Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Season in Review: Torchwood S2

After being moderately pleased with the first season of "Torchwood", I find I'm not quite as forgiving of its faults the second time around. It may be that this season missed so many opportunities, fumbled away so much of its potential, that I really can't overlook those mistakes again. Let's do an episode-by-episode breakdown:

1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:

Once again, the inevitable Buffy comparison rears its head - like "Anne", the third-season BTVS premiere, Torchwood kicks off without Jack Harkness. And we see a different team, doing their best to keep their head above the water, with less-than-favorable results. This, of course, is done with an eye towards stressing how vital the protagonist is, and how the others just can't do without them. Which, in fairness, is a perfectly legitimate technique... but when Whedon did it, there was a personal dimension at work too, because Buffy's friends had been hurt - emotionally - by her abandonment of them. There were trust issues for months afterwards. Aside from Gwen, no one seems to care that much that Jack left, and what's worse, he has absolutely no trouble sliding into the driver's seat again. As I've said, this is a case where the tools for a proper dramatic arc are practically laid out at the writers' feet, and no one capitalizes on the opportunity.

(It's a recurring problem with Jack specifically, in that he's become a sort of Teflon Man: nothing sticks to him, even when it should.)

That said, the bright spot in this episode was the introduction of John Hart as the anti-Jack. I'm a sucker for the "dark mirror" archetype, it's such a fascinating character dynamic, and it mostly works here: John is a negative-image of Jack taken to extremes, nihilistic and lecherous and deceitful, and these are all qualities I can imagine (a little too easily, to be honest) in Jack. James Marsters was disappointing in the role, as he stuck annoyingly close to the Spike template, but I liked the character.


2. Sleeper:

Not much to say about this one: Beth is an effective one-off character, sympathetic to the extent that we understand her final decision but not enough that we really mourn her. My larger criticism here has to do with what seems to be set up here versus what actually happens - we're told the sleepers are advance scouts for an invasion force, and it's not clear that stopping them deters the invasion in any way. Well... where are the invaders, then? The episode seems to imply that Torchwood will have to face this threat again, on a much larger scale, in the future, but that never materializes. Hell, the writers could've tied this into the finale by associating the sleepers with the same aliens that destroyed Jack's home, but... well, that's another ball dropped.


3. To The Last Man:

I liked this one. Mostly because I'm fond of Toshiko, for reasons I'll admit are less than clear to me, but also because this is a rare instance in which the writers slap together a temporal paradox that actually holds up under scrutiny: Tommy was always going to get the Rift Manipulator into the past, that's how Jack knew what happened to him, and Toshiko is stuck going through the motions of a destiny that's been set in stone.


4. Meat:

And this is The One Where Rhys Finds Out. I'm somewhat amused to see that I like Rhys a lot more this season, while my affinity for Jack has decreased (I think the writers pushed him over the line from adorable to obnoxious once too often) - Rhys ultimately becomes the only character willing to call Jack's BS to his face, and that's refreshing.

I do wish, though, that the A-plot had been less preachy and awkward: Free Willy's cosmic cousin was just gross, and Jack lamenting the thing's fate? Too bizarre for my tastes.


5. Adam:

Psychic attack is an inversely-proportionate dramatic technique: the more overt it is, the less effective it becomes. You can look at any '00s Claremont comic as an example - his use of mind control is never particularly engaging. Subtler forms of mental manipulation, on the other hand, can be truly terrifying (see: the infamous "24 Hours" issue of "Sandman" or the "Torn" arc of "Astonishing X-Men"), and while I suppose this episode would've been much more effective had the characters been developed enough to really mutate under Adam's influence, it still does a good job of warping the characters (Owen in particular) just enough to be disconcerting.


6-8. Reset/Dead Man Walking/A Day In The Death:

I'm grouping these three together because they're pretty much a three-part episode.

Having never seen "Doctor Who", the significance of Martha Jones is somewhat lost on me; as always, though, "Torchwood" can be commended for its accessibility. Martha used to run with Jack and the Doctor; she doesn't anymore; she saved the world once. That's pretty much all you need to know, and it's delivered very concisely.

Unfortunately, that's more or less all we get out of Martha. The first two episodes put her in life-threatening situations and she's barely around for the third act. As guest-appearances go, particularly one that plays upon the shared-universe connection, you'd think something more... well, significant would happen. It did make me wonder whether "Torchwood" would be a good "dumping ground" for the Doctor's former companions, which must have reached Legion of Superheroes proportions by now, but I maintain that it'd only be interesting if the "Torchwood" writers had the freedom to do things with the characters (reports indicate Freema Agyeman will be returning to "Doctor Who" this season, which may explain why nothing actually happened to her throughout her stay with Torchwood).

The other major development in this trilogy is a (relatively) major transformation of one of the characters. Now, when you're dealing with small casts (and by today's standards, five characters is rather small), killing or permanently altering just one can have massive impact on the viewers. Done with an eye towards the overall series, it can divide your entire perception of the story into "before and after" - before Julius Caesar died ("Rome") and after, before the Chosen conquered the city ("The Tribe") and after.

Of course, this only works if you care enough about the target character to be affected by the change. And the writers chose Owen Harper, possibly the most unlikeable character on the show. A sarcastic prick barely tolerable in the margins, completely cut off from every other character except Toshiko, and that relationship is so one-sided it might as well be nonexistent. Setting aside the fact that when the dust settled, nothing much had changed aside from some inexplicable rapport with Weevils, spending three episodes on Poor Poor Owen was a total waste. If it had happened to Ianto or Gwen, that'd be something different, because they have some redeeming qualities. But Owen? Hell, I was glad to see him suffer. I was half-expecting it to be some huge cosmic comeuppance and that he'd emerge a better man. But he didn't. So it was a total waste.


9. Something Borrowed:

Another major episode for Rhys, so I enjoyed it. However, this episode brought to the forefront the biggest flaw in the intra-team dynamic - what the hell is going on with Jack, Gwen and Ianto? Not so much a story-line as an erratic squiggle, there are episodes where Gwen and Jack have no chemistry whatsoever, it's all given over to Jack and Ianto, but then there are times when it seems Gwen's the one Jack wants and Ianto is just convenient. This has been done a thousand times before, so the possibilities are clearly delineated: Ianto resents Gwen, or Gwen resents Ianto, or Jack is legitimately torn between two lovers, or Jack is settling for second-best because he can't have his first choice. But doing nothing at all? A first, I'm sure, but hardly the wisest choice.

Also, this is an episode where Jack Saving The Day is shoehorned in quite awkwardly, and probably contributed to my coming off the character. Rhys had a damn chainsaw in his hands - there was no reason not to give him a win in the Fighting Aliens column. But it's as if "Torchwood" writers have made Jack Must Save The Day a Commandment, and it's a shame. That way leads to overexposure.


10. From Out of the Rain:

My least-favorite episode of the season. Like the fairies last season, the premise is very bizarre and "unscientific", too vague to hold my interest. As soon as you introduce magic into a scientific world, you're pretty much saying that anything goes... but there's no way you can reliably fight "anything goes".


11. Adrift:

Another good episode, particularly noteworthy for Andy suddenly getting a more prominent role vis-a-vis his feelings for Gwen. It's a pity they only came up with that angle three episodes before the season finale, because it might've been an interesting storyline for Gwen (or at least a better choice for an affair than Owen). In fact, there's a glimmer of a great Gwen arc here, because Suzie's prophecy has come true: the job's gotten inside Gwen's head, it's changed her, and both Rhys and Andy - the men in her life who were there before Torchwood - can see what she's become. And they're not happy about it. Rhys' outburst was especially memorable, though I'm not sure the writers intended for me to take his side...


12-13. Fragments/Exit Wounds:

The season ends with two of the best episodes to date. "Fragments" is the long-awaited "secret origins" episode, where we get backstory on Owen, Ianto, Toshiko and Jack. There's some good use of continuity (ie: Ianto's desperation has to do with Lisa) and a brief glance at earlier incarnations of Torchwood... interesting stuff for the most part.

"Exit Wounds" is more problematic. To be fair, it's not as though Gray's return hadn't been foreshadowed, and using John as a decoy works because you see him and immediately assume the worst. But, having caused more damage than any enemy Torchwood has ever faced, Gray isn't really dealt with in a manner that suggests End-Season-Big-Bad. It kind of peters out, though the body count is surprisingly high and I actually ended up feeling a touch sad for one of the casualties (you can probably guess who I'm talking about).

All in all, a disappointing season dominated by could-have-been scenarios. Better luck next time, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Movie Review: Cloverfield

"Cloverfield" is one of those movies everyone's talked about that somehow went clear over my head, so I finally decided to check it out last night.

Strictly on the level of plot, it's surprisingly similar to another movie I'd seen last month, "The Mist": in both films, something otherworldly comes out of the darkness and wreaks havoc, but the story works around the monster rather than be about the monster; the human element is where the true focus lies. I actually prefer this approach to monster-centric stories where the people are little more than cannon fodder, so that worked out nicely for me.

If "The Mist" demonstrates how horror can bring out the worst in humanity, I think "Cloverfield" delivers the opposite message - faced with a threat beyond comprehension, Rob's determination to save Beth is nothing less than heroic, and that plays a big part in the way the audience is swept up into the action.

The most controversial (and innovative) aspect of the movie is the way it was filmed: the entire narrative is presented to us in the form of a digital recording from a handheld camera, wielded by various characters throughout the movie. It's disconcerting to say the least, but highly effective, because it enables a handful of cinematic and narrative tricks that couldn't have been done otherwise. For example, since we're basically seeing through the cameraman's eyes, anything that happens to him disrupts our field of vision as though it were happening to us. That puts the viewer into the story in a way the traditional "omnipresent observer" never is. I also think that, because we're so closely linked to these characters, we sympathize with them despite the lack of characterizataion - going back to my discussion of "Torchwood" with kazekage, it's broadly possible to create ciphers you can care about, and "Cloverfield" does this quite well.

Another trick has to do with apparent damage the tape has sustained (foreshadowing the film's penultimate moments): on several occasions, the tape skips back to a recording of Rob and Beth from a month ago, creating a powerful contrast between the idyllic "good day" they shared and the hellish present that threatens to engulf them. It's rather clever.

I ultimately ended up liking "Cloverfield" very much; the gimmicks work much better than I expected, without overwhelming the movie.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Season In Review: Jericho S2

If the WGA Strike has taught us anything, it's that there are certain benefits to condensed storytelling. Exhibit A: the second (and final) season of "Jericho".

As I've said before, there are perfectly valid reasons why this show just can't grab a large enough audience to sustain itself, despite being relatively well-written, with a strong cast. Taking that into account, its revival is doubly impressive.

But coming back with a shortened (only seven episodes) season had an interesting impact on the series, especially given the grave - and eventually justified - doubts about any subsequent return. In effect, the writers had seven episodes to wrap up as many storylines as they could while still moving forward with some kind of seasonal arc.

Much to my surprise, they went and did just that.

Of course, compressed storytelling has a price - much of the supporting cast members were either relegated to the margins (Mary, Emily, Dale, Gray) or completely forgotten (Jonah, Skylar, Hawkins' kids, Gail except for that wonderfully subversive moment during Jake's interrogation). But at the same time, there was a great degree of internal continuity throughout the second season: Ravenwood's return, the ascension of Tomarchio, Constantino's schemes, Chavez's appearance and so on. I honestly didn't expect to get that feeling of completion, of a story drawing to its natural close, from such an abbreviated span of episodes... but I did. It's a sharp contrast to the cliffhanger conclusion we got last season, where it was nigh-impossible to walk away satisfied because nothing was resolved.

Looking back, I wonder if this approach could have helped other shows that didn't quite live up to their potential - it might've been better, in the long run, if the second season of "Heroes" had omitted Sylar, Maya and Alejandro altogether; that was a lot of screen-time given to a plotline that, in the final analysis, amounted to very little. Likewise, the strike has forced "Supernatural" to end its third season five or six episodes early, bringing the seasonal arc to a boil much sooner than is usually the case - and yet, that's an improvement, because what's normally happened is the "myth-arc" episodes get scattered throughout the season with very little rhyme or reason, to the extent that the episode prior to the two-part finales never had anything to do with the big climax. It's likely no coincidence that series with shorter seasons, like "Weeds", "Dexter" and "Burn Notice", manage to pull off a much more cohesive story with a minimum of useless filler.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Season In Review: In Treatment

When I first talked about "BeTipul" (English translation: "In Therapy"), I had no idea HBO would be adapting it for an American audience. With the first American season now complete, I thought it'd be interesting to do a piece-by-piece comparison and see what emerges - and since both "In Treatment" and "BeTipul" were highly character-centric, I'll focus on the actors/characters.

Gabriel Byrne/Paul Weston vs. Asi Dayan/Reuben Dagan: No contest here, folks. Dayan was a tired, sad-sack mess long before "BeTipul" started, and it showed - he spent the entire season on the edge of falling asleep on-camera (when he wasn't coked out or whatever the hell he does these days). It was just impossible to care about his performance given how apathetic he looked most of the time. Gabriel Byrne is much more kinetic, even when he's just talking, and his rage-out at Alex was much more effective than Dayan stumbling out of his chair and wagging his finger. Winner: HBO

Melissa George/Laura vs. Ayelet Zorer/Neama: Ah, here's a tricky one. On the one hand, George's performance was much more seductive, which is certainly in line with Laura's character... but by not going over the top, Zorer managed to come off as more "realistic", in a sense. I mean, there were certainly a few moments during the final Laura episodes when George oversold her role, and that had a problematic effect on the end of her storyline, because she ended up telegraphing the twist (that, as Gina predicted, she would reject Paul if he capitulated - it's not quite that clear in the Israeli version, you're left wondering whether Neama might really love Reuben for reasons other than transference). Winner: Israel

Blair Underwood/Alex vs. Lior Ashkenazi/Yadin: My crush on Ashkenazi aside, this is another example of an HBO actor going a little too far with the part. Alex/Yadin is supposed to be arrogant and unlikeable, but Underwood went to extremes with everything - the attitude, the monologues, he even falls apart in a much more grandiose way than Ashkenazi's relatively subdued meltdown. Another nitpick has to do with the extent of the revisions: his father was originally written as a Holocaust survivor, which (I felt) played much more strongly to the themes of strength and survival at all costs. It actually turned out a bit awkward in the HBO version, because Alex Sr. ends up playing the race card at a somewhat irrelevant moment - it just doesn't work. Furthermore, the HBO version more or less absolves Paul of all responsibility in Alex's death: in the Israeli version, Yadin's final session lasts about five minutes. He shows up in uniform, announces that he's going back, and when he asks Reuben whether he should fly, Reuben says nothing. That's why he feels guilty, because he never actually asks Yadin to question whether this is the right thing for him. It's Reuben's great failure, and the HBO version skips over it entirely by devoting an entire therapy session to Alex. So there's no pathos there at all. Winner: Israel

Mia Wasikowska/Sophie vs. Maya Maron/Ayala: Sometimes the simplicity of the casting process astounds me. How's this for a revelation - if you're looking for someone to play a 16-year-old, try aiming in that general age range. Maya Maron was probably the most sympathetic character in the Israeli cast, but Wasikowska trumps her easily, both because she looks the part of the young, vulnerable yet wrathful girl and also because she performs it excellently. Winner: HBO

Josh Charles/Jake and Embeth Davitz/Amy vs. Rami Hoiberger/Michael and Alma Zak/Orna: I liked that they cast a South African actress as Amy, as if to further stress the enormous differences between her and Jake. This storyline was practically translated intact, so I don't have much to say about it in terms of comparison: both pairs worked out nicely, though my one nitpick for this week was the rewrite of the eighth session, after Alex's death. Originally, the script called for Reuben's and Michael's conversation to be hallucinatory - the lights turn on and off, and when they go out the conversation shifts to Yadin's death, and when they turn back on for the last time, Michael is gone: he was never there, it was just a way for Reuben to deal with his guilt. I still find that ambiguous episode to be better than doing the parental bit with Jake, it was especially repetitive given that we'd only just finished digging up Amy's skeletons. Draw

Dianne Wiest/Gina vs. Gila Almagor/Gila: Gina/Gila is my favorite character, not just because she's the only person who can cut through Paul's BS but also because she actively resists the narrative she's being forced into, constantly challenging what we, through Paul, know about her. I was surprised to hear that the role had gone to Dianne Wiest - my immediate reaction was "Well, geez, she's too nice." And she is: the most dominant aspect of Gila Almagor's original performance is the way she could adopt this withering, critical, almost disgusted look whenever Reuben indulged himself too much - Wiest doesn't have that, not even during their climactic Charlie/David argument. Winner: Israel

As for the bit players... well, Ian never had any screen time in the Israeli version, his character was conflated with Rosie's in the form of Reuben's daughter Rona. Paradoxically (but, I feel, more realistically), Rona is both the one who takes her father's side and the one who chooses to confide in her mother. Michelle Forbes was great as Kate, she channeled the character's anger really well. And it was nice seeing Peter Horton again as Sophie's needy father.

Overall, barring a few glitches towards the end of the run, I honestly think "In Treatment" acquitted itself nicely. Doesn't seem to have made much of an impression on its audience, but I can't say I'm surprised - it's pretty heavy stuff...