Serenity

I was looking for something to fill the Sydney Bristow-shaped hole in my heart, and I found Serenity. Err, “Firefly.”

Mac got me the DVDs a while ago, and we’d planned to watch them together but either forgot or got distracted by “NewsRadio” and World of Warcraft. I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying the series. I’d seen the show before, of course — I’m realizing that of the seven I’ve seen on the DVDs so far, there’s only one that I hadn’t seen when it was originally aired. They just didn’t stick with me, for various reasons.

One is that it’s full-to-bursting with Whedonisms, and a little of that goes a long way. When high-school-to-college-aged characters use little catch-phrases and wry self-aware commentary, it’s endearing because that’s how nerdy outcast high-school-to-college-aged people talk. When gruff-but-lovable outlaws do it, it just comes across as fey. That tone of “look at me! look at how clever I am!” was just a little overwhelming when I first saw it.

And that carried over into everything, which was reason two. Having no sound in space bugged me because it was accurate, but too self-aware accurate. It’s a very minor thing, but it just came across as “yes we’re making an adventure sci-fi show but we’re defying convention because we know that there’s no sound in space because we’re so smart.” Yes, the silence seemed smug. That’s probably more a sign that I was burned out on “Buffy” and “Angel,” but there it is. What was more troubling was how they kept doing the shaky-zoom-cam thing with digital shots, which was a gimmicky effect that was the equivalent of lens flare for the late-90’s-early-00’s. (Attack of the Clones used it too, and I hated it.)

And the last is Fox’s fault, apparently, because of the way they presented it. The first episode aired is definitely not the strongest and doesn’t give as good a first impression. And it’s only by seeing the episodes in the order in which they were intended to be seen that the whole thing comes together. The characters really become characters, and their conversations seem less like overly self-conscious attempts to be clever and more like the way these people would actually talk to each other. The attempts at intrigue were deftly inserted, and weren’t as ham-handed as they’d seemed watching bits and pieces out of order with commercial breaks. The characters do stop being one-note, and the relationships do develop realistically.

And there’s continuity! They pick up a herd of cattle at the end of one episode, and they drop them off at the beginning of the next!

So the fans can wail and gnash that the show got cancelled, but I’m looking forward to two more discs and the episodes that I haven’t seen yet because they were never aired. Maybe things will change dramatically once I see it develop more, but at the moment I’m not all that upset that it got cancelled. It just feels more like a story arc than an ongoing series; I don’t particularly care how this world develops, I just want to know what happens to the characters. I want a story with a beginning, middle, and end — the kind of story you’d find not in a series, but, say, a movie.

And I don’t care what Joss Whedon says; the show is such a rip-off of “Cowboy Bebop.” Even if they didn’t intend it to be. Seeing as how “Cowboy Bebop” is one of my favorite television series of all time, that’s high praise, not a criticism.

Angelias

Alias Season 3 CastI had another bout with insomnia last night, even after “helping” Alex move, and then drinking a whole lot of beer, the two things that should guarantee I fall asleep immediately. So what that means is that I finished another four episodes of “Alias,” and there’s just two discs left in Season 3.

At this point in the series, it’s reminding me a lot of the TV series “Angel.” Not in the content or the tone, but in how I’m responding to it. “Angel” is my quintessential love/hate TV series — there were so many characters and plotlines that I just despised, and which annoyed me enough to just give up on the show over and over again. But when they did well, it was some of the best television ever made.

They had the lame “lawyers are really evil” and “LA is really phony” gags that they just never put to rest, and they had some really loathesome characters that were supposed to be sympathetic, like Lorne the demon guy and Angel’s son. But then they’d have a killer storyline like the one where Faith came back and had more depth to her character in those two episodes than in an entire year of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Or the whole fourth season of “Angel,” where they had basically written themselves into a corner and had to cover up a pregnancy, but came out of it with a great season arc that all fit together and had episodes which were genuinely scary (and I didn’t think TV could scare me anymore).

And season three of “Alias” is kind of like that. Most of it just shatters all the “I know it’s implausible and over the top, but it’s supposed to be” good-will I’d built up. All the plot twists and change-ups and revealed secrets just seem like bored writers in afternoon meetings, moving characters around on a grid without even trying to come up with real motivations for them. The characters have gone from being two-dimensional but lovable, to one-and-a-half-dimensional and so boring that even they seem to be bored with what they’re doing. Here’s yet another scene where Jack breaks the rules to save his daughter. Here’s another scene where Dixon encounters somebody behind bars and vows vengeance. Here’s one more scene where Sydney shows teary-eyed determination. Here’s still yet another girlfight with the evil Allison Doren (who got an extraordinarily anti-climactic send-off). I’m still fine with being earnest, but that will only take you so far if you don’t have an engrossing story to back it up.

And the big villain of the season was so completely obvious from scene one, that I can’t tell whether or not the reveal was supposed to be a surprise. There are still two discs left, and I’m sure that they’ve got more plot twists to throw at the story, but so far it’s been a real yawner. (Although I will say that as soon as she started playing evil, she became 1000 times sexier. What that says about me, I don’t know and don’t want to think about.) And granted, the whole bit about Sydney’s missing two years was getting stale, but instead of throwing in some twists to make it interesting, they just blew their wad and explained the whole thing away.

So that’s the hate; where’s the love? Well, this is also the season where they really got the big budgets, it looks like, and they’d built up enough reputation to attract even bigger-name guest stars. And they had the freedom to do interesting stuff that didn’t quite fit in with the formula. Like the episode with Ricky Gervais as an IRA bomber: pretty neat. And the one with David Cronenberg as the doctor who sent Sydney on that whole dream-sequence episode: very, very neat. And Isabella Rosselini as the superspy that helps Jack: pretty lame episode overall, but she gave a great performance, even though she looks even more uncannily like David Foley in drag the older she gets.

I’m still unspoiled for the rest of this season, so I have no idea what the big cliff-hanger is going to be. And considering that the next season isn’t available on DVD until mid-October, I’m actually going to have to wait to see the resolution of this cliff-hanger. It’ll be interesting to see how long I can hold out before begging people to tell me what happens in season four.

The Importance of Being Earnest (About “Alias”)

What’s wrong with me? I forgot to talk about “Alias” some more.

I watched the last episode of Season 2 last night. The big surprises from the Season 2 ending were already spoiled for me, so I didn’t get as big a shock as the first-time viewers. But I’ve got to say: even though I knew it was coming, that was one hell of a fight. I guess graduate students can only afford apartments made out of balsa wood. I’d heard about the big cliff-hanger/twist as well, so that wasn’t a shocker; I was just waiting to see how they actually did it.

Everything from here on out to the zombies is still spoiler-free for me, so I’m waiting to see what they do with Season 3. I’ve heard varying reports on teh internets. Netflix will show me the way, since I’ve already got the first disc queued up.

With these shows that I’ve gotten obsessed over in the past (“Buffy” and “X-Files”), they’ve always had episodes where it seems as if they’ve painted themselves into a corner, and then magically turned it all around to reveal a whole new room. “Alias” takes more of the brute-force approach — they paint themselves into a corner, and then demolish the house. But it keeps moving; you’ve got to give them that.

Another thing I noticed about “Alias” after watching the bonus features and commentary (since there were only 2 episodes on the last disc, I had to watch something): it’s really hard for me to maintain a healthy cynical detachment from this show. I realize that the show is formulaic and filled with ridiculous contrivances and plot-twists, but they all realize that, too. It doesn’t matter. It’s like a roller coaster — if you keep telling yourself it’s fake and there’s no way you can get hurt, it sucks all the fun out of it.

There was a bit of an interview with Jennifer Garner on there, where she said that during the filming of the finale she kept crying in between takes because she felt so bad for Sydney Bristow and what she was going through. She said, “I mean, I know that she’s a fictional character of course, but she’s real to me.” That’s the key to the whole show. You can either roll your eyes at that, or you can take it at face value and play along.

They’re all so dead earnest about the show, which is why you can hear about double- and triple-agents and ridiculous plot contrivances and DNA strands and retinal scans and not be distracted by the absurdity of it all. And you can really think things like, “Man, how bad would that feel to have your mother who you thought was dead but actually turned out to be a double-agent spying on your dad who was also a double-agent and now she’s stabbing you with a cattle prod because she’s working with the man who killed your fiance in order to steal ancient super-powerful artifacts that grant immortality? That would really suck!”

And because they’re so dead earnest about it, I actually liked watching the blooper reel, which I normally despise. It’s just fun to see them all get to smile for once. And I got a kick out of watching the rest of the promotional stuff, even though I know it’s all just marketed and manufactured to be a star vehicle for Jennifer Garner and show star-struck brainless TV-watching masses just how charming she is. But dammit, she is charming!

I’ve been tired of irony for a while now — everything trying to be all self-referential and “dark and edgy.” I’m getting a kick out of seeing something that just says, “Yes. We have zombies.” And they’re not afraid of looking stupid, and they’re not saying it’s some joke or a metaphor for something “deeper.”

38 Seconds

That’s how long I was able to watch G4/TechTV [warning: link is slow and annoying] tonight before having to turn the channel out of disgust. As a frame of reference and to give an idea how much tolerance I have for bad television, I turned it to VH-1 and “Gameshow Moments Gone Bananas,” hosted by Ben Stein giving a “shout out to his ‘peeps’,” making the quote sign with his fingers around “peeps,” and was able to leave it on that channel for a good 12 minutes. I only had to turn the channel when they put on one of those “Where You At?” ads with the granny talkin’ all hip-hop on a cell phone.

How did we let it get to this? I watched a lot of television in the 70’s and 80’s, and as awful as it got, it was never able to overwhelm me with its sheer crass stupidity and desperation. I’ve lived through “Dynasty,” through Carrot Top commercials, through Pauly Shore’s popularity, through all the “I Love the 80’s” marathons. I used to look forward to watching DIC and Filmation animated series. I’ve even seen “Magic: The Gathering” tournaments televised on ESPN-2. I’m not exactly one of the cultural elite.

But tonight on G4, a loud young woman with bleached hair, a nose ring, and a Jem and the Holograms T-shirt was showing viewers a fan site dedicated to David Hasselhoff, and the whole hip, young, fun, and irreverent cast were pointing at the pictures and tossing paper airplanes about. And for some reason, this made me sadder than the entire Trinity Broadcasting Network ever could. It’s depressing enough that there’s even an entire network devoted to videogames, but when the human beings (presumably) on this network are even more shallow and obnoxious poseurs than videogame characters… it boggles the mind. It was as if the characters of a self-described “cynical” alternative comic had somehow come to life and taken control over a television studio.

I just realized that I would rather watch Country Music Television and UPN than the network that is trying to target me.