Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Hex on You

I confess I was excited the first time I saw ads for BBC America’s HEX. Truth is I’m in perpetual mourning for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and may be ‘til the day I die, or Josh Whedon finally directs Wonder Woman. I confess I had some small hope that this trendy demony looking show might be a temporary balm.

It started off semi promising. Cassie is a pretty blonde teenager struggling to fit in at an exclusive boarding school of the sort that only seems to exist in Great Britain. It’s set on impossibly lovely and remote grounds. The school resembles an ancient castle, of course. The students appear to be able to leave the grounds with impunity in order to visit the local uber-hip pub and the urbane headmaster dismisses them with bon mots like: “Be free and try not to multiply”.

Cassie’s roommate is Thelma who is, of course, a Lesbian who dresses in some BBC wardrobe mistress’s idea of “lesbian goth chick” chic. Thelma loves Cassie. Cassie loves boys and yearns to be popular. There’s the cool in-crowd headed by a cruel bitch named (I’m not making this up) Roxanne. Through a series of wacky misadventures Cassie discovers that she is descended from a long line of witches and is being stalked by a sexy fallen angel named Azazeal. Azazeal wants Cassie to have his baby who will, as is so often the case in these instances, unleash unpleasantness on earth.

Azazeal has been wandering the earth trying, unsuccessfully, to impregnate many generations of blonde waifs since being drummed out of heaven some thousand years ago, apparently for his penchant for trying to knock up blonde waifs. (Note to fundamentalists: Even God wants his angels practicing "safe sex"!) Azazeal is tall dark and handsome, with dreamy eyes and cheekbones that could cut diamonds. One would think he’d not have much problem pulling tail. However, his means of seduction involve driving Cassie’s mother insane, revealing himself in monstrous demonic form, possessing a boy Cassie is dating, stealing her unborn baby and murdering her roommate.

Maybe next time he could try buying a girl a drink. Seriously, it’s worked for millions.

So far, a pale imitation of Buffy, yet somehow even with magic and complicated mythology and stone gargoyles turning into real ones Hex is in fact excruciatingly dull. Part of the problem is Cassie. She drifts around trying to get boys to like her when she ought to be, I dunno, figuring out how to stop Armageddon. She discovers magic powers but never seems to use them when they might be useful. When given explicitly clear guidelines for her safety, such as “He can’t harm you if you wear this pendant” and “Whatever you do, don’t leave the safety of the pentagram”, she’s the sort of girl who’ll promptly lose the pendant and run out of the pentagram to chase after a loud crashing noise in the dark while yelling “Hello?” While plenty of 98 minute horror films are based on this particular type of lass, an 8 week TV series is an entirely different matter. One begins to root for Azazeal to just sacrifice her already, and on to the next generation please.

Any entertainment to be had comes from Thelma who, after being offed by Az, returns as a ghost. A goth chic Lesbian ghost. The thing I really love about the BBC is that much of their television seems so quaint. Sitcoms often star characters in the most ridiculous guises with no attempt to hide bad wigs or fake padding. The network motto ought to be “Hey gang, lets put on a show!” Thelma is eventually joined in her struggle by a demon hunter who dresses like Barbarella on her way to a Prince concert. No one in the school seems the least perturbed by this new 30-ish student wearing a purple lace trimmed black leather cat suit and duster jacket. British boarding school is so awesome!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Worst Opening Line

It's amazing how small the world is becoming. A friend of a friend sends you an email to which you respond on a lark, and suddenly you've won 2nd prize in the Shuswap Association of Writer's Worst Opening Line competition. The wha???? You might well ask. The Shuswap Writer's Association is dedicated to enriching the cultural life of the interior BC (or British Columbia for those not in the know). They sponsor the Shuswap Lake Writer's Festival and, my personal fave, the Winter Reading Series in Salmon Arm, BC. It's my favorite because it's in a place called Salmon Arm.

First prize winner of the worst opening line contest wins free trip to the Shuswap Lake Writer's Festival. There's a bad joke here about 2nd prize winning 2 free trips to Shuswap Lake (or a trip to Salmon Arm perhaps?), but alas, as 2nd prize winner I win only a book and the thanks of a grateful nation. I did warn them when I entered that I was not Canadian, but apparently that was not a requsite. The contest rules asked for a wretched opening line for a novel which included the words: salmon, longjohns and shovel.

Without further ado, my entry:

"I know you just got home from the salmon packing factory, Zebediah," remarked Pearline, "but what are you doing outside in your long-johns with Marcel's shovel, and where is Marcel?"

If you'd like to read more, including the sentence that was wretched enough to beat this entry, go to the Shuswap association website.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Nostaligia Trip

Main Entry: nos•tal•gia
Pronunciation: nä-'stal-j&, n&- also no-, nO-; n&-'stäl-
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin, from Greek nostos return home + New Latin -algia; akin to Greek neisthai to return, Old English genesan to survive, Sanskrit nasate he approaches
1 : the state of being homesick : HOMESICKNESS
2 : a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia
- nos•tal•gic /-jik/ adjective or noun
- nos•tal•gi•cal•ly /-ji-k(&-)lE/ adverb
- nos•tal•gist /-jist/ noun
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary



Currently I find myself in wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition, namely October 2, 2006. That was the day I published In Defense of the Best Show on Television, about my favorite show Battlestar Galactica.

Four episodes in to season 3 I find myself shrieking to the writer’s of Battlestar Galactica like George Jetson trapped upon the perpetual sidewalk from Hell to please, for the love of the Lords of Kobol, would you stop this crazy thing? It’s still my favorite show, and I believe the bones of the best show on television are still there, but, keee-rike guys. Every hour of the show this season has managed to end like a bad magic trick. The magician grabs the table cloth, yanks, and all the dishes go flying everywhere. You think, Holy Zues, how will they fix that unholy mess, and then the next hour begins at a brand new table, dishes and candelabras magically restored to wholeness.

Don’t worry. I’ll be using lots of wretched metaphors in this article today. One thing I’m perpetually reminded of watching BG this season is what I like to call Aaron Sorkin Syndrome, or ASS. This is the practice of casually discarding seemingly vital plot or character points in the service of the next seemingly vital plot or character point. The country is thrown into turmoil and Bartlett hands the reigns of the government over to Walter Sobchak because Zoe Bartlett has been kidnapped by unidentified but probably shifty and foreign A-Rab terrorists? Oops, here she is in this abandoned trailer park off the Leesville Highway. A-rab terrorists or sorority hazing gone awry? Will we ever learn? Why NO, because it’s on to the next season.

The BG writers have been showing us an awful lot of ASS this season, so much that I barely know where to begin. If the Cylon skin jobs are trying to create a utopian human-ville, why don’t they plant some flowers, give them all stackable washer/dryer units, or, you know, something? Conversely, if they’re not trying to create hu-topia, why don’t they just kill them all? Yeah, I get that they’re arguing amongst themselves, but there’s a really quick solution to the argument. An anti-human skin job can just nuke the lot of them…end argument.

200 people dragged off to be executed Russian pogrom style…here comes an army of tin cans over the horizon, an army which can apparently be easily taken out by two sharpshooters on a ridge? If the detainees have that kind of firepower at their disposal, why don’t they use it? Tin cans drag Laura Roslin off, but then apparently don’t notice that she’s come back into the city. That’s Kara’s baby? How old is she? Three? Is that right? Adama’s going to create a distraction while the people are evacuated to the same spaceship impound lot…that’s not going to be a traffic jam…and where the hell are the tin cans with guns trying to stop them? Gaius is trying to stop Xena from setting off a nuke. Why? All the people are gone. What does it matter if she nukes the place? I’m just so FRAKKING CONFUSED.

They managed to answer one of these puzzlements on Friday’s episode, the question about Kara’s child, and quite cleverly too. But this is the problem with ASS. You don’t know which puzzling things to invest yourself in answering, and which are going to be magically erased by next episode. Admittedly, they gave us one hell of a season ender last year, and they certainly cannot be accused of giving us a boring season this year.  The action is gripping.  The acting is fine.  The drama is delightfully melo.  (Kara eats steak covered in the blood of the skin job she just murdered...SNAP I love this show.  Ty poisons his treasonous tramp of a wife...SNAP again I say...with tears and everthing...DAMN you guys are good.) 

I’m just asking, please guys, now that everyone is back on their ships could we please have a little more of those tight wonderful suspenseful storylines of yore, and a little less ASS?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Queen

In every story with a beautiful princess there is almost always an evil queen of some sort or another, poisoning apples, filling shoes with hot coals, imprisoning innocent maids in towers, and generally making it difficult for any good princess to realize her full potential. What occurred to me as I watched The Queen is that in the heart of every queen is a princess defending her castle. Wicked is in the eye of the beholder.

Directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Peter Morgan, The Queen takes a peek into the life of Queen Elizabeth II during an abnormally interesting week in August 1997, the week that her former daughter-in-law Diana was killed in a car accident. Adding a fascinating counterweight to the story is the character of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) who had literally just been elected the new Prime Minister in a sweeping victory for the Labor party, signaling the death knell of Thatcher-ite Britain.

The monarchical crisis triggered by Diana’s death was not necessarily obvious to those of us who observed the tragedy from a distance. But, as The Queen neatly shows, there was great outrage among British citizens at the House of Windsor’s refusal to comment or make any public display regarding Diana’s death. The fascinating thing about the story related in The Queen is that with which Elizabeth and the royals struggle - the difference between public duty and private life - is the very thing that brought them such problems with Diana in the first place.

The silence from the royal family in the wake of Diana’s death, the royal dignified distance from something for which there was no ‘official’ royal obligation, seemed to a mourning public an echo of the cruel treatment which drove Diana out of the family to begin with. As The Queen makes clear, it was not cruelty as much as a complete failure of royal standards and protocol in dealing with an unprecedented tragedy.

Tony Blair and his staff serve as the audience’s eyes and ears, watching dumbfounded as the royals make one stumble after another. The Queen insists there will be no public funeral. She is squeamish when Charles suggests he take the royal jet to Paris to retrieve Diana’s body. This is just the sort of waste the public is always bashing them for, she quails. After a bitterly acrimonious divorce, the queen observes matter-of-factly that Diana is no longer a part of the royal family. Officially, her death is not a state matter. Interestingly, since her death, the official position has changed to state that, as the mother of the future King of England, Diana always will be a member of the royal family. Unfortunately they hadn’t revised that section of the rule book upon her death.

Slowly the pressure of Tony Blair, and of the public response, forces Queen Elizabeth’s hand. Helen Mirren is amazing as Queen Elizabeth. You can see clearly on her face what the loss of every battle costs her. Acquiescing to a public funeral, to flying the royal standard at half mast, these are more than just niceties she’s agreeing to. You can see her agony at, in her mind, dismantling thousands of years of British tradition.

So much of the story is conveyed by Mirren’s facial expressions. The Queen is not one for superfluous chatter, but on her face we see everything. We see the grim determination to weather yet one more crisis triggered by this woman. We see the worried grandmother desperately trying to shelter her grandchildren from grief. We see the bafflement at the public’s outsized response. We see the guilt of a woman who allowed this hurricane of a woman into her family in the first place.

One of the charming things about Lady Diana Spencer, when she was plucked from noble obscurity, was that she too seemed to be overwhelmed by this fairy tale. She obviously believed it. She believed that she had found her Prince Charming. A shy, lonely child of divorced parents was suddenly a princess.

Of course, she had found nothing, but rather had been found. She had been vetted, selected, and placed in the path of Prince Charles. In this quiet young schoolteacher, the powers that be believed they’d found the perfect bride to bear Charles his heir and a spare. She obviously doted on children, and was photogenic enough that she could be trotted out for ribbon cuttings a few times a year. What nobody warned her was that Charles was never actually her prince. He was Britain’s prince. While she would certainly belong to them, he would never actually belong to her.

What they didn’t count on was that Diana would become the very antithesis of what it means to be a royal. She became a celebrity. And whether she courted it at the beginning or was overwhelmed by it, she became a master at wielding it when she discovered the royal bait and switch. At one point Prince Charles, played with just the right combination of dignity, intelligence, and spinelessness by Alex Jennings, says about his parents, “Now they can see what it’s like. They never understood there’s a difference between the private Diana we know and the public Diana the world loves.”

To most Americans the concept of the British stiff upper lip is the plot of a Monty Python skit. It’s one of those things about Brits, like their penchant for boiling vegetables, which is good for a few laughs. What The Queen makes clear is that to the royal family, “quiet British dignity” is the very core of their identity. The British monarchy survived for thousands of years when others fell. They achieved this not by being photographed on gilded yachts or building Versailles-like palaces, but by establishing themselves a useful role in government and public life. For hundreds of years this stiff upper lip served them well. It was, as the Queen says “what the rest of the world admires us for”.

The movie shows, and it is often argued, that it was Elizabeth’s experiences in World War II which inform her staid, no nonsense, emotionless mien. But I wonder if perhaps more significant, at least in terms of understanding the royal response to Diana, was good old Uncle Edward, aka King Edward VIII. Edward, whose reign lasted less than a year, abdicated the throne in order to marry his true love, Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.

From an outsider’s point of view, this was perhaps a terribly romantic story. From the point of view of a young girl, however, it was a mortifying family crisis. Her uncle chose to abdicate the job for which he had been prepared and schooled all his life in order to be with a woman who could not be less suitable. Without concern for his country, limping towards another war with Germany, he skipped off to the continent to summer in Biarritz with Nazi bankers. Without concern for his family, he passed the burden of kingship onto his younger brother, and then Edward and Wallis tormented the family for years over issues having to do with titles and royal allowances.

When the situation with Diana came to a full boil, Elizabeth must have been reminded of the pain and mortification caused by Edward so many years ago, as well as the criticisms her father endured over being too kind and generous (and therefore wasteful) in a settlement for Edward. Royalty is a job and a duty which is done for love of country, not love of wealth and trappings. Royal families who spend the country’s coffers on supporting a retinue of distaff family and consorts do not remain royal very long.

The Queen is a fascinating picture, even if you have no interest in the British monarchy or glamorous deceased princesses. The addition of the Tony Blair plot establishes that this is, in fact, a political picture above all else. Britain constantly struggles with the question of the relevancy of the royal family. What is the point of a monarchy in a democratic republic? The Queen shows a woman determined to remain relevant, someone who takes her role as advisor to the Prime Minister seriously, even when no one else does.

Get Pantsed

If you happen to be in the New York area this November, let me encourage you to check out Donkey Corleone playing four shows at the People's Improv Theater. Donkey Corleone's humor is like being pantsed by your mother...if being pantsed by your mother was an entertaining way to spend an evening, and not sick and least not totally sick and wrong.

Need more convincing? Check out some of DC's very funny stuff at YouTube.

It'll be a cheap, fun evening with NO JAPANESE MIMES, I promise.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

In defense of the best show on television

Television has thrown up many unlikely series in recent years which have gone on to become ratings bonanzas. 10 million people regularly tune in to watch the trials and tribulations of a New Jersey mob family. 14.8 million tune in to watch an overworked government agent try to save to world in 24 hours. 9.7 million people watch the Byzantine tale of plane crash survivors on a mysterious island. 13 million watch impeccably dressed detectives who never heard of fluorescent lighting poke at human remains. 15 million tune in regularly to watch the antics of a lottery winning hick who found Buddha.

Truth is, you probably already watch plenty of shows that, if someone had explained the plot to you years ago, you would have rolled your eyes and said not in a million years. So the question is, if you were willing to give Tony Soprano and his therapist a chance, or Jack Bauer, or the Lostaways or Earl, why wouldn’t you take a chance on the best series on television, Battlestar Galactica?

Oops, I’ve lost you. I see your eyes glazing over. You don’t “do” science fiction. You prefer a little realism in your TV, thank you very much. You have vague memories of a cheesy 70s show rip off of Star Wars with that name. Maybe you enjoyed it back then, because you were 7. Or maybe you missed it because you weren’t into sci-fi then, and you’re certainly not now. Now you’re thinking something clever like, “Sheesh, what’ll they bring back next: My Mother, The Car? Those Hollywood idiots can’t do anything original, can they?”

I can't deny it. Science fiction has a rap. It’s followers are nerdy fanboys hypothesizing that maybe, really, we’re all just a dream in some android’s head. It’s Captain Kirk with a strategically ripped shirt battling a man in a gorilla suit with a lizard mask. It’s people getting themselves into impossible situations and then saving themselves with futuristic gadgets. They’re Westerns with laser guns.

Star Trek, Star Wars and, yes, the 1970s version of Battlestar Galactica, all fit into this goofy Buck Rogers interpretation of scifi. And, don’t get me wrong, full confession time, I’ve been known to enjoy those shows. But the reality is that true science fiction, hard science fiction, the science fiction of Heinlein, Dick and Clark, was never meant to be Westerns in space. According to someone who cared enough to write a thesis on it, “the purpose of science fiction is to introduce scientific or technological novelties in order to create narratives that enable us to perceive everyday reality at a reflective distance.” It even has a name: cognitive estrangement.

Forget about Star Wars or Men in Black for a minute, and think about the works of Phillip K. Dick. His best known works inspired three movies of note: Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly. All three give us a future planet Earth in which there have been plenty of scientific advancements, but no implication that these advancements have improved human lives. In Blade Runner, humans have created a servant race of androids (or perhaps they’re closer to clones) who have the gall to demand human rights. Both Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly give us futures where as yet discovered drugs have had catastrophic effects. The scientific novelties (clones, psychotropic drugs) create situations that allow us to see the constant effects of moral dilemmas that never leave us.

Which brings me to Battlestar Galactica. Like the best hard science fiction, like the best entertainment of any kind, Galactica presents an unfamiliar environment, adds human beings, with human frailties, obsessions and addictions, adds stress and shakes liberally.
Let us start with the facts. There are space ships and robots with their humanoid clones called Cylons and there’s no point whitewashing their existence. There’s no point pretending this all takes place in The Oval Office.

The old and the new versions of Battlestar Galactica share one thing besides a name: the premise of a small group of survivors on the run after a planetary disaster. Beyond that, the new show is startlingly original, not just from its namesake but from anything else on TV. Even a show like The West Wing, which tripped over itself to remain timely and relevant, never approached modern moral issues with such steely eyed purpose. Galactica doesn’t just approach them, it gets down in the pit and wrestles them, never with a clear victor.

Human planets have been engulfed in a nuclear holocaust perpetuated by Cylons, a servant class of androids who got tired of being treated like slaves (sound familiar?). They left, formed their own society, figured out how to create human clones and, most importantly, found God. When I say “God”, I don’t mean some wacky evil scientist hiding behind a screen a la “The Wizard of Oz”. I mean God. Everything the Cylons and their human clones do, they do it for the grace and glory of the one true savior, so they believe. God told them humanity was a plague, so they blew it up.

50,000 humans survive on the run, and as they run, they struggle with more than just robots. A pro-choice leader outlaws abortion because, well, there are only 50,000 people left in the universe. The same leader, an intelligent, moral, reasonable woman, attempts bald faced election rigging because she fears her opponent’s total unsuitability more than she believes in the democratic process. Democracy is all well and good, but the fate of the human race is at stake, and her opponent is an opportunistic, insane, compromised fop. In the end, she caves, he wins, and democracy loses anyway.

A military leader enforces civilian conscription while looting and leaving other civilians behind to their death. What’s a little human collateral when the universe is at stake? Another military leader wrestles with the temptation of a military coup to end the meddling civilian government who just doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of their situation. Two soldiers are court marshaled for trying to stop other soldiers from raping and torturing a captured clone.

People live in daily fear of terrorist acts, perpetuated by God loving robots and the people who love them. The Cylons themselves wrestle with moral dilemmas. Is their mission to introduce the remains of humanity to God’s vengeance, or to His love? Terrorism, torture, abortion, genetic engineering, science, faith, zealotry, separation of church and state, separation of military and state, political opportunism, vote fraud, media neutrality and racism; none of these topics are too prickly for the writers to tackle, and all of us get to feel the thorns. Yes, this is science fiction, and yes it’s entertaining, but there’s nothing escapist about it.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the makers of this show gave themselves an uphill battle by adapting a cheesy 70s sci fi show in the first place. Why would you give anything called Battlestar Galactica credit for being anything more than lasers in space? It’s on the SciFi channel which does, in fact, have a raft of lasers in space TV shows including Doctor Who and at least two variations of a show with Stargate in the title. Every weekend SciFi shows movies with titles like DragonWizard and Kraken: Tenticles of the Deep. Why would anyone take a show in this company seriously?

The only argument I can offer in its defense is the show itself. There are times when a television program rises above the confines of its setting. It becomes more than a show about a rundown Boston hospital, or a family run funeral parlor, or a sleepy Alaska town, or a mob family or even a ragtag group of survivors in, yes, spaceships. It is entertaining, but it is also something special. We are more interesting people, at least for the hour we watch the show.

After all, watching The Sopranos didn’t turn you into a paisan. I promise an episode of Galactica will not turn you into a Star Trek conventioneer. You might even enjoy yourself and, I promise, I wont tell a soul.