Sensuality, Shakespeare and Stranger Things

Where the hell has Winona Ryder been?

Like half my friends, I just finished binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, an eight-part sci-fi/horror series that’s partly a homage to the 1980s. Overall it was very good, both addicting and entertaining, once I was able to slide into the story.

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A lot has been made of the fact that Stranger Things is set in 1983, and the directors took great pains to ground the series in that time frame. The senses are constantly distracted by elements from the early ’80s — from music to the clothes and hairstyles to the decor of the houses.

I appreciate the effort, but it was overkill, too much of a good thing, and it distracted from the story. Having been alive and aware in 1983 I kept finding myself questioning how accurate it all was, and it seemed too dated.

Luckily, in a stroke of brilliance, they cast Winona Ryder as the lead. She played against type — the woman who made her name as a quirky everywoman played a worried, desperate, and unstoppable mother.

Winona

Winona Ryder is about my age, and when I was younger a lot of guys I knew had crushes on her. But to me she always seemed unformed. She a girl, not a woman. I didn’t get the attraction, and I never followed her career.

Winona_RyderIn these intervening years she’s had some not-so-secret difficulties, as we all have. And when I look at pictures of her now — she’s hot. She’s a woman now, a fully formed adult with all the complications that brings.

In Stranger Things Ryder was effective not just for her acting, but because, in contrast to the set, she was not stylized. She was gaunt and frail. Ryder’s pixie quality was a strength here, as we saw a woman who’s been beaten down by life in many ways but keeps fighting.

Coincidentally, last week I saw Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. One of the actors listed in that play was David Harbour as Achilles, a rambunctious warrior torn between his fellow soldier/boyfriend and a woman he pines for back home.

Harbour, unfortunately, dropped out two days before I saw the play. He tore his Achilles tendon during a performance (you can’t make that up). However, when I started binge-watching Stranger Things the next day, whose name pops up in the credits?

David Harbour, as Chief Hopper.

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Like Winona Ryder, he brought a physicality that rooted the show. In one of his earliest scenes he’s outside shirtless smoking a cigarette after a hard night of drinking. He’s pale with a paunch. He’s tired. He’s hung over. And he’s real in a fully relatable way.

Watching Stranger Things was a totally different experience than watching Troilus and Cressida. Compared with television, it’s harder for me to lose myself while watching a play. I’m hyper aware of the fact that it’s fake. Troilus and Cressida was hard-charging. The actors were loud and physical. There was constant movement — touching, scrapping, fighting. The play used these sensory elements to draw me in.

Stranger Things, while fun, was using the sensory elements of 1983 (or a close approximation) as a wink to the audience, and it was distracting. Luckily they cast Winona Ryder and David Harbour as their leads. They were natural, and by using their physicality to ground the show, they ended up saving it.

 

Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

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In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

The Walking Dead: Ecstasy and agony

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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.

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Orphan Black on the horizon

Arguable the best sci-fi show—if not the best show period—on TV, Orphan Black has been a masterpiece in terms of acting, character, and breakneck plotting. If it isn’t obvious, I love this show.

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For those unaware, it follows a group of clones, all played brilliantly by Tatiana Maslany. These clones are stalked by several shadowy groups with competing agendas, all the while each clone navigates her own tumultuous world.

Last season’s cliffhanger lived up to the hype of Orphan Black as we learned that there are male clones as well (played by Ari Millen). I’ve read some commentary — Orphan Black has a vocal fanbase that appreciate the fact that the show focuses on strong female characters —  and there was disappointment about the introduction of male clones. I disagree. I’m excited by all the dramatic possibilities. Who knows where this will take the show? There are hints that the male clones will not exactly be friendly toward their female counterparts.

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But we’ll have to wait to see how this all plays out. Season 3 of Orphan Black is filming right now, and the show is expected to return in Spring 2015.

To hold us over, the powers that be have released a little teaser, an Orphan Black video of sorts. Check it out below.

 

 

Doctor Who: rating Peter Capaldi

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As an American, Doctor Who is not part of my culture the way it seems to be in the UK.

I first started watching it when I was maybe 8 or so, because channel 9 in New York would show episodes of this crazy, British sci-fi show on Saturday mornings. My first Doctor was Tom Baker, he of the crazy curly hair and long-ass scarf. I really dug Doctor Who back then, though it was mostly a blur.

When Doctor Who was rebooted back in 2005, I was excited. So far I haven’t been disappointed. Christopher Eccleston, one of my favorite actors, took over as the Doctor. Then came David Tennant, and next was Matt Smith. All the while, Doctor Who continued its tradition of a universe-weary hero dashing across time and space, with a human companion (typically female and star-struck) in tow. The storylines have been unevenly thrilling, heavily British, and always fun.

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The new Doctor Who era has ramped up the youth and sexiness (the same hold true for the companions, mostly). In fact, Matt Smith was just in his twenties when he was signed to play the centuries-old alien. So when it was announced that Peter Capaldi (an Oscar winner, by the way) was hired as the next Doctor, everyone, including me, was thrown for a loop. Capaldi is in his late 60s. He’s gray haired and wrinkled. He is a man who has lived. And he most likely won’t be melting teenage girls hearts. Head writer Steven Moffat, in choosing Capaldi, was abandoning the rush to youth. And it makes sense, when you consider that the Doctor is really, really old (older on the inside, at least).

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So how’s Capaldi doing?

We’re nearly at the two-episode season finale, so now’s a good a time as any to rate Calpaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor. And it’s not as easy as listing the pluses and minuses.

First, there’s the question of how the last Doctor died. Matt Smith’s Doctor lived a long, long time protecting the inhabitants of Trenzalore. He died an old man, and he wasn’t expecting another regeneration. The Doctor, as we knew him, was willing to pass on peacefully. But then he was granted more regenerations, and he came back. He wasn’t prepared for that.

And then there’s the question of his companion, Clara, played by Jenna Coleman. I’ll leave her for another post, but Clara has not been the ideal companion for Capaldi’s Doctor. She’s conflicted, she doesn’t understand what regeneration is, and she isn’t trying in the least to be supportive. She’s also one of the only companions who calls the Doctor out on his God complex. What that’s given us is a rough transition for this latest Doctor.

Jenna Coleman

On the good side, Capaldi’s age gives him more freedom to play the Doctor as a whimsical, childlike figure. He doesn’t have to pretend to be old. David Tennant and Matt Smith were young men who wore their gravitas on their sleeves. Capaldi reminds me of the first Doctor I knew, Tom Baker. He was older and could get away with playing silly.

But all is not perfect with this Doctor, and I think it boils down to the difficult relationship between Clara and this version of the Doctor. There is very little lightness between them. Their relationship is strained and forced. Most times I doubt they even like each other. The Doctor needs a traveling companion, and he’s developed a thing for humans. And Clara loves the rush of exploration. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. Not much love, or warmth.

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Their tension, however, makes for great drama, and some damned funny lines. I loved when the Doctor commented on how Clara’s face was so big she needed three mirrors to see it all. Rumor has it that Jenna Coleman will leave after the season is over. As much as I’ve enjoyed her on the show, I’ll be glad to see her go. This Doctor — befuddled, socially inept, and a little cold — needs someone who will balance him out.

Why not Mars?

World building is an integral part of fiction. When it comes to sci-fi, Mars seems like the perfect world to build. It’s been long ignored. Now, it might get its chance chance.

Writers (myself included) are closet megalomaniacs. When you write, one of the more important, though hidden, tasks is you have to construct the fictional world your characters inhabit. This is true whether you write a true-to-life family drama or a space opera set in unexplored galaxies.

As a writer, I love that part of it. And I suspect most other writers do as well. Why? Because we get to create these worlds. We are in charge.

On that level, it’s all about the worlds. But what about literal worlds?

As a sci-fi fan, I could never figure out why Mars is always forgotten. It’s well represented in print (Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, for one example of many). But on film and TV, apart from a few crappy movies, Mars has been largely ignored.

Mars

And it’s right next door. You can see it, if you have a good telescope.

That may change. Spike TV, of all networks, plans to produce a TV show adapted from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars and M1_Red_MarsGreen Mars). I read these books years ago. I have some problems with the books, mostly involving pacing (slow…), but what he did brilliantly in his writing was build a world. Mars.

His books track the colonization and terraforming of Mars over centuries. He includes topics and themes such as genetic engineering and social unrest. His characters run the gamut of human nature. And he has a space elevator,which blew my young sci-fi mind when I first read about it years ago, but is now slowly turning from science fiction to science fact.

If this series comes to pass (which is always a huge question mark) and if it is done well (an even bigger question mark), it would finally give the Red Planet its due in the sci-fi world.

Let’s hope. Here’s to world building.

The Leftovers rehashed

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

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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.

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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.

Doctor Who: regenerated again

What do you do when you create an accidental hit TV show, and your lead actor leaves? If the show is the British sci-fi series Doctor Who, you give your time-traveling alien-in-human-form lead the power to regenerate.

Doctor Who

And now, with a change of actors on Doctor Who, we have yet another regeneration.

The era of Peter Capaldi as the latest Doctor begins with an episode titled Deep Breath, and what we saw was a Doctor thoroughly unsettled.

Age brings natural gravitas. Capaldi is older than the actors who’ve played the CapaldiDoctor in the modern era — Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. So, naturally, Capaldi’s Doctor seems so much older than the others.

How to maneuver around that? Capaldi’s Doctor, at least in the early days of his regeneration, is unhinged, nearly to the point of being child-like. In this way, Capaldi’s Doctor seems much younger than any of the modern Doctors.

This Doctor is a rambling, rummaging mess. He’s aggressively disoriented.

It’s not just the writing and acting that make it all so unsettled. The music is thumping and discordant, an angry rock soundtrack out of tune (in a good way). And the camera work is quick and jumpy without being shaky. It all combines in a way that let’s us know that this iteration of the Doctor may be far different than what we’ve been used to.

Regeneration is the theme of this episode. We’re along for the ride as his current human traveling companion Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) Clarastruggles to make sense of the whole concept of the Doctor regenerating. Not to mention the Doctor himself. Regeneration is never easy for the Doctor, and this one is especially difficult.

The writers use the theme of regeneration to hint at the insidious nature of the Doctor. Does this centuries-old alien wear a human face merely to be accepted by humans? Does he use this human face to keep from revealing who or what he truly is?

Philosophical questions aside, this first episode of the Capaldi era is classic Doctor Who, throwing a dinosaur into steampunk-infused Victorian-era London. But it also revels in the darkness that infuses many of Doctor Who‘s best episodes.

Based on this episode, I’m feeling pretty good about where we’re headed. Capaldi’s Doctor is clearly different from the rest, and Clara, as companion, is proving to be more Donna Noble than Martha Jones.

Finally, there was some great dialogue from this episode:

“You mustn’t worry my dear boy. By now he’s almost certainly had his throat cut by the violent poor.”

“Nothing is more important than my egomania.”

“It’s times like this I miss Amy.”