Spoiler Theater: The 2014 – 2015 TV Season

I haven’t done any kind of review in a while, and I have a little bit of time before I have to head off to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire (cheap plug), so I thought I’d jibber-jabber a little about the current TV season, which is more or less at an end until the fall. As the header of this entry suggests, I may be dropping a few spoilers, so read on at your own risk.

I only had about a half-dozen series I watched steadily, but that’s more TV than I’ve watched over the previous few years. There’s some good stuff out there — and some stuff that started off good and petered out hard. I’m going to work my way down the list, starting with my favorite show of the season…

The Flash

I didn’t expect to love this show as much as I do, but this was just so much fun to watch. It’s a super-hero show, flat out, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more — and that’s fine, because it’s nice to have a lighter series to counter shows like The Flash‘s darker counterpart, Arrow.

The Flash

For me, the relationships between the characters are perhaps the high point of the show — especially the relationship between Barry (the affable Grant Gustin) and his surrogate father Joe (Jesse L. Martin), and between Cisco (Carlos Valdez) and anyone. Cisco is a treasure of a character and I will personally lead a riot if he’s ever killed off.

The show’s two flaws: its occasional habit of having characters make conveniently stupid decisions in order to keep the story moving, and its constant mishandling of Iris (Candice Patton, who deserves better). She’s regularly pushed around by the male characters, and her will-she-or-won’t-she relationship with Barry renders her rather unsympathetic. I hope the writers treat her better in season two.

Agents of SHIELDAgents of SHIELD

This show deserves a ton of praise simply for fixing its many, many season one flaws. The show didn’t come alive until it starting dealing with the repercussions of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) turned bad, and it kept the momentum up in season two. Plus, it had some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

My biggest gripe is that it still isn’t delving into the Marvel Universe as deeply as The Flash and Arrow dig into the DC Universe. It had a few great moments (I geeked out over the Absorbing Man), but Marvel has such a deep catalog of characters I’m baffled as to why it’s not taking advantage of it more. And, as a friend pointed out, the show could be retconned out of existence and it doesn’t impact the movies at all; Agents of SHIELD simply has no real relevance to the films. I’d love to see a more deeply connected universe, which might yet happen given that the Inhumans — due to have their own movie in 2019 — figure so heavily in season two.

Arrow

I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan season three as the weakest so far, but I don’t think it was bad. The Ra’s al Ghul storyline was interesting and had some nice twists, plus we got a whole season of John Barrowman as a complex antagonist, and who can complain about a steady John Barrowman fix?

JB Gif

John was part of a solid cast of supporting characters, and the tragedy here is that Oliver Queen himself (Stephen Amell) is the least likable one of the bunch. His constant cycle of pushing his crew away in the most dickish manner possible, only to later admit he needs them, is tiresome, but the season finale’s happy ending suggests that maybe he won’t be quite the brooding pseudo-loner in season four.

Sleepy Hollow

This is my wife’s favorite show, and we both agree that we should have never liked it at all. The premise sounds so stupid: Ichabod Crane awakens in the present to continue his battle against the Headless Horseman, who is in fact one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It turned out to be a rather fun adventure series, anchored by what may be my favorite TV partnership since Mulder and Scully: Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). They have a great on-screen relationship (with no hints of sexual tension, thank god) and a lot of the fun derives from how they play off each other.

I also credit the writers for taking the “man out of time” trope in a different direction. Mison’s Crane is never perplexed by modern society or technology, but is instead alternately fascinated, frustrated, annoyed, and occasionally enthralled by new discoveries.

SH Gif

The show gets bonus points for having a woman of color as one of the main protagonists, and never treating her like the sidekick. Abbie gets to save the day as much as Crane, and has on more than one occasion pulled Crane’s ass out of the fire.

Season two wasn’t as strong as the first season, in part because it often felt like the writers had no idea what to do with Crane’s wife Katrina (Katia Winter) or what role she played in the story once she was free from Purgatory. Also, the second half of the season felt klunky; the Apocalypse storyline was mostly wrapped up by mid-season, and it became more episodic / threat-of-the-week — a move intended to make the show more accessible to new viewers, but without a driving storyline, the show as a whole felt like it lost steam.

The Big Bang Theory

I’m putting this show on my list of favorites, but it is barely holding on at this point. The humor hasn’t been as strong as in past seasons, and I’m frankly getting tired of the show trying to wring laughs out of the dysfunctional relationships all the characters are stuck in. None of the characters seems truly happy with their significant other, and with the exception of Howard and Bernadette (Simon Helberg and Melissa Rauch), everyone’s relationship was in trouble as of the season finale.

I’m in the process of re-watching Parks and Recreation from the start, and it’s really driving home how sitcoms take the easy way out and try to generate humor from bickering couples. The P&R relationships are all positive and healthy, and don’t try to make the sight of two people busting each other’s balls a source of entertainment.

I’m going to lump the rest into one chunk, since now we’re getting into the series that tried and failed to keep me entertained, and I’m going to start with the biggest disappointment, Gotham. I wanted this show to be good, but it never lived up to its potential, in my opinion. It had a great cast and some good ideas, but suffered from seriously hit-or-miss writing; when the show was good, it was great, but more often it was mediocre at best and painful at worst. Its early bad habit of heavy-handedly establishing who the characters were (Look! Selina Kyle goes by the nickname “Cat” and is playing with a dangling object! Get it?) didn’t last long, thankfully, but it continued to waste characters, often supporting female characters, and relied on characters behaving stupidly in order to keep the plots moving. Don’t even get me started on the brief plotline that stuck Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) in Arkham as a security guard.

I gave Gotham a chance to get good, but I ultimately decided to cut it loose, along with The Walking Dead and, sadly, Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead has become too repetitive in its plots, most of the characters are uninteresting and in a few cases (Rick Grimes) utterly unsympathetic, and the series feels like it no longer has an overarching point to it. It’s sad, because season one was amazing, but after cutting Frank Darabont loose as executive producer, the series crashed and burned and never fully recovered.

Then there is Game of Thrones, which lost me as a viewer with the highly controversial Sansa Stark rape scene. I have heard all the arguments, both those that condemned the scene and those that defended it, and I simply cannot abide by the creative team’s decision to go there.

As a writer, I never want to deprive myself of a storytelling tool, but when it comes to rape scenes, I feel strongly that there is always a better way to achieve whatever end such a scene is meant to achieve. A female character (or a male character, for that matter) can hit a low point from which to climb up in countless ways, none of which involve a sexual assault, and if you believe you need rape to show the audience what a monster your male character is, you’re being incredibly lazy. Same goes for using the rape of a female character as a means of motivating a male character. Find another way. Find a better way.

I’ll end on a positive note in the form of Marvel’s Daredevil, which I have yet to finish but am enjoying immensely. This is such a departure for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s working beautifully because it’s everything the movies and Agents of SHIELD isn’t: more realistic, gritty, edgy, and mature.

Daredevil

The high point of the series is Vincent D’Onofrio, who is knocking it out of the park as Wilson Fisk. D’onofrio’s Kingpin is sometimes terrifying, sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes pitiable. He’s taken a character I never found interesting in the comics and turned him into a complex, living, breathing person who owns every scene he’s in. I can’t wait to finish season one!

But I’m going to have to, because I have my own stuff to write — tomorrow, as a matter of fact.

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Spoiler Theater: Scream 4

The original Scream was a case of a movie being the right tonic delivered at the right time.

Released in 1996, Scream hit theaters as the slasher genre was reaching its nadir. The Friday the 13th franchise had hit its lowest point three years earlier with Jason Goes to Hell, the Halloween franchise came to a stumbling conclusion two years previous with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and two years earlier horror maven Wes Craven had what proved to be his final outing with Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

The slasher genre had been, pun intended, done to death by the time screenwriter Kevin Williamson came out of nowhere with his love letter/satirical critique of the horror films of his youth, a movie that embraced the genre’s well-worn and overly familiar tropes while simultaneously playing them against a jaded audience’s expectations. It was familiar but fresh, and Scream still boasts once of the best opening sequences of any movie, horror or otherwise.

In retrospect, Scream should have been a fond farewell for a sub-genre of horror that — like Schwarzeneggarian action films with their cartoonish violence, paper-thin characters, and witty kill lines — had overstayed its welcome. The day of scantily-clad teenagers getting massacred by unstoppable serial killers armed with an array of gardening tools was over.

What we got instead was a brief revival of sorts, wherein many of the same formulas and cliches remained in full effect, but were now ironic and self-referential. Even Scream fell into the trap, spawning two strained and progressively less effective sequels.

Fast forward through the 2000s, which heralded the arrival of “torture porn,” a sub-genre steeped in brutal and protracted violence against, in most instances, unlikable characters who spiral uncontrollably toward pessimistic endings; and then the remake explosion, when every classic horror movie was re-imagined as something slicker, bloodier, darker, louder, more cynical, and less fun.

The horror films of the past decade (not counting the handful of impressive low-budget first-person POV thrillers that have spawned their own sub-genre) are the thematic foundation of Scream 4, itself a re-invention of the original that tries — and fails — to be as relevant now as the first film was at its time.

WARNING! SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

Ten years have passed since the events of Scream 3, both in real time and in movie time. Heroine/survivor Sidney (Neve Campbell) has returned to her hometown, the site of the original murders, in time for the tenth anniversary of the original, as part of a promotional tour for her newly published biography.

Long story short, Ghostface resurfaces to hack his way through the cast, and Sidney and her fellow survivors from the first trilogy, Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers-Riler (Courteney Cox) must uncover the killer’s true identity to save their own lives, and the lives of the cast of secondary characters — a group of teens who bear some striking resemblances to the original characters.

Therein lies the movie’s problem: everything is familiar — too familiar for its own good.

Structurally, Scream 4 closely mirrors that of Scream — a fact that is pointed out by the characters after they realize the killer is “remaking” the original murders for the remake generation. In fact, the characters spend a great deal of time pointing out all the similarities, and how things might be skewed to reflect modern horror film sensibilities, and in doing so they rob the entire movie of any surprises.

Scream worked because it got the audience to look in one direction so they wouldn’t see the curve ball coming from the other direction — and the audience didn’t need to be reminded at every turn how the game was supposed to be played because they already knew, intimately and instinctively. Scream 4 didn’t work because it told us (repeatedly) how things happened in the past and how they were likely to happen differently in the present, then did exactly what it said it would do, all while echoing the first film — right down to the conceit of two characters swapping off the Ghostface identity to throw everyone off.

The final twist, that Sidney’s own cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) is the mastermind behind the new murders, lacks any serious punch because the audience has been so thoroughly coached to expect the unexpected (and it doesn’t help that Jill’s motive is lame: she resented growing up in her survivor cousin’s shadow, so she decided to stage a new massacre and cast herself as the sole survivor, this assuring wordwide fame in the age of Internet-born insta-fame).

Maybe the movie was a doomed effort because the “new rules of horror” are not as clear-cut and/or ingrained in movie audiences as the old rules were. Classic slasher movies had The Sin Factor (virtuous characters live, everyone else is fodder) and The I’ll Be Right Back Death Sentence (anyone who says “I’ll be right back”, won’t), among others, but nowadays, the only thing audiences can take for granted are that the protagonists are going to be brutalized and that there is an excellent chance that none of them will make it out alive.

(Guess which one of these new rules was utterly ignored? That’s right: once again, Sidney, Dewey, and Gale all survive.)

Nevertheless, the concept might have worked had Williamson and Craven approached the story with a lighter touch and not felt compelled to telegraph their every move. Or, to give you an appropriate contextual metaphor: they took a chainsaw to the audience’s head when they should have slit their throats with a scalpel.

Spoiler Theater: Green Lantern

Green Lantern showed up in the mail the other day, and I knew going in that this was not a well-reviewed film (it earned a painful 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.com). Not quite Catwoman bad, as comic book-based movies go, but certainly not The Dark Knight either.

It wasn’t a good movie, but it wasn’t terrible either. What it was, however, was nearly two hours of lost opportunities.

Look at the strongest of the comics-turned-films — The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class, Iron Man — and one of the elements that makes them great is some strong characterization.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

The big problem with Green Lantern is that none of the characters, including the title character, have an appreciable character arc, which is especially tragic since the writers had a potentially meaty arc sitting right in front of them.

I’ll start by looking at the title character, Hal Jordan. As a child, he saw his test pilot father killed in a crash, and that pivotal event winds up defining his life in a somewhat perverse way: Hal grows up to become a test pilot — a very reckless test pilot. Why would he embrace a career that killed his dad?

Geoff Johns, who writes GL’s comic adventures, addressed this in his take on Green Lantern’s origins, tying the death of Hal’s father into his borderline self-destructive behavior; Johns portrays Hal as a man who faces his fears with such ferocity that it borders on a death wish — and yet, he never truly faces his great personal tragedy. Simultaneously, Hal is honoring his father’s bravery; Pappa Jordan sacrificed himself to steer his crashing jet away from spectators, saving their lives.

It’s an interesting contradiction. That complexity would have put some great meat on the character’s bones for Ryan Reynolds, but all we got was one instance in the opening sequence when, while his own plane hurtles toward earth following a combat demonstration, Hal freezes at the controls as he flashes back to his dad’s death. Later he pays some lip service to his fears and his difficulty in facing them, but Reynold’s Green Lantern neither gains a sobriety that tempers his recklessness nor does he discover untapped courage to help him overcome clipping fear. This aspect of his character is introduced and resolved without ever being explored.

Further, it’s never clear whether Hal Jordan is a pseudo-fearless daredevil or a man who bares keeps his anxieties in check. He shows elements of both, but neither aspect of his personality hits an extreme; he’s more a balliser-than-most type of guy with a touch of self-doubt.

Aside from failing to define the main character, and thus failing to give him a direction, the writers missed a chance to tie a great theme together through four other characters: Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), daughter of Carl Ferris (Jay O. Sanders), owner of Hal’s employer, Ferris Aircraft; and Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), son of Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins).

The plot establishes that Ferris Aircraft is in line for a lucrative government contract for a drone fighter, and Hal nearly blows the deal when, in front of Senator Hammond, he actually beats the “unbeatable” drone — and in doing so, wrecks one of Ferris’ expansive fighter jets. His actions nearly destroy the company, but Carol — the company’s heir apparent — manages to salvage the deal.

Hector Hammond gets involved when, through his dad’s behind-the-scenes manipulation, is brought in to examine the remains of Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), the alien that gave Hal the power ring he uses to harness the power of Green Lantern.

The fear of failure is a basic and common human frailty. It’s something to which almost everyone can relate. And fear of failing a parent? That’s even more powerful. That’s the kind of framework the writers had in their hot little hands and failed to capitalize on in the main character alone: What if Hal’s fear was not of dying, but of failing to live up to his father’s (real or imagined) expectations, of failing to become the kind of selfless hero his father was?

Carol’s relationship with her father is touched on, and it appears to be just fine — therefore, dramatically dull. But what if Carol, facing the daunting prospect of one day taking over the company her dad built from the ground up, fears letting her father down? Especially in the face of a catastrophic financial blow caused by her erstwhile lover Hal — the man she personally chose for the demonstration? Instead of her saving the company complete off-screen, apparently with little effort or stress, there could have been a solid subplot involving Carol and her father dueling over whether she was worthy to take over.

As for the Hammonds, a couple of off-hand lines indicates that the senator thinks his son a loser, but it’s never clarified as to why he feels this way. Hector, a college professor, is a bit of a shlub, but that’s his greatest offense; he doesn’t ever come off as a disgrace to the family name or as simply failing to live up to some amazing potential. It’s also a question as to why Senator Hammond pulls the strings necessary to get his son into the lab holding Abin Sur’s body. Was he trying to give his slacker son a leg up on a better career? Was it a pity move?

This relationship could have been defined, and made much better, simply by employing the time-tested trope of playing Hector as a man following his own path while simultaneously trying to please a disapproving parent (think The Jazz Singer…or that episode of The Simpsons with Krusty the Clown’s rabbi dad).

This theme of fear of failing a parent could have broadened a little to include what is supposed to be a key figure in the Green Lantern mythos: Sinestro (Mark Strong), the Green Lantern who rejected his membership in the Corps, embraced the power of fear, and became the Green Lantern Corps’ greatest enemy.

The movie’s main threat is Parallax, a former Guardian of Oa (the Green Lantern Corps’ bosses) who tapped the power of fear and transformed into the crazed, world-destroying living embodiment of fear. Abin Sur, the greatest of the Corps, imprisoned Parallax, who escapes at the beginning of the movie and takes out his captor (leading to Hal inheriting the ring from the dying Abin Sur).

Sinestro, Abin Sur’s protege and the Corps’ biggest gun after Abin Sur himself, leads the Corps into battle against Parallax and gets slapped down, hard. In response, he proposes forging a new ring to tap the yellow energy of fear, intending to fight fire with fire. Before he can use it, Hal faces Parallax and sends the monster hurtling into the sun.

(I know, it all sounds pretty wild. Trust me, it makes perfect sense in context.)

Throughout the story, Sinestro is portrayed as proud, pragmatic, dedicated to the Corps, and uncompromising. Therefore, when at the very end of the movie he steals and dons the yellow ring, there’s absolutely no reason for it. Nothing that’s happened in the story feels like sufficient incentive for him to turn his back on his beloved Corps.

In the comics, Sinestro defected after he came to believe the Corps was soft and lacked the resolve to cross a few lines (murder, for example) in the name of the greater good. That would not have played well in the film’s story, but what if Sinestro had been explicitly faced with the opportunity to prove himself to the Guardians as worthy of assuming Abin Sur’s mantle as the greatest member of the Corps? His failure to take down Parallax — at the cost of several other Lanterns’ lives — and thus his failure to live up to the Guardians’ expectations AND Abin Sur’s legacy could have provided the motivation he needed to attempt the radical solution of tapping the yellow energy of fear.

Green Lantern had other problems at the script level, but had the writers focused a little more on developing an underlying theme and tying the characters in to that, the movie might have at least gone down as a noble failure instead of, as stated on Rotten Tomatoes, “Noisy, overproduced, and thinly written.”

Spoiler Theater: Glee Season One Finale

Season two of “Glee” just popped up on Netflix, which my wife and I started watching over the weekend, and it caused me to recall how disappointing the season one finale was.

One of season one’s main plotlines involved Quinn Fabray’s (Dianna Agron) pregnancy, and I feel like the show blew a golden opportunity to continue that thread into season two and take it in meaty new directions (pun not intended, seriously).

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

Earlier in the season, Quinn’s then-boyfriend Finn (Corey Monteith) dropped the baby bombshell on Quinn’s conservative Christian parents, and Quinn’s father Russell (Gregg Henry) had a royal shit-fit that ended with him casting Quinn out of his house and out of his life.

Flash-forward to the season finale when, not unpredictably, Quinn gives birth. Now, I have issues with Sue Sylvester’s (the very awesome Jane Lynch) uncharacteristic about-face at regionals, but I’ve heard convincing counter-arguments on that point. I also thought the show took an easy out on Quinn’s pregnancy by having her give the baby up for adoption, but that dovetailed into a subplot involving Rachel’s (Lea Michele) birth mother Shelby (Idina Menzel), so I’m willing to give that one a pass.

What I can’t cheerfully overlook is how abruptly the show wrapped up the thread with Quinn’s family, which is: Quinn’s mom Judy (Charlotte Ross) informs Quinn that Russell was having an affair and she kicked him out of the house, so he’s gone, it’s okay for Quinn to come back home, everything is cool.

Say what?

The moment when Russell coldly rejects his daughter for shaming the family with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, that was a powerful moment in the season that was filled with potential for future stories exploring Quinn and Russell’s damaged relationship. Would Russell ever forgive his daughter? Would he feel any sense of loss that his grandchild would never be part of his family? Would Quinn ever trust her father again after he effectively abandoned her at her greatest time of need? Where does Judy stand in all this? Would her maternal instincts to protect her child kick in or would she cave to her husband? If the affair plot point came into play, thus revealing Russell as a huge hypocrite, how would this have affected everything else?

Since Gregg Henry is listed on IMDb as appearing in only the one episode in season one, I assume that he has not made a return appearance in seasons two or three to pick up this dangling story thread, which is a shame. This subplot still had a lot of life in it.

Spoiler Theater: Undead or Alive

The inspiration for this post is my need to vent about an example of what I view as an absolutely tragic choice by a writer. What follows is an analysis of that choice, which reveals the end of the movie, so if for some odd reason you’re keen on checking out a horror-comedy entitled Undead or Alive: A Zombedy, stop reading now.

So, last night I fired up the topic of my discussion on Netflix for some background noise, as is my practice. The concept is simple: zombies in the Old West. Okay, I can get behind this. And it was co-written by Glasgow Phillps, a former staff writer for South Park, which gave me hope this might actually be funny.

Not so much, but my gripe isn’t with the forced, flat, and sometimes too-juvenile-for-its-own-good humor, but with the climax of the film.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

In this setting, the zombie plague is the result of a curse placed on the white man by Geronimo (just roll with it), and the only way to negate the curse is to have to cursed individual consume the flesh of the man who cast the curse — or, lacking that person, a blood relative.

At the end of the movie two of the heroes, Elmer (James Denton) and Luke (Chris Kattan), become infected and turn into zombies, then go after the third protagonist, Susan (Navi Rawat), to satisfy their unholy hunger. They face off. Sue, armed with a cavalry saber and resigned that her former friends are now the undead, charges in, ready to fight.

What’s important to note here is that Sue is Geronimo’s niece.

Take a guess what happens.

If you guessed that the movie jump-cuts to our heroes Elmer and Luke, no longer zombies, sitting atop their horses and lamenting in a very cavalier and off-handed way that it was a shame they had to eat Sue, you’d be right.

Up until this point, the story played out very much like any other mismatched buddy adventure with the standard romantic attraction subplot thrown in (between Luke and Sue in this case). Sue was portrayed as far smarter and more competent than her male counterparts, and her motivation was stronger: she was out for vengeance against the Army regiment that slaughtered her people. On the other hand, Elmer was an Army deserter and thief, and Luke was a jilted suitor who threw in with Elmer after the two of them broke out of jail and assaulted the local sheriff.

In other words, Sue was a better, more likable, more sympathetic character than the de facto heroes who, in the end, killed and ate her and afterwards acted like it they’d just gotten take-out at McDonald’s. They were even debating good-naturedly what the aftertaste of her flesh reminded them of before literally riding off into the sunset.

It was a scene shockingly devoid of emotion. Yes, it was a comedy — and because it was a horror-comedy hybrid, it’s something of a dark comedy by default — but to so callously dispose of a main character like that was a terrible call by Phillips and his co-writer Scott Pourroy.

They had many other viable options. Elmer had been infected first, during the obligatory final battle with the zombie horde (a mix of the Army regiment Elmer left and random bad guys) and he had an opportunity to go out a hero. The plan was to blow up the fort and the zombies along with it, and Elmer could have stayed behind to set off the explosives after Luke and Sue escaped.

This ending would have brought the character arcs to logical and satisfying conclusions. Elmer, who left the Army because he found its practice of indiscriminately slaughtering Native Americans repugnant, would have enacted revenge against the Army on Sue’s behalf and atoned for his own sins. The milquetoast Luke, who really wanted nothing more than to find love and happiness, would have found it in Sue, who would have laid to rest her all-consuming hatred of the white man.

Instead, the writers opted to force a ridiculous and, on many levels, repulsive twist ending, and for what? One last cheap gag that fell on its face?

One of the greatest sins any writer can commit is the abandonment of characterization for the sake of forwarding the story, and that sin is amplified when characters who have behaved consistently throughout a story do an abrupt 180 for the sake of a joke. This offense is particularly great in Luke, who wept like a girl whenever he suffered even a mild emotional blow but apparently was very comfortable with cannibalizing a woman he was in love with.