Monday, December 25, 2006

Diana's Adventures In TV Land: Mid-Season Thoughts

Assorted season's greetings, one and all! This is Diana Kingston-Gabai, reporting live from the trenches of Wedded Bliss. Let me tell you, boys and girls - it ain't that different from Non-Wedded Bliss. :)

Now that I have some free time on my hands, and with the upcoming holidays setting all my current TV shows on hiatus, I figured this was a perfect opportunity to look back on "Veronica Mars", "Drawn Together", "Supernatural" and "Heroes". How are these series faring at the halfway mark?

I've gone a bit sour on Veronica Mars; while the post-Season 2 restructuring was a bold move, the first arc of S3 - Veronica vs. the Hearst Rapist - hasn't quite worked out. Leaving aside the somewhat-choppy pace of the big mystery, Veronica's habit of throwing about random accusations rather than engage in any real detective work, and the many many plotholes, there's been remarkably minimal characterization so far - half the cast members featured in the credits sequence were invisible. Nothing came of Dick's breakdown in the premiere; Mac and Weevil disappeared for long stretches of time; Wallace's screen time seems to decrease every season; and while newbies Parker and Piz had their moments, they didn't emerge as fully-rounded characters. That's a pretty big change from prior seasons - and not in the beneficial way Rob Thomas expected. When a recurring guest star like Ed Begley appears more often and garners more sympathy than veteran cast members, you've got a problem.

In a recent interview, Thomas evaluates the first season and states that a big part of its strength came from the fact that everyone was connected to Lilly Kane in some way. Those bonds let to very dramatic and emotionally intense moments, especially when smaller mysteries Veronica worked on led to another puzzle piece being unveiled, but it was a one-time deal - the Bus Mystery of season 2 failed to evoke that power because none of the established characters were really affected (except Meg, who'd become a bit of a bitch anyway). To make things worse, characters were gradually drawn into their own isolated subplots: Logan and Weevil with the Fitzpatricks, Duncan had Baby Lilly, Wallace met his father... and these events had no common link, nothing tying them into the larger storyline. By the third season, there's practically no cohesion left.

With some degree of discomfort, I also have to note that the show's been indulging its WB roots a bit too often lately. I'm referring to the Logan/Veronica relationship, which was subjected to a frankly ludicrous amount of melodramatic stress over the past nine episodes. To be fair, that's mostly due to plot compression, but looking back over past seasons, the writers don't seem to know how to approach Logan and Veronica as a couple. She tends to end up with him by default, and then they start going back and forth on an almost-daily basis. It wasn't so bad the first time around, as the relationship was still new and awkward enough to make instability seem credible; three years in, it's old and tired and I just don't believe it anymore, and I can't get away from it either because Logan's the only other character who has significant screen time.

The resolution of the Hearst Rapist arc was unsatisfactory, and this is actually something that's plagued the series since its inception. The basic contradiction at the heart of the show is this: Veronica is put across as a very intelligent and clever girl, someone with a gift for deductive thinking, but to sustain a season-long or arc-long mystery, she has to be clueless until the very end. What's emerged as a result is a pattern where Veronica makes stupid mistakes (she never thought to ask if Mercer's show was taped?), stumbles across that one crucial fact that comes out of nowhere (like the Aaron/Lilly sex tape of S1), figures it all out and gets victimized for ten or fifteen minutes until someone else bails her out. It's nice to see a vulnerable, fallible protagonist, but having her get kicked around for three seasons by a person no one even thought to suspect is a bit much.

Again, though, the creators are due credit for being open to change: rumor has it that after the next arc-long mystery, Thomas and company may choose to end the third season with a series of standalone tales. It'd make for a nice change of pace, and I'd certainly be glad to see things end on a high note for once.

Stunt Casting Count: There was a lot of that considering we're only nine episodes in. Despite my initial misgivings, Ed Begley turned out to do rather well as Cyrus O'Dell. Bringing in Laura San Giacomo (former co-star of Enrico Colantoni) as Keith's love interest was a very clever way of inducing chemistry between the characters. I don't watch "Gilmore Girls", so I suppose the Meeting of the Logans via Matt Czuchry was wasted on me. Richard Grieco as a washed-up voice actor... okay, that's just plain mean, but it's not like I can fault them for being inaccurate. As for Patty Hearst, well, the less said about that one, the better.


Supernatural has earned itself a bit of a backhanded compliment: I'm on pins and needles for the next episode, but only because I can't shake my conviction that the show's going to jump the shark by revealing that Sam isn't Dean's brother after all. I'd like to believe TV has learned from its past mistakes, but the cynic in me tends to doubt it.

And it'd be a shame, because while the series isn't breaking any ground or even excelling at what it does, it's still perfectly competent and servicable, despite an unusually high amount of angsty schmaltz - Dean, in particular, has developed an irritating tic of gradually approaching a meltdown only to back off at the last second. I suppose that, were I less charitable towarsd the cute boys, I'd praise the writers for recognizing that Jensen Ackles could never pull off that kind of deep emotion, so it's just as well... but then, you have to wonder why they insist on making the same point over and over again. With Sam repositioned as Dean's impromptu psychotherapist, the show seems to have become All About Dean's Daddy Issues. Good for three episodes, intolerable after nine. Sam's own development has ground to a halt, partly due to Jared Padalecki breaking his wrist in the fourth episode and partly because you can't very well have both protagonists falling apart simultaneously.

The supernatural element remains strong, though I seem to have misread where the show was going with regards to the Winchesters' nemesis. When I first evaluated the show, I was anticipating a "Big Bad" formula similar to the series' esteemed ancestor, which would require the Yellow-Eyed Demon to meet its end sooner rather than later. But it's looking more and more like the Demon is in fact the ultimate antagonist of "Supernatural", and it won't be going down until Eric Kripke's ready to end the show. I'm ambivalent about this: there's a reason that sort of thing went out of style, as - for the sake of drama if nothing else - you'd have to have your protagonists get close to defeating their enemy without actually doing any damage (those poor D&D kids never got the drop on Venger, did they?). On the other hand, this does give Kripke space to position the Demon as a mastermind-type and build up its plans over several seasons. It just might work, provided they don't overextend it.

Stunt Casting Count: Linda Blair as ghost-plagued cop Diana Ballard? Surprisingly cool and un-flinch-worthy (see above, re: Patty Hearst). Amber Benson as vampire queen Lenore? I'd been dying to see her play a villainess since her days as Tara Maclay on "Buffy" ("Conversations With Dead People" is still a sore spot for me), and she didn't disappoint. I don't know if Alona Tal and Samantha Ferris qualify, seeing as how there seems to be more to their roles than the actors attached to them (how much more is anyone's guest), but I'll go ahead and list them for now.


I'll preface any comment on Heroes by saying, flat-out, that I'm absolutely in love with this show. It's surpassed my every expectation, met every standard I held it to. It's provided a rich tapestry of interesting characters, meticulously structured plots, captivating action, cliffhangers worthy of Brian Vaughan, and - perhaps most importantly - a straight take on the subject matter. Postmodernity tends to bring out what I call Yellow Spandex Syndrome; even respectful adaptations such as Singer's "X-Men" films will occasionally poke fun at comics. I can understand that, considering the inherent silliness comics themselves indulge in far too often, but speaking as a woman who does read comics, and who wants to see them given more legitimacy, it's somewhat gratifying to see the notion of superpowers played at face value. Nobody has time for costumes and codenames, it's the people and the powers that matter. Even a character like Hiro, the consummate fanboy, is treated with respect. Sure, we could laugh at the fact that he salutes people with that Star Trek "V" hand gesture, but the script - and Masi Oka - make it impossible for us to be condescending about it. This is what the superhero genre should be (and never is) in the 21st century.

I find I'm even more enamored with something like "Heroes" or "The Incredibles", as examples of original superhero material, than even the best cinematic adaptation by Marvel or DC. Sure, you could make the argument that neither of the above is really original: the latter is clearly a Fantastic Four pastiche while the former has a close relationship to several Marvel properties, particularly X-Men. But solely in terms of execution, there's a freshness here that I can't seem to find in the mainstream.

The structure of the series bears further commentary: it's a lot neater and more organized than I'd thought possible. I honestly expected "Save The Cheerleader" to last throughout the season, but it's become clear that the series has in fact adopted an arc-like approach, similar perhaps to Grant Morrison's "New X-Men" in that the storylines are clearly defined and separate, yet they interlock to tell one epic story. Who knew having Jeph Loeb as a consultant could actually improve a series?

Pace is also something that's been maintained rather well throughout the eleven episodes aired thus far. What they've done is stagger the rate of progress for each storyline; Niki's arc, and Matt's, took a while to jump-start, but while they were "on hold" (so to speak), Peter was discovering his abilities and Claire was coping with her gift and Hiro was off to save the world, while Sylar lurked in the shadows. And when Niki got her moment in the spotlight, Peter and Isaac spent an entire episode trying to figure out which cheerleader they're meant to save. It's actually a very efficient technique, and this is where "Lost" went wrong: by having the numerous plotlines move at different speeds, they've assured that something is always happening, rather than sticking us in one point in time or with one character (like the second season spending its first three episodes repeating the same chain of events from different perspectives, with everything else put on hold).

The only character/plot who seems to have fallen through the cracks is Mohinder, and my guess would be that plans for him changed midway through because his arc has both slowed to a crawl and he's been disconnected from the rest of the cast. I'd be a little more irate about it were it not for the fact that Peter's a more than adequate substitute, in terms of functioning as protagonist/primary focalizer.

What can I say? If, when I first heard of "Heroes", the spectre of "Lost" loomed over my head, I now feel confident enough to declare this the Anti-Lost. Found, if you will. I suppose there's room still for it to all go horribly wrong, but based on the episodes that have aired so far, I'm going to predict a very strong opening season for this show.

Stunt Casting Count: None, really. The show's got a few recognizable faces like Ali Larter, Milo Ventimiglia and Greg Grunberg, but they're all primary cast members. There haven't been any specific guest stars who earned media attention, though we've got George Takei coming up and that's going to be all kinds of awesome.


It's funny how quickly humor can turn; at one time, I would've put Drawn Together down as one of the funniest shows I'd ever seen, but the third season hasn't done much for me so far.

It's partly because - for reasons I couldn't begin to fathom - they've dropped the Reality TV angle, opting instead for increasingly random subject matter. The last episode before the break featured a "Home Alone" sketch, of all things. In 2006? Really? I think not. That's kind of a problem, because as I mentioned before, it's the conceit of having all these mismatched characters acting like housemates on "The Real World" that generated so much comedy. It's not as funny when they're not competing in ridiculous contests or parodying certain tropes of reality TV ("the twist", stereotypes coming to light, producers intervening, etc.).

I'll probably be dropping this series after the third season; it depends on whether they'll bounce back after the break. It could just be a case of burn-out on the part of the writers.

Stunt Casting Count: None that I could tell.


And that wraps up my mid-season review! Hope you enjoyed it. :)

Coming in mid-January: Sententia gets relaunched! I've got some new (and old) TV shows saved up, along with BOOKS (yes, prose novels exist! And I've read some!) and at least one gay porno (because my bachelorette party just wouldn't have been the same without the dubious pleasure of "Stonewall and Riot"). Until then, happy holidays!

Friday, November 10, 2006

A quick word...

Preparations are going well, but I simply must stop the presses and rave about this:

I've always adored "Television Without Pity" as a treasure trove of snark, so imagine my glee to discover that Tara and Sarah - also known as Wing Chun and Sars - have published a book containing 752 articles on television's best, worst and fugliest. These women are brilliant with their weekly recaps, but they hit a previously-inconceivable high with this book, which had me laughing until I was red in the face. From Aames to Ziering, only the worthy receive TWoP's praise - the rest are subjected to the dazzling, venomous and scathing power of snark as only the true masters give it. If you love TV, if you love to hate it, this is a must-read.

Don't believe me? See for yourself:

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star IV

A word of warning: I believe my overwhelmingly positive response to this game may be influenced by the nostalgia it invokes (which affects me as someone who'd played through the series to that point) and by what I call the Manna Effect - after two "okay" games and an abysmally awkward third, anything more than halfway competent is bound to look like a Godsend by comparison. Objectively speaking, though, I have no doubt that "Phantasy Star IV" is a substantial improvement over its predecessors, and is certainly the best of the four.

Don't let the title fool you; this is actually a sequel to the second game, not the third. In fact, looking back on "Phantasy Star" as a whole, PS3 really comes off as the "Freddy's Revenge" of the series - the black sheep that could be erased from the canon altogether without making any difference. But in any event, we're back in the Algol star system, a thousand years after Rolf Landale and his friends destroyed Mother Brain. In the interrim, civilization has collapsed and everything has changed. It's the same trick PS2 used to distance itself from the first game while maintaining basic continuity: since we don't get to witness the changes as they occur, we're thrust into unfamiliar territory once more even though it's the same world.

Chronologically, we've reached the early '90s here (1993 to be exact), and this is when RPGs took a turn for the better on the creative level. PS4 uses a number of interesting narrative techniques, such as a telescoping plot and a false protagonist, and it features a cast of distinct characters with individualized personalities. Sure, none of them are particularly complex, but they don't need to be - it's enough that we can see them as people rather than stick figures, and watch them interact with each other and the world around them. Diversity is also another big plus: at various points, your party will include a Dezolian priest, a Motavian axe-warrior, a Numan, two Espers (a male sorcerer and a female warrior) and a pair of androids. Easily the most varied bunch ever seen in a "Phantasy Star" game, leaning more towards the "band of misfits" archetype than homogenous adventurers.

The story begins with renowned huntress Alys Brangwin and her 16-year-old protege Chaz Ashley. On a routine assignment, the two accidentally stumble upon an impending planetary crisis; as their journey progresses and they gather up allies, the cause of Motavia's troubles seems to be Zio, a psychotic warlock out to destroy the world. But Zio is only the puppet of a darker power, concealed behind many masks and guises. The party must ultimately face a cosmic entity and end the cycle of violence and destruction that has plagued Algol for so long.

It's the very definition of the telescopic plot - starting small and local, and growing in scale with every plot twist until it ends on a global/galactic level. The key to success is having us get invested in each stage of the unfolding tale, and "Phantasy Star IV" achieves this largely through the likeable characters and their subplots. I think what makes them so compelling, despite a seeming lack of complexity, is the fact that most of them reflect basic human concerns: Gryz wants revenge but finds no reason to continue with the team once he gets it, Raja just wants to have fun, Kyra's out to prove herself to her peers, Rika's determined to test her lab-learned knowledge against life experience... and, of course, Chaz is forced to grow up and stand on his own. In fact, Chaz really surprises me towards the end of the game: when he's told of the cosmic battle between Light and Darkness, and is tasked to destroy the Darkness, Chaz refuses - not out of fear or an ulterior motive, but because following the commands of a disinterested metaphysical entity doesn't make him any different from Zio and Dark Force. It's a surprisingly profound point, worthy of the most sophisticated modern RPG.

While we're on the topic of characters, I have to give one last round of cookies to Sega; whatever problems I may have had with the "Phantasy Star" games, there's no question that I appreciate their concentrated contribution of strong female protagonists to the RPG genre. The fact that Alys Brangwin is a well-rounded, interesting figure in her own right is even more commendable.

The graphics are spectacular by "Phantasy Star" standards, showing full animations for spells and physical attacks while using illustrated manga-esque panels to enhance cutscenes. Everything is so much more dynamic here; this is the only game in the series where I didn't feel the need to disable random encounters, because they were genuinely fun to watch. Fun to play as well, which is another important note: after three wildly erratic games, "Phantasy Star IV" finally achieves the perfect balance of encounter frequency and difficulty. With the added incentive of macros (allowing the characters to execute pre-programmed attack sequences) and combination-attacks (where two or more party members combine their abilities to create more devastating techniques), you'll probably spend most of the game wanting to get into fights. The Hunters' Guild side-quests are also worth mentioning: during certain lulls in the quest, you can undertake some optional missions for Alys' and Chaz's guild, running the gamut from rescuing a dog to halting an invasion of cyborgs. Most of them are pretty fun, and you can get plenty of EXP and money per mission; again, it's the sort of level-building side-quest that's typical of modern RPGs, and "Phantasy Star IV" does it just as well as its contemporaries.

Nostalgia is a big part of PS4's emotional payload - and it's the little things that have the most power. Stepping into the Bio-Plant and being greeted by PS1's Tower theme; Rika being the perfected version of Nei; the wreckage of the worldship; Lashiec and Daughter representing the villains of the past; meeting Myau and Lutz; the statue of Alis in Termi (which provides the last frame of the finale); and, of course, the Elsydeon scene, where Chaz meets the heroes who came before him. There are also things the game doesn't explicitly spell out: for example, towards the end of the game you're sent to find the Aeroprism, which Lutz concealed in the Soldiers' Temple. Except he'd given it to Rolf before the Noah mission, which means someone made it back alive from the end of PS2 after all.

Of course, most of this won't mean anything to players who haven't gone through the first two games at the very least, which suggests to me that PS4 was primarily targeted at the pre-existing fanbase, offering as much closure and continuity as possible. It's a nice gesture, and one that serves to wrap up the "Phantasy Star" series at its peak.

On an unrelated note: this was my last review for the next few months, as "Sententia" goes on hiatus while I get married and make some life changes. I'll probably be incommunicado until March, but comments are welcome as always. :)

Monday, October 9, 2006

Comics Review: SBC

This post collects most of my reviews for Silver Bullet Comic Books, from April to October 2006.

Amazing Spider-Girl #0:

X-Men: Phoenix - Warsong #2:

Captain America #22:

Wetworks #1:

Wonder Woman #2:

Astonishing X-Men #16:

Martian Manhunter #1:

Y: The Last Man #48:

Jack of Fables #1:

Spider-Girl #100:

X-Men #188:

All-New Atom #1:

Uncanny X-Men #475:

Batman #654:

Astonishing X-Men #15:

Fables #50:

Exiles #82:

Hard Time #7:

Wonder Woman #1 (fourth one down):

Manifest Eternity #1:

Runaways #16:

Son of M #6:

X-Statix: Dead Girl #5:

Exiles #81:

X-Men: Fairy Tales #1:

Fables #49:

New X-Men #26:

Hard Time #6:

Exiles #79-80:

X-Factor #6:

Captain America #16-17:

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Diana's Adventures In TV Land: New Seasons

A bit late, because I've been waiting until all my marked series had at least one new episode out.

Veronica Mars: It's good to know Rob Thomas is so dependable when it comes to strong season premieres. For the third time in a row, "Veronica Mars" begins with a captivating episode that hits all the right marks: the teaser (re)introduces our titular protagonist and lets her demonstrate her sharp wit and formidable detective skills, and then we segue right into a fantastically well-written blend of mystery, snark and good old-fashioned drama. As always, Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni and Ryan Hansen deliver stellar performances, but special finger-snaps go to Tina Majorino and Chris Powell. The former rocked the hell out of the long-awaited Dick/Mac face-off without saying much of anything, and the latter portrayed newcomer Piz so adorably that my Maggie Beckett Syndrome didn't flare up at all ("Sliders" fans will peg the reference, I'm sure).

One quality that makes "Veronica Mars" stand out from its contemporaries is the fact that its creators learn from their mistakes. The "season-long mystery" format worked perfectly well in the first season, and not so well in the second - rather than risk failure again, the writers made the admirably bold decision to restructure the series as a sequence of smaller, more compact story arcs/mysteries. Also, last season saw the introduction of Jackie Cook, an obnoxious twit who ended up being so irrelevant I had to look up TWoP recaps just to remember her name. This time, Piz and Parker are presented as likeable and sympathetic from the moment we meet them. It's preferable to me wishing I could gnaw Tessa Jackson's face off week after week.

A minor complaint: I'm sick to death of the Fitzpatrick storyline. On the other hand, if this show were perfect it'd probably be cancelled by now, so I'll endure it. :)


Heroes: I'm a bit anxious here. Quite frankly, "Heroes" seems to be a very ambitious and interesting project, and I enjoyed the first two episodes very much... but I can't help thinking about the last ambitious and interesting project I liked. We all know how "Lost" turned out.

On the other hand, the distinct lack of J.J. is a big advantage, so who knows? I love what I've seen so far: an ecclectic mix of characters and powers, solid acting, inventive criss-crossing of subplots... and Santa, if you're listening, I want a talking Hiro doll for Christmas. :)

Bottom line: Cautiously high hopes. Let's wait and see what happens.


Smallville: Good lord, is this still running?! Times like this I wish I knew a "Summon Doomsday" spell. Oh, Dan Jurgens, if only you worked in TV and hadn't spent your Superman-killing mojo already...


Supernatural: Hmm. Okay, I think the premiere should have served as last season's finale, because it's all about the loose threads: the Colt of Contrivance, the John/Sam feud, and Dean's complicated feelings about death all serve to underscore and complete plot points raised in the first season. Things end in this episode, the protagonists are irrevocably changed, and that emotional climax would have made an excellent pre-summer farewell. As it stands, there's no time to really process what's happened: the first episode wraps things up and a week later, we get new beginnings, new recurring characters and a new perspective in the wake of tragedy.

I have to admit my sharkey-sense was tingling after the premiere - it occured to me that they might be setting up a "Sam isn't really Dean's brother" twist. Which is just dreadful. Granted, there's nothing to substantiate my faint hunch besides John knowing "the truth about Sam" and refusing to tell him; that just sends me shrieking into Soap Opera Land. Still, I'm reasonably convinced Eric Kripke and friends can do better than that, so I'm probably way off-base.

In any case, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are still devilishly pretty, and I remain fond of their characters, and Alona Tal's finally bringing some estrogen into the mix. I doubt anything short of ixnaying the aternalsfray will have me ditching "Supernatural" anytime soon.


Nip/Tuck: Every few months, I tune in and try to determine whether Christian and Sean have fucked yet. Sadly, that's about the only thing about "Nip/Tuck" that has me even mildly curious - sure, Julian McMahon spends a lot of time naked, but even his extreme rowr-ness can't get me to watch this crap on a regular basis.


Drawn Together: A recent discovery, though it's been around for a while. My boyfriend hates it with a fiery passion, but I just can't get enough of it! :) I love the central conceit - an animated parody of a reality TV show, complete with confessionals and the occasional challenge. I'm equally impressed by the many targets "Drawn Together" hits simultaneously: reality TV, superheroes, Pokemon-style anime, faded sex symbols, Hanna Barbera cartoons and effeminate video game characters (because you just know Mark Foley whacks off to pictures of Link from "The Legend of Zelda").

Sure, the humor can get very crass and revolting (especially when Spanky Ham is involved), and in that respect it's not dissimilar to "South Park". But the kids from "South Park" aren't particularly amusing - the humor derives from relatively normal kids in bizarre and abnormal situations. By contrast, the cast of "Drawn Together" is made up of some very hilarious analogues that have clearly been given some thought: Clara, for example, is a typical Disney Princess... except she's also a Christian fanatic and an ignorant racist, because of the environment in which she grew up (oh, and an evil witch turned her vagina into a tentacle monster). Captain Hero is strongly reminiscient of the Timm/Dini design for Superman, except he's a walking bundle of neuroses, masochistic tendencies and general idiocy. It's all very entertaining.

What's more, I was genuinely surprised by the degree of self-awareness: lesser writers would be content to trot out the stereotypes and walk away, but when Clara is sent out to stop a Jew from poisoning the well, she finds he's just tossing in water purification tablets. Critics who vilify the series for its offensive material miss the point - it's the Archie Bunker paradigm, we're supposed to ridicule the stereotypes themselves rather than the minorities they represent.

And being really, really funny certainly helps. :)


Lost: Yeah, right. Like I'd put myself through that again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, you get a dynamite suppository.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star III

Oy. kazekage was right; this one was a real bitch to play. Even cheating my butt off and fast-forwarding 95% of the time, I still came very close to quitting several times.

On every practical level - gameplay, characterization, music, visual design - "Phantasy Star III" is an enormous step down from its predecessor. This, in itself, isn't uncommon where game series are concerned: generally speaking, if they spike up they can drop down just as easily. And if "Phantasy Star III" were simply a lousy game, it wouldn't be such a big deal; the real problem is that, as Marlon Brando put it, "it coulda been a contender". I'm going to do something a little different this time, to demonstrate:

1. The Gimmick

Why it could have worked:
You don't see many multi-generational sagas in RPGs; "Phantasy Star III" follows Rhys, then Rhys' son, then his grandson, three generations of a family undergoing various quests, all of which are connected to the Dark Force (primary antagonist of the "Phantasy Star" series). You'd have three self-contained tales which all interconnect to form a larger tapestry. What's more, the game allows you to determine how Rhys' bloodline evolves, by letting you choose who Rhys should marry - and, at a later point in the game, who his son should marry. The choice of wife/mother determines who the next-generation protagonist will be. Thus, you actually have six different games in one (the two possible sons of Rhys, and the four possible third-generation heroes). With distinct storylines and characterizations, replay value would be extremely high.

Why it didn't work: There's no characterization at all - the main characters might as well be the sodding Light Warriors for all we know about them. As a result, you're not really inclined to care who should marry whom, since there's no basis for any kind of romantic tension; imagine if "Final Fantasy VII" had given its players the choice to pair Cloud with either Tifa or Aeris. People still debate about that triangle today. But since character interaction is non-existent in "Phantasy Star III", you reach the point of choosing a wife without any reason to pick one or another at all. To make things worse, the third-generation storylines are way too similar, so it ultimately doesn't matter how you manipulate the family line - a monumental waste of a very clever device.


2. The Big Twist

Why it could have worked:
From the very beginning, it's clear that the world of "Phantasy Star III" doesn't quite fit with its predecessors; the environment is distinctly medieval, with princesses being abducted by dragons and held captive in ancient castles. In fact, there's not a hint of technology in sight... until you're called upon to travel from your world to an adjoining planet, and the passages connecting the worlds look like something out of "Tron". Nevertheless, besides a single name-check of the Dark Force, there doesn't seem to be any tangible connection to the "Phantasy Star" universe; the mythologies are all wrong, you're clearly not in the Algol system, and no prior characters make an appearance. Then the truth is revealed: the planets you've visited are sections of a thousand-year-old worldship, the Alisa III, carrying the descendants of the survivors of Palma (the planet destroyed towards the end of "Phantasy Star II"). It's an excellent twist, because it accounts for every single anomaly: the medieval environment is due to Palman civilization being "rebooted", which also explains the wildly different history that shapes the plot. This revelation undermines our whole perception of the game reality - a twist worthy of the Wachowski brothers.

Why it didn't work: I actually think this is the only aspect of the game that turned out right; granted, the dramatic effect is diminished by the fact that you're not really invested in events due to bland storylines and persona-non-grata characters, but it's still a big surprise and a clever, pleasant link to the previous games.


3. The Multiple Endings

Why it could have worked:
This one's self-explanatory; multiple endings grant the player a certain amount of control over an otherwise-linear storyline. You'll come back for more if the outcome promises to be different.

Why it didn't work: Except the outcome isn't really different. Aside from the fact that the four endings are painfully abbreviated and anticlimactic, they're also very, very similar. In fact, two of them are practically identical, with the same sequence of events and the same dialogue (the only difference is the presence of a black hole in one and a sun in the other). What's more, only one of the four makes any kind of sense in the context of the series: in Aron's ending, the Alisa III goes through a black hole and emerges near Earth, thousands of years in the past. Though the sequence itself ends there, the implication is clear: the people of Earth make contact with Alisa III, are exposed to Dark Force, and use Palman technology to create Noah and Mother Brain (as seen in "Phantasy Star II"), all part of Dark Force's plan to return to Algol. History comes full circle. Sadly, none of the other endings invite even this amount of speculation: one ending simply promises that the people of Alisa III will fight Dark Force again in a thousand years, while the other two announce the intent to settle on Earth in the present (and anyone who knows how PS2 ends knows they're not going to find anything there). At the end of the day, you're not rewarded for a second or third playthrough; instead, you're left feeling incredibly stupid that you went to all the trouble for nothing.


4. Visual Design

Why it could have worked:
even though there's a considerable gap between "Phantasy Star" and "Phantasy Star II", you're still broadly in the same solar system, visiting the same planets. The Alisa III, by contrast, is a completely new world, something we've never seen before. Quite frankly, the creators had an opportunity here to construct an appealing, engaging fantasy world on their own terms.

Why it didn't work: They didn't. Not only do the worlds of Alisa III look more or less the same, they're comprised of huge, sprawling maps that are empty. You can walk for fifteen minutes in any given direction and never find the slightest trace of your next destination. And it's not just on the level of the world maps themselves: all the towns on all the worlds follow the same visual design, including the very confusing shop signs which make no fucking sense: why does the Armor Shop have a picture of a duck over its door? Why is the Inn's logo an urn? Why is it that the icon for executing a turn in a battle menu is a crank key and a fish? It's all horrendously abstract and arbitrary, all the more outrageous given the clean and ordered designs "Phantasy Star II" had sported.


I could go on, but the point remains the same: "Phantasy Star III" is a sloppy, shoddy mess, all the more condemned for the many ways it could have succeeded with the tiniest amount of effort.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Movie Review: The 24th Day

Bloody hell, that was one of the most intense films I've ever seen.

Enormous props and kudos to Tony Piccirillo, who weaves together a minimal, yet irresistably compelling story with only two men and a sealed room. The real strength of his script lies in its theatricality - I wasn't surprised to learn that "The 24th Day" originated on stage (Piccirillo also authored the original play), because all the emotional impact is concentrated in the dialogue between protagonists Dan and Tom. Minor excursions aside, the entire narrative is an extended conversation between the two men, going back and forth as a verbal manifestation of the power play between them. That sort of thing plays out extremely well in theatre.

The premise is, at once, delightfully simple and marvelously complex. Dan is lured to Tom's apartment with the promise of a one-night stand, only to learn that he'd slept with Tom in a drunk stupor five years ago. Now Tom has HIV and is convinced Dan gave it to him, so he takes Dan hostage and sends a vial of stolen blood to a lab for testing. In 48 hours, the results will arrive: if Dan has the virus, Tom will kill him. If Dan's clean, he goes free. This is the framework for everything that follows; as they wait for the results, Dan tries to talk his way out of his situation while Tom vacillates between dissecting Dan's life and slowly unraveling his own.

The script is tremendously clever, both on the macro and micro levels: in one scene, for example, Tom reveals a childhood wish to be an archaeologist, even as he digs at Dan to expose buried truths. Big-picture-wise, Piccirillo's characters are multi-layered enigmas who deceive each other and themselves, and you're never sure what they actually believe about themselves: is Dan really so sure that he automatically uses a condom when he has sex? Why did Tom sleep with Dan in the first place? The ambiguities and contradictions make us feel like Tom: we want to tie them both up and demand the truth, the pure truth, regardless of the fact that we can't verify anything at all. It's a poignant, engaging tale of revenge and desire and lies, and it all builds to a spectacular final scene that drives home the emotional climax. That, right there, is art, pure storytelling mojo.

The film adaptation stars James Marsden as Dan and Scott Speedman as Tom. I'm familiar with both actors from past works - Marsden from the X-Men films and "Heights", Speedman from "Felicity" and "Underworld". Needless to say, I didn't have very high expectations from either of them. The good news is that Speedman threw me for a loop; he plays Tom as this delightful mix of psychotic detachment, crushing despair and the tiniest sliver of lust, as if - despite everything - part of him still wants Dan. And his line delivery is laser-precise; when he tells Dan "Nothing else matters to me; if it comes back positive, I'm gonna kill you", I literally got goosebumps. Who knew he could do that? And why doesn't he do that more often?

Unfortunately, Marsden was the wrong choice for Dan. It's basically the same complaint I had about his character in "Heights" and his portrayal of Cyclops: the role requires someone with a degree of flexibility, an actor who can convincingly go from murderous to desperate to terrified and back, and Marsden is just too statuesque for something like that. I'll give him the backhanded compliment that he's not quite as "rigor mortis" here as he's been in the other films I mentioned - odd, considering "The 24th Day" was filmed after X2 and before "Heights" - but to make Dan's character work, you need someone with natural charisma, someone who can confuse the viewer into believing what he says. Ewan McGregor could've done it, or maybe even Noah Wyle (who played Dan in the original theatre production), but Marsden is transparent; if you look hard enough, you can tell when Dan is lying, which makes Tom's "interrogation" a bit pointless. Also, the closing scenes require someone who can hit those emotional high notes in rapid succession; Marsden gives it a good try, but the poor dear just doesn't win me over.

Still, I don't think a bit of spotty acting is enough to really bring this movie down a notch; in my opinion, it's definitely worth watching.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star II

I'll start off with praise for the mighty Game Genie, because without his "No Random Encounters" and "Instant Level 50" codes I'd probably still be EXP-gorging in Paseo. Thank you, Genie; Barbara Eden's got nothing on you. :)

"Phantasy Star II" represents a major leap forward from its predecessor, largely due to the move from the Sega Master System to Genesis. Graphically, musically, in story and gameplay, it's... different. Some areas have improved substantially, some not so much.

Let's start with visual style. I overlooked this in my review of the first game, but the "Phantasy Star" series offers something I haven't seen in your typical RPGs: it's situated firmly and directly in the science-fiction genre. It's not that other games don't make use of futuristic settings - "Final Fantasy VII" comes to mind - but there's usually some kind of religious/mystical undertone woven throughout the storyline (in FF7's case, the Jenova/Cetra/Lifestream subplot). "Phantasy Star", conversely, is pure sci-fi: everything that happens is rooted in technology and space travel. There are no gods, no demons, nothing otherworldly at all except for the Dark Force, which has yet to be explained. Visually, this is apparent in the design of the characters and the towns/worlds: sleek, metallic, a little cold and inhuman... and as we later find out, this isn't just because of the genre, but because of something that's actually going on in the game. Battle sequences are improved, though, as we can now see the participants on both sides facing off and delivering blows.

This game has one very notable flaw on the technical level: lack of variety. Dungeons are back to 2D overhead point of view (the first game had switched to first-person view during these segments), so you're basically stuck with the same perspective throughout the game. Most of the towns look the same, there's very little variation in how battles unfold thanks to the tweaked combat system (which allows you to automate a fight after issuing commands to your party members), and the music... well, even the boss fights don't have unique tracks, it's the same melody over and over again. A bit more work in that area would've kept ennui from setting in - as it was, I ended up fast-forwarding through most of the dungeons. You do get to build your own team out of a roster of eight, each with unique skills and attributes, but by mid-game the strongest and most useful characters become painfully obvious.

The story takes place a thousand years after Alis Landale defeated King Lassic and the Dark Force, becoming Queen of the Algol system. It's been an eventful millenium, and "Phantasy Star II" makes good use of continuity not by preserving the past, but by presenting familiar elements in a completely new context. Motavia, the desert world, has become a lush, green paradise, and whereas the bulk of the first game's actions took place on capital planet Palma, Motavia is at the heart of the story this time around. We begin the game with an introduction to Rolf, an agent of the Motavian government who dreams of Alis' final battle with Dark Force. With him is his... I'm not sure what Nei is to him, but she's there when he's assigned to check out apparent malfunctions in Mother Brain, the omnipotent computer network that regulates and controls virtually all aspects of life in Algol (Samus Aran would pitch a fit, I'm sure). Soon Rolf, Nei and their allies are drawn into an interplanetary conspiracy, with disastrous consequences.

So far so good... but pace becomes a major problem for this game after a while. For some reason, we get a string of random, minor events (reuniting a thief with his kidnapped daughter, learning to play the piano, investigating the source of the monsters plaguing the world), then the death of a main character. It's sudden, and a bit of a surprise, but there's no emotional depth because like their predecessors, the cast of "Phantasy Star II" have minimal personalities. It's just hard, if not impossible, to care about the fate of a complete cipher. This character is never spoken of again, for reasons that aren't very clear to me (especially since the character's name emerges towards the end of the game, but in a completely unrelated context, and nobody bats an eye). Anyway, after that things start getting awkward: having received minimal exposition so far, the team sets out to Dezolis, which is pretty much the same as it was a millenium ago, and receive a massive infodump from Lutz, nee Noah from the first game. Any pleasant surprise I might have felt at seeing him got utterly lost in the torrent of information that he blurts out: "Hey, Rolf, guess what! You're descended from Alis Landale! That dream you keep having? Really happened! And we've met before, remember that time when you were ten and your parents died on a space shuttle? Yeah, I'm the one that saved you. Oh, and there's an enormous space station on the edge of our solar system that's been watching us for a while. And I think the Dark Force is back and messing with Mother Brain. Okay, bye now."

See the problem? There's no build-up prior to this - you could try and hazard a guess that Rolf is descended from Alis, but we don't know anything about his life before the game starts, let alone why his orphaned status is so important (because the death of Rolf's parents wasn't an accident). And the bitch of it is, there's no time to digest this information, because you're catapulted forward towards the end of the game, and there's a brilliant plot twist where the true masterminds are revealed... it would've been great, but at that point you're so saturated with exposition that any dramatic impact is lost. The story ultimately achieves an ambiguous climax that would've been amazing, had we been given time to appreciate it. Thematically, the game goes all-out at this point: we see how dependence on technology leads to complacency and weakness, and Rolf's ultimate decision is wonderfully ambivalent in the sense that you're wondering whether he knows the ultimate consequences of his actions, and accepts them because the alternative is unthinkable. Lots of clever ideas, hampered by the fact that they're not set up properly.

Side note: continuing a nice tradition from the first game, the toughest fighter and the most efficient healer in "Phantasy Star II" are both women (Anna Zirski and Amy Sage, respectively). Still with minimal personalities, but again, it's enough that they're front and center. And, of course, this is one of the few games I'm familiar with where the final boss is a woman.

An above-average game, though I imagine my opinion of it would be much lower if I'd actually had to fight my way through random battles every five steps. But it gets the job done, and that's what counts.

Monday, September 25, 2006


See? I knew it! So what if she has boobs now, he doesn't care! :)

Game Review: God of War

As a gamer, I admit there's a lot to enjoy about "God of War": the combat system is exhilirating yet easy to master, the voice acting is consistently strong, and the use of Greek mythology provides a wealth of interesting monsters and environments.

Creatively, though, it's a bit flat. The plot is the standard Conan fare of "Barbarian Seeks Revenge", and it's sensible enough... just a bit too straightforward and predictable for my tastes, going from A to B to C in a thoroughly linear fashion. Characterization is rather two-dimensional as well; midway through the game there's an attempt to graft some run-of-the-mill pathos onto the protagonist, but... well, "meh" about covers it.

The closest point of comparison I can make is to "Prince of Persia: Warrior Within" - when I reviewed that game, I indicated that Ubisoft was constantly struggling to find a balance between story and gameplay, and "Warrior Within" had represented a stronger emphasis on cutting your foes to ribbons at the expense of an engaging story. "God of War" falls into the same category: it's amusing enough to grab undead soldiers and fling them around like yo-yos, but there's nothing so compelling that you're desperate to know what happens next.

Fun for a few hours, "God of War" eventually loses its appeal when it becomes apparent that - inventive ways of killing monsters aside - there isn't much substance driving the game forward.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Magic 8-Ball Says "No Shit, Sherlock"

So apparently the latest issue of "Civil War" has ruffled some feathers.

I don't know, maybe it's just my diminishing patience with this sort of phenomenon, but it's by Mark bleeping Millar. If you were expecting something coherent, if you were expecting him to make good on any of his boasts, you've either never had the dubious pleasure of experiencing his work first-hand or you're the type of person who sits in the theatre for hours after the end of "Waiting For Godot", convinced the guy's going to show up sooner or later.

It's Millar, people. Of course it's poorly thought-out and poorly-executed garbage. Criticize as much as you want, but you have no right to feel cheated - you're getting exactly what you paid for.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Dante's Cove

Oh lordy. Someone's going to die for inflicting this horror on me. It's so bad, I can't tackle it alone, so I've invited some guest commentators to pop up here and there.

The biggest problem with this review is that I have no idea whether I've just watched 90 minutes of softcore porn aspiring to basic storytelling, or 90 minutes of a soap opera determined to sink as low as it possibly can. It's an important distinction to make, because plotty porn - as awful as it can get - at least makes a minimal effort in the act of creating a narrative, in which case there's no reason to take the creators up Mount Hackwork and feed them to Cthulhu.

See? He's got his tentacle-bib on and everything.

As with "Hex", this is more or less a series that would like to be classified as "the (adjective) Buffy": if "Hex" was the British Buffy and "Supernatural" is the Boys' Buffy, "Dante's Cove" purports to be the Gay Buffy. Orly, do you have anything to say about the Cove's claim to fame?

I thought so. :) As with most imitators, it takes a little more than stated intent to hit anywhere near the mark. I mean, "Supernatural" may not have Whedon's creative genius behind it, but it offers an intense atmosphere and interesting characters. "Hex" at least got the atmosphere right. "Dante's Cove" gives us naked people. Now, I'll admit I'm appreciative of buff guys in the buff, just like other women; isn't that right, Marguerite?

Well, maybe not all other women. But for me, The Pretty can only can cover up so much. The pace goes something like this: five minutes of plot, fifteen minutes of extended gay sex montage, five minutes of flashbacks, fifteen minutes of Disney's Magic Carpet Ride (Themysciran Remix).

I wish I was! I mean, yes, we get it, Toby love you long time. We figured that bit out after the taxi sex. Why we needed to see him and Kevin do it again, and again, and again over the course of a single episode is thoroughly beyond my grasp.

Enough about the sex. Let's talk actors/characters. First off, Tracy Scoggins (who I knew only as Kat Grant from "Lois and Clark") looks amazing for a woman in her fifties. I don't know if it's just natural grace, makeup or plastique surgery ('cause she's "da bomb" and all... oh geez, there goes another brain cell), but it works for her. I don't even mind the diabolical British accent.

Well, maybe just a little. :) I also give props to William Gregory Lee, who hasn't improved much since his time on "Xena" but actually had me convinced he was getting borked in the opening scene. The rest of the cast doesn't stand out much, but again, here's where my major difficulty lies: if they're working with mildly-doctored porn scripts, they're expected to act badly and speak in Austenisms, but if this is supposed to be genuine, then they're a bunch of oiled-up Antizombie and Bitch models who couldn't deliver a line if they had GPS precision-guidance.

And could someone please explain to me why "Dante's Inferno" keeps being referenced even though it has nothing to do with anything in this series?

The plot is... well, it's equal parts "yeahbuhwhat?" and "ohnotheydidn't". In 1840, a sorceress (?) discovers that her fiance is sleeping with a male servant (!). This isn't the first time I've had cause to shout "The butler did it!" during a TV show, but it is the first time I was met with "Nah, the butler got done." Anyway, the witch locks her betrayer in the basement (which, I suppose, is better than a closet) and instantly turns him into an old man (!!), and only the kiss of a beautiful young man will free him (?!?!). About 150 years later, said beautiful young man (whose elevator doesn't run to the top floor, naturally) turns up with his boyfriend, and they and their friends get caught up in some kind of mystical conflict, and the witch's fiance decides to fuck, marry and kill his savior (not necessarily in that order). I've sent "Dante's Cove" to an analyst, let's see what he has to say:

See? If a superintelligent android can't figure it out, what's the point? Maybe a second viewing would clear things up, but I'm not volunteering for the Lot's Wife treatment.

Ah, what can I say? "Dante's Cove" bravely takes a stab at the neo-Gothic, and the neo-Gothic promptly stabs back. The setting is right: desolated beaches, crumbling buildings, the sea, the dark basement... that's all great. But the Gothic is more than just looks, and it clashes horribly with the faux-drama and hysterics of campy soap (or porn, whatever). Remember that scene in "Gremlins 2" where they've all assembled in the plaza lobby, going into a chaotic frenzy of dancing, singing and wreaking havoc, and then they all melt into green muck? Yeah, that's a nice analogy for this show. A lot of noise, then it's all toxic sludge. Someone should page Captain Planet.

To conclude, we have with us an expert on The Stupid: tell us, sir, how much does it suck, really?

That about sums it up.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: La Femme Nikita

The mid-'90s were a great time for girl warriors. In 1995 a one-shot "Hercules" villain became the star of her own show, and epitomized the pre-medieval female fighter (in your face, Red Sonja!); a year later, Joss Whedon introduced a new kind of modern heroine while raising standards of quality for television; and in 1997, a little-known film called "La Femme Nikita" was adapted into an ongoing series. I'm not acquainted with the source material, so I can't speak to issues of authenticity, but I'm left with very strong feelings towards the show. I'll start by focusing on the first two seasons, which I feel were the strongest.

One thing that stood out was the high level of sophisication: practically every episode had plot twists galore and difficult moral quandaries for our protagonist. The overall plot of the series concerns Nikita, a former street rat framed for murder who is recruited by a covert anti-terrorist organization. This organization, Section One, does its very best to turn Nikita into a merciless killing machine, only to find her stubbornly clinging to her humanity. Naturally, this results in an endless series of problems, as Nikita struggles to avoid being "cancelled" while staying true to her moral values.

The nice thing is that, during those initial seasons, you're not really called upon to pick a side and stick with it. Section One espouses the rhetoric of sacrifice for the greater good - Nikita often finds their tactics deplorable, but is she right to weigh two lives against a thousand? It's an issue both sides of the equation struggle with, and most episodes end on an ambivalent note that lets the viewer come to independent conclusions.

Most of the characters are as complex as the plots. Aside from Nikita's internal and external conflicts, we have Michael, her trainer-turned-love-interest, whose tenure at Section has repressed his emotions to near-nonexistence. I do think the series lost something when the chemistry between Nikita and Michael progressed into actual intimacy - it turned the relationship into an on-again/off-again thing, and then it became the crux of the entire third/fourth season arc. When everyone from arch-terrorists to your bosses to your bosses' bosses are concerned with your love life, it's time to go.

We also have the rest of the "main" Section cast: Walter and Birkoff, a pair of loveable supporting characters whose inherent charm brightens up the otherwise-dreary Section life; Madeline, the enigmatic Chief Strategist whose function overwent a radical shift in the middle of the first season (she went from being a propwoman to head profiler/interrogator for Section); and Operations, the man running the show, a ruthless yet hypocritical figure who denies his operatives the freedoms he himself indulges in. It's a diverse and fascinating bunch, especially when it's not All About Michita. Special mention goes to Adrian, founder of Section One, played exquisitely by Sian Philips. We only see her for a very short time, but she makes quite an impression.

As far as acting is concerned, it's a bit of a mixed bag: Peta Wilson does well enough as Nikita, in terms of the soul-rending decisions she has to make, but to paraphrase Bunny Swan, "she looka like a man". Six-foot-something with a deep baritone, and I can't help flashing back to that scene in "Tootsie" where Dustin Hoffman tells the director "you want some gross caricature of a woman, to prove some idiotic point that power makes a woman masculine." Still, she does all right. I'm slightly less impressed with Roy Dupuis (Michael), because the guy has maybe two facial expressions per season. And while it's all well and good to depict a character as emotionally hollow, it runs the risk of being monotonous after a while. It doesn't help that Michael-in-love doesn't act any different than Michael-not-in-love, so it's almost impossible to know where this guy stands. Conversely, Alberta Watson (Madeline) has the same stone-faced delivery, but at least she has the sense to occasionally offer a tiny smile or a hateful glare, the effect of which is all the more magnified by her usual composure, and it makes her an infinitely more interesting character because you're always looking to see what slips through the cracks in her armor. The others are above-average.

Of course, all this largely revolves around the first two seasons, it goes way downhill after that. For some reason, the series was reconfigured as a melodrama: Michael's married with a kid! Nikita's falling in love with someone else! Birkoff has a twin brother! Operations is blackmailing Madeline!

To make things worse, the technology started crossing the border from science to science-fiction. I mean, in the first two seasons, encountering a brainwashing device is a big deal - we see traces and hints of future-tech, but it's always depicted as a major breakthrough. By the time the third season came to a close (and certainly by the fourth) we had holograms, clones, psychics and goddamn voodoo love potions, all a little too commonplace for my tastes. And naturally, most of these devices were employed to either help or stop Michael and Nikita's relationship, because the fate of the free world is secondary to two anti-terrorist people getting freaky with each other. On top of that, the usual plot twists became so numerous and predictable that after a certain point, you already knew they were coming.

Lest I forget, this series is sadly included in the B.O.D. Club, for series that were Better Off Dead. Apparently, after the appalling fourth-season finale which retconned the last three years of storylines in a manner only slightly less insulting than Bobby Ewing's shower, fans rallied for a fifth season. And if ever there was a case of "be careful what you wish for", this is it, because the fifth and final season starts bad and ends worse, with lots of "shocking" character deaths and meaningless twists and turns.

Still... it had two really fantastic and strong seasons, and later decreases in quality don't change that fact.

A final note: "La Femme Nikita" makes for an interesting comparison to "Alias" in several respects. I think Sydney Bristow is supposed to be a more feminine response to the "butch" Nikita, though in practice this means Sydney gets the shit beaten out of her on a regular basis. And even at its worst, the twists on LFN still made some kind of rudimentary sense - if you can figure out "Alias", you're in a better position than J.J. Abrams.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Run No More

Brian Vaughan's replacement on "Runaways": Joss Whedon.

I was skeptical. I had good reason to be. But I'm woman enough to admit when I'm wrong, wrong, wrong.

Kudos, Marvel - I really didn't think you had it in you.

Baker the Board-Shaker

I used to love Kyle Baker for "Why I Hate Saturn" and "I Die At Midnight".

Now I love him for those, and for this: (scroll down a bit)

To paraphrase the South Park kids, Grandpa Simpson just got served.

And my God, is there any headline he won't glom onto for a little attention?

EDIT: Oops. It's a different Kyle Baker. Oh well. :)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Vivat Grendel!

I'm way too disoriented to write a coherent review of Matt Wagner's "Grendel", so here are some points I thought were interesting:

1. Of all the "primary" Grendels, Christine Spar is my favorite. Not just because she was the only woman to don the mask, but because she's arguably the only one whose actions aren't tinged with madness. Hunter Rose was damaged from the start, Brian Li Sung and Eppy Thatcher were completely insane, and even Orion Assante eventually sees himself as being possessed by the devil. We don't know much about Grendel-Prime, but I imagine you'd have to be pretty screwed up to turn yourself into the Toaster of Doom. Christine is ultimately the only protagonist Wagner justifies - her actions are morally ambiguous, but her intentions and motivations are nothing short of heroic. It's that kind of complexity that makes "Grendel" such an enjoyable, rewarding read.

2. I have never seen another comic deal with the themes of legacy, succession, evolution and chronological ellipses as well as "Grendel". It occurs to me that "Miracleman" might have gone that far, had it run its course, but we'll never know. As it stands, I can't help but be impressed by the sheer scale of the Grendel Saga: in fifty-one issues (including "Devil By The Deed", "War Child" and "Devil Quest"), he spans a period of seven hundred and twenty years. And it's the same world, changed to the point where it's almost unrecognizable save for trace hints that recall the past. That's real vision, right there.

3. Wagner could have ended Grendel with "War Child": the bad guys are defeated, proper rule is restored, all's right with the world. In fact, most of the online resources I've found seem to do just that: in summarizing/detailing the stories, "War Child" is often the last entry. But that's not where the chronology ends, with Jupiter I's coronation on a bright and sunny day; it ends with a half-destroyed Grendel-Prime shooting a man for no reason and riding off into the darkness, the Grendel Empire in ruins. I can understand the desire to exclude "Devil's Quest" - it's just a backup story, and if you read it expecting closure or a finale of some kind you'll be sorely disappointed. Hell, you could even make the argument that it's not a complete story, as it serves to lead into some horrid Batman/Grendel crossover I refuse to read on principle. It's not particularly uplifting either, and I don't know that it makes any significant extension of the series' core premise and themes. Except... well, entropy exists in Wagner's worldview. If there's one thing that's consistent for every incarnation of Grendel, it's that things fall apart: personally, socially, psychologically, globally. Pellon Cross starts out as a driven vampire messiah and turns into a bloated, useless mess. America is ruled by corporations, then the Catholic Church, then the Grendel-Khan, each system breaking down in turn to make way for the next. Christine Spar's life crumbles until she has nothing left. It's the very epitome of the Wheel of Fortune, and in that context "Devil Quest" cannot be ignored, because it's the inevitable culmination of everything that came before it. It's not Wagner's best work, broken-up and disorganized as it is, but maybe that was the plan all along: to have the narrative itself in a state of decay mirroring the setting depicted within.

4. Of all the "Grendel Tales" spin-offs, the only one I really liked was "Devil Child", the in-depth look at Stacy Palumbo. The flip-side of this is I think the Hunter Rose minis ("Black White and Red" and "Red White and Black") were a terrible mistake. There was always something suitably enigmatic about the fact that Hunter Rose has no voice: "Devil By The Deed" presents his story as told by Christine, who got it from Stacy and a bunch of other sources, but Hunter himself is silent, inscrutable. This changes both in "Devil Child" and in the Hunter Rose minis, with one major difference: "Devil Child" is narrated by Stacy, and begins after Hunter's death. In other words, she's already going mad, and anything she tells the readers is subject to dispute. This is brilliantly emphasized by writer Diana Schutz when Stacy tells the story of her rape four or five different ways; she herself can't reconcile what really happened, so how can we trust anything she says about Hunter Rose? And unlike Rose himself, I think there was room for another look at Stacy, because her own mysteriousness was meant to affect Christine, not the reader, if that makes any sense. In other words, it's important that we not know too much about Hunter, but it was only important that Christine not know too much about her mother. By contrast, Wagner's direct depictions of Rose in his prime tend to fall short of the figure built up to such mythical proportions in "Devil By The Deed". We even get a lot of repetition, the Jocasta Rose sequence retold two or three times without significant variation or revelation. And all the other Grendel Tales... well, this is disturbing, because despite the many writers who contributed, somehow all the plots involve an instantaneous romance between two unlikely and poorly-fleshed out figures, with Grendel in the distant background. More often than not, the characters simply aren't compelling enough to hold the story.

5. My favorite moment in the series: the end of "The Devil Inside", the moment where two narratives seamlessly merge into one, and Brian's last words mix with those of Grendel. "I am not afraid to die. For I shall live FOREVER." Absolutely chilling.

And that's about it for now. It was an intense reading experience, one I found immensely and uniquely gratifying.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Ode To Marvel

Still ticked about "Runaways", but I've decided to do something constructive with it. And nothing says "fun" like lyric rewrites! :D


You keep saying you've got something for me
Something you call good, but confess
You've been hyping what you shouldn't have been hyping
And now someone else is getting all your best

My boots are made for running
And that's just what they'll do
Better believe these boots are gonna run right over you

You keep ditching, who you oughta be holding
And you keep betting when the odds ain't set
You keep changing what you oughta be saming
What's wrong is wrong, and you ain't been right yet

My boots are made for running
And that's just what they'll do
Better believe these boots are gonna run right over you

You keep hiring where you shouldn't be hiring
And you keep thinking that you'll never get burnt. Ha!
I just found me a brand new box of writers
And what they know you ain't had time to learn

Are you ready, boots?
Start running!

Time To Run

So... Brian Vaughan has just announced that he's leaving "Runaways" after issue 24. And that we'll all be "thrilled" with the new creative team.

Tcha, you know what?


See, I love BKV to bits, but last time he said that we ended up with Zeb Wells. So I guess 24 will be my last issue too.

Quite a pity - I really adored that series. :(

Tuesday, September 5, 2006


My Mark Millar voodoo doll is complete!

*readies pin* This is for "Chosen", this is for "Wanted"...

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Strike Three, You're Out!

Okay, so... "Wonder Woman".

First they signed up Allan Heinberg but revealed (months later) that his would only be a five-issue run, followed by another five-issue run by Jodi Picoult.

Then they put Donna Troy in as New Wonder Woman for a grand total of one issue before switching things back and exposing Diana's "secret identity".

And now, the final nail of the coffin: it's going bimonthly as of issue 4.

You know, I wasn't looking for reasons to drop the book, but if DC is so adamant to just drop them in my lap...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Beowulf Had It All Wrong

Matt Wagner's "Grendel" is blowing my mind so hard my neighbors are getting migraines. :)

I'm not done with it yet - just finished "God and the Devil" last night - so I'll probably have more to say about it later, but my God, it's such a sublime, intricate work of literature. Why don't more people know about this? Why hasn't the entire saga been collected in TPBs and reprinted and set up on the top shelf with "Watchmen", "V For Vendetta" and "Sandman"?

Because IMO, it's that good.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star

At the suggestion of kazekage, I picked up Sega's "Phantasy Star" series a few weeks ago, and completed the first game yesterday.

The big surprise for me, right on the intro screen, was the fact that the main protagonist of "Phantasy Star" is a woman. Bear in mind that this was made in 1987: sure, Samus Aran pulled her big reveal the same year, but for a woman to brandish a sword and lead a team in a role-playing game? Practically unheard of, and it's not exactly common today either. To top it all off, Alis Landale is assigned a motive traditionally reserved for male heroes - vengeance. That's a nice bit of gender equality where I didn't expect to find it, so props for the forward thinking, Sega. Of course, all this is a bit diluted by the fact that Alis is practically a non-entity - characterization throughout is at a bare minimum, and party members barely interact.

That's more or less my take on the game: a bit of a see-saw between innovation and formula. The plot is textbook RPG - evil king, band of rebels, dark spirit behind it all - but the story (such as it is) plays out on three different planets, which is definitely new for me. Gameplay is similarly hit-and-miss: the typical overhead view is combined with a three-dimensional first-person perspective for exploring dungeons, and that's a nice way of alternating styles to keep things interesting. But the EXP system is absolutely horrific, because the game starts you off at a level with stats below the most basic combat situation. Consequently, you have to spend a lot of time getting into random fights for EXP, right at the beginning of the game (thank God for turbo speed). And that's just so you can set foot outside the first town - every character that joins you later starts at level 1 and needs to be beefed up as well. It probably extended the gameplay for another few days, but didn't strike me as contributing anything particularly useful to the experience.

The music is above average; most of the themes are a bit shrill and tend to grate after a while, but I loved the Towers melody and the Final Boss track is catchy too.

Well, obviously there's no comparison to today's RPGs; it doesn't even rate with the RPGs of yesterdecade. However, once you jump the hurdles, "Phantasy Star" does prove entertaining on some level of "retro gaming", enough so that I fully intend to pursue the sequels and see what happens next.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Movie Review: Silent Hill

When I first learned about the "Silent Hill" series, I was quite intrigued by the general premise; unfortunately, the first game pretty much killed that stone-dead. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but when your everyman protagonist faces and kills an enormous split-mouthed lizard monster, he should be the slightest. bit. perturbed. I know I would be. That, and my less-than-adequate skills at third-person shooters, led me to stop halfway through the first game.

I was nevertheless looking forward to the film adaptation, even though successful game-to-movie translations are extremely rare: amidst such horrors as "Doom", "Mortal Kombat", "Wing Commander", "Street Fighter" and "Alone In The Dark", one should feel extremely lucky to find "Tomb Raider" or "Resident Evil" (the originals, of course; video game films seem even more suspectible to the Sucky Sequels rule than most genres).

Fortunately, "Silent Hill" turned out rather well; better, perhaps, than the games it's based on. I think part of it has to do with the difference between active and passive participation: as a gamer, you can't really afford to take in the environment because you're too busy running/fighting for your life. And a big part of the Silent Hill experience is the town itself and the horrors within. It's much easier to appreciate the intense atmosphere when you have the luxury of watching things unfold.

Plot-wise, the movie offers a relatively streamlined story (certainly in comparison to the jumble of mismatched threads in the first game) - Rose DaSilva takes her adopted daughter Sharon to Silent Hill, to investigate Sharon's mysterious connection to the town. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding with a police officer results in a car crash, and when Rose regains consciousness Sharon has disappeared into the mists of the town. Meanwhile, Rose's husband Chris tries to follow his family only to end up on a completely different track (both figuratively and literally). There are quite a few twists and turns along the way, and it all comes together very nicely - Chris' subplot seems pointless at first until it suddenly, chillingly underscores Rose's situation, and that's the sort of careful thinking I find extremely praiseworthy.

One major difference between the games and the film is how the backstory/mythology is used: while the games dabble in various vague references to gods and demons and fake demons and such, the film chooses to offer a scenario that's much more heavily rooted in concepts we as Western viewers can understand. As such, it's easier to comprehend, and perhaps more plausible because of that. I largely approve of the decision to ultimately explain what's going on in Silent Hill - the games went the other way by emphasizing the utter, inexplicable chaos, and that works when you have a series of open-ended narratives, but for a self-contained story it's often best to go with partial or full disclosure.

The acting is pretty consistently good across the board - Radha Mitchell and Laurie Holden (Rose and Cybil Bennett, respectively) don't have that much to do by virtue of their role requirements, but Jodelle Ferland is amazing as Alessa/The Demon, and Alice Krige steals the show as the intimidating Christabella.

I don't know if "Silent Hill" can really be considered a successful adaptation as such, given the liberties it takes with its source material. But it stands as a very good and very atypical horror movie, and that counts for a lot.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Freaks and Geeks

I can see why this series didn't last longer than a season - it's brilliant and subtle and masterfully written, but it could be bloody depressing at times. And I'll grant that's more the result of my generic expectations: much as I despise the teens-on-prozac model you'd find in such travesties as "Saved By The Bell" or "Sweet Valley High", it's so pervasive in all modes of fiction that a genuinely different entry, such as "Freaks and Geeks", threw me for a loop.

What I like here is that "Freaks and Geeks" doesn't purport to sell that same idealized fantasy of high school life, but it doesn't hit the other extreme by depicting Kindergangstas either. Rather, the show offers a surprisingly mimetic representation of reality: relationships are awkward, nobody sticks entirely to their stereotypes, the authority figures aren't infallible or inherently malevolent, and even the most sympathetic characters are capable of terrible errors in judgment. There's no unifying quality among the cast of characters - some may share similar qualities but refrain from being completely interchangable. It's refreshing to see such an honest approach to the subject matter - depictions of high school life tend to skew rather wildly depending on the creative team's agenda.

The seasonal arc largely revolves around Lindsay Weir's quest for identity: as the series begins, she finds herself in the final stages of a transformation that has moved her from overachieving geek to fringe misfit. But there's no rigid linearity to her journey: at one point she finds her situation to be unbearable, and tries to go back to what she used to be, only to realize she'll never be happy playing that role. The catalyst of Lindsay's change is never really explored, though her grandmother's recent death is cited as a possibility; one of the more interesting moments in the series comes when the hilariously pure Millie (a former friend of Lindsay's) loses her dog, and starts playing out the exact same process Lindsay underwent. Lindsay finds herself desperate to stop Millie from throwing her life away - a reflection of the protagonist's own internal conflicts.

Of course, Lindsay isn't the only one who goes through a developmental process: though the main characters are initially divided into two groups (the aforementioned "freaks" and the "geeks"), they quickly become individualized, rounded-out and very well-characterized. It really becomes the story of a group of people, not labels with random "pretty faces" attached to them.

I'm not quite sure why the series is set a decade earlier, given that the main themes haven't exactly gone out of style; while it adds a quaint little anachronistic touch to the setting, it doesn't seem like the '80s are used in the way that "That '70s Show" made use of its respective era.

But any such quibble is dwarfed by the sheer high quality of this series - its subtleties, its wit, its authenticity. This is the high school drama.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: The Prisoner

Forget head trips, this was like watching Alzheimer's in fast-forward.

"The Prisoner" turned out to be of the type of surrealism I don't enjoy: very odd things happen and many mysteries are built up, but no explanations are ever given. Indeed, no one ever intended to answer any questions. I have difficulty appreciating that kind of abstractism; it leaves me feeling like there's no anchor, no starting point through which I can interpret the weirder aspects of the story. I also find it to be a bit sloppy: anyone can just throw out inexplicable plot devices with the vague assurance that really, it'll make sense if you think about it.

But if I'm expected to devote so much time and energy to achieve basic comprehension, there has to be some kind of hook. And what "The Prisoner" does is create the opposite effect: complete detachment. Number Six isn't a particularly sympathetic protagonist - he might have been, if we knew a little bit more about him, but he's basically a cipher throughout the series. The viewer is basically put in a position where you know nothing and understand nothing... in which case, there's not much reason to keep watching.

To make things worse, the level of incoherence gradually increases, with the final episode resembling a twisted brainchild of David Lynch and Chris Claremont. I must have paused and rewinded five or six times trying to understand what the hell was going on, and why everyone suddenly contracted Tourette's and started dancing in circles. Maybe someone pulled a Brandon Lee and put real nerve gas in the canisters or something, I don't know.

Just not for me, then. I don't mind a bit of work when being confronted with an unorthodox story, so long as I'm given a valid reason to press on. Sadly, "The Prisoner" offers none.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Ultraviolet

I stumbled onto this British production purely by accident - compared to most of the other series on my summer list, it's rather low-profile. It's also quite short-lived: only six episodes were filmed, though this seems to be deliberate since the loose ends that remain aren't the type that require further closure.

Detective Michael Colefield's life gets turned upside-down when his best friend disappears, and reemerges as a blood-drinking fiend. Michael (played by the very attractive Jack Davenport) is then drafted into a covert organization that hunts these creatures, dubbed "Code Five" (the Roman numeral, of course, being V). Unofficially, they're simply called "leeches".

Well, it's vampires, obviously. But that specific term is never used by any character, at any point in the series. This indicates three qualities that, in my opinion, set "Ultraviolet" apart from its peers. First, it refuses to spell anything out. Michael only understands what happened to his friend by assembling clues, and the viewer must do the same - this is where "Supernatural" and "Charmed" would frequently go wrong, with the constant doses of exposition to explain the monster's M.O. and weaknesses. Second, the supernatural context is stripped away in favor of a largely scientific approach. Reactions to crosses and holy water, for example, are psychosomatic rather than instruments of divine will. It's a bit similar to Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend", which also demystified vampirism through modern technology. But in Matheson's story, there was never any question that these creatures were evil - and "Ultraviolet" makes no such concession. The third quality is that we're gradually called to question whether Michael's on the right side: is this a legitimate war or a modern re-enactment of the Inquisition? Are vampires really a threat, or has the Church found a new scapegoat? You're kept guessing until the very end.

Due to the obvious limitations, the main cast isn't explored at any great length, but that actually works out here: just as the conflict with the vampires is shrouded in mystery, so too are the people Michael works with. Angela and Vaughan have edited backstories that unravel towards the end, and Pearse is a complete enigma. We don't even know the size of the organization or who else works for it, but these are things we're not supposed to know anyway, since our point of view is attached to Michael's and he's the new guy.

What I find so appealing about "Ultraviolet" is its sophistication, the fact that it doesn't dumb anything down and doesn't shoot for a low common denominator. Granted, that's probably why it didn't last more than six episodes, but those six make for pretty good TV.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Here Comes The Bride, If Only She'd Died

Paul O'Brien delivers a scathing criticism of the Black Panther/Storm wedding as a gimmick stunt:

Jeff Lester over at "Savage Critic" takes a much more feministic and character-centric approach, which both surprises and delights me: "Say what you will about Chris Claremont, but for many years (before the psychic-rape fixation really kicked in) he made a African (and American) woman a popular figure in a genre that didn't exactly boast a surplus of such characters (or a surplus of such readers, for that matter) and she commanded, for quite a while, a lot of dignity and respect. And say what you will about Reginald Hudlin, but in making Storm a perfect mate for the Black Panther--she's now a princess, she now has family, she now has a love of her life for which she's always pined--he's stripped the character of anything recognizable apart from superpowers and physical appearance. [Diana notes: "Yeah, and most of her clothes have disappeared too."] Feminists looking for examples of the whole 'marriage as slavery' argument will find a lot of interesting metatext in this issue as, despite Storm being a popular character in the most popular comic book of the last thirty years and the Panther being a cool character who can barely keep a book for the last six, the achievements bandied about by the BET presenters (and what a creepily self-serving plug that is, coming from the President of Entertainment for BET) are nearly all the Panther's, and all of the famous friends--'Reed and Sue Richards, Captain America, Iron Man'--are the Panther's, as well as it being the Panther's rules by which they marry, the Panther's country, the Panther's god which Ororo must appease, etc., etc., etc. In short, the book is creepy, cynical, self-serving, patriarchal and--seeing at it forgets that Ororo already received the approval of the Panther God in that recent X-Men Annual that ties into this story--sloppy. No, sir, I didn't like it. It was Crap.."

Bravo, boys. Bravo.

Monday, July 31, 2006


I'm not a big believer in judging people by their appearance. But sometimes I have to concede that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

According to headlines, ex-boy bander Lance Bass has shocked the world by coming out of the closet. In actuality, he's probably only shocked a couple of monasteries in Tibet, because... well, honestly. If there's a single woman on this earth over the age of 12 who got one good look at this guy and pegged him as straight, said woman would do well to avoid getting attached to any single male roommates in their lives. Odds are, it won't turn out well.

Of course, the La Femme Lancia look scored him this guy:

So he must be doing something right...

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: House (S1)

I've never had much interest in medical dramas; shows like "E.R." or "Strong Medicine" would often throw out a lot of technical jargon without providing the layman's explanation. I mean, yes, "pulmonary embolism" sounds rather dreadful, but what does it mean? On top of that, your standard medical drama places a lot of weight on the patients, but they're one-shot types: overworked mother gets cancer, closeted gay man gets AIDS, pregnant woman must choose to save herself or her baby, et cetera. They either die or get cured, but once they're out the door, that's usually it. The focus of the series often falls on the doctors and nurses, who - more often than not - aren't very interesting to begin with.

"House" takes an unusual and unconventional approach to the formula. Rather than a straight-up drama, this series is more of a hybrid genre - "medical detective story" probably hits as close as possible. Basically, the disease takes center stage: patients come in with mysterious ailments, and our main characters use differential diagnoses to try and figure out what happened, and why it happened. As a result, most of the diseases and symptoms are actually defined (since the clues are relevant to the solution). It's a nice way to handle the problem.

Of course, it's really all about Dr. House, our gruff and screwed-up and bitingly-sarcastic head of Diagnostics. Hugh Laurie getting his bitch on is truly a glorious thing. Which is fortunate, because that's the main appeal of the series: the plots are tediously repetitive (a patient comes in, the doctors argue, they come to a wrong conclusion, House figures out that something said or done wasn't true, the right treatment is applied, end of episode), and the other characters are only marginally developed (though House's clashes with Cuddy are always entertaining).

Still, it's always fun to watch guest-stars like Scott Foley and Carmen Electra go into cardiac arrest, and then get roasted by the Mighty Snark of House. At the very least, it's an amusing way to spend forty minutes.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Great article!

From "Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed)": Karen Healey offers a feminist manifesto for men writing women in fiction, and I agree with every single point she makes, especially her observations about latter-day Buffy Summers. Hard to believe that particular part of her story was supervised by a woman...

P.S. Also, her reaction to Frank Miller writing and directing "The Spirit"? Priceless.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Earth's Mightiest Zeroes

So apparently, Marvel has decided to publish an "alternative" to "New Avengers". It'll be called "Mighty Avengers", starring classic characters such as Wonder Man and Beast. The mandate seems to be creating an "old-school" book, to counterbalance the more... shall we say, iconoclastic tones in "New Avengers".

And as a special bonus, the creative team is Frank Cho on art and Brian Bendis writing.

To all Avengers fans out there who are two seconds away from throwing themselves into an epileptic fit of Tazmanian Devil proportions, I can only offer these words of comfort:

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Fic Recs

Every so often, I end up stumbling onto stories based in a fandom I either don't know or don't like. I'll read these stories anyway, and get blown away by how good they are and how much I enjoy them despite not being the target audience. 99% of the time it's not enough to completely convert me to said fandom, but these are some examples of fics that transcend the fandom boundary, and are must-reads for that reason.

Harry Potter: Your Every Wish by Maya. I've read many, many, many mind-control stories, in various media and fandoms. This one, though... Maya gets it, in a terrifying and unrelentingly dark way. For a little while, she managed to make me forget about my immense loathing of Harry Potter, and that's no small feat.

Star Wars: Five Senses by Selena K. I like the "Five Things" format because it really lets you hit the reader with a string of short, concentrated bursts, or provide five alternate perspectives on the same theme or plot. Selena uses it well here, with a very interesting view of Darth Vader that makes him somewhat less of a "NOOOOOOO!" joke.

Firefly: Nights of Endless Conversations by Fahye. This one's a bit of a cheat, because it crosses over with a fandom I do love, but I'm including it anyway. Interesting combination, and one that's pulled off quite nicely.

X-Men 3: From The Ashes by kaydeefalls. My dislike of the movie is tempered by the fact that a lot of writers made very good use of the material. Here is one of my favorites.

Batman: Measured Out in Coffee Spoons and Jason and Me by David Hines. It's all about the writing here: I've gone cold on the whole Batman thing these days, but Hines' stories have a certain emotional content that piques my interest.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Robert Kirkman's "Marvel Team-Up" is cancelled with issue 25.

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Hex

As Whitney Houston said on her wedding night, "That's gonna leave a bad taste in my mouth." Nota bene, I'm going to spoil the one big twist in this series, and it's an instance that actually warrants an advance warning.

"Hex" caught my interest after its recent move to BBC America, where it was touted as the British answer to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that they based the comparison on the Marti Noxon years, because this show makes no sense, features a bunch of unsympathetic caricatures, is obsessed with "teh sexxx" and really, really makes no bloody sense.

It starts off well enough, mind you, with a dark and mysterious atmosphere built up at a leisurely pace (befitting the more patient British audience). The characters make a good first impression, particularly protagonist Cassie and her best friend Thelma. And the supernatural elements are introduced nicely, weaving together to create the beginnings of a mythology that's both straightforward and interesting.

But by the second episode, "Hex" begins to indulge its single greatest flaw - the supernatural angle, established by the end of the pilot, is completely forgotten. Supernatural, demonic characters walk around like they're normal people, and everyone else treats them normally as well. The antagonist of the first season, fallen angel Azazeal, is intent on seducing Cassie, but rather than maintain the sinister overtones, the whole thing degenerates into ridiculous dialogues about playing house and fixing their relationship and being a family.

The first season (five episodes) is really quite dull; supernatural subplots are set up and then ignored, never to be referenced again, and a bit too much emphasis is placed upon the teenage melodrama. The characters gradually become typical bores, some of whom are completely expendable and some of whom are very interesting, but disappear after an appearance or two (I'm thinking here of Cassie's mother Lilith and Peggy, both interesting figures who just aren't seen again, with no explanation). The big problem with Cassie as the heroine of the story is that she's frustratingly passive: when faced with evil, she either runs from it or surrenders to it. Now, sure, you could make the argument that it's a realistic depiction - how many people would actually muster up the courage to take on demons from Hell? - but it just doesn't make for good fiction. By the time the season concludes, the only issue relevant to Cassie is whether or not she'll shag Azazeal, and you can probably guess the answer to that one. Thelma is entertaining, but even she wears thin after a while.

Things start improving with the second season, and I give "Hex" credit for going where Joss Whedon never dared. It's always a big gamble to switch out your protagonist; in fact, the only show I've ever seen that successfully wrote out its main character mid-series was "Reboot", and even then, Bob wasn't gone long. The second season premiere introduces Ella Dee, a 500-year-old witch and sworn nemesis to Azazeal; one episode later, Cassie is dead, and Ella takes her place as the primary focus of the series.

The switch actually goes over quite nicely at first: Ella is a much more active character, though she's a bit distanced from the viewer in the sense that Cassie was the everywoman, easy to identify with, and Ella isn't very accessible on that level. Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - in fact, quality starts dropping again when they try to make Ella a typical teenage girl, weak and drawn to bad boys and hungry for sex, all the usual cliches. By mid-season, after a few strong episodes, we're right back in the whole insipid good/evil love story, where the female characters are victimized to ludicrous extents and the villainous males get away with pretty much everything. It comes off very, very poorly.

I was completely numb towards the end of the second (and final) season: characters were acting in repetitive and incomprehensible ways, the melodrama was overpowering the darker aspects, and it just became a mess of "Charmed" proportions. It's a shame, really, because I do think "Hex" had a lot of potential, it just lost the plot fairly early on and never found it again.