Sunday, October 4, 2015
JJ Abrams had previously created the show Felicity on the WB, which centered around a young woman's emotional journey through life in a New York City College. It was a prime time soap opera that had its moments, but it never became a giganitic break out.
For his next, show, Abrams went much more high concept: a female CIA double agent.
And thus Alias was born.
The story centered around Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) who is a secret agent for the CIA's special section: SD6. She has to keep her training and her missions secret from everyone, even her father (Victor Garber). This concept alone is interesting enough. But when the head of SD6, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), has her fiancee killed, Sydney's father reveals to her that not only is he also in SD6, but that SD6 is not really a part of the CIA; Sydney has been working for the bad guys without knowing. Her father has been deep undercover for the real CIA and now Sydney joins him. So together, they must take down SD6 and Arvin Sloane from the inside.
In terms of plot, this is a fascinating entrance point. And from a practical standpoint, this allows wonderful variety from week to week of TV watching. Sydney, as a spy, must take on different characters and personas as she goes on new and exciting missions each week.
And as the series continued, the supporting cast became larger and more interesting. In addition, the show built a wonderfully mysterious mythology. Alias introduced something almost supernatural to its over-arching plot which infused the show with something even bigger than its already expansive plot. As a Catholic I enjoyed how it explored how lies, even for a good reason, cause harm to the human person. It also explored larger themes of family, loyalty, and the tension between free will and destiny.
One of the early hooks of the show was that each episode would end on an enormous cliff-hanger. While they got away from that later, I found the effect quite charming and it made me push forward with the series with great interest and intensity.
The acting was excellent. This is the show that made Jennifer Garner a star. And Victor Garber has never been better. Michael Vartan, Carl Lumbly, Kevin Weisman, and Greg Grunberg bring a lot of gravitas to the show. And let's not forget that this the first major breakthrough for Bradley Cooper.
Abrams gave the show a slick look with some incredible action set pieces. But he never forgot that it had to have an emotional heart. This show wasn't simply Spy vs. Spy. This was a show about a woman learning who she is and her place in the world. Albeit she does it in the world of espionage.
All of the detail in 6 paragraphs earlier about the plot all occur in the 1st episode. It is incredibly dense with story, but it does not feel rushed or forced. The story plays out naturally and intensely. You immediately buy in to the story and the character's motivations. It really felt like watching a big-budget spy film set on television. And with that first episode, you could see very clearly the type of show that you were signing up for.
JUMP THE SHARK
"Authorized Personnel Only"
One of the great things about the show was that they were not afraid to change things up from what had already happened. The idea of radically altering your overarching plot was still relatively new in serialized television. But Alias was not afraid to kill off characters, radically change characters, and completely alter the trajectory of the show.
By the end of the third season, the show's ratings began to slip. So the producers decided instead of pushing forward with something bold and new, as the show had done already, to regress to the old formulas from the first season. This can sometimes work if a show has lost its magic. But the problem was that in order to do this, they had to essentially throw out the character relationships and build-up of the last 3 years. Yes, there is some acknowledgment that "things will never be the same," but instead of feeling nostalgic for the good old days, it instead felt lazy.
In the final season, Alias tried to wrap up all of its loose ends. In order to do this, one of their villains that had been on a slow road to redemption, has a sudden and inexplicable relapse. As when they jumped the shark, this felt like a betrayal of all the character development thus far. It also felt like it was too simple a solution to creating an artificial tension to end out the series.
As I mentioned before, one of the show's strength was its willingness to take risks. And in the middle of the second season, Alias blew everything up… literally. The entire plot was thrown on its ear and it was fantastic. By breaking the mold, the thrill of the unexpected lingered for a long time. Each episode after carried with it that wonderful tension that you need in order to feel the sense of danger that these characters face. And the episode itself was an excellent confluence of great acting, writing, and directing. Top notch television.
Alias only ran for 5 seasons, and as it moved into its last 2, the quality slowly began to degrade. But those early episodes are still some fantastic television that hold up compared to anything on the small screen today. I like to remember Alias not for its failures, but for its bold successes. And that alone is worth the price of admission.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
I have a new article up at NewEvangelizers.com.
It is no secret that we live in very politically polarized times. And perhaps you are like me in that not only am I devoutly Catholic, but I also have very strong political convictions.
But as Catholics, what do we do when we find our political convictions challenged by our Holy Father? Do we abandon our politics for our faith? Or do we ignore our faith for our politics? Or is there some other way out of this dilemma?
Pope Francis has recently visited the United States. And no matter what he says, his words are analyzed in the media through the lens of politics. That is not to say that the Pope does not make political statements. It is only to highlight that we must be careful about what secondary sources tell us about this Pope, as he is one of the most often misunderstood and misquoted in my recollection.
Regardless, Francis says many things that raise the ire of the political right and the political left. How are we to respond?
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
It must be remembered that the pope only speaks infallibly on the topic of faith and morals. And even on these topics, infallibility only applies when he specifically and officially invokes that power. If the pope secretly confided to someone that he didn’t believe the Resurrection was real, this would not violate papal infallibility. If the pope declared that 2 + 2 = 5, this would also not be infallible because that is a matter of mathematics, not faith or morals.
Politics, while often dealing with topics of religion and morality, is not covered by infallibility per se. It is possible for the pope to be wrong on political policy. Pope Pius the XI entered into a concordant with the European fascists, which he later regretted. So when a sitting pope makes statements of a political nature, those political points are not backed by infallibility.
But be careful here!
At this point, many would use this as an opportunity to simply dismiss the pope whenever he challenges their politics. “Well, he’s talking about politics so it isn’t infallible. Now I don’t have to listen.”
That is, to my mind, the absolutely incorrect attitude.
You can read the entire article here.
Sunday, September 27, 2015
The more emotionally disturbed sister-show of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel is on this list not only because of some great writing and acting. It is here because of its great ability to affect emotion.
Of course the problem is that emotion is depression and sadness.
Angel is based around the title character played by David Boreanaz, a vampire with a soul. In the Buffy-verse, when you get turned into a vampire, your soul goes into the afterlife and a demon animates our body, but has all of your memories. But with Angel he is cursed to have his soul reunited with his body and he remembers all of the horrible things he has done and can never achieve true happiness.
Cheery, am I right?
But even in the midst of this, creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt managed to build strong emotional ties to the characters who would often laugh their way through the pain, even as they dragged you through a long day's journey into night.
As a Catholic, I obviously take issues with these themes. But I can appreciate this show not only as an expression of atheistic despair (which should in turn teach me more compassion), but also in how the creators struggle against that despair. As I've written before on this blog, Whedon is an atheist who intellectually accepts the idea of meaninglessness in life. But in his art he strives for something more, even though he cannot understand why. In his world every human life is ultimately tragic, but he wants there to be more. That is why I think there is a sliver of hope for redemption.
The stories of the show were also grand and epic sci-fi. The show explored demons within and without in its examination of the human condition.
And there was some great action too.
The series begins with three regular cast members: Angel, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), and Doyle (the late Glenn Quinn). Cordelia was the spoiled rich girl who came out to LA to make it as an actress but struggled. Doyle was a half-demon who would have visions to guide Angel to his next quest. This particular episode centered around trying to get Angel to embrace his full hero destiny. But in the end, Doyle ended up sacrificing his life to save a group of innocents. Perhaps it happened before, but I never saw a show kill off one of its main characters less than half-way through its first season. It was shocking to say the least. And it set the tone of danger and sadness for the rest of the show.
JUMP THE SHARK
At the end of an epic story arc, Angel and his crew are offered to take over control of the main bad guy's business: Wolfram and Hart. This is an evil demonic law firm. This is a bad idea. You know it is a bad idea. This will not end well. And yet the characters inexplicably accept because that is what the 5th season was about. This episodes sets up the worst and most tedious season of the show.
"A Hole in the World"
As I said, my Catholic sensibilities are a little frayed by the underlying despair of a show like this. But this where it was pushed into overdrive. This episode is not bad because of the acting (it is fantastic) or the skill of the writing (it is superb), but in the ugliness of the themes. If you ever want to end an episode and feel the darkness of existence, watch this episode.
"Five by Five" and "Sanctuary"
Faith, one of the main villains from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, comes to Angel. And she is just as violent as ever. When she comes across her former Watcher Wesley (Alexis Denisof), she proceeds to torture him. But all of this builds to a head with the final moments of the first of the two part episode. Every time I see it, it still gives me chills. Even in all of this darkness there is the tiniest light.
Angel my be too dark for some people, and I respect that. A special shout out needs to be made to Denisof who took his character from a one-note comic punchline to the show's emotional whipping boy, to being the heart of the entire series. Watching his transformation over the course of 5 years was amazing.
But the for skill in making this show alone, it deserves its place on this list.
Saturday, September 26, 2015
Have you ever finished a story and said to yourself, "That was pretty good. But it could have been great if only they had done x, y, or z?"
That is the feeling I had when I left Black Mass.
This movie assembled one of the most impressive ensemble casts I have seen in a good long while. And all the time I was watching it, I kept thinking that the movie never really utilized them. It's like having a top of the line super computer and using only to check your twitter feed.
Black Mass is the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger played by one of our greatest living film actors Johnny Depp. Depp brings terror and charisma to this monstrous mobster. But the real central character is John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI man from Whitey's neighborhood. When the mandate comes down that the FBI needs to take out the Italian mob, Connolly proposes an alliance with Whitey's Winter Hill Gang to help take them out. And of course, this deal with the devil begins to spiral out of control.
What follows is a serviceable, but uninspired story. I do not have any inside information, but I get the feeling that the movie was supposed to be about Connolly, but once Depp signed on they centered it mostly on Whitey. This was a mistake. Don't get me wrong, Depp is fantastic. But like The Silence of the Lambs (and it should be noted how Hannibal Lector-like Depp looks in this film), a little can go a long way. From the very beginning you get the strong sense that there is something bent about Connolly. If the movie had started off with him much more of a straight arrow who got twisted by his own designs, that would much more compelling.
The story also suffers from the problem that most bio-pics have: putting in details that don't service a straightforward plot. Early in the movie there is a storyline about Whitey's sick child. This is used to explain Whitey being as evil as he is. The problem is that you didn't need that storyline because you already bought that Whitey was a psychopath. Ultimately this and other vignettes feel like unnecessary tangents.
As a Catholic, I found that this movie does what the best mob movies do: they show the ugliness of evil. I know that some people emulate the characters in The Godfather, but Coppola clearly meant to show how making evil choices destroys your soul. Many of the characters in the movie don't have much soul to begin with, but what little they had is exchanged for what ultimately feels like dust.
What does work incredibly well, as I said, are the performances. Depp should get another Oscar nomination. He truly looks ghoulish and he exudes menace. There is one particularly harrowing scene where is he "checking on the health" of Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson) that is so filled with threatening subtext that it is difficult to breathe while watching it. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Whitey's straight-laced brother, and he nails the apathetic evil of turning a blind eye. There are also fantastic performances by Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemmons, David Harbour, and Juno Temple.
But these great actors or horribly integrated into the story. Johnson disappears a third of the way through the movie with no explanation. Sarsgaard seems to come out of nowhere to be a complication. Temple is in one quick shot in the first act and we are expected to remember her significance for a tense, emotional scene in the third. Plot points and characters are not Jenga pieces that should be placed wherever possible to keep the story straight. They must grow organically from the beginning so that they are an integrated whole. Instead, the characters mash ups make Black Mass feel like a Frankenstein's monster where director Scott Cooper tried to take the best parts from other movies and awkwardly sew them together.
I will also say this about the movie, it is fascinating. It never draws you in to truly care about the characters, but it does keep your interest by taking you behind the curtain of a world that is rarely scene. I mean, who knew there was such an underworld in the sport of Jai-alai?
Bottom line: if you want to see great performances and don't mind that they are presented in a mediocre film, then Black Mass is for you.
3 out of 5 stars.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
My fondest memories of the Muppets are actually not from their movies or live-action shows. I was wondrously in love with the Saturday Morning TV cartoon: The Muppet Babies.
That cartoon was a different take on the Muppets, making them younger and even more innocent. And in their innocence they reveled in the power of their imagination and embraced the joy of life like children. This did not take anything away from the original Muppets, it instead enhanced and highlighted what was so good about them.
And who could forget the magic of "Rainbow Connection?" Who but the Muppets could deliver a song of pure optimism in a touching banjo ballad of tangible hope? The song is about not giving in to the cynics who say that dreams about love and beauty are empty illusions. If you really believe, you can achieve your dreams. That's what the Muppets stood for.
All of that is over now.
The Muppets have been officially ruined.
This was in the cards for a little while. The rebooted Muppet movie from a few years ago had a lot of the trappings of the classic, optimistic old show but there was just a slight touch of cynicism that is poisonous to something like this. The sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, employed some of the most cynical humorists around like Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais.
Now the Muppets have fully embraced the cynicism and so have lost all of their joy.
There is nothing joyous about this show. Are there some funny jokes? Yes. But they lack any kind of heart or warmth.
In this first episode alone we had jokes about:
-Animal's several women
They've turned the Muppets into the cast from 30 Rock. And that is NOT a good thing.
It's not that the jokes were incredibly offensive per se. It's that they don't belong with the Muppets.
All of the affection that you have for the characters is completely lost. These are Muppets that have been destroyed and deformed to reflect modern Hollywood's own disgusting image. The Muppets are now defeated, self-loathing cynics who are emotionally broken and use humor as an outlet of their frustration and rage.
But the Muppets are supposed to be about joy and above all love. The Muppets loved each other despite being misfits and weirdos. And they loved life with an infectious love. As a kid you would dream about spending time with them because of the affection and love they shared with each other. And that dream always reminded you why you loved them Muppets. You loved that dream.
But now the dream is over. This is not a show about love. This is not even a show for those who dare to dream of something better.
Somehow they lost it, that Rainbow Connection.