TV Review: Sleepy Hollow

Det. Mills and Ichabod Crane promo image.
Source: Fox.com/sleepy-hollow

The premise of Sleepy Hollow is pretty dumb: Ichabod Crane resurrects after 250 years. He had been a soldier in the American Revolution (on the side of the colonists, naturally) and had been in battle with the man who would become the Headless Horseman. They killed one another, but their blood mingled on the battlefield, tying them together in occult-magic-stuff. Now the Horseman is back, and it turns out he is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Crane and 2013-era cop Abbie Mills are chosen warriors in the coming apocalypse. High-brow, thoughtful drama this is not.

What it is, however, is charming and infectious. The creators of Sleepy Hollow know the absurdity of the premise, and in the pilot they fling the viewer head-first into this world, expecting us to just accept it. And we do because the show is well-produced and keeps smirk firmly in place throughout.

Instead, what we get is a deconstruction of mythic American types, something that probably could only happen in 2013 and succeed. The last show to really give something like this a try was The X-Files, which created United States mythology through conspiracy and UFO culture. (Okay, admittedly Fringe did the same thing but with corporate culture/scientific advancement, but these things were not distinctly American per se. Regardless, Fringe had its roots in The X-Files, owed its very existence to it. It was a hugely successful update of the formula, and Sleepy Hollow also tips its hat to these two shows.) But in a 2013 context we are arguing about the future of our nation and what our government needs to be. It makes sense, therefore, to look to the past, rooting our male lead at the major conflict that became the birth of our nation. History and the present, then, co-mingle. But it isn’t true history; it is a fantasy of history. It is mytho-history. It creates a fantasy out of national myths and horror. In no way does Sleepy Hollow pretend to be accurate, just as it never pretends to be serious. The show asks us to just chill out for a bit and enjoy ourselves. Don’t be so rational, it says. And it never demands rationality from you.

Structurally, Sleepy Hollow is a mixture of The X-Files (male protagonist who is a believer, female protagonist who is more skeptical, monster-of-the-week format with an ongoing internal mythology) and Elementary/Sherlock (super-intelligent British male [with slightly underdeveloped social skills] with a well-developed partner who is equal but different [primarily due to personality]). All these shows work and they are all distinctly different. And Sleepy Hollow has the supernatural investigation aspect, which keeps me highly engaged.

So far I have only seen the first three episodes. I wanted to hate it, but I just couldn’t. It is too much fun. So long as it maintains the pace and momentum of these first three episodes, I may be sticking with this show for some time. (Possibly seven years, if the internal timeline of the apocalypse is anything to go by.)

Asylum of The Daleks

What’s It About?: The Daleks need The Doctor to investigate a crash on a planet that imprisons millions of insane Daleks.

I’ll admit outright that I thought it was good. I was entertained and even came close to tears at one point. I felt that this portrayal of the Daleks was the best the Moffat era had done with them so far, and that the Daleks were probably the scariest they have been since the 2005 episode Dalek.

There were some good ideas in this episode, ideas that furthered Dalek technology and mythology. Nanotechnology that converts organic creatures to Daleks was a good idea and an interesting spin on Robomen and human replicants. I enjoy the possibility of seen more “human” Daleks in the future, so long as they don’t take the place of the pepperpots. I enjoy the idea that the Daleks who have survived The Doctor in the past have gone catatonic. And I’ll come right out and say that I don’t mind the idea of The Doctor being wiped from the memories of all The Daleks. It wasn’t until the closing moments of the episode that I realized that I was growing tired of the Oncoming Storm, “I am The Doctor and doesn’t that make you tremble” moments that have popped up in every Dalek episode since the series return. It had its place for a time, and now I’m glad it is over. So, Steven Moffat is still attempting to reset Doctor Who.

Okay, now the not-so-fun criticism. I am tired of seeing Doctor Who still exist in the RTD shadow. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy parts of the RTD era. I’m happy he brought the show back. But so much of what Moffat has done is still in response to what RTD did with the show:

  • Series five was modeled on the structure of the RTD era.
  • River Song was introduced (by Moffat, admittedly) in the RTD era, and has been in every Moffat series so far, present series included.
  • The Big Bang was an attempt to reset aspects of the RTD era. Why does no one remember the giant Cyber Ship in Victorian England? Because The Doctor reset the universe. Why does Amy not remember the Cyberman/Dalek battle at Canary Wharf or the events of The Stolen Earth? Because of the cracks in the universe caused by the exploding TARDIS.
  • The Doctor became mythic under RTD. His existence is told in stories across millions of planets across the universe. He can no longer travel incognito. Thus, under Moffat, he faked his death.

And, unfortunately, we continue to see the lingering effects of the RTD era. River Song is supposed to be back later in the series. The Daleks have now forgotten The Doctor. Moffat is still resetting Doctor Who. I understand his desire; I sympathize with him because I feel The Doctor works better when people don’t know who he is. But it bothers me that we are still looking back. It bothers me that we are still playing a retcon game.

The second criticism: Amy and Rory’s divorce. Let me be clear. I have no problem with this per se. In fact, I love the idea of exploring the lives of companions who have not had contact with The Doctor for a few years. I love the idea that for The Doctor, life continues with excitement and adventures, but for Amy and Rory, life in contemporary London is the norm. There are jobs. There are bills. There are arguments and disappointments. The Doctor doesn’t see them go through this. The Doctor leaves them at point A and picks them up again at point V, but he remembers them as they were at point A. This is a great idea and worth exploring.

Unfortunately, we don’t explore it. In fact, we don’t even see it coming. Yes, in the Pond Life webisodes we see Amy throwing Rory out, but we never see their problems develop. We never see them struggle. Like The Doctor, we only come in at point V. We don’t see the human drama and struggle that Amy and Rory have faced in their years away from The Doctor. And for people who have gone through painful, heart-wrenching divorces, a madman in a blue box didn’t show up to take them on an adventure that re-affirms their love for one another (or, in this case, a human with a Dalek-stalk in the forehead).

I understand that there probably wasn’t time to explore this dynamic. Do people watch Doctor Who for relationships or do they watch it for monsters and action? Setting up Amy and Rory’s separation would take away from The Daleks and the Asylum and Moffat’s new flirty-sexy girl. Or maybe we could have seen the evidence of the separation over the course of the next few episodes, slowly revealing the antagonism between the couple, then culminating with The Pond’s reconciliation and departure. Maybe we will get more of this. But as it stands right now, they divorce quite suddenly and out of nowhere, and reconcile quite suddenly (Despite this, I still think the reconciliation was done well). We, as viewers, get the high of the Amy/Rory relationship that we have come to love over the last two years without being subjected to too much unpleasantness of Amy and Rory not being together. We get the romantic high without really suffering the emotional low. If I were feeling more cynical, I would think I was being emotionally manipulated.

Final Verdict: Fan consensus, at the moment, rates this episode very high. People are giving it 9/10. Some are saying it is the best episode since the series returned. Some are calling it the best episode of the Moffat era and the best Dalek episode of the new series. I’m tempted to think we are all just deliriously excited that Doctor Who is back on television after a longer than normal break. It would be hard—but not impossible—for Moffat to drop the ball right out of the gate. Indeed, he has written a great opening episode that is one of the best Dalek stories of new Who. It was fun. It did a lot of good things and had some interesting ideas. I think I’d give it a seven, maybe an eight. I’ll see how it holds up on the re-watch. However, when it comes to the episode’s direction, Nick Hurran gets a 10/10.

If this episode is any indication of the series ahead, I think we can expect good things.

Community – Death or Renewal?

Trying to decide who goes for pizza in the Hugo Award-nominated episode Remedial Chaos Theory. (Source: Screen capture of Remedial Chaos Theory. Copyright 2012 by Sony Pictures Television.)

When watching Community, I am struck by the realization that this show is carrying the torch of Spaced. Both shows delved in to various film-making genres: zombie, horror, science fiction in the case of Spaced; mafia, documentary, western, etc. in the case of Community. While these genre games were fun, both shows are—at their core—about a cast of characters that we grow to love, a cast of characters and their relationships.

This third year of Community saw decreased ratings. The show went on hiatus for a few months, which—with post-modern aplomb—was signaled as the death-knell for television shows according to the character Abed. The show returned in April and finished its season. However, the final three episodes were shown in a single night, something that also sounds mental klaxons. The final episode of season three shows ex-lawyer Jeff choosing to sacrifice re-instatement for his friends; Abed and Troy dismantling their dreamatorium; and various other character arcs coming to a close. In many ways, the end of season three could mark the end of Community.

Except . . . it was renewed for a 13-episode fourth season. And, confirming a spreading internet rumor, the show would return without creator/show-runner Dan Harmon.

According to Harmon’s blog, this was not by his own choice. Harmon was not consulted nor given any say in the change of creative direction. With great professionalism, he emphasizes that the new show-runners are good people that are just doing a job. The real fault lies with Sony Pictures Television. So this leaves me to wonder, should I support new Community? Harmon doesn’t ask fans to boycott the show. His blog merely seeks to address rumors. What is a fan to do?

Here comes the Doctor Who (or, in the case of CommunityInspector Spacetime) angle. Sometimes the quality of a show is not contingent on the original show-runner. Sometimes, the initial vision is not the same as the later vision. While the format of new Doctor Who is similar to that of Hartnell/Lambert-era Doctor Who, the vision of the show is quite different. And, in the history of Doctor Who, a few show-runners (and actors) were forced to leave. Sometimes this led to a lesser product; sometimes it led to a greater one. In the case of Community, I want to support the careers of Joel McHale, Allison Brie, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, Jim Rash, Ken Jeong, and Chevy Chase (in a bit of a comeback role). But with the departure of so many behind-the-scenes people, I can’t help but wonder what kind of show we will be getting.

I am hoping for the best.

Daniel Knauf’s Haunted

Sadly, I have never seen Carnivale, despite being fascinated with the cinematography. I have just never got around to watching the show. For some reason, I have done a bit of research on it and have learned two things: 1) Ronald D. Moore produced it, and I loved his work on Battlestar Galactica; 2) Carnivale has an incredibly complex mythology.

All this to say, I have peripherally kept an eye on Carnivale creator Daniel Knauf. I like his imagination. I admire his mind. And with his most-recent project, the web-film Haunted, he does not disappoint.

Primary screen for Haunted. (Source: The Verge website. Copyright 2012 by BXX LLC.

On the surface, Haunted seems to blend Ghost Hunters and the Paranormal Activity movies. The story follows a group of scientists who are investigating a haunted house. The house is due for demolition, so they only have 36 hours to conduct their investigation. They have cameras set up in all the rooms, some rooms have multiple angles. In a storytelling style reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, this is where most of the plot happens. Unlike Paranormal Activity, however, the viewer controls the images. Through the interface on the website, the viewer can select any camera at any point in the 36 hour story. Those who sign up on the website get the option of syncing the cameras so, as characters move from one room to another, you can follow them. Haunted can also be played as a game, with unlockable evidence that fills in background details on characters and events.

While lacking the depth of mythology of Carnivale, Haunted is a grand experiment. I love the creativity and the content. I applaud the cast and crew that had to work on this 36-hour, real-time film. Haunted is a proto-type for an interactive movie, and I look forward to seeing the response and evolution of this storytelling medium.

It is not perfect, however. The audio can be hard to hear. The story is not tight, due to having to wade through more than 36 hours of footage (when you add every camera angle). It isn’t feasible to have something interesting happening on every camera for every minute of the shoot. But again, this is an experiment. It is free. So if you like innovative storytelling; if you are a fan of the horror genre; if you are a fan of Daniel Knauf, check it out.

Alcatraz finale (spoilers)

Madsen vs. Madsen: (Source: Jerome Wetzel TV. Copyright 2012 by Fox.)

Alcatraz completed its first season on March 26, and while the finale didn’t make me an all-out supporter of the show, it did offer up a few elements that may bring me back for a second season should the show be renewed. There will be no attempt to avoid spoilers in this review, so you should only read if you have seen the finale or if you don’t care about spoilers.

  1. Factions – Based on how this season progressed, it would seem that Warden James has been planning . . . something. James has been subjecting certain prisoners to experiments with colloidal silver, a compound that ancient societies felt would aid healing. It seems the prisoner such as Tommy Madsen had a significant amount of silver infused into their blood. Warden James wanted Tommy Madsen to be the first. It seems James has had Madsen under observation for a very long time, prior even to his incarceration.
    But other prisoners, with Harlan Simmons the seeming ringleader, are standing against what Warden James is doing. This is an interesting idea, that the 63s are returning, and possibly at odds with one another.
  2. Nation-Wide Scope – With the reveal of tracking equipment set up by Warden James and the newly-introduced scientist Mr. K, we have been given the possibility that the show will widen its scope to tracking 63s across the United States. I think this is a great move that allows more storytelling potential.
  3. Rebecca Madsen is dead? – Oh, please, yes! I admit that I never warmed to the character. I felt she never progressed beyond stock-sexy-female-cop (and they never really pushed the “sexy” part that far either, merely hinted at it). She never had any chemistry with Doc Soto; she never developed a grudging-respect-but-still-strained relationship with Hauser. With the larger scope now in place, the task force no longer needs to be so closely tied to SFPD. I would like to see a new lead investigator (perhaps Ray Archer, who could have the strained relationship with Hauser while maintaining the personal connection to Tommy Madsen), someone who can actually do convincing police-work.

While these ideas capture my imagination, I still think the weakest part of the show is the present-day action. Alcatraz has two parts: character-driven science fiction (the flashbacks) and police procedural (present day). The writers seem to have a good grasp of the flashbacks, but the police procedural aspect suffers because no one seems to know how to write in the genre. Indeed, the only writer who has extensive (read: more than one) writing experience in police procedural is Jennifer Johnson, who wrote seven episodes of Cold Case (according to IMDB, at any rate). All the other staff writers have extensive sci-fi credentials. This could explain the success of the flashbacks. I think Alcatraz would benefit from an additional writer or two who are fans of character-driven science fiction, and who have solid police procedural credits. This could tie the flashbacks more closely to the present-day material, while giving us better investigations. The show has to work on both levels, it can’t just float by on one.

At this point, it seems Alcatraz is slated for cancellation. There has been no official announcement, but the viewing figures are less than half of what the show started with. The week-to-week decline in ratings was almost painful to see, despite not being a fan of the show. I’m not sure, at this point, if I’m pulling for the show or not, but I will give it a shot in the next season, should it get renewed.

Once Upon a Time – Skin Deep

Source: ABC.com. Copyright 2011 by ABC.

Written by Jane Espenson
Directed by Milan Cheylov

From ABC.com: When Mr. Gold’s house is robbed, Emma suspects he is planning to seek vigilante justice; Ruby, Mary Margaret and Ashley plan a night out on Valentine’s Day; Belle makes a deal.

Quite a few months ago, I wrote a review of the Jane Espenson-penned That Still Small Voice. I believed at the time, and still do, that the eponymous episode was poorly-written, formulaic padding. The strength of Once Upon a Time had been characterization, and That Still Small Voice did not rise to the high standards already exhibited by the series.

I feel that I must now offer apologies to Ms. Espenson. She has written two more episodes since then, and both have been excellent. Both have also made good use of Robert Carlyle, which only makes things even better. I have a belief that the quality of an episode of Once Upon a Time can be judged by the amount of screen time given to Mr. Carlyle. He never disappoints.

If you haven’t seen the episode, you can watch it or read the synopsis on the ABC website. It built upon the development of Rumpelstiltskin in a way that was believable. Initially, I was reluctant to see the show delve in to his background. I liked the idea of Rumpelstiltskin being a force of nature, a trickster who was mysterious. Any background information would take away the enigma. However, the show has done a good job of having it both ways. Whether due to the writing, Carlyle’s performance, or both, Rumpelstiltskin is one of the most fascinating characters on the show, and Skin Deep not only shows the internal struggle that rages within him, it shows an external struggle that had only been hinted at until now.

Based on this episode, it seems one of the major themes in Once Upon a Time, a theme that appears again and again in mythic storytelling, is the conflict between power and love. Wagner used it in The Ring Cycle. It is a struggle that constantly assails Christianity. It works out in the lives of the residents of Storybrook and the fairy tale world. Rumpelstiltskin was forced to choose between love and holding on to the power that he had gained. He is, arguably, the most powerful creature in the fairy tale world, a position which makes him a target of The Queen. Tricksters can be defeated, but only through trickery. If Rumpelstiltskin had chosen love, his powers—the result of a curse—would be gone. The Queen would win.

The Queen also faces this choice. In The Thing You Love Most, she must choose between her revenge and the love she has for her father. In the end, the power to take revenge trumps love for her. Even in Skin Deep, Regina chooses to confront Mr. Gold rather than continue to keep Henry and Emma apart. Facing her old nemesis was more important than controlling her son’s relationship (which is a perversion of love).

So it would seem, with this episode, one of the central conflicts is that of The Queen versus Rumpelstiltskin. We already knew of her fight against Snow White. This new revelation adds more depth to the show, but also gives us plenty of new plot threads. Can the writers handle them?

As We Move Forward: From the episodes I have seen so far, it seems the best deal with the conflicts mentioned above. Jiminy Cricket’s story felt like filler, as did Hansel and Gretel’s story. When the episodes give us more pieces that relate to The Queen, Snow, and Rumpelstitlskin, the show feels like it is going somewhere. I still like the idea of a season-long arc which resolves and ushers in a new story (possibly one not related to the curse) in the second season. I have no idea if the writers will go in this direction, but it seems, based on what we have so far, they could easily do so. It would be immensely satisfying.

Alcatraz: A Review

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image by Christian Mehlführer.

J.J. Abrams is a man who I have grown to appreciate despite initial dislike. Yes, I’m one of those people for whom buzz is something to view with suspicion and my initial reaction to Alias—without ever having watched the show, mind you—was cynicism. To this day I have only seen one season of the show, and while I now understand why it captured the viewers it did, I still find it less than enthralling.  My problem was with the lead, Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow. I never connected with her, despite the character being well-written and performed. The bottom line was that I never cared about her personal struggles and felt the show was wasting time delving into her personal life. This was, however, the very thing which drew people to the show. It was unique and I could intellectually appreciate that.

Abrams finally won me over with Lost, which was—in its first season—an English major’s dream. It was a short-story cycle on television; it was a series of character pieces set in an over-arching narrative about survival and mystery. I was hooked faster than you could say “John Locke”. Despite my personal opinion about the show falling apart in the end, it was a brilliant piece of television and was compelling for six years. How many shows have done this?

Mr. Abrams and Fox have given us a mid-season replacement in the form of Alcatraz, and on the surface, this seems to be a slam dunk. Just like many Abrams-produced shows, there is a mystery at the core of this show. Here we have the revelation that all the prisoners of the infamous Alcatraz were not transferred when the prison was closed . . . they vanished. Now, in present day, they are returning. Young detective Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones) and Doctor Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia) must track down the returning inmates and hopefully get answers as to what happened to these men and why they are returning. Their supervisor is Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who seems to have more information than they do, but is just as eager for answers as his team. This show is a no-brainer. It must be amazing.

Yet, there is one major problem. I don’t connect with any of the lead characters. They seem to be nothing more than stock characters at the moment. They lack the depth that I grew accustomed to with Lost. The irony here is that the flashbacks of the inmates portray well-rounded, fully realized characters. The audience is exposed to them in all their unfortunate struggles and gruesome details, but our lead cast is bland and uninteresting. In the end, the villains are more sympathetic than the heroes, and this is a horrible mistake in a show such as this, for if we ever get to the inevitable prison-break (in present day), who will we root for?