Monday, April 24, 2017

Nostalgia Party

Stories we’ve experienced before—whether in book, film, or TV series form—hit screens in the next few weeks. Say hello to Twin Peaks, American Gods, Anne (of Green Gables) and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Expectations are high because these tales are beloved. But can they meet our lofty desire for a rapturous fusion of known premise, and unknown re-presentation?

Is it possible to successfully pastiche the discovered and undiscovered country? Much has been made of marketing nostalgia, but like a Unicorn Frappuccino, delight can fizzle to a sickly feeling.

In recent times the unsettling sensation of the familiar and the unfamiliar in a TV show doesn’t seem to be wowing audiences. Gilmore Girls and The X-Files rehashed didn’t bring the joys and feels they were meant to. So why are we still on this kick?
Channeling the optimism of Anne Shirley right now.
For the Powers That Be, the answer is the allure of a ready-made fanbase. People pre-loving the material saves a lot of dime for networks/production companies. No need for a kick ass marketing campaign to win over fans: they’re waiting in the wings. Can anyone say, "safe bet"?

Likewise, anticipation itself is a powerful marketing tool. Studies suggest just the expectation of a happy event is hella beneficial to the brain/body, so on a chemical level we’re getting a buzz out of these shows before they even drop.

We're in for a wild ride.
Post-viewing, fans are usually the first to riot (well, in an online sense) when the series doesn’t meet expectations—which is most of the time. The causes of these cruel, crashing, scripted TV hangovers are myriad.

Memory is a fickle animal. Another version of you scored a hit from the original material, but the you in the audience now isn't coming from the same place. And the writers are not in the same place. Society is not in the same place. Hell, even pop culture is not in the same place.

These stories stay with us because of a wild first impression, whether we read the book, watched the film, or saw an old series. But when it comes to a fresh viewing experience, that original stamp on our subconscious can hinder as much as help.

In the case of The Handmaid's Tale, I'm perpetually freaked.
(Strangely, non-fans who watch with fresh eyes often come out the winners. Maybe because they press play with minimal thoughts other than, hope this show doesn’t suck.)

Time to take a look at the trailers, and see if we can cut that subconscious commentary off at the pass. Maybe lower expectations from “greatest thing to ever hit the small screen, West Wing, Buffy and Veronica Mars included” (or whatever your poison) to “vastly entertaining show that did not change my world because I am not an unrealistic and demanding viewer”. Here's hoping.

Twin Peaks

Yep, starting with the Big One.

Why It Should Be Good: Because the original is incredibly iconic. Because TP’s creators are on board. Because the new eps are directed by Lynch. Because so far the aesthetic looks as incredible as the eye-catching original. Because so many of the cast members are back, and new additions are A grade awesome. Because an hypnotic, pervading existentialism is bound to be woven through the narrative. Because there are eighteen episodes, so no need to rush the story. Because my Twin Peaks DVDs make me feel like I’ve holidayed in this town many times.

Why My Memory Will Mess It Up: Because the original is incredibly iconic to the point where anything less than equally iconic will seem a step down. Unrealistic expectation level: uber-high, and hard to budge.

What My Current Day Mind Will Mess Up: The endless donuts and slices of cherry pie. Young me used to think, yummm, my kinda Americana. Older me is like, are there going to be gluten-free or paleo options and is anybody worrying about blood sugar levels?

American Gods

A modern classic for many.

Why It Should Be Good: The premise is great. Love the idea of Gods like Odin livin’ large in the US of A. Show-runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have speccy credentials. Cast-wise, I like Emily Browning, and I think she has the potential to be a massive star. I love Gillian Anderson (most people do). Kristin Chenoweth and Krispin Glover are also faves. The trailer looks moody and super-cool and already I might be Team Modern Gods (don’t tell “Wednesday”).

Why My Memory Will Mess It Up: Not much chance actually, because I’m not a big Gaiman fan. I’ve read American Gods, but it’s not in my Top 5 all-time novels, meaning no obsessing over changes in the transition to the small screen.

What My Current Day Mind Will Mess Up: Old Gods wandering around has popped up on a few TV shows over the years, so am sure to end up comparing Buffy, Supernatural and other series’ versions. Since Gaiman was probably part of the birth of this trope, his interpretation deserves to be respectfully viewed without other takes in the back of my mind.


Who doesn’t love Anne with an ‘e’?

Why It Should Be Good: This looks like it was made with care and obvious affection for the original material. The cinematography is lovely, and the story is touching. Even in the trailer Anne’s imagination, intelligence and emotional strength shine through. The plucky orphan who finds love at Green Gables is a perennial fave.

Why My Memory Will Mess It Up: Megan Follows was amazing as Anne and I don’t think she can be displaced in my subconscious. The cast of the eighties version are internationally beloved, so it will be a bit of an uphill slog for this lot.

What My Current Day Mind Will Mess Up: Lines like “Girls can do anything boys can do, and more.” Yes, Anne believes this, but pushing modern/positive beliefs into classic texts with such blunt dialogue can be clumsy and jarring. Anne is all for equal rights and is constantly pushing boundaries, not just in regards to gender but also class expectations of the period, but the story itself shows us this during her journey. Anne is a hero to many, in whatever decade, for a reason. Let the narrative speak for itself.

The Handmaid's Tale

Every woman’s nightmare: a dystopian breeding program in a fertility-challenged future.

Why It Should Be Good: The plot is a chilling extrapolation of the disempowerment of women, written over thirty years ago. Seriously, even the trailer gives me nightmares. The cast includes Peggy from Mad Men (Elizabeth Moss), Rory from Gilmore Girls (Alexis Blendel), and a heap of other talent.

Why My Memory Will Mess It Up: It won't. I found the story so dark and depressing I was never inclined to reread the novel. Not a huge fan of Atwood’s writing, but I do appreciate the narrative here, and think 2017 is the perfect time for this to transition to series. Not a big fan of the film interpretation either, which is helpful in that I won’t be making a visual comparison.

What My Current Day Mind Will Mess Up: This tale of the subjugation of women, complete with religious wrapping, is so bleak. At first read I thought, society is a hundred steps from creating such a world, and we’re only moving further away; never gonna happen. Now, with the situation in America, I take back those words: we’re about 95 steps clear. My mind will be screaming, PLEASE STAY FICTIONAL. Whatever the quality of this series turns out to be, plot-wise it’s the kind of cautionary tale the world needs right now.

See you all post-pilots xx

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Scifi TV: Where Science Meets Spirit.

If I had to describe a recurring theme across a number of current science fiction TV shows in three words, it would be: ALONE, TOO ALONE.

Questions and issues facing humanity (and hence, the screenwriter) are at the core of a lot of science fiction television. Sci-fi as a genre is often as fascinated with the human spirit, and the spiritual, as much as science. Emotionally, one recurring thematic thread in recent times is the desire for, or loss of, a sense of community.

On the technical front, the further we reach toward science beyond our present understanding, the more concepts begin to take on an element of mysticism. That’s human nature: our perception can only stretch so far.

I like giving wild concepts the benefit of the doubt. Who can guess the future? And the art of a lot of sci-fi is to meld present day concerns with unexpected possibilities: strange, vivid, often left-of-field ideas.

Perhaps because of technology, and the inherent disconnect that seems to have taken place in society, a lot of recent science fiction television offerings focus on human connectivity. And, you could argue, empathy: the lack, and the need. The pain of isolation is everywhere on TV.

The OA 
The most prominent example would be The OA, about a blind missing person who returns years later—with her sight. The first season aligns us with the lead character’s perspective. The fact she may be lying, or more accurately, lying to herself about certain aspects of her experiences, isn’t surprising; sci-fi has long had a passionate relationship with the unreliable narrator.

Underlying the science (which more informed minds have covered in other blogs) is a celebration of the power of community. The physical captives she left behind, and the psychological captives of suburban life she’s gathered.

Influencing it all is the mystical presence she envisions as a woman, beyond the everyday world.

The Creator, the Other, the Universe, the Unknown Entity… Some form of empowered consciousness—even if it’s just the universe itself—is scattered through a lot of science fiction.

The series Frequency explores the idea of communication between two time periods. By utilizing a father and daughter cop combo, both investigating the same serial killer at different points in history, the audience is reassured by the inference that somehow The Universe is interested in both karma, and closure.

The plot plays with The Butterfly Effect, but at heart the story puts forth the idea that via a kind of science seemingly miraculous to our heroes, lives can be saved. What our heroine is really trying to save, is her own community: most notably a lover and mother. Without them she feels… alone.

Stranger Things
By being set in a small, insular community, from episode one Stranger Things highlights the idea of The Other versus those who belong. Most of the people in the town, courtesy of their everyday lives, already feel like The Other—long before another being shows up to take that niche. The series includes futuristic science so far ahead it communicates to the characters as mystical, or supernatural.

Killjoys is set in a space-faring future and follows three bounty hunters whose primary goal is survival. They form their own community (in a sense) and try to keep the past from interfering with the future. It’s a cutthroat dystopian world (well, worlds) with little celebration of human connection; trust is sparse, so the community they’ve created is of growing importance to them.

Sense8 focuses less on the science aspect of science fiction, and more on the human connection present in the story. Individuals around the globe experience each other’s lives through an unexpected mental connection, the surreality of which quickly builds bonds.

A shadowy group hunt the connected, but the real focus is on the sense of community the linked “sensates” create despite being from very different cultures (and separated physically at the outset of the show). In some sense, each character gives the impression of being alone, or feeling isolated because of their perspective, experiences, or society’s perception of them.

Westworld showcases a faux community in the Wild West using androids for entertainment. One of the reasons for creating pseudo-people is to deny them basic rights, thereby providing an outlet for darker human impulses, without repercussion.

The question is, of course, who are the androids, who are the people and which of these is showing the most “humanity”? A human creator provides the mystical, elusive character/persona here. The role of memory is a dominant theme too: if you don't remember an experience, or the people you're told/programmed to love, or hate, does that make you less human?

The show Humans also focuses on beings of artificial intelligence, this time designed as a stopgap for problematic areas of society. A dominant plot issue is that when human characters fill a duel role, i.e. work and home, replacing them with an android in one of these environments threatens their perceived place in a particular community. AI’s in this future are used, not integrated: the ultimate outsiders.

The Expanse
The Expanse is incredibly technically accurate, from a scientific perspective. Alongside politics and intrigues, the rejection, adoption and valuing of communities, some separated by space, is paramount to the plot. A ragged band of outsiders—survivors of a conspiracy that killed their crew—are forced to become a community, and peel back the layers of duplicity to figure out WTH is really going on.

Not a series, but a movie made for Netflix, iBoy is an interesting exploration of early (accidental) transhumanism. A teen is beaten and a part of his mobile embeds in his head. After the sexual assault of a friend, he takes on a local gang with his new “powers” i.e. the ability to interact with wireless technology via his mind.

It could be argued the lead’s most extreme state of information connectivity created a self-deception of empowerment and personal connectivity; when in reality, the character was at his saddest, and most isolated.

The people in the flats he calls home in are the focal point; they’re his community, the ones he wants most to both protect, and punish. Yet when his actions lean more to revenge than empathy, a temporary disconnect from loved ones occurs. He feels—despite the flow of info available to his mind—alone.

 Sci-fi flavored entertainment can reflect the current cultural clime, and it’s clear that as we move forward the quality of human connection remains a contentious and worrying issue. 

Whether flying through space, traveling through time, or deciding who qualifies as human, feeling emotionally isolated and unable to connect with, or rely on a sense of community, is a persistent concern.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Role Of Love

Buffy and Angel. The definition of complicated.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Romantic love is an integral part of scripted television. And not just in the traditional rom-com genre. Even in procedurals there are couples to ship: two people kneel beside a murder victim, their eyes meeting over the corpse, and they banter while discussing lividity (a term in every cop show scriptwriter’s lexicon).

Odd Couple Maximus.
What’s interesting is how little interest audiences have in the actual relationship. Sexual tension is where the party’s at. Will they, won’t they, why haven’t they, when will they…. These not-quite-physical relationships are a cornerstone of television writing.

Final season, finally almost a couple...
Teen Wolf
When it comes to sex onscreen, networks have learnt it’s gratifying yet no true substitute for well-written relationships. You can flash skinship, but in the end it’s still mostly softcore porn. Without a complex connection between characters, audience interest fades fast.

Seth, Summer, and the wonders of Chrismukkah.
The O.C.
Why are we hooked on eros? 

These guys: too cute for words.
Lovesick The Series
Or more accurately, in the context of a scripted television series, the evolution of eros?

When your lover turns out to be a manga character.
W Two Worlds
Perhaps it’s because we live in a world where physical intimacy is easier to obtain than emotional intimacy—or where a true celebration of both is rare. People rely on their friends for personal connection as much as, or sometimes more, than they do their partner.

When they don't match, but they really do.
Television love is convoluted, a push and pull scenario whereby our leads edge closer together. The not-yet-lovers OTP (one true pairing) on TV is usually written into a scenario where the characters are forced to see each other and interact, rather than drift apart when one of them becomes uncomfortable with the evolving intimacy.

Murdered friend Lily took these
two from antagonists to lovers.
Veronica Mars
Discovery—maybe that’s the key? We’re obsessed with the moment our experience of the world can spin and realign, adding another person to our orbit. Tragedy or life changes (such as relocating, new job) have a similar effect, but a deep, honest love is a transition audiences view as akin to winning an emotional lottery.

The tragedy of lost love.
Pretty Little Liars
In real life, lots of things get in the way of love, occasionally a love that could have been epic. On television, every element is controlled to ensure the intended couple reaches that chance at a relationship. Could that be why this element of visual storytelling is so popular? Because connection is an accident most people are hoping will happen?

Chuck, Blair, and that limo scene.
Gossip Girl
Not to say all romances on television are a great idea, from an outside perspective. A lot of them are problematic tropes (i.e. My OTP Is A Supernatural Psycho; This Lover Is Rich And Mean; We’re The Ultimate Odd Couple).

The ship that never got to sail.
The Vampire Diaries

Thing is, healthy, functioning relationships generally go out the window because an element of wish fulfillment is in play. The most popular TV love is the stuff of fantasy: grand, dramatic, fiery, and most of all, fun to watch.

When your lover turns you to the dark side.
Like, Queen of the Underworld dark.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Reading The Vampire Diaries As A Metaphor For Entitlement

Watching an episode of supernatural drama The Vampire Diaries, it suddenly occurred to me: while bloodsuckers are often discussed as representations of sexuality, aggression, and passion, in a modern setting they’re also a prime metaphor for entitlement.

To clarify, I enjoy this show. Some seasons are (a lot) better than others, but overall the drama offers moments of great visual storytelling. But this idea really got its hooks in, as if I’d put on glasses showing another interpretation, and now I can’t unsee the view.

Instead of Googling to find out if others had noticed, I decided not to tangle my perspective, and follow the seed of thought, however it blooms.

The vamp crew that we the audience run with, tend to lean toward the hypocritical: our leads have killed sooo many people, but nearly always receive a chance at redemption. On the other hand, people/creatures who kill our loved ones generally deserve to die—fatalities matter more if we’re emotionally engaged. Likewise, our town matters more 'cause it’s OUR town.

When your entitled boyfriend has a wall listing his murder victims
but you understand this was from like a really bad time for him.
For the first few years after a vampire turns, an epic lust for blood inspires acts of predatory violence. But our precious flowers aren’t really responsible because they haven’t learnt “control” yet—a bit like when teens go to college, the date rape scene peaks, and sexual responsibility becomes a dirty term.

Thing is, the deeper you delve, the more obvious it becomes we’re identifying with the vamps, accepting them as relevant, important, and viewing their foes as “Other”.

Our vamps live longer, are strong, beautiful/handsome, and control the minds of “lesser” beings i.e. humans. Here it's via a super power, not cold hard cash and propaganda, but you get the gist.

The enemies are usually other vampires or creatures, and more powerful, thereby openly perceiving themselves as more entitled—meaning they recklessly kill humans while our vamps at least feel bad about it (most of the time).

Yes, this is how super-entitled baddies live.
Complete with accents.
The point is these aliens/foreigners are too entitled and therefore evil, what with thinking they’re better than “us”. And not only do they threaten our crew, but they often threaten the humans in OUR town, and by God if anyone is killing those people it’s gonna be us (wait, what?). So mostly we’re at war, but with good reason. Sort of.

Possibly worth mentioning: The baddies are generally motivated by revenge, i.e. one of our vamps having hurt their loved ones. Or they need something from a member of our crew to change their circumstances. Is it just me or do these motivations sound familiar?

Violence at our town event? IT'S ON.
Remember when one of the humans in our clique joined another supes movement, the werewolves? Although this was revealed to be hereditary, so maybe he shouldn’t be blamed. Poor guy got confused, and turned on our vamps for acting entitled (btw his loyalties are still messed up so he's pretty much out of the crew).

Next up is our token human Matt, who is weak both physically, not being immortal and super-strong, and emotionally, what with the constant annoying empathy. As the boy next door he has no mystery or power from the get go.

Give it up already Matt, humans aren't end game.
Matt’s complaining annoys us, the audience, as much as the vamps, especially the way he gets “judgy” about the constant killing of innocents. Get on board the Entitlement train, buddy! In recent times he’s strayed from the path, giving in to a dislike of vampires. (Tough life being better than others; haters gonna hate.)

For those wondering, there were heaps more humans but they died, caught in the line of fire. Our vampires are always in the middle of a drama—usually because they’re being persecuted, mostly from not being understood or not being given a pass for their crimes.

One of these is the moral compass, the other an entitled vampire.
Go on, take a guess.
Side note: At this point if we created a flow chart of corpses left by our leads over seven years it would be epic, but hey they were mostly accidents and it’s not like a lot were people important to the vampires slash audience. If you can’t name them, they only count as half points.

See, that’s the whole premise of the show: our entitled are trying to be good peeps, even if lots of the time they’re not. Hating on the entitled is wrong. They deserve a chance to redeem themselves, and suggesting they be imprisoned for capricious murder sprees, well, that’s just crazy talk. They feel bad, okay? They’re not heartless monsters. They’re SPECIAL.