Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: The Odyssey

This was one of my favorite TV shows growing up, and I recently reacquired it. It's been a fun couple of weeks.

While attempting to retrieve his deceased father's telescope from some bullies, 12-year-old Jay Ziegler suffers a head injury and lapses into a coma. Moments later, he finds himself in a feudal, post-apocalyptic (yet strangely familiar) world, populated entirely by children. He befriends Alpha and Flash - mirror images of his best friend Donna and his rival Keith - and sets out on a quest that, like Jay himself, is constantly evolving.

It's strange to look back at this childhood relic with adult eyes. The first time around, my appreciation of "The Odyssey" was mostly superficial: it was a highly entertaining drama-adventure story, lead actor Illya Woloshyn was cute, and I loved Andrea Nemeth as Medea, an aristocratic sorceress who manipulates and blocks Jay at every turn.

But watching it today, I find I enjoy it on a much deeper level. Granted, most of the complexities I now see are relegated to subtext (this is primarily a children's show, after all), but it was still surprising to see how "The Odyssey" subtly dabbles with complicated psychological, social and pseudo-supernatural issues. For example, it's assumed that Downworld (the producers' name for the adult-free world) exists in Jay's head, and external circumstances in the real world affect events in Downworld... but there are also moments when Downworld appears to be a legitimate reality all its own. In the first-season finale, Medea steals an escape route from Jay, and moments later Donna sees an identical girl, comatose, wheeled in next to Jay's room as a faint afterimage of Medea appears, laughing victoriously. When next we see her, she claims to have visited Jay's world.

Another interesting aspect of the show is the way it toys with the traditional quest narrative. Many contemporaries of "The Odyssey" dealt with the conflict between a finite quest and a (potentially) infinite ongoing series by simply erasing the last stage of the quest, "Samurai Jack" being a particularly noteworthy recent example: at the start of every episode, Jack finds some way to get home, then he endures some horribly difficult trial to get to the MacGuffin du Jour, only to have it destroyed at the last minute. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But "The Odyssey" doesn't do that. Rather, the series is built on a chain of smaller quests, each of which is completed in its turn. At first, all Jay wants is to find a way home, but this gets subverted when he suspects that Brad, the formerly benevolent (and now mysteriously despotic) ruler of Downworld, may be his father. He then spends the rest of the first season trying to reach the Tower, the center of all Downworld authority and seat of Brad's power. And when he meets Brad, he finds a new objective, and spends the second season alternately wanting to escape Downworld and trying to return when the real world hits him with some particularly ugly truths. The second season ends on a literal world-smashing note.

Then the third season breaks the mold: four months have passed since Jay woke up, but adjusting to regular life is difficult because he's lost two years and can't quite seem to catch up. At the same time, he's also in a radically-changed Downworld where everyone's getting older and it's scaring them witless. The third season made some very interesting changes to the formula, aside from simultaneously taking place in both worlds: Jay's personality takes a darker turn, the abstract and oddly-wonderful locations of past seasons are replaced with shadowy tunnels, wild forests and the oppressive atmosphere of the Tower, and Downworld becomes much more strongly tied to Jay's feelings and wishes: his relationship with Medea becomes inversely proportionate to his relationship with her Upworld counterpart Sierra, whose boyfriend Mick becomes the scheming grand villain Finger in Downworld.

"The Odyssey" is one of the few shows that, to me, withstood the test of time; I can't think of many other shows I liked as a kid that could still appeal to me (though I stand by my preference of the Misfits over Jem and the Holograms - given the choice of tough women scratching out their claim to fame or ditzes mooning about double lives and true loves, I'll never regret picking the former). And while the acting can be awkward at times (these were children, after all, though a young Ryan Reynolds puts in a very amusing performance as the usurper Macro), it's still a lot more professional than other child-oriented and child-centric series I've seen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Season in Review: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Sorry for disappearing yet again, it's Crunch Time at the university and there just aren't enough hours in the day...

Here's a preface I'm sure you've all heard before: I liked the first Terminator movie, loved the second, hated the third. It's probably not too much of a stretch to attribute to "Rise of the Machines" the same kind of franchise-killing status as, say, "The Dream Child" for "A Nightmare on Elm Street" - the point of no return, when the pie's been jumped and the shark's been eaten.

Taking into account the relatively weak TV season we've had, in which even the strongest shows faltered (why, yes, Tim Kring, your spider-sense is tingling), it was hard to be optimistic about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. There were just so many potential land-mines: the recasting of iconic characters (by which I mean Arnie and Linda Hamilton - I doubt anyone shed a tear for Edward Furlong), the problematic expansion of the premise (time travel and the Terminators themselves, by sheer necessity, become a lot more common than might perhaps be advisable), the very practical question of how far a series can stray from the original story as established by the films before it loses itself, and a certain degree of demystification, in which we're given unambiguous access to things that had previously been left to our imagination.

Fortunately, it all seems to have turned out rather well.

Mind you, I have doubts about how far this show can run on its own steam - it is, after all, operating on a yes/no premise (can the heroes stop Skynet before Judgement Day?), and you only have to look at "X-Files" to see how that trap is sprung: "Do aliens exist? Yes No Yes No Maybe." (For a more modern version of this problem, see "Lost".)

But the first season of "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" has acquitted itself well, mostly by balancing its exploration of the pre-existing premise with new directions (ie: Sarkissian and the Turk). The show takes liberties with the formula without discarding said formula, and that's not an easy balance to achieve. So, props for that.

What I liked most about the show is the way it mythologizes its parent films, not just by referencing continuity but by actively using it. Kyle Reese becomes this huge, legendary figure post-mortem, but then we meet his older brother Derek and our perspective changes. The pilot picks up immediately after the second movie and then jumps into the future, invalidating the third movie in a very satisfying fashion. Sarah's dramatic escape from the mental hospital leads to Dr. Silverman deifying her. And so it goes.

I have to admit, though, there were some storylines that just didn't work for me. I'm thinking specifically of the whole high school thing with John and Cameron pretending to be normal kids - it just didn't feel like it was going anywhere interesting, though the abbreviated nature of the season could've had something to do with that.

The casting's a bit uneven, with strong performances offset by some unfortunate acting decisions. Summer Glau is brilliant as Cameron, John's pet Terminator, and she's all the more impressive if you remember that it's a complete reversal from her last role, where - as River Tam on "Firefly" - she was a manic, erratic ball of energy. Cameron's the exact opposite: static, modulated, calculating, so that the viewers never forget what she is.

As for the others, I could just about buy Lena Headley as an action heroine, but she lacks the intensity Linda Hamilton brought to the character. And Thomas Dekker... to be honest, I think I liked him better when he was cheerful and rebellious in "Heroes" - the John Connor Non-Stop Pity Party Emo Parade isn't working for me, though he earns major points for really pulling off that "reunion" with Kyle in the finale.

Overall, I liked it: at once familiar and fresh, with plenty of violence (a surprising amount of it, actually) and some clever twists on pre-established continuity. I'd strongly recommend watching the first two films before checking it out, though - exposition isn't abundant, and I imagine the effect for someone unfamiliar with the movies is not unlike constantly perceiving something in the corner of your eye that you can't quite see.