Thursday, May 22, 2008

America's Neon Hustle

Up until last night, I had never seen an episode of American Idol. That’s not because I’m some fussy elitist, mind you— I’ve watched more episodes of The Single Guy and Suddenly Susan than I care to admit. It’s just that I never got around to catching up on the show’s first few seasons, and at some point that failure became something of a badge of honor, on par with my accomplishment of not throwing up for 14 straight years (a streak terminated, sadly, by an ill-fated tub of KFC mashed potatoes a few years back). Anyway, a fluke series of events finally made me cave to inevitability, and last night I finally succumbed, sitting through the finale of America’s most popular show. I’m glad I did.

I suppose I should start off by saying I didn't enter into this arrangement totally ignorant of American Idol’s workings. Thanks to Ken Levine and Alan Sepinwall, I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s been going on this season, whether it was the ill-timed apotheosis of little David Archuleta, Paula’s drunken soothsaying, or the inescapable sense of a formula starting to fray at the edges. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how irritating that formula could be. In particle physics, there’s something called the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which essentially states that if you affect one particle in a certain way, its partner will be affected inversely. Watching the show unfold, it was hard not to think back to that dynamic, because every time something cool and exciting happened, it was almost immediately undermined by something equally odious.

Take Graham Nash. He’s a great performer, a living legend, and perhaps most relevantly, one of the few artists from the 60s who has consistently managed to not become a total parody of himself. I was really excited when he came out on stage, in other words. But his duet with Brooke was such shameless pandering (and so devoid of harmony) that it made me reconsider my previous assessment of Nash and his accomplishments, to the point that when I was re-listening to Déjà Vu after the show, I couldn’t stop thinking about that desultory duet. Has American Idol ruined CSNY for me? God, I hope not.

There were quite a few other good/bad moments, like eventual winner David Cook’s bliss with ZZ Top being followed by the unforgivably talentless Jonas Brothers (or, Hansen without the guilty pleasure of "MMMBop", which, come to think of it, wasn't even that pleasurable). But through all that, I remained mesmerized. To the extent that there’s anything culturally redeeming about American Idol, it’s probably how unabashedly American it really is: outrageous spectacle, style trumping talent, rabid commercialism at its most unforgiving. It's a force of nature, propelling an everyman into an international superstar, while simultaneously able to destroy my confidence in what I once cherished. Here’s a show that embodies, rather perfectly, the very ethos of this blog's spiritual namesake, bashing its viewers into perfect submission with the greatest of ease.

I can't wait for next year.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Reaper: Season 1, Episode 18, "Cancun"

Oh, Reaper. I had such high hopes for you. Really, I did. You were an honest-to-gosh success story, the plucky underdog that somehow managed to overcome its birth defects and blossom into a fine TV show. You became so breezy and confident, in fact, that you were setting yourself up to be the heir apparent to Buffy. But now, Reaper? I think you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

So let’s talk developments, shall we? After a scant week of letting viewers consider the potential demonosity (not a word, but it totally should be) of their show’s hero, showrunners Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters predictably hedged on giving an answer. There were certainly some strong hints that Sam is indeed the Devil’s son, whether it was the Devil’s unnerving sympathy for Sam (which may just be a subconscious rebellion against Ray Wise playing any positive emotion, as all my experience has conditioned me to think of him as, well, evil), Sam and the Devil having a catch, or the tarot card revelations, but there’s enough uncertainty that it could still go either way.

At all events, the denouement of Tony the demon’s insurrection has changed the show’s underlying dynamic forever, because this time Fazekas and Butters can’t fix things just by having Sam move into another apartment. The Devil is very clearly on Sam’s side now, whether or not they’re kin, offering Sam time off from being a reaper until Sam wants to return. (To which one wonders, why would he ever?) On the one hand, that means we’ll stop having to suffer through a torrent of lame “villains” like the tarot card reader this week, who was so underdeveloped it wasn’t even clear that she was evil. On the other hand, Sam opining, “They’re not gonna stop. They’re gonna keep coming till I’m dead” probably just means we’ll be given a weekly trickle of souls gunning zealously for Sam, instead of the much more fun dynamic of the souls running away from him.

I probably wouldn’t be so displeased with these revelations had they been handled with the narrative confidence of the past few weeks, but in “Cancun”, everything felt rushed and incomplete. That was most galling when Tony inexplicably failed to rescue Sam’s father, but it manifested itself too in Sam’s total lack of emotion in the wake of his father’s death. Maybe that was unintentional—Bret Harrison isn’t a very good actor, after all—but the rest of the emotion felt contrived, too: Andi’s perfunctory sympathies, Sam abandoning her to go to the (admittedly awesome) fireworks pyre. And then, of course, there was the weirdness with the Devil (the Devil!) choking back tears.

Oh, and apparently Sam (or the devil’s son, should he be introduced later) is destined to end the world. Of course, it was apparently too much trouble to let the audience in on that supremely important fact except as an afterthought during the fireworks show, so maybe it’s not as profound as I presume it is. Certainly it’s not as crucial, in the near term, as Sam’s mother disinterring his father, who seems to have supernatural powers of his own. That’s a development that would be more appealing if Sam’s familial angst had ever held any dramatic sway, but Sam’s family is a total dead end for this show, and I honestly couldn't care less about the shenangians between the Devil and Sam's father (or mother, for that matter).

The rest of the episode was similarly off-putting, as just about everything fell flat. The subplot with the succubus may have been funnier if the high-Sock was qualitatively different from normal Sock, and his willingness to share his new paramour with Ben just felt crass. It wasn't at all consistent with the normally empathetic Sock that's shown to be pretty attuned to the women in his life, Gladys especially.

Meanwhile, Andi gets forced into doing Sam’s busywork, in yet another example of Reaper being about 30 years behind the rest of the world when it comes to women’s empowerment (even if it did allow her to show off her detective acumen). What the hell happened to feisty Andi, who talked back to Ted and built a cardboard box fort and didn’t take shit from anyone? I miss her.

Really the only thing that worked well in "Cancun" was the return of the gay demon Steve, now a gay angel. Having been raised on The State, I never knew that Ken Marino had such impressive acting chops, but the look of joy and wonder on his face upon realizing that God’s capacity to forgive can extend to demons was marvelous. I really hope both he and Michael Ian Black return for next season, because this is a show that badly needs some more supporting characters. It could also use some heavenly input every now and then too, if only to bring the Devil back under the evil umbrella.

So here we are, with a show-altering finale that wasn’t handled particularly deftly. Still, considering Reaper is slated for a Spring return, Fazekas and Butters have 8 months to figure out how to fix what went wrong.

What did everyone else think?

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 7, "Guess What's Coming To Dinner?"

If the first few episodes of Battlestar Galactica’s fourth and final season—obsessed as they were with exploring the collective psyche of the principal cast—managed to repulse many viewers expecting a more dynamic payoff to the revelations from the show's 3rd season, “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?” should satisfy that greedy, plot-crazed mob. Penned by longtime Galactica scribe Michael Angeli (who can have some trouble with prolix dialog, but is absolutely redoubtable with the show’s hallmark actiony sequences), the episode was a mirror of seasons past: a desperate flight from a cylon threat, Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Roslin investigating religious visions with gusto. It was also the first episode since the season premiere to showcase each member of the show’s impressively large stable of characters—even secondary and tertiary ones, like Racetrack and Hoshi. It was, in short, a welcome return to past glory, a near-perfect mélange of character and plot that is common to all the best storytelling, in any medium.

“Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?” opened up confidently, with Gaius Baltar (James Callis) guttersniping Laura Roslin on his radio sermon (seriously, he’s more ubiquitous than Paul Harvey now, isn’t he?), deriding her secret visions of the mysterious opera house, visions she shares with Galactica’s resident cylons, Sharon Agathon (Grace Park) and Caprica-Six (Tricia Helfer). Still consumed by his personal animosity towards the president, Baltar hasn’t exactly entered the rarified air of the saints, but the haunted, sympathetic look he gives the newly-legless Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani)—his former protégé, as well as the man who has tried to kill him twice, once with a knife and once with perjury—suggests that he’s getting there. The Baltar of seasons past would have been pleased at the crippling of an enemy; that’s clearly no longer the case.

Elsewhere, events swirled primarily around the newly minted cylon-human alliance, as the surviving cylons from Brother Cavil’s holocaust no longer wish anything more than to be reunited with their lost brothers and sisters, the final five, whom they believe to be on the ragtag fleet as refugees from Earth (which is why they were able to recall a famous Earthen diddy, “All Along the Watchtower”, in last season’s finale). Instead, they have elected to become more human, even offering to help the humans destroy the cylon resurrection capacity.

There were great looks from the final four as they realized what these revelations of earth and mortality mean to them: Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) just wants to be done with the whole thing, desperate to keep his humanity intact (his first instinct aboard the basestar wasn’t to tinker with its controls, but to determine the party responsible for shooting Gaeta), while Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma), who has been embracing this whole cylon thing with an appalling amount of zeal, looks horrified that her shot at immortality is being taken away from her. That revelation brought Tory back to her most recognizably human form since last season; she was genuinely hurt by Roslin impugning her character, and pumping Gaius for information (literally! Zing!) marked the first time this season she was acting in someone else’s interests, not her own.

Meanwhile, Anders (Michael Trucco) just can’t stop feeling guilty. How much of that stems from shooting Gaeta the man, and how much of that stems from shooting Gaeta the potential cylon—who in now the 5th person to ever sing in the show, the first four all being cylon—is certainly up to debate, but the pain on Trucco’s face was palpable. People are already parsing through the song’s lyrics for potential meaning (you can read about the composition process at composer Bear McCreary’s wonderfully detailed blog), but it worked on a different level for me, providing an elegiac counterpoint to Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) playing the hero and imploring Roslin to explain her actions. She acquiesces, which is consistent with the changes of last week, but she’s still ultimately disdainful of representative democracy.

When that capitulation results in Natalie (Tricia Helfer again) explaining her actions to the quorum, a very grave Starbuck, watching the proceedings with a keen eye, realizes that the hybrid’s warning—that she, Kara, the harbinger of death—takes on a new significance. Thrace begins to realize that, hey, maybe it’s a positive appellation, referring not the destruction of mankind but to the potential loss of immortality among the cylons. That realization led to a reunion of sorts for Thrace and Roslin, who had bonded over religious imagery so many times before, promising to help each other ascertain the facts of the opera house, an ominous development underscored once more by Gaeta’s elegiac soprano.

That scene, in addition to showing Kara finally getting her shit back, set most of the rest of the events in motion. Half the principal cast is now trapped aboard the commandeered basestar with its twitchy, sentient centurions (even if the skinjobs have been robbed of their menace, the centurions sure haven’t) being spirited away against their will; Laura bringing Searider Falcon aboard the ship, suggesting she and Adama will never get to consummate their relationship. And, of course, Sharon Agathon shooting Natalie two times in the chest (what’s with the number eights never getting any headshots?) to protect her child, calling into question whether or not Roslin is still the prophesied dying leader—might Natalie now be? Some people have had problems with that last one, since Natalie is very clearly not Caprica-Six, the model in the shared visions, and Sharon above all should know that not all cylons are created equally. But at the same time I really can’t find fault, since the disorienting nature of Hera’s actions were very creepy to watch, and would set any parent on edge.

All in all, a fine episode. What did everyone else think?

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Reaper: Season 1, Episode 17, "The Leak"

Well, that was encouraging. Since coming back from the strike, Reaper has been on a roll, solving most of its formula’s problems (the lame, will-they-or-won’t-they romance; the lack of any overarching narrative) while maintaining the comedy and secondary characters that kept the show watchable even during its doldrums. Last week I speculated that “Greg Schmeg” might have been to Reaper what “The Boyfriend” was to Seinfeld, propelling a formerly pedestrian show upward, into the heights of legitimately good television, and “The Leak” cheerfully confirms that hypothesis.

“The Leak” wasn’t as funny as “Greg Schmeg” (though there were some great moments: Heathcliff vs Garfield; the tuxedo shirt; Winston) but in every other respect, it was an improvement. I’m not sure we as a television-watching public are willing to put up with purely episodic shows anymore—although judging from the CSIs and NCISs splattered across the Nielsen charts, it’s probably just me—and “The Leak” satisfied that need for overarching plot, advancing the overarching demon-insurrection, as well as revisiting Sam’s contract shenanigans.

Curiously, both narratives intersected this week. Back when Sam moved out and away from his family, it really benefited the show—the sappy parental angst really didn’t fit in with the rest of the secondary characters accepting Sam’s fate with magnanimity—but it was obvious that the show would eventually have to return, given that Sam’s father intentionally sabotaged Sam’s chances of getting out of his contract. Along with everyone else, I had presumed that this would ultimately lead to a tacky, emotionally hollow confrontation between Sam and his father that no one would care about. But the demon insurrection story allowed that dynamic to breathe. Thanks to his father’s selfishness, Sam’s only demon allies now think he’s the son of the devil (there’s no way he could be; I think it was pretty obvious that the Devil knew the rebels were watching him just then), and I expect that’s going to lead to some amusing betrayals and headspins: Sam has to spy on the demon rebellion because the Devil compels him to, the demons have to keep him close because they can’t risk alienating him, etc.

This was also the first time since Patton Oswalt’s guest spot that the soul-of-the-week was in any way interesting. While previous souls had some cool gimmicks—the acid queen, the tattoo guy—they were blandly developed, assuming they were developed at all. Maybe it was just because Mike the lothario was given a lot more screentime than any other souls, but that seedy, snake-oil charm was never off-putting or perfunctory the way other souls have been.

Brendan says that The Workbench might be the coolest hangout for a TV gang that we’ve seen in a while—and I don’t disagree—but Reaper has always had trouble capitalizing on that potential. “The Leak” finally changed that, whether it was Andi and Sam lounging in the tub section, the Devil transporting Sam via mailbox, or taking away his stepladder. It’s yet another problem that, for now, seems to have been fixed.

Again, the only real complaint that I can consistently lodge against Reaper is that it doesn’t know what to do with its women, especially Andi. Ever since Andi’s box fort established her quirky, creative side, she’s fallen into the trap of the bland, attractive girlfriend who would never in a million years stir up trouble. Thanks to Sam’s similar sad-sackedness, their relationship won’t ever be too dysfunctional, but my word, she’s getting absolutely railroaded by Sock, and it’s a bit distracting to watch. Look, I get that Sock is a force of nature, but it would be nice to have Andi stick up for herself once in a while. Hell, I’d be happy with her just kicking Sock to the backseat so her boyfriend could ride shotgun.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Immortals: #98 - Roxy Music

It would be a different story if they gave Brian Eno his due.

Standards like “Do the Strand” and “Ladytron” posit Roxy Music's first records as sort of art-rock’s answer to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: campy, but endearing, and plenty enough fun on a Saturday night. But really, nobody’s naming a Tim Curry and Meat Loaf joint as world-realigning stuff (except, I guess, maybe Barry Bostwick.) Were we to evaluate Roxy’s output in the context of how Brian Eno twisted our conventions of pop music in the 1970s we could more readily forgive the missteps. But no, Roxy Music was always first and foremost Bryan Ferry’s band, and, divested of the awesome kinds of weirdness that Eno wrung from otherwise straightforward rockers like “Virginia Plain” there are simply too few glimpses of brilliance to justify the accolades that the post-Eno catalogue have accrued.

Case in point: The consensus pick for “Best” (TM) Roxy Music album, Country Life.

For being touted as a glam rock touchstone, there seems to be little here that isn’t a mere approximation of the hallowed heroes of Ferry’s time. The Eurotrash melodrama of “Bitter-Sweet” is better realized on Lou’s Berlin. The un-tethered guitar and sax soloing imitates the avant squall of Iggy’s Stooges. And let’s face it- just about everything else Ferry attempts are half-rate Bowie impersonations that find only varying levels of success. The halcyon days of the Big Three still dominate any conversation as to what this music was supposed to sound like in the early 70s.

...which is not all to say that Roxy Music is totally undeserving of a measure of their success. Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera are actually very decent sidekicks, and their contributions largely keep Country Life from slipping out of memory altogether. Ferry has his moments too. Standout “A Really Good Time” is carried by a tidy melody and features lyrical phrasing that recalls Blonde on Blonde era Dylan. And not even the extraneous production effects on “Prairie Rose” can conceal the very best of Ferry’s vocal hooks.

But I’ve always suspected that Roxy Music’s greatest achievement was, above all else, being a band elevated by a personal aesthetic of more enduring significance than anything found in their music. See, Roxy Music made for substandard glam because they actually never were glam in the first place. Glam found danger in subverting concepts of gender and expectation and flirting with marginalized sexualities associated with drug freaks and street people. The music made sense, all jagged and ripped and fucked up interpretations of these glitter and garbage people who populated the decaying urban centers of the cultural world. Bryan Ferry didn’t belong there. His penchant for mugging and proggy, soft rock tendencies instead prophesized New Romantic (even so long before Punk begat New Wave.) He predicted a sub-genre of a sub-genre that is only distinguishable from its antecedents by... uhm... face stripes? Johnny Rotten should have hated Roxy Music every bit as much as the “over-the-top grandiose” sound of every other band in that incestuous scene.

In fact, Roxy’s supposedly profound effect on the early punk rock remains sonically nonexistent, and is more than likely a reinterpretation of the long-held love kids like Lil’ Lydon had for an icon to adolescents in the Isles. That Ferry was once a role model for countless young English punks surely wasn’t because he was almost the singer for King Crimson, but because he literally played the role of a model. The tuxedo fetish, the recurring cover-supermodels, the arty edges smoothed out by an oil-slick croon- this was James Bond… in a band! I have to imagine that this is exactly what teenaged British boys considered the objective and penultimate definition of “cool.”

And why not? I mean, the man really does wear the fucking hell out of a suit (just ask a member of Duran Duran!) But the fact remains that Roxy Music is perhaps the ultimate case of image validating a legacy after the fact, and the notion of this version of the band having that much influence, even if argued sincerely, is still not accurate. Roxy Music were no more key to the advancement of rock and roll than Tim Curry was to the sexual revolution. That Bryan Ferry is celebrated by so many reveals how revisionist we are in our appraisals of the things we just kind of seem to like, even in spite of our claims to taste.

Country Life by Roxy Music

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 6, "Faith"


As much as I’ve loved the ponderous lack of urgency underwriting these past few character-driven episodes of Galactica, I can certainly see how they might have gotten a bit frustrating, particularly threaded out over a month or so. “Faith” addressed these concerns by dialing up the action, not only with several impeccably disorienting shootouts, but by setting up the events of the foreseeable future.

That’s not to say that “Faith” was a brainless action-romp; it was, in fact, perhaps the most probing episode so far this season. But rather than further flesh out its characters, “Faith” instead elected to explore how those characters respond to a very fundamental tenet of humanity (and, thanks to recent events, cylon-ness): we’re all going to die.

Before we begin, even if you didn’t rejoice in that motif (and if you didn’t, you’re crazy), at least Kara Thrace, or whatever it is that looks like her, was brought back to the competent, reasonable military officer she once was. There was something touching about her rushing to help Gaeta, the insubordinate (to her) mutineer whom she nearly airlocked early last season, forgetting her personal animosity and her own mission almost instantly to administer medical aid to someone many feel didn’t deserve it. That mutiny, acting as it did as a referendum on Kara’s unstable command, reined her in, obviating that divisively militant personality, and made the climactic scene with the hybrid—who revealed to her that she, Starbuck, was the bringer of death, and would lead them to their “end,” whatever that means—a more interesting scene than a smug, blustery Kara Thrace receiving her destiny otherwise would have been.

Tagging along with Kara, Anders and Athena aboard the cylon basestar was one Jean Barolay, whom I couldn’t remember ever seeing before (though, as it turns out, she’s been in several episodes, as a resistance group member on both Old Caprica and New Caprica). Usually when an anonymous character volunteers to go on a dangerous mission, one of two things happens: either the character sabotages it, or winds up sticking a knife against someone’s throat. Here, Barolay existed simply to die ignobly, alone and in enemy territory, as retribution for her past sins. She wasn’t here to provide a fleeting moment of false drama, but to illuminate how far the cylons have come in their quest to become human. They’re no longer glib about death (on New Caprica, Cavil’s only complaint about his reincarnations was that they gave him migraines) since it’s now a final state of being, certainly an imponderable fate for a race that had previously been, at all events, immortal. Even as Gina, the Six who seems to be in charge of the lone basestar surviving Cavil’s holocaust, derides the concept of “human justice” and blood for blood she embraces it, pulling the trigger of the gun Anders couldn’t bear to fire. The momentary kiss between Gina and the guilty Six wasn’t erotic at all; it was a sublimely abject expression of comfort between two personalities that operate on sensuousness, not rationality.

Elsewhere on the basestar, Athena finally met up with a group of her sisters, so to speak, in a scene that echoed the events of season 1’s finale, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming”. But while that earlier confrontation untethered Boomer from her humanity, Athena's encounter reinforced hers. She refused to even entertain the idea of helping her fellows on that principle, even if that help was a simple, sympathetic hand to a dying Eight, hemorrhaging blood into a milky-white pool: “You pick your side, and you stick.” Grace Park is often forgotten when people talk about the embarrassingly talented Galactica cast (which may have something to do with the fact that she’s been out of the spotlight for so long. Seriously, she and Jamie Bamber must have some incriminating photos of Ronald Moore), but she and Tricia Helfer have done a fine job throughout the series of shading scores of identical bodies with believably unique personalities.

But the emotional centerpiece of “Faith” was, unquestionably, President Laura Roslin and her new BFF coming to grips with their mortality. From Roslin’s staggered gait to the frank conversation about her faith in God/s (on your deathbed, there’s no subject more important than that), the entire sequence felt uncomfortably real. I think it’s fair to say that Roslin accepting Baltar’s monotheism was all but inevitable, but I hadn’t expected it to come so early, and without any grandiose, heartfelt speech from James Callis. Instead, Baltar was consigned to a radio the entire episode, a whispering ghost of reassurance that, yes Laura, everything’s gonna be all right.

I really can’t say enough about Mary McDonnell here. Roslin’s breakdown after realizing that she’s not exactly like her mother—who was, like her, a teacher and penitent monotheist—was heartbreaking, and it led to that fine moment on the boat, a cascade of emotions flooding her face—joy at seeing her mother; distaste at having embraced anything by Gaius Baltar. That emotional matrix played out again in Adama’s quarters, but it was further suffused by Roslin’s apprehension at accepting a religion that essentially denies what has up to now driven her along: she’s the prophesied dying leader who will lead humanity to Earth. If nothing else, that loss of certitude undermined Laura’s iron fist just for just a moment, allowing Laura, the cancer patient, to comfort Adama’s growing despair about the events of Galactica that are increasingly spinning out of his control.

Some other thoughts:

In an episode where so many faced their mortality stoically, watching Gaeta—the man who refused to beg for his life, even as he was the individual most responsible for the successful New Caprican resistance—beg a man to leave his wife and friends to die just so he could save his leg felt a bit off to me.

Can we please abandon the clock countdown? On all shows? Seriously, there was just no way that the Demetrius was going to leave the basestar floating around in space, not with that many principals aboard, and that knowledge totally undercut any lame tension there may have been.

While 3 of the final four cylons have all lost their humanity to a certain extent, Anders, in his compassion towards Barolay and the Eight, is reinforcing his.

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Modern Library Top 100: #95 - Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (1954)

If art is about making a connection between the artist and the observer, then lots of art eludes me. I can usually appreciate the central ideas behind a supposed masterpiece, but it’s often difficult for me to admire their execution. Walking into the SFMOMA, I don’t see the beauty of a mundane object outside its natural setting; I see a toilet on its side. The idea of a time-travelling schizophrenic is certainly appealing, but Donnie Darko was about as enjoyable as a snuff film. (The comment section is to prove me wrong, people!) And seriously, don’t even get me started on the torpid horrors of The Animal Collective.

Frankly, the majority of my slog through Modern Library’s Top 100 list has been similarly unfulfilling. There have been a couple entries that I’ve truly enjoyed, but for the most part I’ve found the list to be forgettable. Like that toilet, the books seemed to have been more about big ideas than anything else, so they never really connected with me. Thankfully, just as I was beginning to entertain doubts about abandoning this project, I read Under the Net, a novel that finally backs its big ideas with a delightful story to match them.

Under the Net is a pretty straightforward tale, actually. Jake Donaghue is a French-to-English translator living in 1950s London, trying to make ends meet and solve a tricky love quadrangle he’s mired himself in. Along the way he publishes book about the meaninglessness of language; dognaps Mister Mars, an aging movie star; and cracks some bobby skulls in a massive labor riot on a Roman Forum. Essentially it’s a picaresque novel with a protagonist actually resembling a likeable human being, and that’s a rare gift.

In reading Under the Net, it’s hard not to recall Martin Blank, John Cusack’s character in Grosse Pointe Blank. Both Martin and Jake have done some pretty terrible things (though Jake’s rap sheet stops short of assassinating government witnesses), they both have to deal with the romantic consequences of an unexpected homecoming, and each man has a decidedly philosophic bent. But where Martin’s philosophy is necessarily couched in the shallow quip (after all, it’s probably not possible to be named the 21st greatest comedy film of all time if you’re focusing too much on epistemology), Jake’s has a lot of room to breathe simply by dint of literature being a more expansive medium. That's a dynamic that leads many authors to awkwardly shoehorn personal philosophies in their novels. Murdoch, who was a philosophy don at Oxford, probably had to deal with this temptation more than most, but she manages to integrate her personal take on Wittgenstein and Beckett into the narrative without it once sounding awkward.

I could rhapsodize on and on, but I won't. I usually try to connect these pieces to some overarching personal concern or motif, but Under the Net really does speak for itself. It's the first novel I've read with a narrative enriched with deep ideas without sounding pedantic. I can't dispense any higher praise.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Reaper: Season 1, Episode 16, "Greg Schmeg"

Sometimes it only takes one episode to launch a show to greatness. Seinfeld was a pedestrian comedy until “The Boyfriend”; How I Met Your Mother didn’t catch fire till “Slap Bet”. I’m not willing to lump Reaper in with those worthies—yet—but if its subsequent episodes (of which I'm hoping there will be more) are as funny and engaging as “Greg Schmeg”, Reaper is setting itself up to be a damned fine show.

So here’s the deal, for you poor souls (yuk yuk) not in the know. In September, the CW released a critically acclaimed pilot about a sadsack worker drone (Sam Oliver, played by Bret Harrison) toiling away in a big-box construction supply store. One day he wakes up to find the Devil (the ineffable Ray Wise, who’s as delightfully evil here as he was on Twin Peaks) lying on his comforter. The Devil coolly informs Sam that, thanks to a dubious bargain his parents made before his birth, his soul has become property of Hell. So Sam, distraught, is forced into a second job: a bounty hunter for Hell’s escaped souls—a rather altruistic task, all things considered, but since Sam never voluntarily auctioned off his immortal soul the Devil is forbidden from making him do anything too odious.

Anyway, that pilot was awesome. It was clever and novel and it had three best friends in funny suits attacking a fire monster with a vacuum cleaner. But subsequent episodes? Ugh. Reaper became formulaic in the worst way. Each week Sam and his friends at the box store would face a bland, crudely-drawn villain. A will-they-or-won’t-they “romantic” relationship between Sam and his childhood friend Andi (Missy Peregrym) was so maudlin and predictable it could have come from the notebook of a ten-year-old who had watched nothing but Ross and Rachel her entire life.

But Reaper’s biggest problem was that it forgot to be funny. The comedic charm of Sam’s friends Ben (Rick Gonzalez, always awesome) and Sock (Tyler Labine, whose Jack Black impersonanation has been toned down, thankfully) took a back seat to Sam’s whiny angst about doing the Devil’s work, and to the tedious romance between Sam and Andi. Worse still, DMV clerk/secretary for Hell Gladys (Christine Willes), the most reliably guffaw-inducing character on the show, disappeared for a long string of episodes without any explanation. The producers of Reaper entrusted their show to Harrison and Peregrym, the show’s two prettiest people. As Ken Levine just pointed out, that’s not exactly a recipe for comedic success.

We here at NH hated the WGA strike (and still do), but at least it seems to have refocused Reaper’s showrunners, Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas. The result is a breezy, much more confident affair. In the first five episodes since Reaper’s return, Sam has moved away from home, thus eliminating an awkward, go-nowhere family storyline. Sam and Andi are now in a relationship, even avoiding the lame she-can-never-know-my-secret dynamic: Andi knows Sam’s a reaper, and she’s cool with it. They’ve even abandoned the slavish devotion to the villain-of-the-week formula, introducing a rather fun subplot involving The State alumni Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino as gay ex-demons leveraging Sam to overthrow Satan, a narrative arc that promises to last at least through the end of this season. And oh yeah, the funny’s back. Gonzalez and Labine have been showcased more and more, and with Black and Marino and Lucy Davis (from the UK’s version of The Office), they’ve introduced legitimately amusing guest stars.

That momentum carried over into this week. “Greg Schmeg” wasn’t just a great episode of Reaper, it was of the best episodes of network television this season. There were some outrageously funny moments in it, particularly the devil’s attempts to get Sam to kill the man brainwashing Andi into cheating on him. Tricking an unwitting Sam into carrying the biggest knife I’ve ever seen before unveiling the smooching couple was a great sight gag (“I show you this because I care. And also I kind of enjoy it.”), but giving Sam a telescope to spy on them, then swapping the telescope with a sniper rifle, still has me giggling. During Reaper’s doldrums the Devil often acted too much like Sam’s buddy, but he’s become increasingly more menacing in this post-strike run and the show is better for it. Plus Ray Wise is absolutely eating it up, and that’s always delightful.

There were some other great moments, like Gladys’s triumphant return (cheerfully admitting that she’s bribable, assuming the bribe is a promise to take care of her Persian cat, Fancy) and the burnout paranormal arms dealer, who was funnier and more interesting in 2 minutes of screentime than most of Reaper’s previous guest stars were in twenty. But the best of them all was probably Sam finally showing some backbone and standing up to the Devil, and outfoxing him in the process. Harrison isn’t as funny as his co-stars, but as Sam he doesn’t need to be (and he probably shouldn’t be, considering Sam’s unhappy fate). As the straight man determined to do the right thing, Harrison is spot on for the role, and good on Butters and Fazekas for finally realizing it.

If there was a blemish in “Greg Schmeg”, it was the reiteration that Reaper still can’t do proper romance. I have a lot of gripes with Hollywood, but chief among them is the persistent fear of presenting a legitimately layered female character. It’s as if writers everywhere are afraid to create a woman who is in any way flawed, and Ben’s new love interest (Battlestar Galactica’s Kandyse McClure) is in the same mold as Andi before her: impossibly patient, impossibly pretty, impossibly good. But that’s something I can overlook if the show promises to be as consistently funny and engaging as these past few episodes have been.

One other thing: “If you ever feel like turning that triangle into a square, let me know.” Ew.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Iron Man: Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

As a celluloid showcase for blowing shit up, Iron Man probably represents the pinnacle of human achievement. But as an affecting cinematic experience, it falls flat on its face, the latest turd in the bottomless toilet bowl of big-budget superhero movies. Morally bankrupt, Iron Man sates its audience’s basest retributive bloodlust without once elevating the dynamics of personal responsibility, illuminating instead nothing more than American cinema’s cultural morass.

Superficially, there’s nothing at all wrong with Iron Man. It’s visually bombastic in the best sense of the phrase, and Robert Downey Jr. plays billionaire playboy and weapons manufacturer Tony Stark with a kind of bracing aplomb. Even the plot, though sieve-like, moves briskly enough to mitigate the inevitable groan factor of its holes.

But Iron Man suffers from being a superhero film that is too afraid to pit its hero against anything more complex than some second-rate Bond lackeys. The bad guys Stark encounters in Afghanistan are just a discrete group of rogue thugs, carving up random spheres of influence and thirsting for power simply for its own sake. They’re not religious warriors, they’re not disaffected peasants mutilated by Stark’s weapons, and in a film that takes some rather awkward pains to establish its hero’s patriotic credentials, they’re never even connected to the War on Terror. Stark’s conflict with them is backed by a kind of juvenile morality that might play well on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, but can’t help but be pandering in a wide-release.

Tony Stark rebels against his past by embracing it, fighting against the horrors of the weapons industry by building the most powerful one ever devised (to its credit, someone in the film points out the absurdity in this), gravely endangering the world he so recently swore to protect in the process. To the extent that we can judge any decision, it should be evaluated on its range of likely outcomes. In that light, Stark’s decisions are unpardonable sins: he brings the world to the brink and triumphs only by dint of outrageous fortune.

Stark finds it easier to use his vast resources to build a machine to satisfy his own personal vendettas (his own, and his too-heroic Afghan friend’s) instead of using them to change the global political structure he’s always profited from. In reality, he’s a charlatan, buoyed by the charm of a snake oil salesman, but we’re told he’s a laudable hero just because he has a winning smile and a cute pet robot. It’s the ultimate triumph of style over substance, and given where we are as society, that’s an all-too-common dynamic that desperately needs to end.

One other thing. Lots of praise has been spilled over the relationship between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, and it’s mystifying. We’re supposed to sympathize for a woman who can love a philandering (indirect) mass murderer, but can’t possibly countenance him endangering himself trying to right his wrongs (once again to its credit, Downey points out this absurdity in the film, but he never follows up on it). This is good romance? Buh? Either Paltrow’s character is pure evil, or she’s suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 5, "The Road Less Traveled"

“You have to make peace with your past. That part of you is gone.”

Couched in the cryptic doublespeak of a half-mad cylon, the sentiment above is more than a stern injunction to our hero, Kara Thrace. It is, simply, the refrain of the events of “The Road Less Travelled”, and all that has transpired early on in Battlestar Galactica’s fourth season.

Since its universally praised premiere, “He That Believeth In Me”, complaints have been legion about the subsequent episodes of this season, ranging from the unwelcome evolution of favorite characters (specifically, the rather curious transformation of the once-proud Kara Thrace into a frenzied shadow of her former self) to its glacial plot developments. Hell, a peek at the TWoP forums leaves one with the impression that Ronald Moore and company deserve a fashionable coat made from some hot tar and feathers, expiation for the destruction of what was once so good and true.

As perfect as the most of the episodes in the first 3 seasons were, there are only so many logistical crises and cylon attacks the ragtag fleet could withstand without spinning the wheels. In that respect, perhaps it’s a mixed blessing that Battlestar Galactica has never enjoyed monster ratings—it’s a virtual certainty that a cash cow would never be allowed to leave on its own terms, but to be stretched out as long as possible, intention in art be damned (think Lost). I don’t doubt that there’s still lots of potential in exploring further the politics of the fleet, or fleshing out some of the minor characters (I’m still waiting for a Doc Cottle showcase), but better to get out a season early than a season late. A ragged group of humans on the run from an inexorable killing force is a great conceit, but the up-and-down reception of season 3 signaled to audiences and creators alike that it was time to move on, to move in a different direction and have the fleet find Earth or die in the process.

Of course, it’s one thing to acknowledge that a new direction is needed, quite another to agree with the one taken. Episodes like “The Road Less Travelled” should assure viewers that Moore and company have things well in hand, its echoing motifs bouncing off character parallels to create a very literary and very watchable 44 minutes. While the episode ended with the fleet no closer to Earth, the real progression came, as it consistently has this season, in the characters themselves. The majority of screentime was given to the increasingly-troubled Demetrius, but the more affecting moments lay in the person of Chief Galen Tyrol, who, in becoming both cylon and widower in a matter of weeks, was very obviously falling apart. I’m consistently amazed by the scope and talent of Galactica’s stable of actors, but here, Aaron Douglass may have given the best work of any of them this season. Tyrol deliberately dehumanizing himself, both physically with his freshly shaved head and psychologically with a gun to his cheek, worked mostly thanks to Douglass’s commanding presence and miraculous facial control (seriously, he must have been paying attention to Michael Hogan’s eyeball during the past year and a half).

In other words, Tyrol’s downward spiral felt earned, ultimately, and that made his reconciliation with Baltar that much more satisfying. I speculated earlier that Tyrol losing his wife might untether him from the stalwart character we had come to know, because, like Boomer before him, he would be alone. That eventuality certainly came to pass (though the Boomer parallels stop short, since Tyrol, crucially, didn’t pull the trigger), but who could suspect was that Tyrol would find his support—his salvation, even—in the words and deeds of Gaius frakking Baltar? As this season progresses, it’s becoming easier to understand just how it is that Baltar has been able to accumulate, and maintain, such a devout following. However tantalizing his message that all of God’s children are perfect beings is, without a compassionate figurehead it would sink under the weight of the established Gods. Baltar, if nothing else in this episode, for the very first time in the character’s history proved himself to care deeply about someone other than himself. That’s progress, people.

As for the Demetrius saga, it’s difficult to speculate on the early events of a two-parter. Helo’s mutiny certainly would have been more emotionally compelling had it not been established previously that he was willing to break military protocol to follow his conscience—remember, this is the man who squandered humanity’s only chance to permanently eliminate the cylon threat because he couldn’t countenance another genocide. That said, it was mostly good, if (and I’ll cop to what others are saying here) mostly pointless. Starbuck is still crazy? Check. Anders and Athena are still not getting any airtime? Check two. Leoben’s introduction was an interesting development, but he only briefly interacted with anyone outside of Kara (his scene with Anders, however, was worth the price of admission, each man knowing something the other doesn’t), and those scenes were predictably maudlin. And he only confirmed what was already suspected: that the cylon civil war is devastating. There aren’t any more resurrection ships. They’re playing for keeps.

Still. Baltar. The savior. Of both cylon and human. Yowza.

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