Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Dexter" and the Art of Reinvention

I remember when I first watched Dexter. It was in the summer of 2008, and I was pregnant with my now 4 year old daughter, Rhiannon. My husband and I decided to check it out on the strength of multiple recommendations from friends. I was fascinated by the premise, about a serial killer who, of course, to make it more palatable for television, only kills bad guys. He had a code, forced upon him by his adoptive father to keep him in line. He had a tragic origin story. He had an awesome sister I related way, way too much to. And we gobbled up the first three seasons like they were candy, preparing ourselves for season four, which would be airing that fall and co-starring John Lithgow as the villain of the year.

I had liked the other seasons, and the other guest stars of the year; Christian Camargo as "Rudy"/Brian Moser, Jaime Murray as Lila, "Little Miss Pardon-My-Tits", and Jimmy Smits as Miguel Prado (who I like much better on Sons of Anarchy, I'm not sure if it was the writing or Smits' performance, but I never bought him as the district attorney who suddenly gives into his darkest impulses after mentoring from Dexter). But season four, for me, launched the series into a whole other level. The fantastic acting from Michael C. Hall and John Lithgow, made it the most emotional, satisfying chapter of Dexter's story yet. 

But I felt that the best acting in that year was done by Jennifer Carpenter, as Dexter's sister Deb. She watches the man she loves, Frank Lundy, die in front of her, while she herself bleeds out from a gunshot. The scene, embedded below, where she breaks down in front of Dexter, is one of the most stunning pieces of acting I've ever seen. Where are her Emmys?

Seriously, they should have just handed her ALL THE EMMYS on the strength of this scene.

And of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the big twist from the end of season four, where a horrified Dexter finds his infant son Harrison crying in puddles of blood, after the Trinity Killer has killed Rita and gotten his final revenge on Dexter. Haunting, harrowing, and it bespoke of great promise for the fifth season.

Promise that the writers and producers completely squandered. This is a show that was always comfortable with the status quo. Too much so. Nobody in the main cast knew about Dexter's "dark passenger" (and lord do I loathe that phrase), and the people that did find out were only guest stars, easily dispatched with when the time came to reset for the next season. With the introduction of Julia Stiles as Lumen, the show might have had a chance to finally have someone who knew about Dexter's secret and stuck beside him anyway. But no. After killing the men responsible for her rape and captivity, she declares that her darkness is gone. She has no need for revenge, and no desire to tag along on Dexter's murderous adventures. Another reset. An entire season squandered with no movement of the meta-plot.

So you can imagine my joy when the abysmal season six, with it's obvious "Edward James Olmos is dead and Colin Hanks is CUH-RAZY" twist and stupid, stagnant religious theme, ended with Debra bursting in on Dexter, shoving a knife through the heart of the season's Big Bad (we're going to ignore the reason she was going to see Dexter. Nope. Didn't happen).  FINALLY, she saw. But this is Dexter. Are they really going to have Debra know his secret? Doesn't that go against everything the show has done with it's narrative up to this point?

After Sunday's premiere, I can answer that question with a hearty YES, and unequivocally say that the show is better for it. Debra is a detective, and a damned good one. She would NEVER just accept his weak-ass "I snapped" excuse, and let that be the end of it. But Deb remembers being on Brian Moser's table. She finally unlocks the memory of Dexter standing over her while she was on that table. And so she keeps picking, keeps asking the uncomfortable questions of Dexter, until that stunning scene at the end of the episode, where Dexter comes upon her in his ransacked apartment, kill weapons, blood slides, and Ice Truck Killer hand all laid out like evidence on his coffee table.
Deb: Did you kill all these people?
Dexter: I…did.
Deb: Are you a serial killer?
Dexter: Yes.
It's so exciting to me, to see a show that I previously had found hard to sit through for two years FINALLY break itself out of the doldrums and give itself a shot of narrative adrenaline. I'm excited to see Dexter again, anticipating next week's episode like I haven't anticipated an episode of this show since season four. Thank goodness for forward plot movement. And thank goodness I kept watching, even through the rough times. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to appreciate the beauty of what the show is doing now. I'm still a little wary, but this kind of reinvention, with Deb finally knowing what's been kept from her her whole life, and for the life of the show, cannot be taken lightly. I know the producers know that, and I can only hope that the quality holds while the show races towards its' endgame.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A little bit of history

So, I'm sitting here reading my blog posts over again, and it occurs to me: why would anyone read what I have to say? What do I have to bring to the table?

I love television. I love dramatic, funny, well thought out, well acted television. Everybody else who writes about TV will tell you the exact same thing. They love watching it, they love reading about it, they love writing about it. But I figured that if I'm going to be cultivating an audience, I should probably explain where I'm coming from, what television I love and why. Maybe it's just another excuse to talk more about what I love and why.

I grew up watching soap operas, cartoons, and horrible sitcoms. Well, and Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, but that was before I really had a discerning palate or any control over what I watched. But when I old enough to be cognizant, discerning viewer, I went to stuff like Saved By The Bell, California Dreams, Full House, Just The Ten Of Us, and Perfect Strangers. My mother watched all of the ABC soaps, and as I got older, it was only a matter of time before I was watching All My Children, One Life To Live, and General Hospital. I got OBSESSED, and I'm still not sure why, to this day. I suppose I've always had an obsessive personality, when I get into something I get *really* into it. But before long I had my mother subscribing to Soap Opera Digest and I was trolling this new thing called the World Wide Web to get all the information I possibly could.

Then came Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  I still remember the first episode I saw, the first time it aired: episode 3 of season 1, called "The Witch". I know I loved it, but I was 14 and in full hormonal swing, with ADD to boot, so I think I forgot it was on for a while, though I'm sure I watched a few more episodes. Then I started seeing promos for this big event the show was doing. Something big was going to go down, it was a giant two night event. The two episodes they were going to show? "Surprise" and "Innocence". If you're a Buffy fan, you understand. Life-changing. They did WHAT?! Angel lost his SOUL?! He's one of the good guys! You can't do that! I don't think I ever missed another episode. Not willingly, at any rate. There was that awful period after Buffy moved to UPN, and my local small town Colorado cable company didn't carry UPN so I had to ask my then-fiance's mother to videotape it for me. But the fact remains, I was hooked. I didn't get into Angel right away, that came later, once Buffy ended and I found out that James Marsters, who played Spike, was moving over there. I had never liked the character of Angel, so I never got into the show. I regret that now, because for so many reasons I like it better than Buffy. I also watched Firefly, thanks to the urging of a good friend, and of course that was amazing, and over far, far too soon.

Anyway, that incredibly long winded paragraph is there to explain my entrance into dramatic television. Joss Whedon and his stable of incredible talent opened up a world for me I never even knew existed. Once Angel ended, I needed something to fill that void.

That's where LOST came in. 

I never watched The X-Files, or Twin Peaks, or any of the other myriad television shows LOST was compared to (positively and negatively) during its' run.  The only thing I had to compare it to was itself. And it was glorious. The character work, the mysteries, all of it. I fell in love hard, and only briefly fell out of love during the meandering of the middle of the third season. I joined fan communities, went to a posting board party, and I discovered online criticism. People were writing about the shows they watched! Professionals even!  I've been obsessed ever since, with the very idea. Alan Sepinwall, Todd VanDerWerff, Maureen Ryan, Alyssa Rosenberg, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Myles McNutt are only a few of the people who gave me the inspiration to do this. They're all great writers, and if you have some time, you should check them all out.  

So once LOST was reaching its inevitable, glorious end (yes, I loved the ending, and YES, I will fight you about it, come at me bro) I realized I'd have to start watching some new shows. I watched Heroes when it was on the air, but the less said about that, the better, unfortunately, unless you really want to see me get into mean critic mode. So the shows that I've watched since then (and there are a few in this list that I gave up on and am no longer watching) are:

  • Dexter
  • House
  • Dollhouse
  • Breaking Bad
  • The Wire
  • True Blood
  • Glee
  • Modern Family
  • Weeds
  • White Collar
  • Chuck
  • Game of Thrones
  • Sons of Anarchy
  • Terriers (oh, I still weep, bitter bitter bitter tears. Heartbreaking loss)
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Homeland
  • Revenge
  • Parks And Recreation

And I feel like that list is incomplete. I'm sure there are other shows I've watched. But there are big gaps in my televisual education, shows that I have every intention of watching, and will watch, thanks to Netflix. That's part of what I want to use this blog for, to enable my cultural catch-up, do rewatches like the Dollhouse one currently ongoing, and also to comment on the shows that are currently airing that I will be watching. 

But this is where my commenters (and I hope I will have commenters, it's no fun talking to yourself on the internet) come in: what shows do you *most* want to see me cover? What shows do you *not* see on this list that you think I need to watch? I can't wait to see what you have to say, and I can't wait to see what shape the blog takes going forward.

Like Christian Shepherd said on LOST, in those poignant closing minutes: no-one does it alone. I'm extremely passionate about television, and about watching television, but I want audience participation. So hit the comments, and lets do this thing.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Dollhouse, "Ghost"

I love Dollhouse. I love what it has to say about identity, about technology, and about the male gaze and how that can be perverted and twisted and made into something awful (see Nolan and his treatment of Priya) or something beautiful (Patton Oswalt's Joel Minor, and his annual engagement, his need to see his dead wife and have her be a party to his success). But there's no denying that it got off to a bit of a spotty start. Can we blame the network for that? Maybe, considering that they scrapped Joss Whedon's original pilot and had him recut it into the first episode, "Ghost". I've seen that original pilot, though it was a few years ago now, and I remember loving it and wondering what the network so objected to. I wasn't able to rewatch it for this project, though, so all I have to go off of are my general memories of my opinion at the time.

Regardless of network interference, this first episode does a great job of setting everything up, and there's a lot of setup to do. The Dollhouse itself, and its various denizens need to be set up, given character traits and motivations, and the beginnings of story arcs. Adelle Dewitt, the head of this particular Dollhouse, is almost motherly at times, kind and deferential to the client, a billionaire whose daughter has been kidnapped. At other times, she is steely and downright scary, and you understand within those small character beats exactly how it is that she became the boss.  Boyd Langton, who is the handler for Echo, Eliza Dushku's character (and ostensibly the main character), has moral issues with what the Dollhouse does, but his affection for and loyalty towards Echo is played beautifully. And Fran Kranz establishes Topher Brink, the house's technical wizard, beautifully. A man who thinks of people as playthings, who revels in his job and the cool toys he gets to play with. He's definitely the most "Joss" character in the first few episodes, displaying much of the familar Whedon wit and propensity for snappy, snarky dialogue.

The initial "engagement" (which is basically Dollhouse speak for "case of the week") is interesting all on its own, for its first glimpse into the way that the imprinting process works. Topher imprints Echo with a hostage negotiator, but he also has the ability to change her neural pathways so that she's nearsighted and requires glasses. For some reason, he also gives her asthma. I never understood that, and it's not made any clearer on rewatch. Unfortunately, Topher also imprints Echo with the neurology of an abuse victim, a girl who was kidnapped, and, we find out later, killed herself a year ago after never being able to come to terms with her abduction and captivity. In the course of the engagement, this personality recognizes her captor as one of the men who kidnapped the billionaire's daughter, which leads her to have a complete breakdown. It's an interesting concept, and one that should have been affecting and moving. But I just don't see Eliza Dushku as being equal to the material. She doesn't rise to it. Her performance is weak, and she's much more believable when she's playing Eleanor, the negotiator, as a tough as nails, get shit done type of girl, not the wilting weak woman. Maybe that's my issues, since my first and only exposure to Eliza up to this point was seeing her play Faith Lehane the vampire slayer on both Buffy and Angel. Faith was confident, sexy, and kickass, and Eliza played her beautifully, especially her eventual breakdown. But here, she never sells it. It never feels true. 

The other bit of setup, one given mercifully short shrift here, is FBI agent Paul Ballard, who somehow knows of the existence of the Dollhouse and is determined to find it. In what is arguably the weirdest character introduction I have ever seen on any show (and I watch a LOT of tv), we meet him while he's boxing with some unknown person. Yup boxing. And that is intercut with him getting a dressing-down from his bosses for his obsession with the Dollhouse. Boxing. Getting yelled at. Boxing. Getting yelled at. BORING. His story does introduce the lovely, wonderful Enver Gjokaj, here getting scared witless by Ballard in a bathroom at a nightclub. And there's an enigmatic naked figure looking at video of Caroline (who Echo was before she became involved with the Dollhouse and had everything she loved wiped from her) and preparing to send Ballard a photo of her in an envelope emblazoned with "KEEP LOOKING". But um, boring. Not compelling. That could be my personal issues with Paul, my inherent dislike of him coloring how I view this story even so many years later, but I just don't like him, and find his story, especially in the early going, almost excruciating to watch.

Overall, "Ghost" is a perfectly serviceable pilot, introducing character, setting, plot, and concept deftly and intriguingly. There's a lot here that sets up what's to come down the road, and as I was back in 2009, I'm buckled in and ready for the ride.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Dusting off the blog


I didn't forget about the blog, I promise. The truth is, I had another kid, I got overwhelmed with life stuff, and  I just couldn't find the time that I wanted to devote to this blog, which is a true passion project of mine. But if you're passionate about something, you MAKE time for it, right? So no more excuses. I still make the time to watch TV, obsessively so, so I can make the time to write about what I'm watching, too.  I've made so many new friends in the last 6 months that are actually writers, and Eric SippleRachel Brody, and Mere Smith have been so inspiring to me. They write plays, novels, and TV shows, and they make me want to follow this long-dormant dream.  So I'm jumping back in, with both feet.

I haven't quite figured out what shape I want the blog to take from now on. I know weekly episodic reviews are almost too much, and everybody is doing that. I don't want to do what everyone else is doing. I'm just not sure *what* I want to do yet. Maybe I'll do more classic reviews. I was thinking about revisiting Dollhouse in my own time, perhaps I'll write about it for the blog.  I don't know yet. Writing anything is a start, though. Be patient with me while I figure it out, will you?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Classic Review: The Wire 1x05 - 1x09

Watching The Wire is a bit like watching the writers assemble a giant jigsaw puzzle. They have all the pieces  and we're looking on as they fill in all of the blanks, starting with square one. I hesitate to say that every season is like this, as some of them come "pre-assembled", if you will. You have the center of the puzzle, which is usually the detail or some faction thereof, and as the season progresses you watch the puzzle fill in from the edges. They take more time here in the first season, as there's world-building to be done, yet episodes five through nine are where we start to see the pieces all fall into their correct places.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Glee Season Two - "The Substitute" to "The Sue Sylvester Shuffle"

About 4 months ago, I gave up on watching Glee. My reasons for this are many and varied, but the chief reason was this: Why was I wasting my time trying to connect with and care about these characters, when it was clear that the three men writing it (Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk) didn't seem to care about them?

Classic Review: The Wire 1x01 - 1x04

(Video is NSFW! Contains profanity and adult subjects.)

"So if Snot always stole the money, why did you let him play?" "Got to. This America, man." Every season of The Wire opens with a scene like this. A scene that tells you (in mostly oblique overtones) what you're about to see. The opening scene of The Wire sets the tone and also provides David Simon's mission statement for the show. This is not your average cop show -- it is a show about the slow death of the American city, eaten from the inside out by the institutions that run it and reside in it.