Saturday, December 26, 2009

Favorite TV, by year (because I couldn't decide the order)

Note: I haven't seen The Wire, which I'm told I'd love.

Law & Order (1990-present). Though sometimes heavy handed and formulaic, this show has provided countless hours of good drama. Crime/Mystery/Drama.

Will & Grace (1998-2006). In spite of its self-consciousness, this sitcom's humorously self-centered characters make the show amusing and lovable. Comedy.

Angel (1999-2004). A supernatural soap opera that is angsty and epic. Action/Drama/Fantasy/Thriller. (Top 6.)

The Office (UK) (2001-2003). A biting, brilliant satire set in the working world which is dark, realistic, and absolutely hysterical. Comedy/Drama. (Top 6.)

Six Feet Under (2001-2005). A beautiful and therapeutic take on life and death. Revolves around a family-run funeral home. Drama. (Top 6.)

Firefly (2002-2003). This funny, exciting, and original space Western features a fantastic crew of characters. A pure delight. Drama/Sci-Fi. (Top 6.)

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-present). While the recent episodes have been more strained, this series about stupid, terrible people includes some of the most hilarious stuff I have seen. Comedy. (Top 6.)

Mad Men (2007-present). Occasionally too composed, self-satisfied, and unfulfilling, this show about 1960s "ad men" is still very intelligent, at times scary, moving, and comical. Drama.

Dollhouse (2009-present). As far as I can tell, unlike any show ever made. That's a compliment. Extremely thought-provoking, multi-layered, and intense. Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller. (Top 6.)

The Vampire Diaries (2009-present). This entertaining teen drama (with ghostly and vampiric danger thrown in) is like tasty junk food. Good for what it is. Drama/Horror/Romance.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Firefly: The Place to Go for Villains (Spoilers for Dollhouse)

I just want to point out that a large percentage of actors from Joss Whedon's television show 'Firefly' feature as villains in other shows. Five of the nine central characters are adversaries in other Whedon shows (more than half - that's a lot), and one more is a baddie in a new science fiction show (2/3).

Nathan Fillion, the hilarious and rebellious Captain Mal Reynolds on 'Firefly.'

On 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' as as Caleb, a misogynistic former priest and serial killer (I never actually saw him on this).

And extra points as the reprehensibly arrogant Captain Hammer, both the antagonist and "hero" of 'Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.'

Gina Torres on 'Firefly' as the badass Zoe Washburne.

On 'Angel' as the creepily serene and lovey-dovey goddess Jasmine.

Adam Baldwin plays the ignorant, amoral, and extraordinarily macho Jayne Cobb on 'Firefly.'

Still large, but much more polished as the sinister 'Angel' character Marcus Hamilton.

Morena Baccarin is 'Firefly's' classy courtesan Inara Serra.

So far I haven't seen anything too drastic on the new scifi show 'V' (though I have only seen parts of it, so I don't know for sure), but the alien Anna's eerie smile hides plans for world domination.

Summer Glau is 'Firefly's' River Tam, resident brilliant crazy and a potential weapon of mass destruction.

She plays Bennett Halverson, another genius, far more terrifying, psychotic, and sadistic, on Whedon's 'Dollhouse.' (There was a very appropriate picture with the signs "danger" and "caution" behind her.)

And finally, (SPOILER, I guess, even though it's not much of one anymore) Alan Tudyk's 'Firefly' persona is the wise-cracking, vaguely insecure hotshot pilot Wash.

Still funny, but about 1,000x crazier and more violent, Tudyk plays Alpha, a once-wanna-be serial killer who is imprinted with about 40 different entire personalities (not split personalities, though one of them is). This grants him serial killer status, since he now has mad brain power and reflexes. Probably one of the best villains ever. Plus, I guess Tudyk was bad on V along with Baccarin.

I just find this Firefly=evil stuff funny. And cool.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ode to Television: Dollhouse - Ahead of Its Time

The television show “Dollhouse” is about the L.A. branch of an underground organization that brainwashes individuals and imprints them with different personalities. These dolls, or “actives,” supposedly volunteer to stay for a period of five years. Their assignments range from romantic engagements to hostage negotiations. In their default state, they are docile creatures with no memories of their previous life or imprints. When imprinted, they wholly believe they are another person. The show is on its second season.

Fox is pulling Joss Whedon’s new creation “Dollhouse” off the air during November. Many see this as a sign of its inevitable doom. The most recent Whedon brainchild broadcast by Fox was, “Firefly,” which followed a lovable band of bandits traveling through space. The station egregiously mishandled this mixture of Western and science fiction. Advertising was poor, episodes were shown out of order, and its Friday night scheduling was irregular. “Firefly” gained extraordinary popularity when it reached DVD and has been hailed as one of the best television shows of all time due to its fantastic characterizations, wit, and originality.
Fans expected the same from “Dollhouse,” which greatly differs from “Firefly” and other Whedon shows like the dark but entertaining supernatural dramas “Buffy” and “Angel.” When the anticipated “Dollhouse” arrived, critics and viewers condemned it for being boring, confusing, and disturbing. Through no fault of Fox, viewership plummeted, and only the fear of rabid fans (and hope for more) compelled executives to renew the show for a second season. Its Friday night spot also does it no favors.

From the very first episode, “Dollhouse’s” acting, writing, and themes are fascinating. But why has this thought-provoking program been rejected? Perhaps because it is strange, complex, and sometimes slow moving. Maybe the turnoff is the horrifying premise underlying the action. Also, “Dollhouse” may not work well on television: the fantasy-selling babes in television advertisements eerily resemble those in the Dollhouse, a scathing symbol of television itself.

Or is it that “Dollhouse” is simply ahead of its time? Its metaphors are expansive, its explorations virtually limitless. Its chief focus seems to be the unavoidable quest for identity.

Those who run the Dollhouse compare it to the Garden of Eden. It is laughable that they liken themselves to God and the zombieland they oversee to paradise. However, there are similarities: the Dollhouse is a luxurious setting, and the dolls know no evil. When one of them begins to read, she is chastised. And unbeknownst to their puppet masters, the dolls mirror Adam and Eve’s inevitable curiosity.

Because the supposedly voluntary dolls are unaware of their predicament, their situation is more palatable than real life human trafficking. However, it is also eerier. Is the fact that they do not know that they are slaves better or worse than the alternative? The actives’ implanted memories can be sweet or traumatic, but after their painful memory-wiping treatments, they forget all joy and grief.

Of course, those who use the technology do not really know what the dolls remember. Throughout most of the show, the dolls’ memories emerge in spite of their theoretical impossibility.

Because of this, character development is gradual, so concepts rather than characters often drive the show. In the episode “Stage Fright,” pressures faced by a superstar singer are comparable to those in the Dollhouse. The singer gets all she wants, which is not what she needs. She lives for, but is nearly destroyed by, her obligation to fulfill others’ fantasies. In “Belle Chose,” similarities are drawn between a serial killer, a sleazy professor, and the Dollhouse. The misogynistic serial killer arranges women in bizarre, mannequin like poses and pretends to play golf with them. The professor manipulates a ditzy student by discussing the bawdy “Wife of Bath’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Both espouse that women have a special power that men lack, though the professor directly contradicts the serial killer’s exclamation that women are whores. He masks his prurient seduction game in the name of empowering and educating a young woman. Those running the Dollhouse perfectly match an FBI agent’s description of the serial killer:
“At some point you decided real people weren’t worth it. You pushed them away. Alienated everyone in your life. So you could surround yourself with fakes. The copies. Made you feel like you had some control. You’re not in control.”

Control is one of “Dollhouse’s” central themes. It focuses on both prey and predator, showing that the predators destroy themselves in the process of seeking power. As with any message in “Dollhouse,” its conclusion about control is twofold, one sinister, the other promising. One, humans instinctively desire to dominate others. Two, true control over others is a delusion.

Another subject with two converse answers involves love. One character states that fantasy and illusion are important elements of all love. Yet the audience witnesses an innocent love story between two dolls whose sex drives have been allegedly deactivated and who should not form deep attachments to one another. The attempted (and failed) neutralization of their libido is reminiscent of any situation in which individuals try to control others’ sexuality, whether through societal direction or rape.

As stated, character growth is gradual. This is because half of the characters lose their memories in each episode, while the other half have a moral block to their development. The near static nature of the characters makes any change all the more remarkable.

The central character Echo (Elizah Dushku) grows the most. She is an active who shows superlative ingenuity and independence in every personality including her simple home state. She begins to retain information and impressions, thus beginning her lengthy and bewildering search for identity. Other prominent actives are played with versatility by the lovely Dichen Lachman and expressive Enver Gjokaj.

Those who run the Dollhouse are arguably emptier than the dolls at their most vacant. Employees include Harry Lennix’s gruff but paternal Boyd Langton, Echo’s bodyguard, whom she is taught to trust unswervingly. Luckily for Echo, Boyd is as moral as they come at the Dollhouse.

Another employee who apparently respects the dolls is Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) who has scars from a series of knife slashes on her face. She is serious and withdrawn, therefore finding it difficult to work with the smug Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), whom she dubs “a sociopath in a sweater vest.” Topher is the scientist who tampers with the dolls’ brains to imprint them with different personalities. Though he is the drollest character, Topher’s unflinching fascination with the dolls as scientific subjects, even as they cringe in pain, makes him one of the creepiest. Yet beneath his humorous arrogance and intelligence, he is a lonely child. Topher’s horror when faced with the ugly consequences of amorality indicates that he may not be irredeemable.

Adelle DeWitt (played crisply by Olivia Williams) is a lonely person of another order. All grown up, this poised Brit rules the Dollhouse with steely elegance. She is protective of her business and dolls, but will show no mercy if crossed. As chilling as she is, Adelle’s rare vulnerability is heartbreaking. At her side is the unpleasant head of security Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond), who suspects and dislikes Echo.

There is one man trying to bring down the Dollhouse: the FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), who faces numerous obstacles from without and within. Hardly a comforting presence, he is obsessed with not only the Dollhouse, but with the elusive Echo. Other agents, none of whom believe in the existence of the Dollhouse, taunt his heroic fantasy. All except his doting neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie).

Over the proceedings looms the ominous presence of former active Alpha, a genius inadvertently created by the Dollhouse. The cause for Dr. Saunder’s facial scars, Alpha gained access to his imprints and slaughtered dolls and employees before escaping. Because he had showed precociousness while an ordinary doll, all creative dolls are watched with fear and hatred.

“Dollhouse” isn’t perfect, though. The writing is generally excellent and subtle, but it is also occasionally heavy handed, as is the music. Believing the science is a leap of faith. One could argue that its brutal examination of gender expectations is exploitative, but in this way the show forces the audience to look at their own attractions, compulsions, and principles.

One of the common criticisms of the show is that those running the Dollhouse are either apathetic or think they are doing good. But that is what makes the scenario so terrifying. “Dollhouse” is a muffled nightmare that almost everyone in it mistakes for a dream. As the childlike dolls sit on comfortable cushions, above them in the imprinting room light flashes like Frankenstein’s laboratory.

“Dollhouse” delves into dehumanization, autonomy over the body, and moral responsibility. It questions consciousness and death. It asks if ignorance is bliss and when a flawed system is fundamentally defective. There are many contemplative, evocative moments that some may dub “boring,” such as when Echo sinks to the bottom of a pool or draws a face in a misted mirror after seeing a “broken” Picasso painting.

The television series “Dollhouse” is a very dark tale that has suffered in the same way as the film “Jennifer’s Body.” The series and the movie promised fun, violence, and a sexy female lead. Thus the audience, disappointed with a lack of excitement, claimed both were dull. Critics, due to their focus on surface content, label both shows superficial. In fact, “Dollhouse” and “Jennifer’s Body” may have been too challenging and multilayered for conventional audiences.

“Dollhouse” is funny, moving, and intense. If you can bear its starkness, watch it with an open mind. As one fan-made advertisement coined, “Shatter your expectations.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Quizzes: Which 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' gang member are you? and Which Shakespearean villain are you?

A couple of my quizzes, just for fun:

Which 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' gang member are you?

Which Shakespearean villain are you?

Ordinary People

The moving film 'Ordinary People' details a family recovering from one son's accidental death and another son's failed suicide attempt. Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) is the teenage son, dealing with post-traumatic stress; he almost died along with his brother, whom he watched drown, and memories of his near suicide hang over him. Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), his mother, plays the perfect housewife, beautiful, active, charming, and all too practical. Calvin (Donald Sutherland), the compassionate father, is caught between his fragile son and brittle wife. We follow the parents, as they receive unhelpful advice from friends and colleagues, and Conrad, as he attempts to readjust to school life after returning from a psychiatric hospital. A psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), causes Conrad to confront his feelings.

Robert Redford emphasizes the pristine homes of affluent families and their amusingly mundane small talk, masking the deeper issues in these individuals' lives. The dialogue is funny, introspective, and believable. Because of the presence of a psychiatrist and a focus on intense emotional upheaval, characters delve deep into feelings. Sometimes the theories and speeches come across as dated and affected; symbols and realizations are at times overdone. Still, the film holds up remarkably well after thirty years.

The acting is all around excellent. Hutton is lovely as the awkward Conrad, internally tumultuous and outwardly tense. As the genial but passive father, Sutherland ably portrays Calvin's desire to appease his wife and aid his pained but impenetrable son. Moore is remarkable as Beth, a woman whose intense selfishness, resentment, and fear emerge as smiling, rigid perfectionism. Hirsch's is an appealing presence in a rare positive portrayal of a psychiatrist, and Conrad's teenage peers, both obtuse and guileless, are realistic.

Pachelbel's Canon comprises almost the entire, spare score. This can be grating, but other melodies are usually blessedly subtle. 'Ordinary People' ultimately suffers a touch from time and contrivance, but, overall, it a powerful, therapeutic depiction of a family striving to push through grief and depression.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The title summarizes the plot. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is about the origins of the X-man Wolverine.

It begins in the 19th century. One young boy (Troy Sivan), is ill in bed; another, slightly older one (Michael-James Olsen) sits near him. There is a hullabaloo downstairs: the older boy's father has shot the younger one's father! The younger boy sprouts bones from his fist, screams into the ceiling, and attacks the murderer. As the man dies, he says that he is his real father, and the two boys run into the woods, vowing to stick together as brothers.

After this melodramatic opening scene, an entertaining title sequence follows the older brothers fighting in the Civil War, both World Wars, and finally the Vietnam War. (Their apparent immortality is never explained.) The brothers, who sport facial hair resembling their father's, are now known as Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber).
Victor's penchant for violence gets the two of them "executed."

They survive the firing squad, and so are approached by the sinister William Stryker (Danny Huston). He has found two nearly indestructible men who are more than a century old
, and what does he do? He asks them to join his special ops team.

This band of badasses is comprised of immoral dudes with other supernatural abilities. Agent Zero (Daniel Henney) is amazing with guns (and can jump really high). Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand) can punch tanks and make them explode. (He appears later in an incredibly dumb scene.) Bolt (Dominic Monaghan) controls electricity. Perhaps most amazing of all is the ruthless, talkative Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds). He uses samurai swords to block and cut through

So they go about doing their thing, killing folks evil and sometimes innocent. Victor quite enjoys himself, but Logan eventually quits. Unfortunately, the multi-talented band is hardly seen again. We instead follow Logan as he goes to Canada, moves in with a beautiful schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), and becomes a lumberjack. Of course, both Stryker and Victor come calling, and Logan becomes Wolverine.

There are a few fun, ludicrously over-the-top action scenes. But the dialogue is incredibly hackneyed, and the plot feels like soggy cereal. The whole movie consists of, "Wouldn't it be cool if this happened?" moments. The story makes no sense and isn't even consistent with the earlier X-Men movies. Yet the previous movies let us know that both Wolverine and his brother survive, muting any suspense. First Victor is undefeatable; then Wolverine is even more undefeatable; then another mutant is REALLY undefeatable. This isn't exciting. It's just a chance for action and explosions. One of the pleasures of the other X-Men movies was seeing mutants with different powers face off against each other. In this case, they're mostly really good fighters.

The quieter scenes are also cliche and nonsensical. When the naked (buff as ever) Logan comes across an old couple, he looks like a crazy. He breaks their bathroom sink and radiator. So what do they do? Give him food and clothes. The old man also seems to have the ability to read Logan's mind, because he gives him advice accordingly.

As for the acting, Hugh Jackman as Logan shows his anger and grief by yelling to the heavens. He is
supposedly a shady character, but, other than his defense of his brother, we hardly see his dark side or any real moral equivocation. Most of the minor characters are wooden and underdeveloped, including a potentially interesting Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), a fellow with ... some sort of undefined powers. He appears only briefly and his motivations are a mystery. As Stryker, Huston is low-key and uninteresting.

There are a few fine actors here. As the melancholy Bolt, Dominic Monaghan impresses in a minuscule role. Lynn Collins is lovely and subtle as the schoolteacher girlfriend. Most amusing of all is Liev Schreiber as the brutal Victor, who delivers his horrendous lines as well as he can.

There were opportunities here
for moral probing of sorts, humor, and even entertaining predictability. While the film is fun, in a way, it is just too dumb to be satisfying.

In the Land of Women

In the Land of Male/Female Fantasy

After his self-centered girlfriend breaks up with him, struggling writer Carter Webb (Adam Brody) moves
from L.A. to a small town in Michigan to care for his grandmother. Across the street, live two daughters (Kristen Stewart, Makenzie Vega) and two parents (Meg Ryan, Clark Gregg). The beautiful women in the family open up to, reveal their deepest insecurities and feelings to, and fall for Carter in some way. Carter always says the right things to set them on their true paths. Which is more unlikely: to have as a neighbor a cute, sensitive (he cares for his grandmother...) dude who is willing to support or berate if necessary any woman he comes upon? Or to move across from a family full of beautiful women, all of whom are wounded and in need of attention and support? Pure fantasy, and not a believable one at that. Plus, while Vega did well in the role, kudos to having the most unrealistic child character I have ever seen.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ode to Television: Angel

Does it get any more epic than this? At first view, I found the show strange, cheesy, and heavy handed. I had not watched 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' this series' precursor. Still, something about 'Angel' kept me watching. I casually tuned in when it was on. Then, at the end of one episode, I gasped in surprise at a shocking twist. I knew I was hooked.

It turns out that 'Angel' is a sort of funny, action-packed, inter-
dimensional soap opera. Its scale, characters, and themes are mythical. However, with all the melodrama, it retains a streak of nonchalance and humor (this is Joss Whedon's invention, after all). Fantastic character development makes its tragic ironies and moments of joy all the more intense. Even minor characters are vastly entertaining.

The premise is pretty wild. Angel, a 250 year old or so vampire with a soul, is seeking redemption in Los Angeles. Unlike most vampires, he has been cursed with a conscience after living as one of the most sadistic vampires ever for about 150 years. In L.A., he and a team fight and save demons, people - and lawyers. The particularly pesky, multidimensional law firm Wolfram & Hart serves the noble cause of the propagation of evil. It resembles the devil, contributing to humanity's wickedness in both small and large measures.

Angel (David Boreanaz) is a wonderfully complex character who manages to suppress a very powerful and dark id. Because of his wisdom and age, he often acts as a kind of therapist, encouraging hope and morality. However, Angel is also quite hilariously awkward and dorky because of his old-fashioned sensibilities and emotional constraint. (He has a difficult time with technology.) His greatest difficulties arise from guilt, the curse of his soul (if he experiences pure happiness, he becomes evil again), and his difficulty with relationships (he goes completely insane over people he cares for).

The titular character is pulled out of his initial funk at the beginning of the series by Doyle (Glenn Quinn), a half demon whose head-splitting visions reveal creatures in need of rescuing. Doyle is a funny, easily lovable fellow who is ashamed of his demon side and underestimates his worth. He harbors a crush on the initially bubble-headed and impulsive babe Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter). The selfish, wanna-be-actress reveals a remarkable strength and maturity as the daily suffering of others gradually dawns on her. Both absolutely hysterical and genuinely touching, Cordelia displays stellar character development.

Others become hardened from their painful growth. The nerdy Wesley (Alexis Denisof), useful because of his incredible language and research skills, goes on an especially grim journey. Perhaps the most depressing character is Angel's confused and destructive son Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), an enigma, for vampires cannot in theory reproduce. Angel's love for him makes their strained relationship all the more painful. ("Strained" is a euphemism.)

Crew members also include Gunn (J. August Richards), a homeless young leader of a vampire-hunting gang, and the flamboyant green demon Lorne (Andy Hallett) who can sense the intentions of individuals when they sing. In a detour to Lorne's unpleasant home world, the group picks up the wispy, lovely math whiz Fred Burkle (Amy Acker). Five years of imprisonment has made her and bashfully batty. Eventually, another vampire with a soul, Spike (James Marsters), is introduced, and his pragmatism is a delightful foil to the brooding Angel.

The plot line is both fanciful and a crazy analogy to real life. The powers that be (as they are literally called in 'Angel') toy with and aid the mere mortals - demons and humans alike. Traditional questions about salvation, violence, evil, love, courage, and goodness abound. These people have to deal with the apocalypse, for crying out loud. At its best, 'Angel's' portrayal of heroism conveys an old message about the arduous but essential fight for good. In fact, I'll leave off with a quote from the show:

Angel: Fight the good fight, whichever way you can.
Doyle: Tell you what. You fight, and I'll keep score.