Category Archives: TV

From the Red Forest to Eternia, from 2007 to now: TV viewed

Hulu finally streamed the last season of SyFy’s 12 MONKEYS and it was worth waiting for (I binged while all my regular shows are on Christmas break). As someone who’s seen a lot of time travel stuff — hey, I wrote the book on it — it’s hard to impress me any more, but the show did.

At the end of S3, we learned that the murderous Olivia (Alison Down) of the Army of the 12 Monkeys was also the Witness, the antichrist figure who would destroy time and bring about the Red Forest, a timeless world in which we’d all experience our most perfect moment, without end — but without change or growth. As Cole (Aaron Stanford) says, “we can have forever or we can have now” but not both.

Learning there’s a weapon to stop the Red Forest, Cole and the rest of the cast hunt through time to recover it. But when they do, it appears even if they make it work, the solution will erase Cole from reality (as the first person to time travel, erasing him restores causality). What results is a grim race against time to save time, with several surprises and some paradoxes from earlier seasons resolved. The ending shouldn’t have worked for me: the twist of “we must restore the original timeline … but we’ll change just this little bit so it ends happy” normally doesn’t work but they pulled it off. And the cast remains great, particularly Emily Hampshire as Jennifer. “Save Hitler? That’s not what you do with a time machine!”

I also binged the fourth season of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER and damn, that was good.  As Katra and the Horde increase the pressure on the Princess Alliance, friendships start to fracture, abetted by the conniving shapeshifter Double Trouble. This mirrors what happens in the Horde, as Katra’s arrogance and ambition alienate even the people close to her, such as Scorpia. And Adora learns there are secrets about She-Ra that she has no idea of yet … It’s good both as action/adventure and at the personal drama level. “That’s why nobody comes to games night any more.”

As I bought TYG the WILD PALMS DVD set, we naturally watched it last month, and I was started to realize this 1993 miniseries took place in the near-future of 2007. Fortunately we live in the real world where we don’t have to worry about authoritarian extremists using the threat of terrorism to chip away at our freedom —oh, wait.

Jim Belushi plays Harry, an attorney swept in a mysterious conspiracy when his former lover Paige (Kim Cattrall) asks for help, though it turns out he’s been unwittingly entangled in things for years. What is the “Go” chip? Why is there a rhinoceros in the swimming pool? Who is Harry’s son really? Solidly cast with Dana Delaney as Harry’s troubled wife, Angie Dickinson as her vicious mother, Robert Loggia as an evil senator and David Warner as a scientist. Despite being 13 years in our past, it holds up well. “Death to the new realism!”

My reason for watching the Bonita Granville and Emma Roberts Nancy Drew movies was that I’ve become hooked on the CW’s NANCY DREW series. Much like Riverdale, sex plays a larger role than in the original books: Nancy and Ned sleeping together, Bess is gay and George was having an affair with a married man. The story arc for the first half-season concerns the murder of said married man’s wife, with Nancy and her friends all looking like suspects. Further complicating things is the ghost of “Dead Lucy,” a beauty queen from Nancy’s father’s generation who died mysteriously and wants Nancy to investigate. How does it fit together? We get an answer at the mid-season break, but I’m confident it’s not the real one. I’m glad CW picked this up for a full season. “I just banished a spirit from the mortal world, now I’m summoning an Uber.”

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Christmas means misers, liars and thieves: movies

First the misers, starting with MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL an animated adaptation in which Jim Backus’ Mr. Magoo performs as Scrooge on Broadway (the character’s notorious nearsightedness doesn’t figure in the Christmas Carol plot, but does make the director’s life complicated). A good adaptation with some great songs; I’d add them to my Christmas iTunes playlist if I could find them. “A hand for each hand is the way it was planned/Why won’t my fingers reach?/A millions of grains of sand in the world/Why such a lonely beach?”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) remains the king of Scrooges (though next year perhaps I’ll check out Stewart and Scott versions again) as Alastair Sim discover Michael Horden’s Marley is not a delusion brought on by food poisoning, Patrick Macnee and George Cole as young Marley and Scrooge sign on with the “vested interests,” the Cratchitts listen to the pudding sing and human vultures loot Scrooge’s death scene. Always a pleasure. “The boy is ignorance, the girl is want. Beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy!”

The Bah, Humbug! episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI doesn’t get as much attention as that sitcom’s Thanksgiving episode, but it’s a really funny send-up. The station manager having decided to skimp on bonuses this year, he’s visited by the usual ghosts, giving us a look back at the station’s early years and at its bleak future (“Les Nessman — minority whip in the U.S. Senate!”). “Yes, Scrooge was able to wake up — but Scrooge didn’t eat one of Johnny’s brownies.”

And then we have the Chuck Jones-animated, Boris Karloff-narrated HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (the Grinch isn’t a miser, but he’s sure a Scrooge) which I imagine needs no recap from anyone reading this. A Christmas perennial for me; this year I learned how the Grinch became green. “He puzzled and puzzed/Till his puzzler was sore/Then the Grinch thought of something/He hadn’t before.”

Then the liars and thieves!
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) starts with Barbara Stanwyck as a homemaker/columnist who can’t cook and doesn’t have the family she writes about; by the end of the film she’s apparently cheating on her non-existent husband, sailor Dennis Morgan is cheating on his fiancee, Sidney Greenstreet crashes the party and Una O’Connor and S.Z. Sakall debate goulash vs. Irish stew. Easily Stanwyck’s sweetest role (even in rom-coms, she’s usually tougher). “When the bag lets out the cat, someone gets scratched!”

Case in point, REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940) stars Stanwyck as a shoplifter (expensive jewelry, not trinkets) facing Christmas in jail after her trial gets delayed. Prosecutor Fred MacMurray winds up taking her home instead, melting her heart even as she gets inside his, but can love possibly bridge across the crook/law enforcement divide? Preston Sturges’ script starts out as smart-ass as most of his work, but softens considerably by the end; still, it works for me. “No, you’re not a kleptomaniac if you sell stuff after you steal it — you lose your amateur standing.”

WE’RE NO ANGELS (1955) has escaped Devil’s Island convicts Humphrey Bogart (swindler/forger), Peter Ustinov (safecracker) and Aldo Ray (murderer and probable sexual assailant — that part hasn’t aged as well) becoming the guardian angels for Leo G. Carroll’s goodhearted family when covetous relative Basil Rathbone shows up. A fun film with a great cast. “We’re gonna cave their heads in, gouge their eyes out, cut their throats — just as soon as we wash the dishes.”

KLAUS (2019) is an Origin of Santa animated film in which a postmaster assigned to a dead-end gig in a feuding town (the only letter anyone’s likely to get is a letter bomb) cons the local kids into sending letters to the eponymous toymaker — if he generates enough business, he can leave town for somewhere better. This not only turns the miserable place around but helps the guy’s own heart grow three sizes, and in the process births most of the legend (“A magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer? Seriously?”). The best of the new Christmas movies I’ve caught this year. “I’m sure it’s nothing that could fester and become a source of regret.”

Departing from the Misers And Liars theme, LET IT SNOW (2019) is a rom-com anthology like Christmas Eve or Office Christmas Party with a bunch of different Y/A subplots woven together: a dying woman’s daughter meets up with a rock star, a lesbian wonders why her great date from last night doesn’t seem to know her, a guy struggles to speak his love to his female best friend (a shtick I could have done without) and eccentric tow-truck operator Joan Cusack (“She thinks she’s a burrito and the Earth is a giant microwave.”) dispenses advice. Surprisingly fun. “The universe always has the answer — you just have to subscribe to her newsletter.”

As usual, TYG and I watched A CHRISTMAS STORY (1984) after unwrapping the presents and enjoyed little Ralphie dealing with the vicissitudes of visits to Santa, soap-induced blindness, Scott Farkus (“He had yellow eyes — yellow eyes!”) and a bunny suit. “Only I didn’t say fudge.”

And I can’t forget SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN with Rankin-Bass’s Origin of Santa in the story of a young toymaker defying the Winter Warlock and Burgomeister Meisterburger to deliver toys to children. Not the greatest of Christmas specials, but pleasant comfort food. “All the magic I have left is some stupid corn that makes reindeer fly.”

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Crisis in the Arrowverse: Mid-Season reviews

If you follow this blog, you know I’m a huge fan of DC Comics’ superheroes, and of the Arrowverse. So as we’ve now reached the mid-season break point partway through the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, I thought I’d review the first half-seasons. Every show but Black Lightning was shaped by the looming crossover and predictions Flash and Green Arrow would both die.

I gave up on the CW’s initial superhero show ARROW after its flat S6 and the uninteresting opening of S7 (Ollie in prison and a B-plot with his kids trying to save Star City in the future). However, with the Crisis looming and this season announced as the finish, I figured I’d give it a try — and I’m glad I did. With nothing left to hold back, the season has Ollie working for the Monitor to try and stave off the looming apocalypse. In the process he gets to see most of the show’s long-gone cast including Thea, Roy Harper, Nyssa al Ghul, Katana and Tommy and Malcolm Merlyn (parallel world versions who die in the first episode when their world is devoured by anti-matter). Plus the show brought the future kids William and Mia and their teammate Connor into the present, and interacting with the regular cast they became much more interesting.

FLASH‘s previous season was so-so (though as I love the character, I rated it better than perhaps it deserved) and the main plot this season was disappointing. The villain, Bloodwork, tried using dark matter to cure his lethal illness and instead became a freak who can create zombie armies by his control of blood. He’s not interesting, nor is he tragic (they try) and the big zombie battle that wrapped up was uninspired. On the plus side, Barry and Team Flash trying to deal with the Crisis and Barry’s inevitable death (spoiler: not so inevitable after all. You’ll see) was a lot more interesting. Unfortunately we’ll be back to Bloodwork next year.

SUPERGIRL also had a mixed previous season, ranging from the high of Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor to the low of wasting Manchester Black. This season she’s been dealing with J’Onn’s evil brother M’alefic; Lena seeking revenge for what she feels is Kara’s betrayal; and Leviathan, a cabal of aliens out to preserve the Earth by mass-culling of the human population (plus the corporate takeover of CatCo). Some of this worked well, like M’alefic’s redemption, some of it not so much: while I can understand Lena having trust issues given her murderous family, it’s hard to have that much sympathy for her. Katie McGrath does her best, but as Alex points out, Lena kept her own secrets last season. But I’m more hopeful for the second half than I am with Flash.

BATWOMAN started its first season awfully slow as Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) discovers her cousin Bruce’s identity and deals with her longstanding trauma, the death of her mother and twin sister Beth in an accident that Kate survived. However things picked up fast as Kate stepped into the absent Bruce’s crimefighting shoes: Rose is good in the lead, supported by Lucius Fox’s son Luke (Camrus Johnson) and opposed by Alice (Rachel Skarsten) whom Kate becomes convinced is her missing sister, though dad (Dougray Scott) doesn’t believe it.

Skarsten’s Alice is a Joker-class lunatic and the actor nails it. I also like the sibling rivalry aspect: Kate’s stepsister Mary and Alice’s surrogate brother and partner-in-crime Mouse both resent that the twins still have a bond that rivals theirs. The pre-Crisis season ends with everything falling apart, so I look forward to what follows in 2020.

BLACK LIGHTNING ended S2 with the American Security Agency locking up the entire Pierce family. Things haven’t improved this season as the ASA places Freeland on lockdown, nominally to protect from the Markovian terrorists but just as much to control them. By the mid-season point, Jeff has given up on trying to be moderate, Blackbird’s a revolutionary, Jennifer’s doing wetwork for the ASA and the agency’s scheming Odell has Lynn addicted to the greenlight drug. It’s grim stuff, but I’m enjoying it. This show continues staying apart from the rest of the Arrowverse: Jeff appears briefly in the crossover (I’ll review that in a subsequent post) and the show’s final pre-crisis episode involves Jennifer encountering her parallel-world selves from out in the multiverse, before Black Lightning’s earth dies (don’t worry, I’m confident they’ll be back).

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Reporting In the Internet Age, In Fact and Fiction

One of the story elements in this season of the CW’s Supergirl is that CatCo has been bought out and taken over by Andrea Rojas (Julie Gonzalo), a corporate schemer (and, we’ve learned, a supervillain on the side) under whose governance clicks, hits and eyeballs are the sole measure of good journalism. Crap is better than good journalism if the crap is serious clickbait.

Recent developments at the Deadspin sports-and-news site have demonstrated that’s a very realistic prospect. The new owners promptly told everyone that to draw more eyeballs, they should stick to sports coverage and nothing else. The flaw in this argument being that the political stuff drew lots of hits: if the owners had any brains, they’d have run with it. As former Deadspin reporter Megan Greenwell puts it, “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.” Which is why so many of the staff are resigning.

Part of the problem may be that “publishing well-written, well-researched articles that address various subjects with authority takes longer and costs more than publishing a high volume of short posts that exist only as filler underneath narrow-topic headlines designed to game Google searches.” Which fits with my experience at the Freedom News chain: I often felt like upper management would have been happy to convert the papers to endless pages of ads and “Cutest Cat” contest instead of actually paying anyone, only they, at least knew that wouldn’t work. It’s why I became suspicious of the business-speak phrase “content providers” which implies that reporters and photographers are really no different or more important than the people who submit press releases, fishing photos or letters to the editor. It’s all content, what’s the difference?

Where Supergirl gets it wrong is that, as Greenwell puts it, “the journalists at Deadspin and its sister sites, like most journalists I know, are eager to do work that makes money; we are even willing to compromise for it, knowing that our jobs and futures rest on it.” Again, that fits with my experience. I know writing about city council budget meetings or zoning hearings might as well be blank space as far as most readers are concerned (though it’s still a bad thing that local news coverage is disappearing), even though it affects their lives big-time (more than once I’ve seen someone declare at a Destin City Council meeting that there’s been no information released about a particular issue or city project, even though I’ve written dozens of stories about it). But I do the best I can to make them interesting and readable. And I also do stories that are more appealing to readers: talented kids and their accomplishments, local writer publishes book, new business development on the harbor.

Kara, Jimmy, Nia and their fellow journalists, however, don’t think about that. As Greenwll puts i, it’s a story where “idealistic journalists, unconcerned with profit, are posed against ruthless business-doers” rather than journalists trying to combine quality and popularity with management that happily flings crap against the wall in the conviction they know what will stick. Nobody argues with Andrea that their serious news article will be a better hook than whatever clickbait she has in mind, they just protest on principle.

Of course, I also have problems with the opposite handling of journalists, where their only standard in covering stories is how it will advance their career (e.g., the graphic novel Genius: Siege). Most of the reporters I’ve known find covering stories and writing about them interesting; awards are great but they’re not the prime motivator (and bosses don’t usually assign coverage based on what will advance our careers).

Still, despite my criticisms, Supergirl comes closer to capturing 21st century reporting than the comics have lately.

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Two great companions and the Master’s return: Doctor Who, Season 14

Wow, S14 of the original series was amazing. First rate stories, Sarah Jane’s last episodes, the return of the Master and the intro of Leela, the companion who kills people.

In a media world where formidable women protagonists are a lot more common, I’m not sure anyone can appreciate how totally novel Leela looked when she debuted. A barbarian warrior, she fights well, doesn’t lose her cool (faced with unkillable adversaries in Robots of Death and Talons of Weng-Chiang, she retreats but it’s strategic, not terrified) and has no qualms about killing people. Within the world of Doctor Who she stands out even now: there’s never been a companion as tough and deadly as she was.

The season kicked off with its weakest storyline, THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA. Sarah and the Doctor arrive in Renaissance Italy, dragging along a piece of the star-entity called the Mandragora Helix. They’re all embroiled in a local power struggle between Giulano, an enlightened young noble, and his power hungry uncle, Federico (“Only corpses fail to stand in my presence.”), allied with the scheming astrologer Hieronymous and a local cult. The Mandragora, which dislikes human free will and reason, sides with the bad guys; the Doctor and Sarah are on the other side.  I remember liking this one when I first saw it, but rewatching it’s too much mundane swashbuckler intrigues, not enough of the Helix. This does give the reveal that the reason Sarah can speak Italian (or anything else) is a “Time Lord gift” the Doctor shares with her. “It depends on whether the moon is made of cheese and whether thirteen roosters cluck at midnight.”

Sarah Jane bows out with THE HAND OF FEAR, which begins when a literal hand is turned up in a quarry, buried in rock (there are some jokes about the series’  long history of using quarries as barren alien planets). It possesses Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen does an excellent turn) and takes drastic steps to regenerate (“Eldrad must live again!”). With the Doctor and Sarah in tow, Eldrad (much less memorable than Eldrad-possessed Sarah Jane)heads back to its homeworld, but it’s fudged some of the backstory — and there are surprises waiting even beyond that. It’s a good story, ending with Sarah Jane deciding enough’s enough (amusingly, she walks off humming the song My Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow, little realizing the Doctor would some day gift her with a robot dog). “The Atomic Energy Commission is not going to believe this.”

At the end of that serial, the Doctor gets a summons to Gallifrey. They’re in the middle of a presidential election, but somewhere among the crowds lurks THE DEADLY ASSASSIN … and it appears to be the Doctor. Can he clear his name before he’s executed? This marks the return of the Master after several years absence, though here he’s a physical wreck from running out of regenerations (it would be another four seasons before he returned and got a new face). This one is intense, twisty and effective, though at the time it upset a lot of fans: showing the Time Lords riven by internal politics and coming off almost like humans didn’t fit most people’s ideas of what Gallifrey was like. With time, more people have recognized how good this one is. “You’d delay an execution to pull the wings off a fly.”

THE FACE OF EVIL has a familiar set-up — Earth-settled planet that’s forgotten its origins, devolving into two hostile cultures, one technological, one savage. It’s well-executed though, and it turns out the Doctor has a surprising role in the planet’s history. The best thing about this one, though, is the debut of Leela. “You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts.”

THE ROBOTS OF DEATH would be a standout in any other season but it’s almost minor in S14. The TARDIS deposits the Doctor and Leela inside a giant mechanical miner whose crew are scouring a desert world for potentially valuable minerals. Unfortunately, some of the robot workers have decided to ignore the First Law of Robots and begin killing people. Oh, and look, these two strangers showing up must obviously be the guilty parties! The result is a mix of old-school murder mystery and SF. “I see, you’re one of those boring maniacs who likes to gloat.”

Last, but definitely not least we have the singularly frustrating THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG. The frustrating part is that it leans very heavily on Sinister Oriental stereotypes including tongs, opium, Fu Manchu-type villains and the general Othering of the Chinese. Not to mention that the sinister Chinese stage magician Chang is a British guy in yellowface. I’m sure for some fans these details will ruin what’s otherwise a fantastic story.

The Doctor takes Leela to Victorian London to see how her Earth ancestors lived. They land, wouldn’t you know, just as Chang is mysteriously kidnapping local women using his hypnotic powers, with his not-so-inanimate ventriloquist dummy and the Scorpion Tong eliminating anyone who gets in the way. The Doctor and Leela find themselves working alongside the flamboyant showman Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) to learn what’s behind it all (it turns out to involve a rival time traveler whose scientific theories have some flaws). Despite running six parts, it never feels padded: it’s well-acted, tense, well-performed and cleverly done. Scriptwriter Robert Holmes actually hoped to give Jago and Litefoot a spinoff series, but it never came to pass.  “Unfortunately the night vapors are very bad for my chest.”

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Woman as hostage, as engineer, as office drone, as widow: movies and TV

REAL TIME: Siege at Lucas Street Market (2001) has a convenience-store robbery turn into a hostage crisis thanks to the idiocy of the two stick-up artists; can pregnant Brinke Stevens find a way to keep herself and her fellow hostages alive? Written and directed by Max Allan Collins, who says he wanted to do a found-footage crime thriller film rather than horror (we see everything unfold in real time via the security cameras) and that Stevens’s character is more-or-less his comic-book female PI Ms. Tree (he was concerned using the real Ms. Tree would undercut the cinema verité feel, and might also hurt the money he and co-creator Terry Beatty earned from studios occasionally optioning the character). A good, low-budget thriller. “I don’t have a purse — I came here to shoplift.”

I wasn’t a fan of the two recent Atlas Shrugged movies and apparently neither was anyone else: ATLAS SHRUGGED III: Who is John Galt? (2014) went straight to video, recast everyone and only ran 90 minutes, which mercifully reduces the amount of speechifying. Protagonist Dagny Taggart having reached Galt’s Gulch at the end of II, she gets to hear lots of lectures on the virtue of selfishness and fall in love with John Galt. Back in the regular world, society continues sliding into an unconvincing dystopia (it’s not much worse than the standard media view of New York in the 1970s). And the film is still clueless about how the world works, for examples portraying the trans-continental railroad as a pure capitalist project with no government support (a myth that cropped up in the earlier films). Glenn Beck plays a talking head awestruck by Galt’s visionary speech (which is way shorter than the book). “At last someone had the courage to say the truth and to say it the way it must be said!”

I will give the creators credit, the second season of AGGRETSUKO didn’t simply replay Retsuko’s struggles from S1. Here she’s dealing with her mom’s attempts to fix her up, her desire to find direction in her life, an entitled millennial underling — and if not a happy ending to the season, Retsuko does at least come to accept the good stuff in her life. I’ll be back if there’s an S3, but this works as a stopping point. “It doesn’t matter whether you believe you’re worthy of love — what matters is whether he does.”

I caught the first season of MARLEY’S GHOSTS on the Britbox streaming service and quite enjoyed it; that it was only three episodes didn’t hurt, as I don’t think the premise would work if drawn out. Sarah Alexander plays Marley, who’s stuck seeing dead people, specifically her selfish, unemployed schmuck of a husband, then her boyfriend, then the town’s clueless vicar. The shticks are familiar (like the neighbor across the street wondering why Marley’s talking to herself all the time), but the show and the cast makes them work. “Oh, wait the story’s not from the Book of Luke, it’s from that book of Joan Collins’ — that makes much more sense!”

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Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock and the Doom Patrol: movies and TV

After watching Robert Altman’s disappointing Short Cuts, I put his NASHVILLE (1975) in my Netflix queue to see if despite the similarities (sprawling cast, nonlinear narrative, almost three hours long) it was, as I remembered it, a much better film.

Yep, it is. Possibly because Short Cuts is a group of separate stories tied together by connections among the characters where Nashville feels like a single story, albeit broken into multiple different subplots, many of which don’t really go anywhere. The narrative spine is a Nashville rally for a third-party politician whom we never see but whose messages (tax churches, end the electoral college) are heard throughout the film. Various other characters include country superstar Henry Gibson, womanizing musician Keith Carradine, Keenan Wynne and Shelly Duvall dealing with a woman’s death in different ways, choir director Lily Tomlin having an affair, a racist British reporter trying to interview Elliott Gould … It’s very much a slice of life, which is a tricky thing to pull off, but it works brilliantly. “Let’s consider our national anthem. Nobody knows the words. Nobody knows how to sing it.”

Silent movies were definitely not Hitchcock’s glory years — Like Easy Virtue, THE FARMER’S WIFE (1928) is another Filmed Stage Play by Hitchcock, this time a comedy one in which a widowed farmer pursues various local women in the entitled conviction he’d a fantastic catch for any o f them. Looks good — there’s a real sense of life around the crowd scenes, like the carnival in The Ring — but the story couldn’t keep my interest. “You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge!”

Hitchcock shows good judgment in classing CHAMPAGNE (1928) as one of his worst films; the story of a madcap heiress who elopes only to learn her father’s just gone broke — what will she and her fiancé do now? I didn’t care at all. “I’ve met some lively people, invented a new cocktail and bought some snappy gowns.”

As a die-hard Doom Patrol fan, I shelled out for DC’s streaming service and binged their DOOM PATROL over the past few weeks (while there’s other stuff I wouldn’t mind catching, I’ve canceled it until DP S2 comes out in 2020). As NASCAR driver and first-class jerk Cliff Steele, Brendan Fraser wakes up from an accident to discover he’s now a brain in a robot body, living in a creepy old mansion alongside Niles (Timothy Dalton), Rita Farr (April Bowlby), Larry Trainer (Matt Bomer) and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero). Then reality-warping intelligence Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) kidnaps Niles for revenge and begins tormenting the team in countless bizarre ways, forcing them to change and adapt while making sneering metacommentary (“You’ve spent thirteen episodes whining like a C-list Breakfast Club!”).

This was absolutely fantastic. Adapting Grant Morrison’s DP gave them good material to start with and they’ve used it well. Rita’s arc, slowly going from selfish withdrawal to decent human being; Larry dealing with the energy being inside him and his own homosexuality; Guerrero giving an absolutely amazing performance as a metahuman with multiple personalities. And the show stays strong all the way to the finish. It was actually worth adding another streaming service — next year I might keep my subscription going so I can watch week to week. It’s that good. “I would sooner have sharks in my vagina than spend another minute in the same zip code as you.”

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Stacking the deck: Twilight Zone’s “Miniature”

So I wrote a couple of weeks back about the way writers stack the deck to make their point: that life is fair/isn’t fair, that God is good/shitty, that violence is/isn’t the answer, that the legal system can/can’t be trusted. Watching the Twilight Zone episode Miniature, it occurred to me we stack the deck in our stories on a personal level as well.

The story is part of the show’s fourth season, when it jumped to hour-long episode and most fell flat on its face (I think the ratio of good to bad is at best, 1/3). But it had gems and Charles Beaumont’s Miniature is one of them. Robert Duvall plays Charlie, an introverted guy who just doesn’t fit with the world. His boss fires him because he doesn’t like to hang with his coworkers and that’s bad for morale. His mother obsessively takes care of him. His sister (the most likable of the supporting cast) tries to fix him up with a girl but Charlie’s not at all comfortable with her. And everyone assumes he’s the problem. Being in the Twilight Zone, of course, he has an escape hatch: a beautiful, elaborate dolls’ house at the local museum. Gazing into it, he fantasizes the young woman of the house is alive, and as lonely as he is … if only he could be with her, she’d be a woman he could connect with. If only … Of course everyone tells him it’s a delusion but guess what? It isn’t (yes, you probably guessed that). And two lonely people end up finding each other.

It didn’t move me as much as it did first go-round, probably because, like Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five, I got past the point where I was inclined to withdraw from the world into fantasy. It’s still well executed, with a great performance by Duvall. But it got me thinking about how stories stack the deck in regard to characters’ lives, as well as the big picture political/economic stuff.

Serling did a lot of stories about people desperate to escape into fantasy. Into their past, or their youth or some other world. But unlike a lot of writers who wallow in that (Jack Finney was particularly fond of rejecting the present for what he imagined was the wonderful 19th century), Serling knew it could be a trap. In Trouble With Templeton, the protagonist learns to stop living in the past and get on with his life. Jack Klugman in Passage for Trumpet is bitter and miserable about life, but learns “it can be as rich and sweet as the music he plays — if only he will listen.”

Stacking the deck is how Serling (and writers on the show such as Beaumont and Richard Matheson) show us which is the right outcome. Is the problem that the protagonist needs to embrace life instead of hiding from it? Or that life really sucks, as for the frustrated nursing-home residents in Kick the Can? Is love a possibility if you reach out, or have they lost the big chance already? Does the hero need to change, or is it other people? The answer is whatever the story tells us or shows us.

Of course sometimes I just don’t buy what it’s showing. Ida Lupino in Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine seemed to me like someone who needed to embrace the world, but she gets a retreat into fantasy instead. That’s the risk of stacking the deck: if you’re not plausible about it, it won’t work. And it’s hard to stack the deck if the audience really wants it stacked the other way. I can’t get into stories where the happy ending is the protagonist becoming a happy recluse because for me that’s a sad ending (the whole withdrawing thing).

But that’s the risk we take with writing.

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Sherlock, She-Ra and Jack the Ripper: movies and TV

Continuing my viewing of the Basil Rathbone Holmes filmsTHE PEARL OF DEATH (1944) remains a personal favorite, a relatively faithful adaptation of Doyle’s The Six Napoleons. A stupid stunt by Holmes enables Moriarty-esque mastermind Conover (Miles Mander) to steal the priceless Borgia pearl, but where did he hide it? Does the theft tie in with a series of brutal murders by a killer who likes to break his victims’ backs and then smash plates? A solid story, with Mander fine in his vicious role, backed up by Evelyn Ankers (much better as a bad girl than the wharf rat in Voice of Terror) and acromegalic Rondo Hatton as the brutal “Creeper.” “I don’t like the smell of you — an underground smell, the sick sweetness of decay.”

Moriarty himself returns in THE WOMAN IN GREEN (1945)with Henry Daniell as an understated but ominous Moriarty (I can easily buy him as a mathematics professor) who actually gets some of Doyle’s dialog from The Final Problem. Unfortunately he’s in a mediocre movie involving hypnosis and an implausible blackmail scheme involving cutting off women’s fingers. This is narrated by Gregson, one of Doyle’s secondary detectives, which doesn’t add much (apparently the producers felt Dennis Hooey’s buffoonery as Lestrade wasn’t needed when they already had Watson for comic relief). However Daniell does manage to pull off one of those “let’s not put a bullet in Holmes right away” drawn out endings that annoy me so (“I’ve waited a long time for this moment.”). “Then we shall walk together through the gates of eternity, hand in hand.”

TERROR BY NIGHT (1946) has Holmes and Watson taking a train to safeguard the fabulous Star or Rhodesia, only to have the gem disappear en route with its minder dead. Could it be the woman traveling with her husband’s corpse? The dead man’s mom? The couple with the tea pot? Is it possible the real mastermind is Sebastian Moran? Competent, but no more than that, with Dennis Hooey returning and Watson at peak levels of stupid. “Col. Moran was directly responsible for what nearly turned out to be my premature death on three separate occasions.”

At six episodes, the third season of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER is even shorter than S2, but in compensation it’s very good. The story arc focuses on Hordak’s plans to open a portal and bring through the full Horde but the strength is in the character bits: Hordak and Entrapta bonding, Shadow Weaver switching sides, Adora freaking from the fear she’s failed everyone, Katra demonstrating she’s really as good as she thinks she is. Highly recommended. “I’d sooner see the world end than let you win again, Adora!”

When I picked up the Holmes DVDs at the library, I also snatched up a collection of early Hitchcock films. THE LODGER (1926) is widely seen as the first “Hitchcockian” film as it addresses one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, an innocent man under suspicion. Based on a successful British novel (which the film’s script reworks radically) this has silent star Ivor Novello as the gentlemanly eponymous boarder striking sparks with his landlady’s daughter — but is it possible he’s also the mysterious Ripper-esque serial killer, the Avenger? This shows Hitchcock Romance‘s point about Hitchcock’s romantic streak as the heart of the film is the romance triumphing over the obstacles (suspicious parents, a disgruntled former boyfriend). Unfortunately that doesn’t make it interesting — it’s more a dry run for future classics than substantial in itself. “When I put a rope around the Avenger’s neck — I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger.”

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Two Western series, rewatched in full

KUNG FU‘s ratings slipped during S2 which gives me the feeling the show-runners were putting some extra effort into S3 (though it didn’t help). We have several episodes set entirely in China (Besieged and The Devil’s Champion) and some where Caine’s facing unambiguously supernatural forces (The Devil’s Champion again, one that absolutely fascinated me as a kid). There’s also the introduction of a running foe, a cult of Chinese assassins dedicated to hunting Caine down for killing the emperor’s son.Most importantly, we get the resolution to Caine’s quest as he tracks down his brother Danny (and Danny’s son), and gets embroiled in that ne’er do well’s feud with gambling czar Leslie Nielsen (the kind of serious role he was known for before Police Squad! established him as a comedian). I felt a little disappointed Caine just left his family behind to go on wandering, though it’s not out of character (as the episode Thief of Chendo shows, being a wandering defender of the helpless was what he dreamed of as a kid in the monastery. A good finish to a good series (unless, as I’ve noted before, you find the yellowface aspect a dealbreaker); followed by a good movie in 1986 (I plan to rewatch that one eventually) and a forgettable present day-set series, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. “Both roads, the right and the left, must have an end — and when you reach that end, you will know your destiny.”

The fourth and final season of WILD, WILD WEST picks up from the disappointing S3, though it still isn’t up to the first two years. The good episodes are really good, including Night of the Avaricious Actuary, the Phantom of the Opera riff Night of the Diva and the very Sherlockian Night of the Bleak Island but there’s way too many bland episodes as well. There are, as usual, some good guest villains, including Harold Gould in Avaricious Actuay and Jo Van Fleet in Night of the Tycoons.

There’s not much Artemus: Ross Martin had a heart attack midway through shooting (there was serious fear he’d die or be too weak to keep performing) so the show fills in with several Artemus substitutes, most frequently Charles Aidman as Jeremy Pike. They only show that Ross Martin brought something to the role that his pinch-hitters didn’t have (my favorite is probably Alan Hale Jr. in Night of the Sabatini Death, which ends with a Gilligan’s Island joke). There’s only one Michael Dunn appearance, in The Night of Miguelito’s Revenge. I suspect Tycho, the mastermind in Night of the Raven was a possible replacement if the series had gotten to S5 (super-genius, world-beating ambitions, physically peculiar — in his case, a giant head stuffed with brains).

Minor changes include that Jim smokes cigars frequently (I don’t remember that as much in earlier seasons) and there are a lot more black faces — minor roles, but it seems like a lot more episodes than previous seasons have black bartenders, dance-hall girls or government messengers. One change that had me scratching my head is that they de-emphasize the eye candy aspect, which has been part of the series since the sexist first season (and was normal for most action/adventure shows back in those days). Some episodes (e.g. Night of the Janus) have no pretty girl at all — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a surprising choice.

This show had two sequels that were also pilots for a reboot series, More Wild, Wild West and Wild, Wild, West Revisited. As my DVD set of the series includes them, I’ll have them for review soon. And I shall probably watch the widely panned big-screen version with Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Brannagh soon enough.

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