Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Secret Sun Best of the Zer0's: TV


OK, here's the TV list, in no particular order. There certainly was a lot to pick from in the past ten years- in many ways the Zeros were to TV what the 70s were to movies. I've had high hopes for TV rescuing the concept of authorship as well as thoughtful sci-fi. In some ways it's done just that, but the economic iceberg is looming in the distance. 

As the Internet and video games take up more of our time, less money is available for quality TV. Certainly the glory days of actors in last-rated series living like pashas is long gone. But there are a lot of encouraging signs, so keep your fingers crossed for the Teens. 

Fringe - Well, as I write this there's talk that Fringe is on the verge of cancellation. Just as with Sarah Connor, it's future is in doubt just as it found its footing. And just like SCC, the first season had its ups and downs for me. 

I hated the cold, grey New York ambiance (particularly since it was supposed to take place in Boston) and the nauseating corporate teamwork ethic with all of those big fancy FBI sets. I hated the Charlie Francis character and was thrilled when he was killed off. F-S1 was definitely a case of too much money spoiling the broth (as it did with CBS' XF move, Threshold). 

But I loved the themes being explored, even though the show didn't really catch fire until the second half of the first season. Then of course they did what all genre shows should do and moved to Vancouver. They also trimmed down the supporting cast and shifted the focus from Olivia to the Peter and Walter's tortured father-son dynamic. 

They also scaled down the Massive Dynamics elements of the Mytharc for more specific threats. Excellent moves all around. But a move to Thursday and the disruptions of post-season baseball has thrown the show off its ratings bearings, and now there's cancellation talk. Sigh. Well, here's hoping for a third season. Maybe JJ Abrams has enough juice to twist Fox's arm. There is hardly any sci-fi on the networks anymore, and way too many lawyers and cops.


Carnivale- What a incredible show this was. The idea was to bring a bit of a David Lynch vibe back to series TV, but that seemed to be discarded pretty quickly in favor of a Baroque Apocalypticism that acted as a direct critique of the maniacal kill-craziness emanating from the neo- and theo-cons in control of Washington. This was good, old-fashioned good vs. evil storytelling, with a mysterious young drifter with healing powers and a power-mad Evangelist looking to bring some Hell up to Earth. 

Aside from the Lynch and Terrence Malick vibes, there was a heavy X-Files influence (particularly in the cinematography). As with Rome, Carnivale looked to the past to find parallels of the present. You had the rise of radio acting as a conduit for tent revivalists, foreshadowing the billion-dollar Evangelical media empires of today. You had the wandering carnies mirroring the beaten-down and atomized counterculture. You saw a lot of desert as well, mirroring the myriad apocalypses being played out in deserts across the oceans. 

 The only weak spot in the series was the hasty ending, brought about by necessity. The costly show never got the kind of numbers The Sopranos earned and it was dumped to make room for Big Love, the Mormon polygamy soap-opera hit.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Sigh. You know what's killing network TV? Impatience. Execs expect shows to explode straight out of the gate, when many legendary shows had awkward beginnings. Sarah Connor didn't really find its legs until the second season, and when it did it garnered a diehard following who are still out there trying to bring the show back

 I mean- I get it. Economics are hard to argue with. The show was never a big ratings earner and wasn't owned by the network. But Fox faced a fork in the road- either save Sarah or Dollhouse and they bet the farm on Dollhouse. How did that work out for them? 

Well, DH earned some of the lowest ratings in the history of network television week after week after week until a red-faced Fox finally cut its losses. But there's also a part of me that thinks it's for the best. It's better for a show to go out with fans wanting more. The second season was so intense (who would have thought Brian Austin Green could make for a credible badass?) it would have been hard to top in the third. Maybe knowing the axe could fall lit a fire under the writers' asses that wasn't there in the good-not-great first season.


Rome (Season One)- As an amateur Romophile, I was terrified this was going to be some dry Masterpiece Theatre-style snoozefest, and boy, was I surprised. Rome around the time of the changeover from Republic to Empire was a rollicking free-for-all of sex, violence and devious politicking, and you need to fight past jaded American pallettes to put that across on screen. This BBC/HBO coproduction did that in spades. 

Rome had lots of killing, screwing and dirty dealing from the all-time masters of those dark arts. Not surprising seeing that the great John Milius was one of the series' execs. But the center of gravity was the great Irish Shakespearean actor CiarĂ¡n Hinds, known around these parts as "BEST-CAESAR-EVER." Hinds must have really done his homework, because he completely embodies the endless contradictions and superhuman charisma of Julius Caesar like no one ever before. 

There was a lot of loose talk about Bush as Caesar during the early Zeros and it pissed me off more than I can say. For one thing, Caesar fought his own battles. For another Caesar never pretended that war was anything but a form of organized larceny. The second season suffered badly without Hinds. 

That center was missing and the producers filled it with a lot of secondary storylines. The real Augustus was a very interesting character himself, but we saw too little of him as an adult. And probably better for it- the actor who played Octavian/Augustus as a teenager was excellent, but the adult version was an irritatingly wispy little nothing. James Purefoy was wasted as Antony - his story should have been front and center in the second season. Oh, well. We got a lot of entertainment value out of Vorenus and Pullo, played by future gods Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson.


The 4400 - As I was licking my wounds over the cancellation of X-Files, along came this surprise from Vancouver, exec-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by a gaggle of former Deep Space Nine hands and future V showrunner Scott Peters. 

It does the mass alien abductee bit a la Taken, but changes the aliens to future humans (but we all know they're just alien stand-ins). After a mass return, the 4400 abductees begin to manifest superhuman powers, which drives the government to create a special branch of Homeland Security to deal with the aftermath. 

 The show worked in a loose synthesis of standalone and serial, meaning the main story would usually be resolved within the hour and a the various subplots would surround it from ep to ep. In a nutshell the basic idea was 'X-Files meets X-Men'. 

There were also strange undercurrents of Scientology in the Jordan Collier storyline, something we see more of in V. The show seemed to be a cable hit until Heroes came along and told pretty much the same story with a much higher production budget and a much sexier cast. The 4400 seemed to wilt, and its fourth and final season was an erratic jumble that started off strong, sagged in the middle (including a blatantly obvious "bottle episode") and recovered only to be axed. Well, for a while it gave me a jolt of Vancouverian nostalgia, as well as some tasty, politically-charged sci-fi.


The X-Files (Season Eight)- My favorite of the LA years, by far. After two seasons of relentless high concept and comedy, Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz brought the XF  back to first principles and reversed a ratings slide that put the costly show's future in doubt. Some Mulder diehards moaned, but the fans who signed up for the ideas explored in the X-Files - as well as the dark power of the MOTWs - love Season Eight. 

The season was cut neatly in half: after a taut two-part opening (which Carter cut into a feature film for a theater screening for the cast and crew), Season Eight offered up a string of back-to-basics, old-school XF (with Terminator's Robert Patrick on-board as the new agent) and then switched over to a serial format for the second half, featuring the Mulder death/rebirth storyline and the beginning of the super-soldier mythology (which is based on a very real DARPA program). 

It all ended with a nail-biting Terminator-esque two-parter which was meant to send Mulder and Scully off to the movies. It didn't work out that way. Fox enticed Gillian Anderson to stay on with a huge raise, and Carter signed back on at the last minute. 

Season Nine has its charms (and its advocates), but dragging out the Mytharc - after so much effort had been spent resolving it - muddied the effect of Season Eight's epic, cathartic power. Worse still, no one wanted to watch anti-government conspiracy yarns in the aftermath of 9/11. Nine was also bogged down by Monica Reyes' hasty hetero makeover (almost certainly a network order), leaving the SRR slashgirls to make do with all of those long, meaningful glances for their YouTube music videos.


True Blood - As with Rome the first season was much better than the second, but in True Blood's case it was still pretty damn good. True Blood serves up more of the new-model vampire-superhero archetype (a la Twilight), but throws in a shapeshifter, a Maenad, and a lead character with strange psychic powers (played by Anna Paquin, who played a faintly similar character in the X-Men movies). 

This being HBO, we get a good serving of sex (it could probably be a touch more generous) and a ton of humor. I didn't hit Dragon*Con this past year so I'm not sure how True Blood is being received with the fan community, but I'm willing to bet it's going over pretty well. There's a lot of theorizing out there about the vampire archetypes running rampant in the culture, but the problem is that the vampires in True Blood and Twilight don't have a clear antecedent in cultural tradition- they're very much of a new wrinkle (and they're very different from each other as well). 

I get the feeling that the Twilight vampires could easily be aliens a la Strieber's Hunger novels, while the True Blood vamps are a bit more grounded in the supernatural. More on all of that later.


Justice League Unlimited - Pure geekgasm. I'm pretty sure it went down like this- Warner execs told the boys that the Justice League toon was a massive moneymaker, so as a bonus they were given a lot of money and carte blanche to do two more seasons for Cartoon Network. From there the Tooniverse boys pulled out every obscure character and storyline they loved as kids, wrote them down on little slips of paper and pulled them out of a hat. On top of that they threw in a government conspiracy mytharc that would never fly on WB Kids. 

 From then on JLU gave us Mister Miracle, Hawk & Dove, the Viking Prince, Booster Gold, Captain Atom, the Question and a host of even more obscure characters. All kinds of juicy subtexts were gleefully pumped in resulting in a sync-o-licious semiotic stew. The icing on the cake is the gorgeous animation that's just a notch below feature-quality. A nice little gift to the hardcore fanboys. Like me.


Torchwood: Children of Earth - My first reaction on watching a Season One episode of Torchwood? Horror. The show seemed to be a blithe and airy celebration of broad-spectrum invasive surveillance, using alien invasion as a pretext. The Torchwood gang poked and prodded into the most intimate details of people's private lives, all in a day's work. La la la. I'd heard it was the British take on The X-Files, but seemed to me its moral opposite. 

 I've not watched much of it since - until Children of Earth, that is. In this series the Torchwood writers show how all of that flashy technology cuts both ways, and the full brunt of it is thrown against the agents by a brutal and corrupt Prime Minister and his cold-blooded stooges. Ah, that's more like it. Stirring, sobering sci-fi. I'm not sold on the new Doctor Who yet- as I've said before, I'm not a big fan of jokey, fannish sci-fi. Old school Who was quite literate actually, but that was a whole other world ago. But Torchwood picks up the old Who baton with Children of Earth, and produces five hours of television the great Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) would have been proud to sign his name to. I can't wait for Season Four.


Firefly - This is an anomaly for me- as a middle-aged heterosexual male, I fell between all of the cracks in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's demographic targets. And not only did I deeply resent Dollhouse for getting Sarah Connor canceled, I thought the show's politics were an abomination. So I'm not necessarily a natural candidate for the Browncoat Nation. 

 So why did I like Firefly so much? I think it was the chemistry- the cast clicked in such a way that dialogue sparkled that might otherwise inspire cringing with different actors. It didn't hurt that there were two X-Files alums in the main cast - Adam Baldwin (aka Knowle Rohrer) and the adorable Jewel Staite (who guest-starred in the harrowing 'Oubliette')- or that Morena Baccarin's Brazilian beauty was in full flower (unlike her tomboy look in V). 

 I don't know if there were more than 13 quality episodes to squeeze out of the premise (plus a feature film), but it makes for one hell of a fun little ride. And a prophetic one. In Firefly, Whedon presents a galaxy ruled by the Alliance- a conglomeration headed by the US and China- and we're now waking up to discover that the US and China are now a single, contiguous economy

Certainly, China's pop culture is now startlingly similar to ours. I heard a segment on NPR a while back detailing how China's workers were addicted to the same TV shows we watch in the States - the genre material in particular.

The Secret Sun Institute of Advanced Synchromysticism is waiting for you to take the next step in your synchro-journey. Come level up.

And don't forget the all-night 90s lotus party over at SHRR. We're presently up to 1998.