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.

Television Superhero Perspectives

shield tomorrow peopleWe can be more than the things that people label us as. I find this to be a central theme of Marvel’s Agents of Shield compared to the CW’s Tomorrow People. I do find quite a bit of meat for discussion in the contrast between these two shows, so Curt and I hash out just what separates these two shows in both tone and structure. And of course we’re going to sound off about which one and which kind of storytelling we prefer. Arrow gets a brief mention in this treatment of superhero television. We know what we think. How about you?

Superman vs The Elite

In 2001’s Action Comics #775 , writer Joe Kelly asked the question, “What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Kelly was responding in part to a trend in comic books that embraced heroes that took extreme actions towards their villains, often killing or permanently maiming their foes. The violent trend is one part reaction to the “revolving prison door” trope that allows series fiction to reuse villain characters, and one part the emergence into the field of a generation of creators that came of age in the 80s and 90s. Publishers Dark Horse and Image Comics built their entire businesses around providing consumers with content graphically depicting violence and brutality, and populated by heroes and villains that embraced the narcissistic nihilism of a generation raised with a dominantly post-modern viewpoint that insisted on deconstructing any kind of ethical or moral standard.

In this publishing environment, the question of whether a character like Superman could remain relevant, draw in consumer dollars, or even continue to exist in a cultural context was a very real one. Kelly’s response is an emphatic “Yes” that makes the argument, not only can Superman exist in this cultural context, but he must exist in this cultural context if we are ever to move past it toward a future founded on principles other than selfishness. Kelly expressed his point of view in the characters of Manchester Black and the Elite, who embodied the generational values of hedonism, narcissism, nihilism, and entitlement. In combat with Superman, the values that drive the Elite are taken to their logical conclusion, and the effect on society graphically portrayed. Without defending the basis of valuing Truth and Justice, Kelly nonetheless makes an effective argument against post-modern narcissism. The movie is a spiritually faithful adaptation of the comic, not surprising since Kelly wrote the screenplay.

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Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The story is fairly simple. The Elite show up and start acting like bullies. Superman puts them in their place. Little time is wasted on complex plotting. The stakes are made clear, and the battle is joined. Story exposition exists solely to allow characters to expound their points of view and provide a logical escalation of tension.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Although we really only get to spend time with Superman and Manchester Black, they are the only two characters that really matter in this story. As it is, we get to see not only what it is that drives each of these individuals, but why their motivations are so important to them. Once again, little time is wasted on supporting characters, except how they relate to the principles. Predictably, Superman’s supporting cast is important to him, while the narcissistic Black focuses solely on himself.

Production Value (Pass/Fail) – Fail

I expect better from Warner Bros animation. The voice cast is stellar, with George Newbern, Pauley Perrette, and Robin Atkin Downes performing as Superman, Lois, and Manchester Black. Unfortunately, the animation and character designs are distinctly sub-par, with characters feeling oddly angular and anemic. Special mention has to be made of Superman’s chin, which is broad enough to be a super power all its own. The action sequences feel trite and familiar; there are none of the dramatic visuals and powerful sound design we have come to expect from the DC hero movies. The opening and closing credits feel like they’ve been ripped from a particularly jarring 70s acid trip, and the movie opens with a sequence that turns out to be an intentional parody, but whose childish design almost caused me to turn off the rest of the movie without bothering to watch it. Contrast this with the comic book, whose gritty portrayal of the characters, action, and environment sparked the imagination instead of squashing it.

Literary Value (Pass/Fail) – Pass

This story has some important things to say about humanity, about living in society, about the need for heroes, and about society in general. Thankfully, it just comes out and says them without beating around the bush and making tedious generalizations. Kelly has a drum to beat, and he does so with steadily increasing volume until crescendo. Even though the underlying reasons for the moral imperative are never addressed, Kelly makes a compellingly humanistic argument for the existence and value of the moral imperative.

Shelf-Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Unfortunately, this story is more fulfilling on paper than on the screen. The comic book is a fantastic read, and Kelly’s other outings with The Elite make excellent storytelling. But the slow pace of the film, the poor animation and character design, and the familiarity of the moral message makes me hesitate to pop this movie in as a random Saturday afternoon pick. Even the feature length commentary and two fascinating featurettes don’t make a compelling case for long-term purchase. The lower investment of the comic book purchase and the extended treatment of the premise make it more tempting to buy the trade paperback, though I find myself just as satisfied with a library loan. After a single trip through the material, I feel I’ve gained all the benefit there is to be had.

Ultimately, this is a satisfying movie with an important and compelling message, but as with many cases where stories have been adapted across mediums – the book was better.

Censorship and Ratings

Gather round the coffee table while Curtis and I discuss our reactions to the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated”. Topics of the show include censorship, the ratings system, the rights of artistes, and what makes a film age or content appropriate. Just because something reflects real behavior does not make it art.

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State of the TV Address

Gather round the coffee table for a discussion of the state of television today. Kick back, relax, and grab a cup of coffee while the guys and I kvetch about those shows that should have been, those show we wish weren’t, and reality vs actuality.