Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summer Series, House of Suns, True Blood and The Steel Remains

Summer Series
Eyestrain limits the amount of reading. And money limits the amount of really fun stuff to do. So it is nice that there is some summer television fare that passes the time. The Closer of course is quite good enough in its Cops-as-Avenging-Angels-of-Justice way for any season, if you can buy into the unreality of it all. And NBC is burning off Kings, a topic burning in mind for giant posts of its own. Our screens are also graced with The Listener, Burn Notice, In Plain Sight, Merlin, Eureka, Warehouse 13 and Saving Grace.

The Listener has the premise that a mysterious orphan, Toby Logan, is a telepathic paramedic. Being in the helping profession, he runs into people in crisis on the mean streets of Toronto. After the initial impulse to laugh is quelled, the stories actually have a modestly interesting diversity of cultural and social themes: A transgender runaway, Chinese immigrants and so on. Toby's best friend is Turkish. So the setting is more various than the usual on US television. The telepathy is an inconsistent mixture of random voiceovers and video montages. So far it is relying on telepathy being an old scifi trope dating back to the Thirties and Rhine's work at Duke University. If such things could be legislated, I'm tempted to decree that telepathy's sole remaining scifi rationalization would be engineering by Clarkean alien technology (a la Babylon 5 and Threshold.) So far the telepathy is just a plot device for the ever so sensitive Toby to help people. There are dark hints of the now obligatory wish fulfillment arc, though it is mercifully in abeyance as yet. The Turkish partner is also comic relief, as is the black ambulance service director. Oz the partner hasn't always worked well and the director isn't funny at all. Given the unimaginative and inconsistent telepathy, the watchability of the show rides on the novelty of the setting and the personal charms of the star. I think he's cute and very likeable but if you don't, give this one a pass.

Burn Notice is its usual charming self. The voiceovers actually do give the lead character a unique voice. The bits and pieces of "spycraft" are neatly done and intrinsically interesting. Any show which has managed to inform its audience that torture is not an effective interrogation tool should probably earn a Peabody Award for public service, except that the Peabody is officially worthless since BattleStar Galactica won it. The overriding arc of the show is gradually destroying it. For example, the latest entry had a psychotic genius find a security leak that was leading to the deaths of US operatives. Said psycho (played, very amusingly, by Michael Weston!) has to get unofficial assistance, for no sane reason except there would have been no episode, from our Michael Westin. Our Michael, for no clear reason, has to unmask the traitor himself, instead of going to the authorities. The mechanics are very neatly done, with suspenseful twists. The upshot is that Michael declares again to Fiona that he was born to do this job, to save American lives. The joke on the show is that our Michael didn't need his unique skill set to do counterintelligence: He just needed it to do counterintelligence without police assistance and official authority. The value of the US operatives is tacitly assumed too of course. The latest contact with the company is at a air charter business, a CIA front. The voiceover manages not to mention the value of such a firm for renditions! The closer Michael comes to getting the old job back is the closer he comes to turning into a villain. Wanting that is wrong. Sacrificing Fiona and genuinely worthwhile work for it is even worse, it's stupid. Evil heroes may be entertaining for a while (a short while for my tastes,) but evil and stupid is a dead waste of time.

In Plain Sight had a certain basic competence. The premise, a US marshal, caught up in the lives of people in the witness protection program, has the necessary hook of a major life changing event. (Shows that have the stars undergo life changing events on a weekly or semiweekly basis rewrite their characters like plastic. They are soaps, and this absurd characterization is what makes them soaps.) So why don't I like it? The marshall is a beautiful blonde (that's not a negative) who has no impulse control and is mean (which is.) And because she's so beautiful and great at her job, everybody basically adores her, even secretly the curmudgeon who's out to get her. Yeah, right. Don't believe it and that's fatal.

Merlin reminds me a great deal of Sanctuary. Like Sanctuary, it relies on being shamelessly over the top, instead of using actual plotting and real motivations. It really is dumb even in its own terms. Unlike Sanctuary, where the two leads are pleasant people who want to do good things, its not quite certain what anyone in Merlin wants. But we are supposed to care because it's Merlin and Arthur. Sorry, no. When you get to the heart, this show is much more like Fringe, despite Fringe's drabness and lack of imagination. The writers imagine that we will be invested in the characters, just because. If we don't buy in, it's dull. Pass.

Eureka is back! Every season ends with some godawful serious crisis. This show is so ludicrous that gravity is death. Levity should be king every second, not least because the show does it so well. They have made some missteps. Matt Frewer's Taggart is gone. Lupo is being saddled with Zane instead because of the mysterious desire to give her a serious love life. But until this season's obligatory serious arc kicks in, good times. Here's hoping they save it till the last episode.

Warehouse 13 looks to be short of characters. It shares the general stupidity of Sanctuary and Eureka, which is a difficult sell. About the only way to do it is either to be wildly imaginative (shamelessly extreme, if you can't manage that, anyhow,) or to have such charming characters you enjoy having them in your living room an hour each week (a la Colin Ferguson.) Warehouse 13 is so goofy that I can't imagine the straight arrow lead will do more than get pie thrown in her face every week. Speaking metaphorically, at least. I don't think this will be entertaining very long. The male lead, who will essentially be the pie thrower in the sense that he will be the one who looks good every week, lacks the gravitas or the empathy to carry that off. And Saul Rubinek's curator doesn't have many scenes with people! Will they really be able to come up with enough comedy routines with props to keep his role going? Well, we'll see.

Saving Grace
This is the sort of thing that gives fantasy a bad name. People with ideological drivers about the nastiness of humanity probably find this all fascinating. It's tiresome because it's so silly. Just to arbitrarily pick one thing, Holly Hunter's Grace is supposed to be a tireless drinker, villain hunter, cusser and fornicator. Okay. She is also supposed to be a major figure in her young nephew's life, warm, maternal, reliable, very June Cleaverish. Drivel. The moral sophistication of this show was revealed in the very first episode where a young pedophile's wickedness was established by listening to Goth records in German! Not only is he sexually perverted but he's violent. This is so bad I find myself mentally downgrading all past Holly Hunter movies.

House of Suns
There is a love story in here, and it has a happy ending. This is a shocking departure for Alistair Reynolds, and has commensurate impact. There is a torture scene for his obligatory The Future is Grand Guignol trope, but it turns out to be not so important and doesn't disgrace too many pages. (This is getting kind of tired after all.) So the reading experience was rather enjoyable, despite some logorrhea. It takes about a hundred pages to tell us as much as the dust jacket does! After closing the book, there is a feeling of dissatisfaction. I think it's because through most of the book, space war is regarded as natural, common and proper. Extinction of species is regarded as inevitable and quick. None of this is actually justified. I don't know Reynolds personal politics but if he's like most people he unconsciously repeats most conservative "ideas," and this is an excellent example in my opinion. Suddenly, at the end, the revelation is made that space war (and implicitly) extinction are not natural, common and proper. But a matter of choice. With all those pages, couldn't this have been explored a little more? I enjoyed the love story but that kind of character driven story didn't need any of the imagination Reynolds lavished. Reynolds went so far as to rename force fields "impassors!"

True Blood
I'm part way through the first season. The series is like a master class on how fantasy has perils that mislead authors into making junk instead of art. Some of this is Alan Ball lapsing into old bad habits. There is a wonderful drug dealer in this show, just like American Beauty. I didn't believe that ignorant twaddle then and I don't now. Except that now I have to put up with it for thirteen hours instead of two! As might be guessed, vampirism, always a metaphor for illicit sexuality, is in his hands a metaphor for homosexuality. Since there is real homosexuality available for drama, the need for this is not one bit obvious. And since the show has to make vampires evil, it backfires on gay lib, whatever Ball thinks. This is particularly true of the antigay movement. If magical vampires exist, then magical God can exist. And obeying his every whim, no matter how cruel it seems to us, might in fact be the very definition of virtue!

That's because this is Charlaine Harris' story. The Ball trimmings, however illsuited they may be, are not essential. Her story is two sisters, one the slut and one the virgin. Well, technically the slut sister is Jason, the brother of the virginal heroin Sookie Stackhouse. But this is a fantay and one is well advised not to be misled by such minor details. That story is something like Sense and Sensibility except that there is no affection between the sisters, and the sensible sister is merely judgmental instead of geneuinely sensible. Ball misreads the basic story I think. He neither corrects the flaws in the Sookie character nor sees her honestly. We are supposed to love this character when she is oblivious to most people around her. The only scene where the character is confronted with anything but adoration is when her brother slaps her for getting their grandmother killed. (The scenes where people think nasty thoughts about Our Heroine exist to make her the Suffering Heroine and those people are the usual detestable common humanity.) Obviously the real killer is the one to vent on but he has a point about her bahavior, especially since the grandmother had prudently asked her to use her telepathic powers to find the killer. Sookie is such a dunderhead that telepathy can't make a good detective! There are an appalling number of people who make their heroes or heroines the ones who are winners, instead of good. This heroine is neither.

There is also an incredible unreality. There is a little speech where Ball tries to liken the magic of vampirism to the miracle of all life. Aside from being just plain dumb, it still doesn't address how regular people address the reality of their inferiority to the magic people. They somehow are supposed to be floating around in everyday life. Ball can throw in a subplot about best friend Tara (a magical Negro for Sookie,) and her alcoholic mother getting an exorcism which the daughter pays for from sheer niceness. But it doesn't matter. This series is a fantasy in the pejorative sense. Or Ball can throw in a touching sequence about a Civil War veteran bonding with an Iraq veteran but basically, this is about the Glorious Sookie, Suffering Heroine, getting not icky, seminal sex, but Really Cool, Ecstatic, Magical Sex, safe from AIDS and syphilis and pregnancy and it's not tawdry lust but Magical True Love. And she will somehow save everyone despite being dumber than a box of hammers. And they talk about her brother being stupid!

The Steel Remains
There are ordinary people roaming around a magical landscape but keeping a materialist mindset, practically atheist. And others have the attitudes of many religious believers today, where they routinely act as though there's no magic, and technology is the thing to rely on, but in the back of their mind they'll beg the sky for a miracle when they're dying. But there is magic. So these people are idiots. A novel full of idiots is hard to care about. And, as far as the heroes being the winners go, the main hero is supposed to be a killing machine, but he's not magic so how can he be? He's not a nice guy at all, in any way. I think we're suppsed to sympathize with his sufferings as a gay man but if there are Gods, how do we know that homosexuality isn't an evil?

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