Xena reboot: yes or no?

There was a time when genre shows were a rare thing on TV. In the years after The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost, genre fans had only a few choices: the super serious X-Files, and the wacky Hercules, with Kevin Sorbo.


In 1995, the producers of Hercules launched a spinoff: Xena: Warrior Princess. It was like nothing on TV at the time. It starred not one but two action-oriented women, Xena and her trusted sidekick Gabrielle. Lucy Lawless, who went on to become a genre mainstay in both Battlestar Galactica and Spartacus, shot to fame playing the larger-than-life, nearly superhuman warrior. She played the role on two levels: she took it completely seriously, and she was in on the fun.


But, like all good (and not so good) shows, Xena: Warrior Princess had to end. There are only so many storylines one can write, and Xena pushed it to the limit. It went off the air in 2001 after getting way too complex (I remember a plot line regarding an evil-spawn child of Gabrielle, for instance). By then, though, TV was opening up to shows that involved some element of the mystical or fantastic. Buffy the Vamipre Slayer was a critical hit, and SyFy (then Sci-Fi) was plowing ahead with original programming such as Farscape.

While it was great fun, Xena hasn’t been missed. There are so many choices when it comes to quality genre TV today, and strong female characters are no longer a novelty. Now comes a rumor that the powers that be are prepping for a reboot of Xena. Honestly I’m torn.


On one hand, the world of Xena is rich one, bursting with mythology that could be spun into entertaining stories. She’s an iconic character, and it would be interesting to see how she’d be portrayed in a reboot. Who could possibly fill Lucy Lawless’s boots?

On the other hand, we have (dare I say it) too many great genre shows out there. I cannot keep up. I have a list of series that I’m itching to watch. But when do I fit them all in? And is it fair to all the amazing writers out there to continually recycle old ideas, rather than bring something new to the screen?

This is a tough call for me. As much as I’d like to see a new Xena (out of curiosity, if nothing else), I wouldn’t want to see my favorites — Buffy, Lost, Farscape — reimagined with a different cast. But I said the same thing when they rebooted Battlestar Galactica, and that turned out to be brilliant.

The Walking Dead: Ecstasy and agony

Walking dead_cast_wallpaper

I’m late to The Walking Dead. It’s not that I don’t like zombies — I do, ever since I watched Night of the Living Dead as a five year old. But there are so many shows out there, as well as an endless supply of zombie-themed shows and books. When it came to The Walking Dead, I just couldn’t be bothered.

But I decided to binge watch the show last Thanksgiving, and just before Christmas I caught up. (Part Walking Dead Castof that time was spent in bed with a fever — zombie shows make for surreal fever dreams). My verdict? The Walking Dead does several things great:

–This show manages to put a fresh spin on the beaten-to-death zombie trope. How? By focusing on the nuts and bolts of survival in a slow-moving apocalypse. Zombies are only one danger. Other humans are nearly as bad (hell, they’re sometimes worse).

–Rick Grimes (as played by Andrew Lincoln) is a hero who is both resolute and plagued by doubt. He is human and relatable. This is a tricky mix that the writers, and Lincoln, pull off.

–With its ensemble, revolving cast, its characterizations can be uneven. Some have remained cardboard over several seasons (I’m looking at you, Glenn and Maggie). but then we get amazing characters like Michonne. Michonne petsShe will be remembered as one of the iconic horror characters decades from now. And then there’s Daryl, who has been consistently bad-ass, and consistently compelling. Finally, there’s Carol, who has morphed from a mousy abused woman to a woman with a backbone of steel. Carol has seen the worst of life and she has learned what it takes to survive in this horrific world.

But… The Walking Dead, like Lost, is one of those maddening TV shows that is blessed with brilliance and plagued by arrogance. This show is great, and the writers know it, which trips them up.

Take the episode “The Grove” from season 4. Carol and Tyreese are holed up in an idyllic country cottage with two young sisters. As often happens on this show, things go south. Way south. This episode was sharp and smart and beautiful. It was gut-wrenching and caught me off-guard. It was not a fast-paced episode — The Walking Dead often walks very slowly. But it was one of the most jarring hours of television I’ve seen.

And then The Walking Dead serves up an episode like “Them,” the latest in current season 5. In “Them,” the gang is reeling from the deaths of two beloved members. They’re wandering, starving, thirsty, and trailed by ambling zombies. And they have angst. And doubt. Basically nothing much of note happens for most of this episode, except for our heroes acting out in small, supposedly symbolic ways. Plus, we get a perverse motivational speech from Rick that is about three seasons too late in coming.The writers were aiming for deep symbolism and small epiphanies. They missed. Instead we got an hour of pouting and navel gazing.

Still, the worst episode of The Walking Dead is better than 99% of other TV shows. Here’s hoping the writers don’t repeat mistakes like this. Please — give us more ecstasy and spare us the agony.


The Leftovers rehashed

A strong premise plus great performances does not equal a successful show.

Leftovers promo

I was looking forward to HBO’s new show The Leftovers for two reasons. The first was that it was created by Damon Lindelof, the mastermind behind Lost, one of my favorite TV shows ever.

The second reason was the premise: two percent of Earth’s population has suddenly, inexplicably vanished. This biblical premise has been presented before, and I was interested to see how it would be handled without an overtly religious point of view.

Once you leave behind the religious element, which The Leftovers did, there were two directions in which to take the show: 1) as a jumping point for a wider sci-fi/mystical/horror story, or 2) as a navel-gazing meditation on loss and grief. Unfortunately, the writers chose #2.

Leftovers KevinI wanted to like The Leftovers. And it seemed promising, even once I realized that the “why” of the disappearance would never be addressed.

I liked the cast, and several of the characters, at least in the beginning. Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, the police chief, was intense and intriguing. He hadn’t lost anyone close to him in the vanishing, but his family fell apart soon after. He seemed to be losing his mind, and struggled to fulfill his duty as police chief while keeping what was left of his family intact.

Leftovers Patti LaurieAmy Brenneman as his estranged wife Laurie was great at portraying a range of emotions while rarely uttering a word as a member of the Grieving Remnant, a cult that wore white, refused to talk, chain smoked, and harassed whoever they could find, all in the name of reminding people of their losses.

Ann Dowd was brutal as Patti, the local leader of the Grieving Remnant. But part of the problem with this show was not only Patti, but the whole Grieving Remnant. I never liked any of them, and I never understood their motivation, which kept me distant from them.

The ten episode long series seemed to spin in its wheels the whole time. We watched characters struggle to move past an event that occurred three years earlier, yet they never progressed. I wasn’t sure where the story was heading, and halfway through the series, once I realized we would never learn the why, I didn’t care.

However, The Leftovers contained two of the best hours of television I’ve seen in a long time. Usually each episode jumped between different characters, but for two episodes, they chose to focus on a single character.

The first episode followed Matt Jamison (played by Doctor Who‘s Christopher Eccleston). I’ve been a big fan of Eccleston since Shallow Grave. He has a manic intensity, and this episode followed Matt Jamison as he fought to save his bankrupt church. It was a heartbreaking hour of television.

Leftovers Matt

The second episode, which was the best of the season, followed Nora Durst (the sister of Matt Jamison). I’d never heard of Carrie Coon, the actor who played Nora, but she’s high on my radar now. Nora lost her husband and both children in the vanishing. She was left alone. We were given one hour tracking Nora, and it was brilliant, both in the storytelling and in Coon’s portrayal. If only all the episodes were like this, I’d be a fan of The Leftovers, regardless.

Leftovers Nora

I think the fatal flaw of this season was that it followed the Garvey clan, and we were never given any motivation for their surly, strange behavior. There was a flashback episode that showed the Garvey family just before the event, and it did sweeten the bitter Garveys just a bit, but it was too late to change my feelings toward them. If Nora Durst and Matt Jamison were the main characters, I’d be looking forward to season two.

Lukewarm Leftovers

Will The Leftovers become a TV classic? Too soon to tell, but it doesn’t look good.


HBO’s new sci-fi-ish series The Leftovers has an intriguing, if unoriginal premise, is based on a high-profile novel, and is produced by the man behind Lost. Yet the first episode left me underwhelmed.

The set-up: two percent of the world’s population has vanished with no explanation. Three years later, the residents of Mapleton (aka Anytown, USA) struggle to move on despite the uncertainty and lingering grief.


The story follows police chief Kevin Garvey (played excellently by Justin Theroux), who is not quite with it. He struggles to relate to his rebellious teenage daughter Jill, and his son Tom, who has fled to a mysterious commune. He butts heads with the town’s mayor, Kevin and LucyLucy Warburton, and tries to keep the peace between the townspeople and a strange cult that wears white, chain smokes, doesn’t talk, and taunts the grieving. And he may or may not be crazy.

So far, so good. Plus, The Leftovers based on a book by bestselling writer Tom Perrotta. I like it when TV shows and movies have a literary legacy (then again, as a writer, I’m biased). And, it was brought to TV by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. Say what you will about Lost; that show is a classic in my eyes, with spectacular storytelling and gripping characterization. The Lost connection, more than anything else, had me excited for the show.

But based on the first episode I’m not confident that The Leftovers is headed for greatness. I see two main problems:

1) I fear we will never get any kind of explanation for the disappearance, and this show will become an endless grief-fest.

2) There were so many characters who we zoomed past that it was difficult to get sucked into any of their stories. Theroux’s Kevin Garvey worked well, but aside from him, I felt no real connection with the faces who passed by.

Some of the subplots were interesting. Nihilism has gripped the youth of Mapleton, as we see with Kevin’s daughter Jill. There’s a party scene that perfectly captures the sense that if anyone can suddenly vanish, what’s the point of trying?

The story following Kevin’s prodigal son Tom, who is part of some survivalist-type cult is also intriguing (though the actor is miscast. He is 29 in real life, while his “father” is 42. It shows).

And then there’s Christopher Eccleston of Doctor Who fame who plays a preacher. I’ll tune in to anything with a Doctor Who alum in it.

I’m nowhere near ready to give up on The Leftovers, though I’m somewhat pessimistic. It’s hard to NOT compare The Leftovers to Lost, but as with Lost, I fear that the writers will lose their way when it comes to the sci-fi elements.

I hope I’m wrong.

Battlestar Galactica revisited: Gaius Baltar’s trial

Great stories must include these 3 elements: a strong premise, great characters, and a compelling plot. Two now-classic TV shows from the last decade—Lost and Battlestar Galactica—had the first two in spades.

Take Lost. The premise: a plane crashes on a mysterious island and the survivors must battle not only each other, but the island’s inhabitants and the island itself. The characters: Jack Shepard, John Locke, Kate Austen, Sawyer, and Ben Linus, to name a few, were all strong and dynamic.


And then there’s Battlestar Galactica. The premise: Cylons (sentient robots) destroy their creators, but a ragtag group of human survivors flee through the universe in a search for a mythical planet called Earth. The characters: Admiral Adama, President Laura Roslin, Starbuck, Gaius Baltar, Apollo, the cylon Caprica Six, and many more. Again, all compelling.


Both shows faltered when it came to plot. It’s safe to say that the endings of Battlestar Galactica and Lost were troublesome.

Nevertheless, what these shows gave us was a new and dynamic way to tell stories.

Battlestar Galactica was a reimagining of the 1970s series. The new version, written by Ronald D. Moore, was a gritty sci-fi drama that mirrored the American experience in the 2000s as the country suffered through the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and the resulting global war on terror and Iraq War. Battlestar Galactica was unflinching. It ran headfirst into controversial issues.

baltarOne of the best examples was the trial of Gaius Baltar. A haunted genius, Baltar was an amoral man whose sole concern was his own survival. In the old series he was a stock villain. In the new show, there were times, many times, when I found myself rooting for Baltar, even when I knew he was a jerk.

One of those times was his trial.

Baltar was elected President of the surviving humans, beating Laura Roslin (who nearly rigged the election to stop Baltar). Under his leadership, the humans chose to settle on a habitable planet, dubbed New Caprica, instead of seeking Earth. But the humanoid cylons soon found them. Instead of wiping them out, they instituted a terror-like regime to control the humans.

Baltar went along with them. What choice did he have?

Once the humans broke free from the cylons and escaped, Baltar was ousted as president and then put on trial for crimes against humanity. The resulting trial was a brilliant piece of drama. Obviously Baltar colluded. How could he be found not guilty?

baltar trial

This article from io9.com revisits the trial. It’s a fascinating look at the law and its use in fiction. Was the trial a farce? To an extent, yes. But the whole point of the show (and a theme of our own global war on terror) was that these were not normal times. When the whole of humanity has been reduced from 20 billion to fewer than 50,000, who are actively being chased by murderous robots, you do the best you can.

Some of the plot twists of Battlestar Galactica, including Gaius Baltar’s trial, pushed the bounds of logic and reason, but it’s great to see that so many elements of this iconic series still resonate.

Helix: the last spasm?

The SyFy original was more than I thought it would be, but will the lack of character (and viewers) be its downfall?


One episode left for SyFy’s 13-episode sci-fi series Helix. No word yet on whether it will be renewed. Knowing SyFy, we may never see Helix again, which would be a shame.

When Helix was first launched, I was intrigued. Was it a zombie story? A medical procedural? Knowing it was produced by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore was a plus, but so what?

Over the past 12 episodes I’ve been surprised. It was not at all what I expected. The writers of Helix have seeded intrigue steadily and consistently, with more than enough plot twists to keep me coming back.

–About those “zombies” – I would liken them more to vampires in the sense that the infected don’t die and come back to life, but turn. And what do they turn into? A sort of hive collective. Think bees, or ants – parts of a whole. A snippet of dialogue explained that the virus appears to be acting in concert, across the bodies of the infected. Kind of like Star Trek‘s Borg collective. It’s a cool twist on an old trope. I loved when one of the infected spit a mouthful of blood into the Keep Calm mug.


–The writers have built layers of mythology, the most notable being the identity of the company that is funding Dr. Hatake’s research: the Ilaria Corporation. Their rep was Constance Sutton, overacted by Jeri Ryan, who didn’t fare too well against a desperate Hatake. Now we know that Ilaria is populated by 500 “immortals.” Like Hatake. And… his daughter.

–And that would be Julia Walker. Sure, it was a soap opera move reminiscent of Star Wars, but I bought it. The reveal of Julia Walker as Hatake’s daughter was telegraphed, and it made sense in terms of Hatake’s motivations and actions. It explained his preoccupation with her, as well as the fact that he rescued her from the infected-zombielike fate by making her “immortal” too.


–But what about this immortality? Is it a fact? Why? Where did it come from? And what does it have to do with the Narvik A virus, the one that’s creating the hive-minded people? Could it be that Ilaria and the 500 want to rid the world of those annoying mortals forever? But is that the best way?

–Speaking of pesky mortals, we’ve got a mixed bag of semi-developed characters, which is Helix‘s glaring weakness. Crusading CDC researcher Sarah Jordan has been on death’s door for a few episodes now, and honestly I don’t care. Peter Farragut was healed, but he was more interesting as a viral. Alan Farragut is noble but cardboard. The only characters who have moderately interested me are Julia Walker, Hatake, his stolen/adopted son Daniel, and the evil-but-trying-to be good Sergio Balleseros. Compare Helix to Lost: Lost made you care about the characters, whatever nonsensical craziness happened on that island. Helix struggles to make us care.


–But then there’s the storytelling. While Helix fails in characterization, it excels in plot and pacing. It is consistent in giving me just enough to hook me. The plot twists keep me off-balance. The visuals are stilted and creative. The music is moody and disturbing. Helix is a quickly moving story. Each episode spans single day, and it’s told with no flashbacks. The structure is bound and wound.

There is something subtly different about Helix. It’s not perfect, but few TV shows are. There’s only one episode left, I suspect not just for this season but for good. If this is the case, then Helix was a great experiment in tight, daring storytelling.


Helix spins a tantalizing, twisted tale

The SyFy Channel’s latest original series Helix, which airs Friday nights in the US, is turning out to be a multilayered labyrinth of a show.

When SyFy first began promoting Helix, I was captivated by the (literally) mind-blowing poster.Since then, I tried toHelix- 1 unravel what exactly it was about. Zombies? Scientific procedural? Lost-style isolation tale?

Several episodes in, I’m still not sure exactly what this science-heavy show all about, and that’s half the fun.

To recap the set-up, a team of CDC scientists is flown in to a Helix - Season 1remote Arctic lab to contain a mysterious viral outbreak. Once there, they are trapped. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) is the lead scientist, and his brother Peter is one of the Arctic lab’s scientists, who also happens to be infected. Alan Farragut’s team includes his ex-wife Julia Walker, who had an affair with Peter. Soapy and confusing. Luckily this aspect of the story has taken a backburner as the plot churns on.

The series is getting a lot right.

–We know the outbreak was engineered by lab head Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuke Sanada, a Lost alum), but we’re not sure what exactly it is, or why it was created.

–The writers on Helix aren’t afraid to play rough with the characters. No one is safe. Farragut and Hatake isolated scores of researchers they suspected were infected, giving them essentially a death sentence.

–Major characters are also at risk. I was shocked what happened to Doreen Boyle, a member of Farragut’s team. Likewise, big bad Constance Sutton (played by Star Trek: Voyager‘s Teri Ryan) proved less threatening in the end than she seemed. (And I loved the scene of her filing her own teeth down. Why??).


–Julia Walker, Farragut’s ex-wife, could have been an annoying distraction. Instead she’s become fascinating. Infected by the virus, then mysteriously “cured” by Hatake, Helix eyesshe’s revealed depth and determination. Adding to the mystery – is she really Hatake’s daughter? And what exactly has she become?

–One of my favorite characters on Helix is Major Sergio Ballaseros (Mark Ghanime). He’s duplicitous, murderous, and maybe even a touch remorseful. It’s a great portrayal of a mostly bad, complex character.Helix - Season 1

–Likewise, Hatake isn’t quite the villain he seemed. He reminds me of Lost‘s Ben Linus – a flawed man for whom the ends justify the means. His motivation is still unknown. It’s compelling to watch.

Another interesting aspect of the show is technical: the editing and the music. The scenes often seem a little off. They cut away too early, or they come in and out of focus, which keeps you slightly disoriented. It’s hard to understand without watching it;  this article at TV.com explains it better than I can. And the music choices, well, just watch the opening credits, with the 1960s bossa nova soundtrack.

I’ve referenced Lost a few times. That’s because Helix is similar to Lost in key ways. The mysteries unfold gradually, and the layers are onion-like. Character motivation is always in question, and the isolation heightens the drama. While it doesn’t have the emotional impact that Lost had, Helix is proving to be a fun addition to the sci-fi universe.

Will Star Wars be Lost?

JJ Abrams promises a grittier, more mysterious take on Star Wars. He’s got the tools – can he utilize all of them?

So JJ Abrams, of Lost and Star Trek fame, is taking over the next set of Star Wars movies. What will that mean for the franchise?


Hey JJ…less of this


…and more of this


At the very least, it can’t get worse (right?). The first 3 films, episodes 4-6, were iconic (aside from the Ewoks). Episodes 1-3 (the second set), were forgettable. You had the annoying Jar Jar Binks, the ham-handed explanation of the Force (midi-chlorian – a word invented by George Lucas to totally f-up the mysticism surrounding the Force, as per Urban Dictionary), and the eternally mopey and never likable Anakin (AKA baby Darth Vader). George Lucas, it seemed, was trying to murder his franchise.

But nothing is truly dead if there’s money to be made.

Along comes JJ. He dazzled and frustrated us with six seasons of Lost, winner of several Emmys and endless Internet diatribes. He rejiggered Star Trek with a clever reboot. And his plans for Star Wars?

To quote from this report at The Verge, Abrams “says that he is set on returning the sense of mystery that so pervaded the original trilogy…. To pull that off, audiences can expect to see a dirtier aesthetic more akin to the frontiers of the Old West than the gleaming futurescapes of the prequels.”

Sounds like he’s on the right track.

In Lost, he gave us strong, complicated characters with rich stories. He also led us into plot labyrinths with no logical way out (time travel to the 1970s and an atom bomb that does–or does not–detonate??).

In Star Trek, he gave us stupendous effects and clever plotting, but his characterizations were flat. Captain Kirk, I’m looking at you. Then again, how could Chris Pine–or anyone–hope to fill William Shatner’s uniform? Only an actor like Shatner could pull off Captain Kirk’s cockiness without turning him into a supreme ass.

If he marries Lost‘s characterizations with Star Trek‘s crisp storytelling, then he might have a formula for success. He can do it. Will the studio allow him?

We’ll find out in 2015.