Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Why Hellbound is the Standout Series for 2021

 An intelligent scripted TV series that holds a mirror to modern culture was never going to be widely embraced.

Hellbound is a South Korean 6 episode series that sees random members of the community receiving messages warning of their time of upcoming death. Bizarre creates appear, brutally killing the condemned, before disappearing again, seemingly into thin air.

As expected, the increase in killings has severe ramifications on society. The plot starts just as the phenomena begins, taking us through the ensuing years.

Hellbound tackles hard issues, including religion, and government: the symbiosis that develops, and the way religious organisations generally adapt to the fears of the many, while benefiting the few.

South Korean dramas are often lauded for quality writing, and this is no exception. But while critics celebrate the series, less enthused reviews by the everyday global audience are showing more about the reviewers, than the material itself.

The anger of those who don't like to think beyond the obvious; the confusion of those who have lost the ability to process storytelling that isn't simply a spoon-fed linear narrative; the indignation of those made uncomfortable at the portrayal of judgmental and dogmatic mindsets.

The unease of those unwilling to consider the role of religion in their behavioural patterns; the boredom of those for whom television only entertains if it is truly empty of social commentary.

The discomfort of those who see aspects of themselves onscreen, and the outrage of those who want to live in a shallow world rather than imagine reshaping it.

…Do I sound critical? That's because I am. Entertainment doesn't need to be empty, or an endless visceral thrill. Contrary to today’s popular thinking, television that challenges are not inherently flawed.

The creatures of Hellbound are a metaphor for occurrences that humanity cannot explain. In response, society will always attempt to create a suitable narrative. This is the way it has always been. And often, when fear prevails, there is an ugliness embedded in the result.

Many have criticised Hellbound for plot holes, when they actually mean character inconsistencies that accurately reflect human irrationality, especially in the face of an existential crisis.

The pandemic itself has shown humanity’s obsession with choosing a narrative: creating a personal or societal mish mash of beliefs to uphold the idea of a reality they can accept. It can be argued, the discomfort and dissatisfaction with Hellbound arises from resentment at this subconscious tendency being placed under scrutiny.

The unknown has always fascinated writers. Hellbound offers us the result of a society dealing with the unexplainable. It also encompasses personal journeys within this context. Often gritty, and gory, it isn’t fun. It’s brutal, challenging, and riveting.

Characters grapple with existential dread, revenge vs justice, the definition of sin, and the complexities of family. While there are traditionally “good” characters, they are in the minority. Almost everyone becomes flawed and erratic under the pressure.

Equating death with “failed” living permeates the human consciousness. Hellbound takes that vague discomfort and moves it to the forefront. The point of life becomes avoiding premature death.

On the technical front, I loved the dark cinematography and the story’s structure. The cast are outstanding. My only real criticism was that the monster CGI wasn’t as disturbing in the way the story itself. I found the dementors in Harry Potter much more unsettling. I think if they had been amorphous, they would have proven more visually impacting.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Watching Pandemic TV Series The Rain During A Pandemic

A virulent virus is a classic science fiction trope. Turns out the reality is not what television predicted.

Fear, the great equaliser

Humanity has a deep fear of illness. In modern times, that fear seems amplified. Science empowers us—until we get sick. Most people exist in a frenzy of healthy practices that are almost religious, attempting to stave off any and every ailment.

 

I started watching The Rain, a scripted drama series from Denmark, while the world was relatively normal. When the show first dropped on Netflix, online criticism pointed out the less than smart choices of our two leads in the opening episodes.

 

Some felt being locked in a bunker from a young age, only to discover the world has gone to hell in a hand basket was no excuse for their poor choices. Looking back, I could laugh in despair at the idea cracking under the pressure of a global pandemic is unrealistic.

 

In a world under siege from a virus, the occasionally short-sighted decisions of these kids are nothing compared to the ludicrous acts we’ve seen from people in 2020. 


When Civilisation jumped the shark

By the time the third season dropped, I was watching a TV show about a pandemic while experiencing a pandemic. What became clear: people’s reactions sit on a much wider spectrum than anyone imagined.

 

In The Rain death is immediate, and the show offers visual manifestations of the virus. Nobody has the option of refusing to believe in what is happening: the after-effect is too immediate. Self-preservation goes without saying.

 

Anything else would be unbelievable. Wouldn’t it? Turns out, in some countries, yes. In others, not so much. The visual element, introduced for television, proved a much-needed component lacking in real life.

 

Outside the scriptwriting rules of the small screen, people decided not to believe in a virus.

 

Where television and reality failed to collide

Science fiction isn’t big on people trying to rationalise and deny away a pandemic. It makes for bad entertainment. Usually at the sight of the first corpse, people get the grim picture. We’re in reaper territory now.

 

Somehow, the real-world pandemic took a weird AF plot twist. From day one, people denied what was happening even while TV screens were filled with footage of mass graves. As the pandemic spread, people clung to misinformation.

 

Denialists turned on realists. 2020 has shown that a sense of self-preservation, humanities gritty survival instinct appears to be lacking. Popular tropes of sci-fi pandemic storytelling are set to fall by the wayside.

 

Understanding the power of affection

TV series The Rain, at its core, is as much about Simone protecting her brother Rasmus as it is about saving the world. The sister-brother bond is everything. In the first two seasons her obsessiveness was a bit annoying. Watching season three proved a different story.

 

From inside a pandemic, Simone’s obsession with her brother and her (eventual) boyfriend Martin doesn’t seem so crazy. Her reckless desire to do anything to protect and save them is no longer abstract, but relatable.

 

Likewise, the need to find her father, no matter how dangerous the journey, makes sense. In a pandemic you’re not so much afraid for yourself, as deeply afraid for the people you love, especially those far away.

 

The constant gut-wrenching anxiousness that drives Simone feels more than an abstract idea. Now, it’s global reality. And when your loved ones are in pandemic hotspots, worrying is a consuming part of your daily life.

 

How the personal interferes with entertainment

When the pandemic hit, personal experiences began to alter how I reacted to certain aspects of The Rain.

 

The character of Simone, who is a responsible person working to save others, breaches the wall to seek help, a choice the plot moves past quickly. As she approaches a house to ask for help, I felt a wave of unexpected anger.

 

How could she be sure she wasn’t spreading the virus? Her casual attitude disgusted me so much I almost turned off the series. Why? Because I live in a place where a closed border and strict quarantine staved off any coronavirus.

 

Simone’s reckless but easily dismissed onscreen act is my society’s real-world ultimate fear. I’m one of the nameless characters in the nearby prop houses, living an infection-free life who knows quarantine border breaches can kill.

 

The real world vs the fictional world

Through the filter of a global pandemic, season 3 of The Rain felt more fictional, and less relatable. Bizarre because in theory it should have more closely aligned with reality. Turned out, the implausible pandemic was the non-scripted one.

 

Privilege has taken a different, unexpected form: the option of ignoring what you cannot control. People choose not believe in a pandemic. As far-fetched as that sounds, many cling to this belief as the bodies pile up.

 

Humanity has apparently lost its will to live, if living takes effort. The obvious step of stopping the spread of a virus, is too much trouble for some. Basic science is dismissed and ignored in favour of misinformation that supports inaction.

 

A plot that makes no sense, in any world.

 

Simone’s version seems like it should be reality, and our world the implausible fiction. The Rain is a place where people scramble to avoid infection, flee from the virus, fight to keep living, and work to find a cure that will allow them to restore society.

 

Shouldn’t that be our truth?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

SCI-FI TV AFTER COVID19


Every global event reshapes what we imagine the future might hold. The legacy of coronavirus on science fiction television is bound to manifest in shifting themes, and fresh focal points. A pandemic leaves an indelible imprint on the cultural psyche. 

Boundaries of what we imagine the future could look like, are stretching. Who knows what paths humanity will take? Below are possible elements you could see driving sci-fi TV in the near future.

Immunity Passports


Science fiction has flirted with the idea of genetic discrimination. Futures where increased risk of disease or mutated genes restricts opportunities. In the present day, COVID19 has seen the emergence of possible immunity passports. 

So far, the general consensus is nebulous antibody time frames are too problematic for passport allocation. But already there have been reports of people trying to catch COVID19 so they can build immunity and qualify for a potential immunity passport.

In a sense, everyday passports are a form of privilege, with rights attached. This takes the concept further. Being allowed to earn money would create an elite working class, and sci-fi lends itself to exploring new forms of prejudice.

The Connect vs The Disconnect


Traditionally sci-fi has always given a nod to the impact of isolation on mental health. Often in space, or a sparsely populated future. Nuclear shelters and closed communities, unknown planetscapes and isolated wilderness.

Two contrasting experiences of living through the pandemic: maintaining social interaction through the internet, and discarding an online presence and embracing the present environment, whether urban or rural.

COVID19 has taken the pressure of isolation from an abstract idea, to a relatable memory. Modern audiences will identify with extreme emotional transitions. The genre’s relationship with existential dread just got real.

Universal Healthcare


Mortality makes humanity vulnerable. By denying access to healthcare, governments control citizens more effectively. That has long been a concern in science fiction entertainment.

In the present, sick people are a massive consumer market. Big Pharma has shown billions can be made treating the unwell. Countries like America tie access to healthcare into work performance. Medical care is packaged as a privilege, not a right. 

This feeds the imagination. Add in COVID19 placing overwhelming pressure on already under-equipped, over-priced systems, and fears over inaccessible healthcare will continue to be at the heart of many future sci-fi stories. 

Disruption of Copyright and Disinformation


“Baddies” hoarding or protecting information is a sci-fi trope. One thing that has been clear during COVID19 is how easily the rules of who owns what information are swept aside in the face of need (i.e. 3D printers used to create copyrighted hospital supplies).

Likewise, the Disinformation Era has continued to rise during COVID19. What is true, what is not, what is presented as truth, and what is accepted as truth have become a complex part of the internet, and social media.

Propaganda sells differently online, and it would seem 1984 was only the first volume in an ongoing series. Dissemination of disinformation will be explored for years to come.  Get set for science fiction that uses lies as much as truth to tell a story.

A Little Laughter


A hallmark of dystopia is often a humorless narrative. Things are grim, characters are dour. Survival is the overarching theme. Expecting the best of anyone becomes a borderline character flaw. 

But after horrific events on a global scale, people are often open to more cheerful television. When the going gets tough, people like to laugh. With sci-fi it’s more a well-crafted blend of humorous interjections through darker threads. 

Audiences still ponder the big stuff. Complex ideas are mulled over around the wise cracks. Here’s to science fiction TV that takes the audience through the emotional spectrum, from tears to laughter while still exploring big ideas.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Dozen Fresh Shows To Watch When Stuck At Home


Since everyone is spending a lot more time indoors these days, here are a host of relatively new scripted dramas to watch. Some are on streaming services, some on YouTube. A wide spectrum of choices with a series for most tastes. 
Picard 


The latest in a long line of releases from the Stark Trek franchise, Picard is beautiful television. I love how it is shot, and the thoughtfulness of the script. Patrick Stewart’s performance is, of course, magnificent. For the most part, references to old Trek and this new reality blend together quite seamlessly.

Stinging social commentary is what science fiction does best. Picard obviously reflects the degeneration of American politics with its representation of a tarnished Star Fleet. Here, most of our heroes of yore are no longer in service, tired and disillusioned by the actions of a governing body that has drifted from its core founding principles.


The sets and special effects are beautiful. The premise has a dash of Firefly spice (which can only be a good thing). The Federation has turned anti-android, a reflection of present-day humanity’s underlying unease with AI advancements. 

My one criticism relates to the subtext regarding the female characters. The women in Star Fleet or other positions of power (so far) are generally corrupt and discriminatory, and those no longer in Star Fleet have all gotten variations of grieving motherhood subplots. Fingers crossed the production hires more female writers for season 2.

ZeroZeroZero


Shows about illegal drug trades have proven popular for decades now. They’re rags to riches tales, variations of the self-made millionaire riff—except a lot more illicit, and violent. ZeroZeroZero is the latest offering winning rave reviews.

Not sure why, but this series has slipped under quite a few radars? Maybe now with the unforeseen downtime, the ZeroZeroZero will carve out a cult following. While the content doesn’t qualify as relaxing, the wonderful cinematography makes even the ugliest scenes stunning to watch.


Focusing on the global cocaine trade, the story is adapted from a novel and follows the trail of drugs from Mexico to an Italian crime syndicate. Since merchandise has to travel, say hello to the shipping family, led by Gabrielle Byrne.

Bound to be popular with audiences who enjoyed Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy. The first offering of the series spans eight episodes, so you can watch it one long sitting, although what with all the violence and gritty suspense, you might want to take a few breaks(!).

Eternal Love of Dream


This 56-episode drama is based on an extremely popular novel Connected to another hit Chinese drama (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms) but can be watched as a stand-alone.

If you’ve never viewed historical Cdramas, you should probably know a few things first. Gods, demons, and reincarnation are usually a given. This drama covers a love connection spanning two thousand years. Chinese culture celebrates a different concept of time, probably due to a long history—a discussion for another day!


Chinese dramas are lavish in terms of makeup, hair and costuming. The actors’ voices are dubbed because China has many dialects, and the idea is to make sure all entertainment has the same accented Mandarin. (You’ll find a lot of discussion online about this practice, if you want to google + browse.)

And Chinese television isn’t really structured episodically. More like a series is one long show chopped up to meet time constraints. But experiencing a different storytelling styles is always cool. Available on YouTube with English subtitles.

Wu-Tang: An American Saga


For those not in the know, Wu Tang Clan are one of the most iconic and revered hip-hop groups in American music history. In the series this crew have it tough, and watching their struggle through poverty in a violent, crime-ridden environment, doggedly holding onto their dream, is deeply moving.

You feel the desperation, determination and heartbreak in every episode. It’s gritty going, a fictionalized retelling (in the words of the executive producers, “historical fiction”). Original members of the team are onboard driving the production, so the sense of authenticity the story exudes is warranted.


This celebration of music icons Wu Tang Clan was around ten years in the making. Set in the nineties, and we watch the evolution of the group, that includes a dozen performers (for starters). A second season has already been ordered.

I liked the inspirational factor. The audience sees characters telling these kids they’ll never succeed—while knowing Wu-Tang Clan succeed beyond their wildest dreams. For a great pairing, watch the documentary Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men as well.

The Valhalla Murders


What would a watchlist be without a whodunnit? This murder mystery from Iceland is now on Netflix. Working to find a serial killer, local police detective Kata is joined by Arnar, an Oslo-based profiler who returns to Iceland for the investigation.

The plot is inspired by real cases of abuse at a boy’s home over half a century ago (though not murder). The series is shot in greys and blues, and endless shadows. Every character has issues, but nobody is screaming about them. So much taking place under the surface. Icy, or simmering? 


As with most procedural dramas, often it's as if the audience are investigating the investigators. Both leads are troubled, and while pursuing the killer, they clash, and then as secrets are revealed, manage to both solve crime, and face their issues.

Most online criticism seems to be from Americans judging international offerings with an American criterion. There is nothing flashy about Valhalla, which is precisely why I enjoyed watching. Iceland has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world. Finding serial killers isn’t normal for Icelandic forces. That lack of flashy CSI is authenticity, not poor storytelling.

Work in Progress


I really enjoyed this dark comedy. I say dark because while there are many witty moments, the lead character Abby’s mental health struggles are heartbreaking. Abby describes herself as a “queer fat dyke”, and has OCD, anxiety and depression. In her mid-forties, she wonders if life is worth living.

When a passive aggressive workmate gives her a bag of almonds to help her lose weight, Abby decides to throw an almond a day into the trash, and kill herself when they’re done. Then she meets Chris, a trans man who asks her out.


I know this sounds depressing, and it is, but Abby is so funny and sweet you’re laughing while wanting to hug her. Many issues are addressed, making for thought-provoking television. The script doesn’t hesitate to ponder potential PC minefields, and the confident, clever writing makes the show wonderful.

I love that Abby keeps accidentally ordering shared Lyft rides. I love meeting both Abby and Chris’ group of friends. Most of all I love that Abby isn’t miraculously healed by love. Chris is disturbed that even while happy, Abby is still counting and discarding the almonds.  

Itaewon Class


A recent release Kdrama currently on Netflix, Itaewon Class stand outs. While it includes old school tropes like a revenge set up and childhood love, it breaks ground with elements not often seen in a Kdrama.
The inclusion of a trans character and a black character in the support roles is almost unheard of. The show was a massive hit in South Korea, proving modern audiences are more progressive than networks playing it “safe” imagine.


The story follows Park Sae Ro Yi from his teenage years. After beating up a classmate responsible for his father’s death, he spends years in jail. On release, he works to establish a pub, and slowly take revenge on the man who covered up his father’s manslaughter.

To be honest, the main romance felt slightly forced and unnecessary. Unusual though to see a self-proclaimed sociopath win the male lead’s love. For me the first half of the drama was a lot better than the second, but overall this is great viewing.

Ragnarok 


This teen Danish drama set in a fictional Norwegian town is oft described as a superhero series but it’s based solely on Norse mythology, which gifts an eerie edge. Magne and his brother Lauritis move with their mum to a small town, not knowing immortals are in the mix.

Soon things get weird for Magne, who’s become super strong and can throw a hammer really, really far. While our socially awkward lead is “different”, that difference might be more supernatural than behavioral. High school is a battlefield, but this time we’re not talking metaphors.


Visually and in terms of mood this series has that Nordic noir feel, lots of cool blue scenes and grim stillness amidst striking landscapes. Some have criticized the pace but that’s more reflective of expectations. This isn’t a Hollywood-esque series of SFX explosion, but a slow, intense burn.

My favourite scene? When the old Gods hit the dancefloor at the school social. It’s hard to capture a sense of the primal but this moment, with its strange choreography and jarring editing, manages to evoke an uneasy stirring in the subconscious.

2gether The Series 


Sometimes you want to watch something cute and fun. This Thai BL drama—BL means Boy Love, so guy on guy romance—takes on the old fake boyfriend trope in a charming way. You can watch 2gether on the GMMTV YouTube channel. 

Our lead Tine is being chased around college by a guy called Green. He tries to tell Green girls are his preference, but the smitten Green refuses to take a hint. Tine’s friends convince him he should fake-date Sarawat, the hottest guy at college, thereby getting Green off his back. Tine annoys the supercool and introverted Sarawat until he agrees, not registering Sarawat’s legit attraction to him. 


Watching Sarawat’s attempts to flirt with and seduce Tine, only to have those moves go right over Tine’s head makes for hilarious television. Tine is self-involved, clueless, and narcissistic, yet so sweet and na├»ve, the audience ends up adoring him. Sarawat is probably one of the most understated and romantic leads I’ve seen in BL.

The drama is based on a popular Thai novel. Lead actors Bright and Win do a wonderful job bringing the beloved pair to life. They seem realistically young and clumsy when it comes to love and relationships. Such a sweet ride.

Noughts + Crosses


A six-part series from the BBC, Noughts + Crosses is an adaptation of an alternate reality YA novel. In this version of history, the Aprican Empire is the ruling culture. Making the upper class, known as Crosses, rule over the once enslaved Noughts, aka white people.

At this point in history, segregation is still in place. The first episode kicks off with a racist cop assaulting a youth. We’ve seen this before, but this time the victim is white, and the cop black. Soon we meet members of the ruling political party, spanning those sympathetic to the Noughts, and the opposing extremists who want more, not less persecution of white people.


When the female lead questions the police officers account of the incident, her professor refuses to consider the idea. “I feel for them, I really do. I know a few noughts, they’re always so cheerful but you do get these uppity ones. That’s not prejudice, that’s fact.”

The story follows a Romeo and Juliet type romance. Our lead pair are aged up from the book to allow for gritter content. Whatever your response and thoughts on the subject, Noughts + Crosses is thought-provoking television that wants the audience to think about racism and persecution, how it manifests, and the presence of subconscious prejudice.

Devs


What would this list be without a dose of mind-bending sci-fi? If you feel like some thought-provoking television, this new miniseries is from Alex Garland, the imagination behind Ex Machina, and currently screening in the US on Hulu.

The name of the series, Devs, is reference to a secretive research division of a leading tech company called Amaya. Sergei is a coder who works at Amaya, now thrilled to be recruited for Devs. So when his body is found and his death ruled a suicide, the pieces don’t add up.


Sergei’s girlfriend Lily, a computer engineer at Amaya, is determined to discover the truth. Things of course get deep and trippy as the nature of the Devs project is slowly revealed. At one point Lily is on the run but it’s almost as if the linear plot is secondary to concepts the creator wants you to consider.

Science fiction in recent years really lends itself to a kind of tech-based philosophical exploration. Devs is occasionally oblique, and focuses as much on making you ponder what is alluded to, as what actually appears onscreen. The show feels quite still. The tension is palpable. 

Katy Keene 


Lucy Hale has a huge following from her role on Pretty Little Liars, and always brings the energy. She delivers here in the title role of Katy Keene. But the team behind Riverdale and Sabrina are involved, so scripts are bound to be lacking. Maybe take this suggestion with a grain of salt?

I’ve sat through terrible characterization on Riverdale and Sabrina merely to admire the cinematography, lighting, editing, and eye-catching set designs. Visually, Katy Keene is similarly beautifully presented. Heavily stylized, it has an unusual vintage slash modern day feel, like an odd fusion of time periods. The end result is visually stunning.


An adaption from the Archie comic universe, the show is a comedy, a drama, and also a musical. I like the inclusion of Josie from Josie and the Pussycats, a character underutilized on Riverdale. The story follows four young friends in New York chasing their dreams.

So far, the plots are simplistic but still sweet to watch. Lighter fare, with positive messages about confidence and perseverance. The core characters are constantly cheering each other on. The vibe is a bit like hanging out with a group of fun friends.