Wednesday, October 29, 2008

TV Review: Ashes to Ashes

Is it fair to judge a sequel by the standards of its predecessor?

We do it all the time: any review of a movie with a 2 or a 3 (or a Returns) will have at least one reference to the original. Comics discourse will compare Chris Claremont's current rut to his legendary first run on "Uncanny X-Men", or Brubaker's "Daredevil" versus Bendis' "Daredevil" versus Miller's "Daredevil", and so on. We treat sequels as an extension of the previous narrative, and we naturally expect the follow-up to hold to the same quality as what came before.

But this is a problematic approach, because it overlooks the fact that changes occur outside the diegetic level of the story. Television spin-offs can have different actors, different writers, different directors, and the end result can either surpass the original ("Torchwood" if only for the total and complete absence of Daleks) or fall far beneath ("X-Men 3: The Last Stand"). Sometimes the premise can be set on a completely different path from the original series: "Angel" tried to do a lot of things, especially towards the end, but the one thing it never consciously attempted was imitating "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in terms of plot structure and characterization (ie: seasonal Big Bad vs. Wolfram and Hart as the constant nemesis).

So with that in mind, let's have a look at "Ashes to Ashes", a spin-off of "Life on Mars".

I've always had a love-hate relationship with TV from my native country: for every "Ultraviolet" you get a clunker like "Hex", and to this day I have yet to see the appeal of "Doctor Who" (sorry, kazekage! Still not sold!).

But I loved "Life on Mars". Oh, it took me a few episodes to really get into it; John Simm is an acquired taste, and DCI Gene Hunt is so very 1973 that I couldn't help frowning every time he harrassed Annie. But Philip Glenister plays the role with so much heart that you can't bring yourself to hate him.

The thing that set "Life on Mars" apart - the thing that, in a broader sense, sets most UK television apart from its American counterpart - is that things are rarely spelled out. Like "Ultraviolet", "Life on Mars" leaves blanks for the viewers to fill in themselves: like the intro says, Sam gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. Is he mad? In a coma? Has he traveled into the past? But the questions run deeper than that, because at times it seems Sam is inadvertantly setting up events that come to pass in the future: he sends Tony Crane to a mental hospital, and thirty years later Tony escapes and torments the comatose Sam. He takes down kingpin Stephen Warren and his own father assumes control of various criminal operations. So is he really following some kind of destiny or is his mind just creating situations to deal with any scenario that arises? And who is the Test Card Girl? We don't know for sure; we're not meant to know for sure. That's why I think the American adaptation is going to fail - even in the pilot, too much effort was made to force-feed the audience, leaving no ambiguity unresolved (Sam considers shooting a younger Colin to save Maya).

Anyway, "Life on Mars" ended with a proper finale that was both tragic and oddly comforting. And then we got "Ashes to Ashes": DI Alex Drake, a psychologist who studied Sam's "delusions", is abducted and shot in the head. She wakes up in 1981 and finds Gene Hunt and his team waiting for her... minus Sam, of course.

The twist, of course, is that Alex believes she's assimilated Sam's fantasy and expects this world to work for her the way it worked for Sam. Only it doesn't: Sam got messages through the television and radio, Alex hears nothing. Sam infrequently saw the Test Card Girl, Alex is chased by a clown (little girl vs. clown, hard to say which one is creepier there). But Gene Hunt is the same... well, mostly.

See, it's that "well, mostly" that makes "Ashes to Ashes" so complicated. It's not really something you can detach from "Life on Mars", if only because Alex never shuts up about it's all in her head (and that right there is a loss of ambiguity, because Sam is never really sure what's going on whereas Alex is utterly convinced and never loses that conviction). On the other hand, if we compare the two, "Ashes to Ashes" is going to come out looking all the poorer.

There are several reasons for this. Number one, Keeley Hawes gives it the old college try, but ye Gods, there are bite marks on every piece of scenery from Manchester to London. She shrieks at the sky, she curses, she quite overtly talks about how everyone is a figment of her imagination - and, of course, for the plot to hold together, people just ignore her or act amused rather than call the men with the white coats.

Number two, the series seems less interested in Alex finding her way around 1981 than it is in shadowy government conspiracies, the near-constant presence of her mother, and a quasi-romantic-triangle.

Number three, there's no counterpart for the absent Annie Cartwright, who served as Sam's confidante. She was the only one Sam was completely honest with, the only person who knew he believed he was from the 21st century. Alex doesn't have that, ostensibly because she doesn't need it - after all, she's 100% positive that this is all a product of brain damage - but it also means she doesn't have someone in her corner.

Number four - and this is the big one - Alex has a daughter. She has a rock-solid motive to return to 2008, and nothing can change that. Therein lies the problem: she's not at all tempted by the world of 1981. One of the best ongoing themes in "Life on Mars" was the way Sam was gradually falling in love with 1973, especially given the little we see of his cold, lonely existence 30 years later. Alex doesn't have any similar dilemma; if she finds a way "out", she'll take it without a second thought. No tension at all.

Number five, this series puts Gene Hunt in a very different light. "Life on Mars" had him as the lawless anti-hero, the guy who bends laws for what he thinks is the greater good. Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's wrong. And Sam constantly struggled against that, the voice of morality to Hunt's amorality. But eight years later, when Alex Drake arrives, the police - and Gene specifically - fall so heavily under public scrutiny that Gene is quite visibly emasculated; he's dealing with lawyers, he's feeling past his prime, and it'd be an interesting turn for the character if Sam were still around, but Alex isn't inclined to care about his problems - not real, remember? - so, despite the fact that Glenister is still bringing his A Game to the picture, it doesn't work.

All things considered, "Ashes to Ashes" doesn't really live up to the excellence of "Life on Mars". And I think that, even if we were to detach the series from its progenitor (easy enough given that, after the pilot episode, Sam is never mentioned again, and Annie is never mentioned at all), it still wouldn't work: the plot is all over the place, Hawes constantly overacts, and it feels as though "Ashes to Ashes" provides too many answers - there's no uncertainty, no mystery, nothing to contradict Alex when she goes on and on about how her brain created the entire scenario and everyone in it. And that's such a big part of the appeal - not just for "Ashes to Ashes" but for British TV in general - that doing without it seems like a loss of some kind.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

And with yesterday's episode...

"Heroes" has finally, firmly crossed into WTF Territory. Here be dragons.

To be fair, they're still doing some things right. But as I watched yesterday's episode, I started thinking about storylines I care about this season vs. storylines I don't care about. And it's tilting pretty heavily in favor of the latter:

Hiro and Ando? So over the unfunny antics. It was nice the first time around, now it's just "meh".

Peter? Going dark-side is an interesting turn... or it would be, if we didn't have Claire and Mohinder doing the same while Sylar, of all people, gets a redemption subplot (uncomfortable S6 Spike flashbacks ahoy!).

Matt? There's no end to the tedium there.

Nathan and Tracy? If I hear "God" one more time... sure, it's nice that the latest twist subverted the whole Touched By An Angel bit, but still. It wears thin.

Sylar? Like I said, the whole redemption thing is just not working. Wasn't set up properly, and it's being rushed, and I still don't get a sense of why Sylar wants to stop killing when it's never seemed to bother him before.

Claire? Again, having her take a darker turn is a risky but intriguing development precisely because she's always been the "heart" of the series - and it would be great, if her storyline wasn't getting lost in the shuffle of so many characters switching sides.

Mohinder and Maya? Ugh.

What all this goes to show is that I'm either lukewarm or downright bored with pretty much every storyline that's running now. Where "Heroes" has been excelling is in specific moments and scenes, such as yesterday's last-minute reveal (which makes sense, for a change). It's enough, I suppose, though I'm doubting I'll be on board for season 4 if things don't turn around. There's still ample time, but it feels like Tim Kring's got an entirely wrong-headed approach to the situation: trying to recapture the fun of the first season is all well and good, but replicating the first season isn't the way to go. And bowing further to actors'/characters' popularity even when they've served their in-story purpose (ie: Sylar) isn't doing anyone any favors. Don't get me wrong, I adored S1 Sylar and Zachary Quinto is hotter than the Merciless Peppers of Quetzlzacatenango, but his character arc is textbook dead-ended.

Hard to say whether "Heroes" has actually jumped the shark yet; the third season is off to a horribly awkward start, but there's still time to turn things around. One thing's for sure, though: This Is Not My Beautiful Show.

(Same as it ever was?)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

First Impressions: Sanctuary

We're two episodes in (three, if you count the 90-minute pilot as separate episodes), and I'm still not sure where I stand with regards to "Sanctuary".

On paper, it's thematically similar to shows I've seen (and enjoyed) in the past, such as "The Middleman", "Ultraviolet" and "Torchwood" - an ordinary person is recruited into a mysterious organization that studies (and hunts) paranormal activities. So even if it doesn't blow me away, there's enough of a precedent that I'd at least find it entertaining.

Except... well, it's a bit muddled, especially when you look at the differences between the pilot episode and last week's "Fata Morgana". The pilot assigned our "normal" protagonist, Will Zimmerman, with perceptive skills that bordered on the inhuman - he could reconstruct a crime by giving the crime scene a once-over. Obviously, this makes him unique enough to join said mysterious organization (in this case, the titular Sanctuary run by Dr. Helen Magnus, more on her in a bit). But there's no mention of this in the next episode; he's depicted as just a run-of-the-mill forensic psychologist, and not a particularly good one given the end results of "Fata Morgana".

Which is more or less the episode that really messed up my first impression. The pilot, for all its obvious green-screen moments and the cheesy bits, was still interesting enough to warrant checking out the next episode, but "Fata Morgana" really doesn't work: having established a quasi-scientific uniform rationale for the various creatures and situations that arise, the second (third?) episode of "Sanctuary" deals with... witches. And aside from a line of dialogue that posits how there might be a scientific explanation for 1200-year-old personifications of Death flying around and (not) killing people, no such rationale emerges. And the ending... very odd. It might just be a miniature version of "sophomore slump", so I'm willing to give it another episode or two.

On to more positive aspects, I'm digging Amanda Tapping as Helen Magnus, a sort of Miranda Zero figure (albeit much more charming and quirky). The mother-daughter team-up bit, where Helen's daughter Ashley is Sanctuary's primary field agent (and the requisite team ass-kicker), is new to me - sort of like what "Buffy" would look like if Joyce had been Buffy's Watcher rather than Giles. It adds a whole layer to the boss-underling relationship (or the mother-daughter relationship, depending on how the story plays out - which aspect is more important to this show?).

It does seem to me, though, that the show could've stood to have at least one or two more cast members. Not so much because big casts are necessarily The Way To Go these days - as any second-season star of "Heroes" will tell you (so... Nichelle Nichols' job was to slice up a tomato and take a nap on the couch? We lost West and Monica but got stuck with fucking Maya? Boo! Hiss!) - but for three reasons:

1. Suspension of disbelief is taxed pretty heavily without implying that the entire Sanctuary organization can be successfully run with a three-person staff (four if you include the tech guy, five if you include the monkey-butler, but the point's the same).

2. Character dynamics are going to be extremely limited, because there isn't much you can do in the long-term with three main characters who don't have individual arcs outside the show's central premise. I mean, Will, Ashley and Helen may very well develop their own subplots, but you can be sure they'll all be subordinate to Sanctuary and its operations.

3. No matter how interesting or profound any of these characters will turn out to be, I have a hard time believing they'll be as compelling in six months. The more characters you have in play, the more you can alternate, put a fresher face in the limelight and let the better-explored figures take a breather.

It's hard to say where this show is heading: the potential's there, but I've seen enough shows flop with less. And whatever expectations I had of the pilot were a bit quashed by "Fata Morgana". So another episode or two, maybe, and we'll see where it goes from there...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Why "God Mode" Is Bad For Stories

So: "Supernatural". Apparently, angels and demons are finally at war, with Earth - and the Winchester boys - right in the middle of the conflict.

Now, here's the snafu, and the very real reason why it's rarely a good idea to confirm the existence of God (much less the biblical God) in a fictional narrative that runs the way "Supernatural" does: according to Dean's guardian angel, God gave the order to spring the elder Winchester out of Hell, because He's siding with Heaven and humanity against Lilith and her demons (and, presumably, Lucifer).

Someone please explain to me where I'd find dramatic tension in a situation where God, Creator of the Universe is backing the hero's team. I mean, the show basically says God is actively working to thwart Lilith - "Why'd you do it?" "Because God commanded it. Because we have work for you." And... I just have to stress this. God. Tilts the odds just a bit in Heaven's favor, no? It's not being played like a deity idly watching Ragnarok approach, and apparently we're dealing with New Testament God here, as opposed to "Joan of Arcadia" God who doled out tasks and hints but wouldn't (or couldn't) directly intervene.

So are we supposed to think that Lucifer has a chance of beating God and the Home Team? Uh... whatever? I don't know. It's a weird, weird plot angle and I'm still not comfortable with it.