Monday, June 26, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Supernatural

I'm still drowning in exams and final papers, but all Austen and no play makes Diana a cranky girl. So "Supernatural" gets the honor of kicking off my Summer of TV.

As I've mentioned before, I'm interested in this series for four primary reasons: first, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are cute individually and mega-cute together. Great chemistry means I can sit through episodes about ghostly racist monster trucks just for their interactions. Second, it's Buffy-Lite, and I find myself nostalgic for the old monster-fighting genre that's fallen a bit to the wayside in recent years. Third, while it's not especially deep or complex, it does make somewhat interesting use of urban legends and mythology. And finally, it has one of the most peculiar fandoms I've ever seen (more about that in a bit).

"Supernatural" is the story of Dean (Ackles) and Sam (Padalecki) Winchester, brothers whose lives were shattered in childhood when their mother was murdered by a demon. Their ex-Marine father then devoted his life - and the lives of his children - to hunting supernatural creatures. This goes on until Sam starts craving normalcy; he abandons his family and runs away to Stanford. Things go rather well for him until Dean crashes back into his life, reporting that their father has gone missing. To make things worse, their mother's killer resurfaces, and Sam gets dragged back into his old life, road-tripping across the country with Dean in search of supernatural threats to destroy.

Let's start with the acting. I had somewhat mixed reactions to both Ackles and Padalecki; Ackles plays Dean as an alpha male bad-ass, and my God does he pull it off, but that particular character type doesn't offer a lot of range - he's tough, he's lecherous, he's hot, and that's about all we get on a regular basis. Considering Ackles' resume, though, I give him points for nailing a part that goes so completely against the pretty-boy typecasting he usually falls into.

Padalecki's a bit more problematic. Obviously, Sam is Dean's foil, so he's kind and considerate and intelligent and sympathetic. But if still waters run deep, Padalecki should be in China by now, because he's so low-key it's nearly impossible to get a handle on the character. There are moments where he bats it out of the park (finding Jessica at the end of the pilot, or his last prank on Dean in "Hell House") and moments where he should be acting out more than he is. He slowly improves towards the end of the season, though, so if he's completely thawed out by September, more power to him.

The biggest problem this show faced was its structure. Like most series, "Supernatural" was patterned on a comibination of mytharc episodes (progressing the overall seasonal storyline) and standalone stories. The standalones followed a very strict and repetitive formula: a bunch of hapless Red Shirts get themselves killed by the Weekly Evil, more or less telling us exactly what's going on. The Winchesters arrive, stumble onto the case via a surviving Red Shirt of varying acting skill/appeal. They argue whether it's "their gig" and research, basically spending a big chunk of each episode catching up with what we already know. The research will inevitably reveal that every culture in the world has a lore that matches the Evil (which seems to be a constant attempt to "justify" the existence of the monster, though I'm not clear why it's necessary each week), leading the brothers to track it down and kill it.

The mytharc is quite different, because it's barely there at all: only four episodes really deal with John Winchester and the Big Bad, with three of those constituting the season finale. It's the result of having a relatively thin seasonal plot - there was a vague idea of the brothers finding both their father and the monster that killed their mother, with no leads or clues or plan. Fortunately, the writers at least understood that this couldn't sustain an entire season; unfortunately, their solution was to just mention it every other episode, bring the whole thing to a head during the finale, and end the season on a cliffhanger stalemate that apparently took everything back to square one. I see that move as treading on very, very thin ice; for its own sake, the second season had better wrap that story up halfway through at the latest, because if it wasn't enough for twenty-two episodes it certainly won't do for forty-four.

Plot problems wouldn't be such a big deal if we could focus on characters instead, but with Sam and Dean being the only recurring characters on the show (aside from Meg, but she's folded into the mytharc)... well, they're interesting figures, but again, the minimalist approach has really narrowed the field of possibilities. The set-up is partly to blame - with the brothers driving all over America, it's just not plausible that they'd bump into anyone more than once. Which makes it all the more irritating when someone like Loretta Devine guest-stars, makes a great impression and then vanishes.

Still, I found the first season to be quite entertaining, warts and all. There's a certain washed-out, gritty feel to it that makes for a nice contrast with its fantastical premise, and I'm genuinely curious to see what comes next. It's a bit in danger of wearing out its main storyline, but there's still a ways to go until that becomes a serious problem.

Now, onto the fandom. Most fanfic writers tend to draw the line at incest as the one taboo even they don't dare break, either because it's a personal squick or because it's nigh-impossible to pull off believably. As far as I know, the last fandom to even conceive of an incestuous pairing as a remote possibility was "Firefly", and that was hardly met with unanimous approval. "Supernatural", on the other hand, appears to have encouraged a massive influx of writers who have no trouble with the idea of Sam and Dean expressing their love horizontally.

It's an interesting phenomenon to analyze, not least of which because the writers point to the show as setting up the foundation for that specific type of relationship. I don't necessarily agree; there's no subtext I could use to support that interpretation aside from a handful of characters occasionally mistaking them for lovers. But since that usually highlights the naivete of the Red Shirts, we're probably not supposed to read too much into it.

On the other hand, I can see a case being made where the writers inadvertantly left themselves open to this the moment they disconnected Sam and Dean from the rest of the world. For all intents and purposes, the Winchesters don't actually exist in society, they've been raised from childhood to live beyond the fringe, below the radar, outside any kind of social context. And since incest (specifically of the brother/brother variety) is a social taboo rather than a biological one, it's just one more rule they're in the perfect position to break. Beyond that, it's simply the default: there literally isn't anyone else who could factor into a romantic equation. Dean has his various flings, but if you're aiming for emotional attachment the only viable candidate is Sam. Sure, it's deeply fucked-up, but then, so are the characters.

Purely on a creative level, there's something appealingly challenging about trying to write The Incest Scenario. After all, it requires much more plausible justification than your average erotica/homoerotica. The subject matter may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I certainly appreciate the fact that it forces writers to work harder at selling the pairing, simply because it's so outrageous. Hell, I'll probably end up taking a stab at it myself if I ever get the time to continue "From The Ashes".

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Shows Must Go On

Okay, so for a long time I just didn't watch TV, you know? Too much going on in my life, and typically only one show has ever held my interest at a time ("Lost", "Joan of Arcadia" before that, and "Buffy" before that). I've decided my palette needs a little more variety, so here's what's going on with me right now. Prepare ship for ludicrous speed (and some rambling)...

1) "Lost" is dropped as of season 2, episode 20. I adored the first season largely because of its characters, so naturally the second season focused almost entirely on the hatches and the buttons and the Others, and I just don't care. The subplots dragged on and on, and you know a show's in deep trouble when Foxy Matthew and Holla-My-Way Josh aren't enough to keep me interested. This being a JJ Abrams production, I wouldn't be shocked to learn that the writers (which include Jeph Loeb, God help us all) are making it up as they go along. Has "Alias" taught them nothing? Other than "changing your hair color will not make you any less of a loser"? Or "Close-ups of Victor Garber recall The Head That Ate Texas"? Now, I was willing to ride out the slump in the hopes that things would improve towards the end of the season. And then they killed off Ana-Lucia (Michelle Rodriguez), either because she got a DUI (according to the fans) or for shock value (according to the writers). Whether it's one or the other, it was a cheap way to dispose of a very interesting character, and practically the only woman on the show who wasn't a whimpering twit most of the time. To hell with it, then. They can stay lost for all I care.

2) "Veronica Mars": Oh my GOD, how did I miss this when it first started airing? I just finished the first season a few days ago and was utterly blown away. See, I always felt I would've enjoyed Nancy Drew if she wasn't such a bloody girl scout, and here comes Kristen Bell with a whole bunch of astonishingly good actors to pull off one of the most enthralling TV mysteries I've ever seen. It was truly phenomenal; I was watching four episodes a day towards the end of it. I'll be receiving the second season in short order, but if it's half as good as the debut, I'm in for some solid television right there.

3) Okay, I admit that "Supernatural" is more of a guilty pleasure than genuinely good. It hits my Buffy Nostalgia button (mind you, in The Canon According To Diana, that show ended with its third season), plus the main characters are hella hot and the writing only sucks a little bit (I've seen far worse, which probably says more about my tolerance levels than about the actual quality of the show). Sure, the fandom seems unusually preoccupied with The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Zip Code, but it's not a "Smallville" thing where the subtext practically overwhelms the text (yes, RedKryptonite!Clark, tell us again how you want to run away to Metropolis with Lex and how you like the way your names sound together. Zod no longer desires you to kneel, son of Jor-El - he can't be sure where you've been).

4) I've got "House", "Freaks and Geeks", "Hex" and "Prison Break" on the way - all shows with very good reputations, all very different. I'll probably post a comment or two on each as I get into it.

Friday, June 9, 2006

Movie Review: Jacob's Ladder

Or: "Hey, seeing Tim Robbins butt-naked would drive anyone crazy."

Ugh. No cookie for this one.

Once again, my taste for "rubber reality" psychodramas has led me to a film that starts up well enough and falls painfully flat at the end.

Jacob Singer is a survivor of the Vietnam War - he was seriously injured in a mysterious attack, and left for dead. An unknown amount of time later, he's in New York, working at the Post Office, living with a woman after divorcing his wife, and dealing with the premature death of his youngest son. Things seem to be going well, until Jacob starts seeing creatures that can only be described as demons - they follow him, they terrorize him, they get into his head and trap him in horrific hallucinations. And his flashbacks keep leading him back to that attack in Vietnam.

From what I've seen, this movie gets a lot of praise for going against the convention of delivering a straight denouement to the mystery. But that's not what actually happens - we do get a perfectly reasonable, rational explanation for what's going on, and then it's tossed out the window in favor of a decidedly less-straightforward resolution. And... well, it just doesn't work. The penultimate revelation makes too much sense, as it were: we're led to believe that Singer and his troop were exposed to a mind-altering substance, causing them to turn on each other - that substance is also responsible for his waking nightmares, his temporary bouts of insanity, his sudden fevers... all very nice and neat. Then, in the last five minutes of the movie, everything goes spiritual, and we basically get a "Sixth Sense" ending where Jacob's visions were actually delusions within delusions. And it's just too much to attribute to a single man's mind.

The acting is generally okay; Tim Robbins plays the part of the hysterical and tortured veteran rather well, though I could have gone the rest of my life without seeing his flabby ass. Most of the other characters don't hang around long enough to leave any kind of impression except for the uncredited Macaulay Culkin, who was young enough (and silent enough) to still be considered cute.

It would have made a great movie, if Adrian Lyne hadn't insisted on pulling a David Lynch on us at the last minute - as it stands, "Jacob's Ladder" is guilty of being deliberately obscure for the sake of pretense, of appearing to be more unfathomable than it really is.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Kingdom Hearts 2

Or: "I have to kill Xemnas how many times?!"

Well, I've beaten "Kingdom Hearts 2". Not completely - I didn't do the journal missions, and Sephiroth cut me to pieces with five blows - but I figure that'll give me something to do when I replay it. The big surprise here is that I really, really enjoyed it.

It's not that I disliked the first game, mind you. I thought it was a lot of fun. But I tend to prioritize story and characters over gameplay (big surprise, huh?), and "Kingdom Hearts" fell a bit flat in that respect. But the sequel provides a much more intricate storyline; it's not sophisticated on the level of a "Final Fantasy" game, but it certainly holds its own. This is largely because - in contrast to the previous game - "Kingdom Hearts 2" actually follows the basic plots of the Disney films it appropriates, inserting Sora and his companions into stories rather than trying to twist the setting to suit their presence. Ariel makes her deal with Ursula, Belle and the Beast are falling in love, Mulan is trying to infiltrate the Chinese army as a man, etc. At the same time, the Heartless are active on every world, and serve to tie all the separate narratives together. We also have the introduction of the Nobodies and Organization XIII, which serves to thicken the plot. In fact, they practically double the game's length: after defeating the Heartless on every world, you have to go through the sequence again, as Organization members arrive to cause more trouble. On top of that, we have body-switching, false identities and memories, revelations about the past and, of course, the unforgettable Battle of Hollow Bastion and the final fight against Xemnas... a lot's going on.

Character-wise, practically everyone gets bigger and better roles this time, from the Final Fantasy characters to Mickey to the inhabitants of each world. Even Kairi is marginally less annoying this time around, by virtue of actually doing something. Pete is an excellent choice for main villain in the first part of the game, considering the character's history. My only complaint is the return of Maleficent - considering she only plays a minor part that could have been assigned to anyone else, and also taking into account the fact that her resurrection is never properly explained, I don't see the point. We don't even learn what happens to her and Pete, which is a major disappointment. I do have to admit, though, that this game actually moved me to tears on two separate occasions: the first is when Sora boards the "ghost train" at Twilight Town, and the second is during the conclusion, the last time we see Roxas and Namine. There's a deep, understated poignancy in those moments that really got to me.

I still find the whole fortune-cookie-philosophizing to be annoying, though it's less amorphous than the previous game, in which Ansem's door to darkness turns out to be a door to light that's somehow infested with millions of Heartless (so, is it light or darkness? Pick one and stick to it).

All the basic gameplay elements of the previous game are present, but much improved: the Gummi Ship sections were refreshingly simple and enjoyable, the boss fights were all the more interesting thanks to the addition of Reaction commands, and leveling up is still a relatively painless process. I did think all the Drive Forms and Summons were a bit over the top - I doubt I used a tenth of the available support, simply because I didn't need it.

It's plainly obvious that the creative team went all-out in providing new and enthralling game worlds, specifically worlds you wouldn't necessarily expect to see based on the first game (Port Royal, the Pride Lands, and especially Space Paranoids - side note, Corey Burton does an amazing job recreating David Warner's voice for Commander Sark. I could barely tell the difference). There's a section called "Cornerstone Hill" where you go back in time to Disney circa "Steamboat Willie", and it's just the cutest thing ever. Atlantica was... well, it was different, which counts for something in a game already full of diverse elements. The musicals were tolerable, but hard to enjoy considering you have to be focused on reflexive button-pushing.

Final thought: this might be the slash addict in me talking, but someone should really tell Tetsuya Nomura that Sora seems to be much more interested in Riku than Kairi. For future reference, the hero should save the crying and the hand-holding and the drop to his knees for the girl, his supposed love interest. Unless you're trying to say something else. Which you probably aren't. But still, that's two games now where Kairi's pretty much an afterthought.

"Kingdom Hearts 2" is a fantastic game, one that tries (and succeeds) to give its players a wide array of experiences for a solid 36 hours of fun - and it's worth every minute.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Movie Review: Tron

I hadn't actually heard of "Tron" until the character and his world appeared in "Kingdom Hearts 2"; it looked fun, so I decided to check out the original.

And... well, it is fun. Flawed, but fun.

There's a bit of repetition throughout the movie, though I tend to wonder if that's part of the point (ie: the interactions between the MCP and Sark follow the same patterns over and over again, but they're programs, what else could they do?). The plot's also a touch on the simple side; it might have worked out better had the "real world" been ignored completely, thus making Tron the actual protagonist of the story. One of my favorite television series, "Reboot", did just that, and you never really knew if the "Users" existed, or what kind of entities they were. Here, the programs' quasi-religious belief in their creators is deflated because we see them, and we know they're only human. At the same time, Flynn's presence does create an interesting parallel between the real world and the digital world - as he tells Tron and Yori, things aren't really much better where he's from. The MCP is just another tyrant who wants everything to go his way, a human creation exhibiting human traits.

I think I was actually more impressed with the computer effects here than in something like "The Matrix" - for a film produced in 1982, "Tron" manages to do much with relatively little resources. Oh, I suppose it's crude by today's standards, but there's an aesthetic quality to the way the digital world was designed that still holds up today.

It's not a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination; that said, it's enjoyable in its own way.