Thursday, June 27, 2013

Under the Dome: Does Setting Matter?

The new CBS sci-fi show Under the Dome started this week to record-breaking viewership. It has some solid pedigree: the showrunner, Neal Baer, is a veteran of ER and Law & Order: SVU. The show is written by Brian K. Vaughn of the excellent Y: the Last Man. They've mined the cast from cable, with recognizable actors from Bates Motel, True Blood, Breaking Bad, and even a Lost alum in the pilot. And the biggest name of all attached is Stephen King, author of the book that Under the Dome is based on.

Like many Stephen King stories, Under the Dome takes place in a small Maine town; this one is called Chester's Mill. The TV show shoots in North Carolina, which is approximately 1,000 miles away from Maine. That's equivalent to shooting a story that's set in London, UK in Florence, Italy.

Yes, TV shows and movies shoot in strange places pretending that they're other places all the time. Notoriously, a lot of shows shoot in Canada and pretend to be everywhere from Georgia to New York City. But at least they try to pretend.

Under the Dome isn't even trying. There are no attempts at Maine accents, or even Boston-y accents (which is generally actors' fallback for New England). The buildings and flora don't look right - there are almost no pine trees. There's even spanish moss hanging from trees at one point. Spanish moss. If you've ever been to Maine, you know how ridiculous that is.

Granted, most people who watch the show have never been to Maine. In fact, many people probably don't know that Maine is a real place, and not just an imaginary state that Stephen King made up for his books. It's been portrayed so many different ways in film and television - shot so many places that are not actually Maine and not similar to each other, either - that it must exist in the imaginations of many as an amorphous, omni-climated, manse-ridden land of a million small towns beset by monsters.

Let's set the record straight! Maine is a real place.

Look, you can google map it:

But does it matter?

Some stories have a very specific place or time that matter to the plot, or the mood of the piece. King's the Shining would not have been the same set in Florida; Pet Sematary wouldn't have been the same without Herman Munster's Maine accent. Is Under the Dome one of those stories, or is it the kind you can put just anywhere?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Five Best New Shows You Just Missed the Whole First Season Of

You just woke up from your Game of Thrones thrall and now there's nothing to watch except True Blood and you don't like Anna Paquin. Good news/bad news. While you were crying about the Red Wedding, there were some great first season of freshman shows on the air, and they're all renewed for second seasons. The bad news is now you have to track down the episodes before those second seasons start.

1. Bates Motel
AMC's Bates Motel is a (horror?) drama that gets its name and story from the Psycho films. This series took a lot of risks with the original material: most notably, it's been updated to the present day and they've added the character of Dylan, Norman's older half-brother. These risks pay off excellently, especially the former. Norman Bates and his mother, Norma, speak and dress on the border between the original 60s Psycho era and the modern day. The music, too, pays homage to the days of Hitchcock. But the modern context lets characters say and do things onscreen that only would have been implied in the original movies - and not in a gratuitous way like the Vince Vaughn remake. If you watch this show, be ready for some brutal violence and blunt talk. One does have to get over Norman Bates texting, too.

As Dylan, Max Thieriot is a welcome addition to the Bates family. He often serves as a foil for the nuttier characters, and grounds the plot in reality. More than that, though, Dylan is a stand-in for the audience: he gets that his family is insane, but loves them anyway.

More than anything else, Bates Motel is a showcase for two actors: Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore. As Norma, Farmiga chews the scenery like nothing else you'll ever see. Somehow she manages to play both incredibly funny - I hesitate to say "wacky," as that makes it sound stupid - and utterly emotionally devastated at the same time. Just watching her facial expressions and body language while other characters talk puts most TV acting to shame.

Freddie Highmore completely vanishes into Norman. He's creepily close to Anthony Perkins while bringing his own angles to the character as well. I won't spoil how "psycho" he is in the first season, but the show does a good job of making you feel for him. Clearly there's something wrong, but it's hard to blame him for going more nuts with the wringer he goes through.

2. Hannibal
It's a rare thing to have one television show on the air that's successful at adapting a movie franchise, let alone two. But Hannibal joins Bates Motel as a freshman series that honors - and in some ways, surpasses - the movies that cam before. Read a full run-down on Hannibal here.

One thing that makes this retelling of Hannibal unique is the character's relationship with Will Graham. Unlike the paternal/teacher/potential-lover dynamic set up with Clarice Starling, or the rivalrous duel between Hannibal and previous incarnations of Will, this show explores what friendship with an equal might mean for a serial killer. Yes, this might be a dead-serious serial-killer buddy cop show. In the best, most straight-faced way possible.

3. The Americans
It's a funny thing to write, but the Americans is a 1980s period piece. The producers are smart not to over-play that aspect of the show, though, and the costuming and "80s-ness" balances subtlety with anachronism fairly well - you won't feel like you're watching I Love the 80s.

The Americans follows the lives of two Russian spies, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, and the federal agents hunting them. Keri Russell is good enough - and badass enough - to make you almost forget that she was Felicity back in the day. Matthew Rhys is amazing as her assigned spy husband, like a not-anorexic version of The Walking Dead's Andrew Lincoln with a better fake American accent. They're living across the street from the FBI agent that's hunting them while their children play together. While the setup is perhaps a little too neat-sounding, the execution is anything but: their lives are an exquisite mess and the show is emotionally brutal.

The real fun of the show is how grounded everything is. Yes, it's a spy show, but it's no Alias: there are no lasers or ancient/immortal inventors with prophesies or meeting rooms with glass walls and too many monitors. In some ways, the producers seem to be using the 80's as an excuse to give us realistic spycraft, because we expect magic technology in our modern spy shows. But it's not just the spy stuff that's realistic, but the characters as well; even better, actions have consequences and MacGuffins aren't MacGuffins because they're real things that could tip the balance of the cold war.

4. Orphan Black
There's a reason why there's Emmy buzz around Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany: she plays at least 5 different, truly distinct characters. It's probably more than five. ***Very minor spoiler that's barely a spoiler at all: she plays clones. But because the clones were all brought up separately, they all have different personalities, accents, and motivations, and Maslany does a laudable job of making them all not only different but compelling as well. She does such a good job that at some times you may forget that it's the same actress.

With a strong (very Canadian) supporting cast, and some good writing, this BBC America production manages to make a conspiracy thriller about clones feel like a grounded drama. Another accomplishment: a show with a mystery plot that has satisfying reveals on a weekly basis without demystifying the overall mythology. Many times stories with arc-mystery structures either never explain anything to satisfaction (Lost) or become boring once there's a major reveal. Orphan Black falls into neither trap. While the pilot is the weakest episode, the series pulls you deeper in as it goes along.

5. Arrow
This is it, folks: Arrow is the closest thing you're going to get to a new Batman live action TV show. Which makes sense, since the Green Arrow was originally devised as a green-er, beardier Batman with a bow and arrow. All your favorite stuff from classic Batman and the Nolan Batfilms is there in Arrow: raspy voices, dead parents, servant sidekicks, angst, vigilante ninja-ing. The writers and producers have successfully mashed up Green Arrow canon with a very CW cast, arc storytelling, and Lost-style flashbacks.

There are three dangers that Arrow deals with well. The first is camp. There's just the right amount of camp to make everything fun without decreasing danger - about the same amount of camp as the Vampire Diaries gets away with.

The second is the Smallville factor, in which a superhero TV show never really delivers the hero in the way depicted in comics. Smallville notoriously only showed Superman in his costume in the very last episode, making it not a Superman show at all, really. Arrow shows Green Arrow in his green-hooded glory from episode one (although they never call him that).

The third is the pitfalls of making superhero action on a TV show budget; unlike the Spiderman movies, there aren't millions being piped into making a digital Green Arrow to do all the insane stunts. Arrow's stunts and effects are mostly done practically and pack a punch. The best practical effect is Stephen Amell's abs, which you already know if you've seen any of the promotional materials for the show. No, those aren't photoshopped, and to his credit Amell actually does a large portion of the stunt and fight work himself. And he's not a half-bad actor either; he plays Oliver Queen like he's Dexter Morgan (bonus: Dexter alum David Ramsey plays Queen's bodyguard, Diggle).

The new golden age of television isn't over yet, and the quality of the serious dramas is finally seeping into the pulp - and we're all better off for it!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

V/H/S/2 Spoiler-free Review

Is it good?
The 3rd tape sequence, "Safe Haven" makes it worth it.

Is it technically good?
Because there are five separate shorts combined (4 VHS "tapes" and a frame story narrative) the production quality varies.
The frame narrative: unlike in the first V/H/S, the frame narrative in 2 barely has its own story and it isn't executed well.
The first tape: good production is pulled down by poor acting and writing.
The second tape: a great concept (zombies from zombie POV) is decently done but doesn't end up being scary enough or going far enough.
The third tape: great production, good acting and writing, complete insanity - this could have been, and perhaps should have been, its own film.
The fourth tape: decently made but twist-less.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
Horror shorts from different directors to shock and terrify even more than the first V/H/S film; while the third tape is great, the first V/H/S is still overall a better compilation.

If you liked these, you'll like this: V/H/S, the Eye.