Fox Fall part 2: Sleepy Hollow

sleepy hollowIf Gotham’s mythology weights it down from sheer volume, then Sleepy Hollow is hopelessly submerged in the deluge of a mythos not its own. Every single bit of this series inspired by based on using the names from Washington Irving’s eponymous ghost story borrows in the loosest since from vaguely supernatural-sounding events, history, and publications from throughout time.

The first season pulled names and references haphazardly from the Bible to populate a wholly original end-times scenario, sprinkled with a dash of Colonial American and European lore. I am generally in favor of wholly original mythology, and I think that CW’s Supernatural has done an excellent job of presenting new mythological construction. Sleepy Hollow has other problems.

The show lacks focus. There is a vague impression of the end of days. The Bad Guys have a Plan, but it’s apparently too complicated to enact on screen and clarify for the audience at the same time. But that’s okay; the show makes up for it’s lack of goal with a liberal sprinkling of every supernatural-sounding whatsit it can squeeze into the allotted time. Mix with a generous helping of interpersonal drama and a purposefully slanderous agenda aimed at the founding fathers. The whole experience is gonzo weird and so utterly directionless that I keep coming back just to see what they’re going to do next.

I want to take a look at the sources of this mythological mashup. Washington Irving: Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman, Rip van Winkle. The Bible: the horseman of the Apocalypse, the two witnesses, Moloch, demons. Purgatory and the golem ultimately comes from Judaism. European folklore provides a source for sin-eating and witchcraft. As near as I can tell, the “Native American” dream spirit Ro’kenhronteys also comes from Europe, specifically Hans Christian Anderson. This last episode started drawing from Lovecraft with a direct quote from “The Call of Cthulhu” as part of a magic ritual, and Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with the creation of a monster to fight to horsemen. I could learn to love this show, except….

Sleepy-HollowThe characters wield the club of Political Correctness with blind abandon, striking out left and right against anything that resembles a modern hot-button topic and splashing mud with the delight of a child stomping in a particularly tempting puddle. Just when I start to enjoy the story of the week, they drop the Club on something that in my white male middle class meat-eating University-educated Protestant ignorance I had previously considered Something Good or at least harmless. I could make a list, but what’s the point? I just groan and blow it off as another symptom of Hollywood.

The characters are mired in their archetypes, unable to flex past the bounds of strictly defined gags and responses. Normally this type of thing doesn’t bother me much, but these guys have a single note they play over and over. Abbie Mills is in over her head with a persecution complex. Ichabod Crane cannot cope with modern technology (or clothing) and deplores the state of modern America. Jenny Mills is the Combat Chick. Henry Parrish (John Noble…. I miss Fringe) is eeeevillll. Of the recurring characters, only Andy Brooks (John Cho) and Frank Irving (Orlando Bloom) bring anything interesting to the table in terms of motivation or response. I generally promote archetypes as the basis for strong plotting, but these guys are just flat. It’s tiresome. But I get a gonzo weird monster of the week (mostly) and that helps me get past the clunky characters.

But the revisionist history has me weeping in my beer. And let’s not forget that “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” said Benjamin Franklin. Or so we thought. No, it turns out that all of the good, clever, and noble things accomplished by the Founding Fathers were actually done by their wives, mistresses, and slaves when they weren’t done by Crane himself. Crane takes every opportunity to paint Jefferson as a womanizer and plagiarist, Franklin as a lunatic and pervert, and all the rest as liars, thieves, and conspirators. If it were only once or twice I could blow it off, but this agenda makes for scandalous dialog to which real history need not apply.

This is a set of people for whom I have real respect and whose lives I have studied in depth. To see them treated this way using baseless lies solely for the sake of entertainment offends me on a level I don’t quite understand. Maybe I’m taking to heart the words of Jefferson himself (provided it wasn’t actually Ichabod Crane or Jefferson’s valet who said it… “It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.” The modern viewer seems ready and willing to believe the worst of people, and perfectly happy to substitute entertainment for education. This bothers me a great deal. I’d abandon the show entirely if I thought it was a purposeful agenda rather than lazy and sloppy writing.

Still, as long as I get a gonzo weird monster of the week I’m likely to keep tuning in.

Fox Fall part 1: Gotham

Gotham-TV-Show-Fox-LogoFox television groans with the weight of mythology. And you thought it was the audience.

It probably says something significant that the fall season premiered without so much as a by your leave, and I didn’t even notice. That may only be that I’m oblivious, but it may equally be that I’ve become jaded to the very idea of network television as being something worth watching. Still, I’ve been looking forward to the premiere of Gotham and the return of Sleepy Hollow. Get it right this time, Fox!

Gotham attempts to tell Batman’s story without actually having Batman present. Bruce Wayne is there. The origin story is addressed in the opening 5 minutes of the show, taking the mondo elephant in the room, pointing it one direction and giving a poke with sharp stick. As for the rest? I dunno. Some things stand out pretty quickly. Donal Logue delivers as Harvey Bullock. Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin promises to be the most entertaining villain of the piece. And this is going to be a show all about cameos from the Batman mythology.

In the premiere episode we are introduced to: young Bruce Wayne (Batman!), Alfred Pennyworth (valet and guardian), Jim Gordon (our hero), Harvey Bullock (burned out good cop), Renee Montoya (do-gooder cop who later becomes the Question), Crispus Allen (token black cop who later becomes the Spectre), Barbara Kean (Gordon’s first wife), Sarah Essen (Gordon’s Captain and second wife), along with a host of familiar villains in their civilian guises (Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Carmine Falcone). At least the script writers aren’t trying to anything more than wink and nod at the characters, patiently waiting for them to develop. If Fox gives the show the chance.

Gotham-castBut what kind of television is it? So far, it’s okay if not inspired. Episode one got the Wayne murder out of the way and demonstrated the system corruption of the city. Episode two starts to give the bit players a chance to depart from the shadow of the Bat. We got a villain of the week and some recurring plot lines. It all seems to be pretty standard fare for a crime drama, if a bit heavy on the drama and light on the crime for my taste; standard and not necessarily memorable.

It’s not really fair to judge something of this scope on just two episodes. The show is reaching for something pretty big. I’m afraid the show’s grasp is exceeding its reach. We’ve had two episodes to establish an overall premise for the series, or even a goal for the main characters. So far we’ve had nothing of the sort. Gotham looms over the whole of the story, an oppressive presence that cries out for someone to stand up for justice amidst the corruption. But if Gordon can do it, why would we ever need Batman? And if Gordon can’t do it, the show becomes a frustrating exercise in the depravity of the bad guys. There is so much history and so many characters connected with this mythology that trying to bring them all in – even tangentially – is a recipe for disaster. I would have liked to have seen Gotham without any of the Batman mythos; leave the super villains behind and give me a cops-and-gangsters show. As it is, I fear the show is headed for an insurmountable reef.

Still, there’s at least one high point for me. Donal Logue plays Bullock as a burned out cop mired in the scum of the city, perfectly willing to do bad things to bad people. It’s not quite the Bullock I’m familiar with, and Logue’s playing the “dirty cop” vibe pretty hard. But something about his interaction with Captain Essen and their insistence that Gordon “get with the program” has me hopeful that we’ll find them to be hard-nosed good cops putting Gordon to the test. But hope only goes so far, and I’ve got far too many other things clamoring for my attention. As long as the episodic format continues, I’ll continue watching.