her a more compelling and formidable character this season.

As for that weak spot, Ward. I think we all know that in the long term, Ward can't forever remain a Hannibal Lecter style character that stands behind the glass and interacts only with one other person. But the slower the writers can make the journey to him actually getting out (for whatever reason), the more chance it will have of being believable. And in this episode, it certainly seemed like a slow pace could be sustained for a while. The interesting thing about captive Ward is that he wasn't entirely in control and pulling Skye's strings. He seemed in at least half measure to be a broken man. His account of his suicide attempts came off surprisingly grisly, considering the sparse visuals. Of course, given how many times we were told last season that he's the "male Black Widow," there's always the chance that he's faking. But either way, it does seem that captive Ward is still going to be interesting for the show.

An unquestionably broken man was poor Fitz. It's great that there are lasting consequences to his narrow escape from death in last season's finale. And those consequences seemed bad enough for most of the episode -- the brilliant mind was slow in his thinking and battling a sort of aphasia. But in a clever twist I probably should have seen coming but didn't, we learned at the end of the episode that it's far worse than that. He's closer to full on crazy, hallucinating a Simmons to talk to. And even his hallucination doesn't seem to be 100% on his side; some of her body language with him was caring, but some of it also seemed reluctant and pitying. Worse, it seems that Coulson, the man who never gives up on anyone, has given up on Fitz. Is Fitz really beyond recovery? Probably not; we have a long season ahead. But completely isolating Fitz like this certainly gives him a tough challenge to surmount. Given that his character was defined almost exclusively as part of a pair in season one, cutting him off like this definitely sends him in a new and interesting direction. (To say nothing of the future possibilities for the real character of Simmons, when she eventually pops back up.)

All of this, plus little teases alluding to the ongoing plot threads that remain in play from season one -- Coulson's weird writing, the alien that healed both him and Skye, the mystery of the multiple Patton Oswalts, and more. Plus a fun little peek at the upcoming Agent Carter series. For juggling so many threads so well, and getting me genuinely excited to see what happens next, I give this episode an A-.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Batman Re-Begins

Last night was the premiere of the new TV series Gotham, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Cautious optimism, I suppose, as there was a fair amount of "good" and no real "bad." But there was also a lot of "hmmm."

On the plus side, though the episode did throw far too many balls in the air, it did seem to focus mainly around two plot threads, both of which were effective. One of them was the efforts of rookie detective James Gordon, realizing the extent of the corruption within his city's police force. The story in no way relied on comic book origins to generate interest, instead building up interesting characters. Ben McKenzie presented his noble character without making it seem over the top, and his partner Bullock was written decently -- corrupt, but not too much to imagine as unredeemable.

The second storyline forecasted the rise of Oswald Cobblepot. This story almost got by without relying on comic book origins either, save for the need to remind us every few minutes that "this guy's totally gonna become the Penguin, you guys!" But either way, he was a compelling villain among villains, an opportunistic weasel we want to see both succeed and be punished.

If the series going forward remains largely about these two major characters and their stories, then I think they may well have something. The part I'm not sure about is the gallery of other characters around them. Sure, you probably can't tell the beginning of a tale set in the world of Batman without showing Bruce Wayne and kicking off the Batman origin story. Yet now that that's done, is there any interesting way that they could actually use the character of a little boy going forward?

And what about all the future villains that popped up rather needlessly to say, "hey, I'm here too!" The Riddler, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, one assumes the Joker. If the show tries to track all of them with any kind of regularity, it seems like it will be an overreach. But then, why show them all if the writers don't plan on cooking something up for them? It's not like TV shows haven't successfully juggled that many characters before. Still, how this show will do it feels like an open question that could swing either way.

I'd probably give the first episode something in the neighborhood of a B, but that at least is interesting enough for me to try more episodes and see what happens.