Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Mix-Tape Scores: An Assenting Opinion

A friend of mine announced on Facebook a few years back that he hates mix-tape scores. You know — when a movie or a TV show accompanies the action, often in a montage, with a familiar song, one that the viewer associates with good times or bad, sadness or happiness. It’s a trend that probably started in the movies of the 1970s, most likely after the soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (though as far as I can recall the score to Saturday Night Fever was made up entirely of original BeeGees songs). The first mix-tape score I can remember, though, was the blend of old and new Simon & Garfunkel songs that Mike Nichols used in his brilliant 1967 comedy The Graduate.

Nowadays the mix-tape score has become so common, even cliched, that it was parodied in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy by giving the main character an actual mix-tape, which he plays on an aging Walkman throughout the film (and at the end of the film they give him a new mix-tape to play in the sequel). The music choices weren’t necessarily from my all-time favorites list, but I never get tired of watching Chris Pratt kicking alien lizards to the accompaniment of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”

Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy: Alien lizards get their kicks with Chris Pratt’s mix.

At some point the trend skipped across media and became common on television, to the point where some shows even give a credit for Music Archivist. (T-Bone Burnett got one on both seasons of True Detective.) Frequently the song is saved for the final scene and often plays right into the credits. You could always tell when an episode of Mad Men had reached its denouement when a thematically and period-appropriate song began to play over Don’s or Peggy’s or Pete’s realization that whatever had just happened amounted to some kind of turning point in their lives.

I don’t hate mix-tape scores. In fact, I kind of like them, at least when they’re done right. Maybe they’re a cheap way for a movie or TV show to project unearned emotions on scenes that would fall flat without some assistance from a singer-songwriter who might well have died before his or her song found new life on a soundtrack. But when the emotion is earned by the story, the burst of familiar music can take a scene right over the top, working with the action to create something that approaches the sublime.

Mad Men was terrific at this. Sometimes the scene where the closing song came in was the only moment in the episode that made me realize it had been worth watching. The one that for some reason sticks in my memory was in an episode where Don Draper holds on to his suave pretensions and talks about his career with a reporter, carefully omitting any mention of his impoverished rural upbringing. But the camera pulled back and the soundtrack told the real story, using the song  “Tobacco Road,” a 1964 hit by The Nashville Teens (a British-invasion group, despite their name). I’m old enough to remember the song and the smile on my face was almost as wide as our large-screen TV.

Don Draper on Mad Men

Don Draper has an epiphany on Mad Men.

And I don’t know if this will inspire a chorus of groans or cheers, but the Leonard Cohen song (“Nevermind”) that accompanied the opening credits of True Detective‘s second season was the best part of the show. Of course, given how the season turned out, that’s about like saying Josef Stalin was the nicest mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century. But I love Cohen’s work when he’s in a dark mood (which has gotten even darker in the last few months) and the song perfectly fit the dark mood that the show was trying, if generally failing, to achieve. (NOTE: This was written before Cohen died.)

The mix-tape score I want to talk about here was in last Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Cell.” If you follow the show and haven’t seen the episode yet, you should stop reading here. Spoilers will follow. The Walking Dead is a show that people love to hate, but I hugely admire the skill with which they keep coming up with new ways of pressing old buttons. In “The Cell,” Rick’s gang finds themselves trapped in the nastiest town of survivors yet and the opening number, the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice,” underscored that point. But then the show’s musical archivist found an obscure piece called “Easy Street” (no relation to the song of the same name from the musical Annie) by a one-shot group called The Collapsable Hearts Club and used it as sleep-deprivation torture on poor Daryl, who had made the mistake two episodes earlier of attacking the town’s evil dictator. It’s an extremely happy song, which would seem to contrast ironically with “A Town Called Malice” yet if you listen to the two songs sequentially they have remarkably similar uptempo drum tracks. For a song about evil, “A Town Called Malice” borders on the cheerful.

This uptempo beat recurs throughout the episode and it is indeed an ironic contrast to the horror of the story. (If you follow The Walking Dead at all, you know that the horror very rarely comes from the eponymous zombies. It comes from the people who have managed to survive those zombies.) Yet at the end they switch the tempo entirely, when an unexpected frenemy of Daryl’s does him the kindness of switching his torture song to Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” one of the saddest songs ever written and one that never comes even close to being uptempo. Daryl, who has been stoic throughout his torment, finally gives way to the enormous grief that he’s been bottling up and starts sobbing uncontrollably as the show goes to credits.

Daryl tortured on The Walking Dead

Daryl tortured by “Easy Street” on The Walking Dead.

It was a remarkable use of mix-tape music, with “Easy Street,” a song intended to promise Daryl the paradise that could be his if only he’d kiss the evil dictator’s posterior, actually underscoring his own carefully studied emotional denial and Roy Orbison finally blowing it wide open.

It was one of the subtlest, most remarkable, even most moving uses of a mix-tape score I’ve ever heard. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, it justified the concept all by itself.

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With a Whimper: How Science Fiction Shows Die

I’ve just finished watching the fourth and final season of Continuum, a show I raved about back in 2013. By the final episode I was watching just to get it over with. I’d come this far with the show, I’d be damned if I’d quit before I found out how it ended.

Continuum

There’s nothing left now but the Continuum trading cards.

It was a disappointing experience. Continuum had barely managed to win renewal for a six-episode final season and felt drained of energy as it trudged toward the finale. The budget appeared to be lower than in previous seasons, which is not necessarily bad in itself — Continuum isn’t a show that needs the sort of spectacle it had back in its first year — but there didn’t even seem to be enough money for retakes. If an actor gave a flat line reading, it was in the episode. And the actors were moving through the scripts like zombies. Maybe cast morale was low. After all, they were six episodes away from being out of work.

The last episode, where we finally learned whether Kiera Cameron was able to return to her son in the year 2077, was perfunctory. It more or less resolved the story, albeit with a sad twist at the very end, but there were too many plot threads from earlier seasons that went nowhere and seemed utterly pointless in retrospect. When the final episode arrived there were far too many characters and way too many of them were uninteresting. It was quite a comedown from the brilliant first season.

Continuum. And a bearded guy.

Who is that bearded guy, anyway? And what’s he doing on what used to be a good show?

Yet when I gave it a nanosecond of thought I realized that this is the rule for science fiction shows, not the exception. Remember the wonderfully conceived Battlestar Galactica reboot on SyFy/Sci-Fi? (Of course you do. It was only six years ago.) It was a beautifully filmed, morally complex show, much like Continuum, yet by the final season it had degenerated into mystical BS. And then there was Lost, which ultimately managed to give mystical BS a bad name. (The other day I came across a blog post by Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach explaining that Lost ended exactly the way they’d planned from the beginning, which didn’t make me feel any better about the hot mess that the show turned into in its final year.)

What about other great science fiction and fantasy shows? Firefly never had a chance to jump the shark because it was cancelled after only fourteen episodes, but that other Joss Whedon show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had a funereal, almost tedious final run. (Sister show Angel pulled off a decent final season by the skin of its canine teeth.) Fringe managed to keep it — mostly — together, but it was clear that the six-episode final season renewal (apparently this is a thing now) didn’t give the writers enough space to resolve everything that needed resolving. Characters alluded to events that we hadn’t even seen, suggesting that entire scripts had been dropped. Too bad, because the last season involved a nifty twist that had clearly been planned from the beginning. (Watch the first two seasons again and notice how many hints are dropped about what eventually happens in Season Five.)

The iconic example of a science fiction show that ends with a long, drawn-out whimper was The X-Files. Creator Chris Carter has said that they expected to run for five seasons and they had just enough story for that many, which explains why by the sixth season the show was monotonously vamping its way through its so-called mytharc episodes. Frankly, I still don’t understand what the show’s underlying mythology was about, but maybe the miniseries this coming winter will explain it.

To be fair, this isn’t just a problem with science fiction shows. Most successful shows are allowed to stay on the air until they reach their level of incompetence, with only a few gracefully stepping aside once they’ve put together enough seasons for a syndication package (or a Blu-Ray set). It’s harder to name a show that stayed good until the end than it is to name a show that fell apart. Those two AMC stalwarts Mad Men and Breaking Bad pretty much pulled it off, though both had seen better years than their last ones. Despite a calamitous dip in the middle when showrunner Aaron Sorkin left, The West Wing came close, finishing with a bravura two-season election arc that only faded at the very end, when the death of star John Spencer forced a hasty rewrite of the election results.

In the age of serial television, though, the tendency of shows to plummet in quality toward the end seems particularly regrettable, given that viewers caught up in the continuing plot arcs are reluctant to abandon shows that just aren’t as good as they used to be. (Okay, I’m reluctant. I can’t speak for anybody else.) With a standalone show like Law & Order, there comes a day when you simply stop watching and never look back. But if I’d given up on Continuum, I’d be forever wondering whether Kiera Cameron eventually got back to the future.

Sherlock Who? The Brilliance of Steven Moffat

I was never a fan of the original Doctor Who. Maybe I would have been if I’d given it half a chance — a science-fiction-writer friend of mine was so enamored of it that he was guest of honor once at a Doctor Who convention — but whenever I’d catch a few minutes of it on my local PBS station it looked like a science fiction home movie filmed in someone’s basement. (I still can’t bring myself to sit through those old episodes, even though I’ve now got them on two different streaming services.)

The Doctor and friends

Rory Williams, the Doctor, Amy Pond: Two parents, one child.

But the new Doctor Who, rebooted in 2005 by Russell Davies, is different. For one thing, it looks like it was filmed in a much larger basement, one with a budget for special effects. Even that would be meaningless, though, without good actors, good characters and good writers. The new Doctor Who has those in spades and maybe the old Doctor Who did too; I’ll probably never sit still long enough to find out. Davies cast two wonderful Doctors, Christopher Eccleston (for only one season/series, alas) and David Tennant, and one of the best Companions ever, Britpop singer Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, with her dingbat mother Jackie (Camille Coduri), and deceptively useless boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke). Davies also gave stage actor John Barrowman probably the best television role of his career (Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow not excluded): the irresponsible, omnisexual Captain Jack Sparrow, who was later spun off to his level of incompetence on Chris Chibnall’s Torchwood, an unfortunate move. But that’s another story.

During Davies’ tenure a new writer, Steven Moffat (who had earlier created the Britcom Coupling), appeared on staff and wrote quite a few episodes, including a couple of brilliant ones, “Blink,” which introduced both the Weeping Angels and future movie star Carey Mulligan, and the two-parter “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” which introduced River Song (Alex Kingston), a time traveler who the Doctor didn’t know yet but who definitely knew him. There was no question that River Song would be back; she said as much. The real shock was the way, or several ways, in which she came back.

When Davies dropped out as showrunner after the David Tennant years, Moffat replaced him and recast the Doctor as Matt Smith, who played him with the same manic energy as his predecessors but also with a surprising edge of melancholy. Moffat also introduced a new companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), who would go on to become as important to Smith as Rose Tyler had been to Eccleston and Tennant, perhaps more so, because her presence on the show ultimately revealed as much about the Doctor as it did about her. The first two-and-a-half seasons of Moffat’s tenure are basically the Amy Pond Cycle and despite the standalone nature of many of the filler episodes — you know, the ones that come between the two-parters — Moffat has managed to make everything seem more coherent, more of a whole, with recurring themes woven throughout a season or half season, even if only in the final moments of each episode: Amy repeatedly glimpsing a crack in space with light pouring out; Amy repeatedly glimpsing a woman with an eye patch staring at her through a rectangular hole; the Doctor repeatedly recalling his own death notice, the one he wasn’t supposed to see with the time and place of his demise printed on it. These recurring images gave each season a focus and the viewer a sense of what sort of startling developments they were hurtling toward.

Okay, if you’re much of a Doctor Who fan at all you probably saw all of this a while ago, but I’m running late and only catching up on the Moffat years now. If I’d known how good they were, I’d have done it sooner. But stick with me. I’m going somewhere here.

The Amy Pond Cycle — and I’ll explain why I call it a “cycle” in a moment, though if you saw it you can probably guess — explores a question that’s always hung over the series like a cloud, but to my knowledge has never been actually addressed on the show itself: Why does the Doctor need a Companion? Sure, the Companion is a kind of audience surrogate and a device for giving the doctor a sounding board for his thoughts and exposition, but you can’t rely for — What is it now? 36 years? — on a screenwriter’s crutch. The companions, who are almost always attractive young women, must mean something to the Doctor and it isn’t sexual (though Davies explored that angle by having Billie Piper’s Rose fall in love with David Tennant’s heartthrob Doctor).

But after some brief sexual tension in the beginning, it became clear that Amy Pond had no romantic designs on Smith’s Doctor. She loved her fiance Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and returned to marry him, with the surprising result that not only did Rory become a co-companion of the Doctor’s but an indispensable member of the cast. Whatever Amy meant to the Doctor, Rory came to mean it too. The idea that the Doctor is a child who likes to run off on impetuous adventures with his chums has been explored before, but never as intensely as Moffat explored it here. Smith’s ageless adolescence eventually outlasts the semi-ageless adolescence of the Ponds (who really should be the Williamses, or at least the Pond-Williamses, but only once, in what looked like it would be her final episode at the end of Season 6, does the Doctor finally call Amy by her married name).

Over time Amy manages to become mother to almost everybody on the show, including the Doctor, her husband and her daughter (and that last twist is so stunning that I’m not even going to mention it in case someone hasn’t seen it). And Rory, as the Centurion, actually manages to become older than the doctor, who’s only 1,200 years old, while Rory makes it to 2,000. Even Amy ages into perhaps her 50s at one point (though that timeline is erased.) In the end his chums have all outgrown him, or at least outmatured him, except perhaps for River, who drops in and out of his life like she drops in and out of the show (but is apparently seeing him on a nightly basis for a while after their marriage, as one episode implies). But it’s Rory, not Amy, who finally points out to the Doctor how irresponsible his flitting around randomly through space/time with innocent people on board the TARDIS is. In the end, the doctor actually outlives the Pond-Williamses (though the show conveniently ignores the fact that he could simply drop back into the 20th century and visit them any time he likes).

I call the Amy Pond era a cycle because — and you probably guessed this — it’s circular, ending with an explanation of why Amy was waiting for him in the first place, even as a little girl, and ends on a shot of her young face. The most significant things revealed about the Doctor during the Pond Cycle are that he can’t stand to be alone and he can barely stand to sit still. He can’t settle down to a normal family life, as he tries to do at one point with the Pond-Williamses. He has to be going somewhere constantly, almost as though he’s running from something, and what he’s running from seems to be loneliness, maybe the loneliness of being the last of the Time Lords, or maybe from his guilt at having been complicit in the destruction of his homeworld, Gallifrey. (Note: Gallifrey is apparently revealed in an upcoming episode to still exist in an alternate universe. How that will affect the Doctor I don’t know, but I suspect it will be up to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor to show us and from the couple of Capaldi episodes I’ve seen, he’ll be different in a number of ways.)

The companions, then, are a hedge against loneliness. But why are they almost always attractive young women? I haven’t watched many of the Clara Oswald episodes yet, but when he meets her (for the second time, as he finally realizes) in “The Snowmen” and asks her to sail away with him on the TARDIS, she asks, “Why me?” And he responds (I’m QFMing here), “I never know why. I only know who.”

Which is about the best description of romantic love I’ve ever heard.

Sherlock

Meanwhile, Moffat has been running a second show based on an even more iconic character, Sherlock Holmes. He’s created (along with Mark Gatiss) what I regard as the best television version of Holmes to date and he’s done it by being faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the only way that matters: in spirit. His Holmes has been lifted out of the late Victorian era and plopped down into our own as if by TARDIS, and the result is that the old stories, or new stories based on the old themes, seem fresh again, as Conan Doyle’s stories must have seemed back when the pages of The Strand hadn’t turned yellow and crumbly yet. It doesn’t hurt that Benedict Cumberbatch’s over-the-top yet tightly controlled performance catches Holmes’ arrogant self-confidence with such convincing bravado that you feel like you’re discovering the character for the first time, even if you finished reading the originals by the time you were out of middle school and read the Solar Pons stories afterward as literary methadone.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: Together again for the first time.

Moffat hasn’t given Sherlock the kind of overarching thematic structure that he magically imposed on Davies’ existing structure for Doctor Who. Instead it’s a show of moments, some large, some small, a great many of them brilliant. And getting better: My favorite moments are from the two most recent episodes, “The Sign of Three” and “His Last Vow,” specifically the drunken bachelor party (What could be better than being inside the head of a drunken Sherlock Holmes?), Holmes’ rambling toast at Watson’s wedding that went from insulting to moving (and I seem to recall that he solved a crime in there someplace too), and his slo-mo near-death sequence after being shot in the chest by an unlikely assassin (and if anything can be better than being in the head of a drunken Sherlock Holmes, it’s being in the head of a dying Sherlock Holmes trying desperately to deduce how NOT to be a dying Sherlock Holmes).

Sherlock could be accused of being everything from maudlin to too-clever-by-half, but that it can be these things and more in such an original and spectacular way is what makes it such transcendentally good TV. (No, I’m not sure what “transcendentally” means either, but I’m not using it to talk about meditation.) The visual innovations are particularly impressive. Some of them remind me of the screen tricks that the CSI shows have been pulling since the early 2000s, but when the first episode began with comical text messages appearing above the cell phones of a room full of reporters at a press conference, I knew that I’d stay with the show for its visual bravura alone and immediately called Amy in to watch with me. (The first season had just hit Netflix.)

It isn’t just the brilliance of Moffat and Gatiss that makes Sherlock so good. It’s seeing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in what will probably be the best roles they’ll ever be offered and, for Cumberbatch at least, the one that will lead off his obituary several decades from now. Cumberbatch’s talents are so unique that he’s a difficult actor to cast, but in the right role he’s the Olivier of our age. (I suppose that’s self-contradictory in that what made Olivier stand out was his extraordinary range; he was never typed by a single part, not even Heathcliff or his immortal Hamlet. Cumberbatch has range too, but he’s so much more interesting at this end of it that I don’t even enjoy watching him at the other.)

If Cumberbatch goes down as the great British actor of our era, I think Moffat will go down as the great British showrunner of our era — and maybe just the greatest showrunner period. I hope he turns down requests to go Hollywood, except perhaps to develop something for HBO, because there’s something quintessentially English in his style. But if he has the showrunner’s equivalent of Olivier’s range, maybe he can do something quintessentially American too. I’d just rather he not come up against the Hollywood executives who have made such an uneven hash out of the career of his American equivalent, Joss Whedon (and don’t even get me started on J.J. Abrams). I want Moffat to remain forever an original — and as brilliant as he is now.

Why “The Watchers on the Wall” Was the Best Episode of Game of Thrones Yet

Go read or at least glance at this article from Wired before you read what follows. Don’t worry. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Now, I wish somebody would give me a convincing explanation, as that article tried to do and failed, of why last Sunday’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones‘ fourth season is inferior to the penultimate episode of Season Two, “Blackwater.” Yes, this seems to be the common wisdom (and became the common wisdom about three nanoseconds after the episode ended), but I don’t get it.

SPOILERS FOR SEASON TWO OF GAME OF THRONES

The Battle of Blackwater

One really cool special effect!

“Blackwater” had two things going for it, Peter Dinklage and a really cool wildfire effect, but otherwise it was all about saving the despicable Lannister family from the slightly less despicable (but still despicable) Stannis Baratheon. Not much to root for there, except Tyrion, the only non-despicable Lannister, and maybe Sansa Stark, who had the misfortune to get caught up in all this. Tyrion used the wit and strategic cleverness that nobody in his family gives him credit for to win the battle that nobody else in King’s Landing had the guts to fight, and thus both he and Sansa were saved. Yay. And, yes, it was tragic that Tyrion’s father came in at the last minute to steal all the credit for it from him. But otherwise, am I supposed to have cared which side won? The best thing I can say for the Lannisters is that they’ve got Tyrion. The worst thing I can say about Stannis is that he has all the charisma of slime mold. It’s hard to root for the lesser of two evils, especially when you’re not even sure which evil that is.

SPOILERS FOR LAST SUNDAY’S EPISODE

Mammoth

Winter: Still coming!

“The Watchers on the Wall,” on the other hand, was about the show’s central theme: Winter is coming. And with it are coming things that will destroy the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a place where people are too busy squabbling over the throne to care that giants with mammoths are getting ready to eat their children. (That was not based on any spoilerish foreknowledge from the books but on a reasonable guess about what the stakes are.) This was about people fighting over something that, in the world of the show, genuinely matters: keeping the horrors that are north of the Wall from getting south of the Wall. This was about the few, the not-so-happy few, the band of brothers who are the only ones in Westeros who understand how important what they’re doing is and are willing to die for it despite the fact that nobody else gives a flying f*** about them or will ever think themselves accursed because they weren’t there. This was about stakes that were a lot higher than whether a Baratheon or a Lannister is sitting on the throne. This was about saving everybody in the Seven Kingdoms that viewers care about right along with the ones they don’t. This was about stakes that actually made me care who won. This was about stakes that mattered.

But according to the article I linked to above, this episode had less “heft” than “Blackwater” because “Blackwater” had Peter Dinklage as Tyrion in it. As much as I love both Dinklage and the character he plays, that’s not enough. Apparently nobody besides me feels it was sufficient that “The Watchers on the Wall” had Jon Snow, who in case nobody was paying attention has probably just become the most important character in Westeros.

At least until Daenerys and her dragons show up.

Captain America, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Age of Multidimensional Media

It wasn’t until I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the last six episodes of the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I realized just how radical an experiment Marvel Studios is performing with their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies and TV shows.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

S.H.I.E.L.D. goes down in flames.

I’m a huge fan of serial TV shows. The broadcast networks have traditionally objected to them because they don’t rerun well and are hard for viewers to catch up with if they haven’t been watching from the beginning, but it’s gotten to the point where, if a show doesn’t have a serious serial continuity, I don’t have any interest in watching it. It turns out that the formula developed many decades ago on radio for soap operas is, in fact, ideal for showcasing what makes television in many ways superior to movies — i.e., the long-term ability to develop characters, relationships and situations such that the whole of a television series becomes greater than any of its individual episodes. But what Marvel Studios is doing with the MCU is even better than serial television. They’ve taken the concept of serial content in a series — of movies, of TV shows — and made it three or even four dimensional. They’re effectively doing something that I’ve only seen done before in one medium: comic books.

Let me back up for a moment. Marvel Studios is the Hollywood wing of Marvel Entertainment Group, which also publishes the Marvel line of comics. That’s the line where, back in the early 1960s, writer/editor Stan Lee and a few artists, primarily Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, created what have become some of the most popular superheroes ever to don spandex unitards. The difference is that, in the 60s, their popularity was isolated to comic books and a few animated television shows. Today their popularity has expanded to movies and live-action television (though one character, the Incredible Hulk, achieved live-action TV success as far back as the late 1970s).

Marvel Studios was initially created in 1996 as a clearing house for licensing movie and TV rights to those heroes and, though it did a remarkably good job of attracting buyers, those buyers did an even better job of making money from Marvel-owned properties. Sony parlayed the Amazing Spider-Man into an ongoing series of summer blockbusters and Twentieth Century Fox has created what is, if anything, an even more popular series of movies out of the X-Men and their most popular solo member, Wolverine. (The Hulk, who was initially licensed by Universal, has had a somewhat more checkered cinematic history, and The Fantastic Four, while they turned a profit for Fox, generally proved to be a critical embarrassment in movie form. Fox is scheduled to reboot that series in summer 2015.)

In 2004, Marvel Studios realized that if other companies were making this much money off their characters, they could make even more money, or at least keep a larger percentage of the profits, if they made the movies themselves. They would also have more control over what was done with their characters and concepts. Over the next few years they quietly reacquired the rights to superheroes who either hadn’t done well for other studios (the Hulk) or had never even been given their own films (Iron Man). In 2008 Marvel Studios surprised everyone, or at least critics, by releasing a remarkably good film based on the latter character, who had mostly been a second-string superhero in the comic book world, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as alcoholic billionaire and arms merchant Tony Stark, who escapes from Afghan terrorists and a potentially heart-stopping load of shrapnel in his chest by building a supersuit that not only keeps his heart beating but lets him slug bad guys like the Hulk and fly through the air like Superman.

The real surprise, though, comes at the end of the film, mostly after the credits, when Stark is recruited by Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson and then Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury to become part of the Avengers Initiative, a superhero collective being assembled (a pun that old Avengers fans will get) by Marvel’s superspy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. The same basic coda was appended, in one way or another, to the next three films in what Marvel Studios was now calling the MCU: The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). (I’ve skipped Iron Man 2 (2010), a film for which this now predictable coda would have been redundant.) While each of these movies was basically standalone or the launching point for a series, it was becoming clear that they were also part of a larger whole. This whole, which eventually became known as Phase One, culminated in Marvel’s The Avengers, the highest-grossing movie of 2012 and the point at which it became clearest that all of these films were taking place in a shared universe, something that had only been hinted at up until then. This shared universe concept is common in superhero comics and has resulted in continuities so tangled that you pretty much need Wikipedia to sort them out, but it has only occasionally been used in films, so occasionally that I’m having trouble thinking of examples. (It’s more common in television, where character crossovers between shows and spinoffs from hit shows were almost a requirement in the 70s and 80s and still occasionally occur, with the interconnections between the Law and Order and CSI shows in the late 2000s probably being the most recent examples, unless the NCIS shows are doing something similar.)

Marvel’s The Avengers took elements and characters, some of them quite minor, from all of the previous films and threw them together into one big superhero soup. Marvel had been doing this in the Avengers comic books since 1963 and comic books in general had been doing this at least since DC Comics launched the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3 back in 1940. Having such a series-jumping chronology in the movies was remarkable but it didn’t become extraordinary until it made the leap to television in the fall of 2013 with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a direct spin-off from Marvel’s The Avengers.

I’ve talked before about how I had great hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also about my frustration that it was taking its sweet time about realizing them. The reason why it was taking so long finally became apparent with the 17th episode, “Turn Turn Turn”: The show’s writers had been waiting for the second Captain America movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to come out.

Just as Captain America: The First Avenger had been, quite unexpectedly, the best movie of Phase One, Winter Soldier was the best movie so far of Phase Two and possibly the best MCU movie yet, better even than Marvel’s The Avengers. (To be fair, Joss Whedon was handed a nearly impossible task in writing and directing The Avengers. He had to balance at least half a dozen major characters, four of whom had film series of their own — or maybe three, the underperforming Hulk having apparently been phased out after Phase One — and all of whom had to be given roughly equal screen time and importance to the plot. Not surprisingly, the standout was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, borrowed from the Thor films, who chewed the scenery with charmingly vengeful gusto as the movie’s villain. More surprisingly, the other standout was Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who I’m pretty sure first hit the screen in Iron Man 2, with her clever backhanded method of interrogating villains by making them think they’re interrogating her.)

Winter Soldier ends with — stop here if you’re one of the few MCU fans on earth who still don’t know what happens — the near total disintegration of S.H.I.E.L.D., which turns out to have been riddled since World War II with sleeper agents from their sworn enemies, the Nazi carryover organization Hydra. The movie ends with Captain America more or less triumphant but S.H.I.E.L.D. in shambles and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury erroneously believed to be dead. And that’s where it impacted the TV show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the absence of S.H.I.E.L.D. had become a program without a premise and that suited it beautifully. After floundering all season in search of a theme, it had finally found one: a team of agents without an agency trying to defeat the enemy that had stolen it out from under them.

Turn Turn Turn

Things fall apart and S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes very centered.

For the final seven episodes of the season, S.H.I.E.L.D. was the best thing on television — yes, even better than Game of Thrones, which is straining admirably not to start plodding toward its climax the way George R.R. Martin’s books are doing. Agent Coulson’s team developed personality along with purpose. They fought against one another — Agent Ward turned out to be one of the sleeper agents — as well as against other agencies and ended up as a team of self-described vigilantes. The final episode resolves all this a bit too neatly, or at least too quickly, but it leaves some interesting plot threads dangling and the hint that at least one of those threads is going to generate the premise for the second Avengers film, which will terminate Phase Two in 2015.

It’s the way that the MCU continuity has not only jumped back and forth between movies but the way (and the speed) with which it has jumped between movies and TV (and apparently back again) that makes it revolutionary. (There was only a four-day lag between the opening of Winter Soldier and the introduction of its aftereffects into the show.) It would still be possible for a newcomer to jump into the multidimensional network of the MCU without being completely confused, but that window is rapidly closing and I would expect that, by some point in Phase Three, figuring out not only the plot but the interconnections between films, characters and TV shows (with yet another MCU television series, Agent Carter, debuting during S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s midseason hiatus in the 2014-2015 season) might become nearly impossible for a newbie.

This is clearly a studio executive’s nightmare and precisely the reason that broadcast television has fought — in vain, fortunately — against serial TV shows. If the audience doesn’t buy in early, it becomes extremely difficult to buy in late. But the way in which we watch television and movies is changing. We don’t necessarily catch TV shows while they’re on the air, the way we used to in the long-ago 20th century. We DVR them or buy the DVD sets or we get them On Demand or we binge watch them off Netflix or Amazon Prime Streaming. If we’re really desperate we resort to certain Internet back channels, which I’ll leave unnamed, to get our hands on content. The producers of Breaking Bad credited Netflix (and probably some of those back channels) with the show’s abrupt surge of viewership in its two-part final season, with viewers who had finally gotten word about how good the show was rapidly catching up through all-day streaming sessions.

My friend Sean Tucker thinks Marvel Studios is using the MCU to position themselves for a brand new media world and I think he’s right. Now that widescreen TVs with Internet connections have come to dominate the living room, the age of genuine on-demand viewing, which we’ve been promised since at least the 1980s, has arrived at last and I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the cable-TV companies die out altogether. (Unfortunately, they also own much of the Internet infrastructure and until that de facto monopoly is taken away, the true age of multidimensional media is going to be postponed — but I doubt for very long.)

Very soon now, we’ll be watching television and movies in the way people have long read comic books — picking up back issues and reading new ones in whatever order necessary to follow tangled continuities or just indulge sudden whims. To some extent, we’re already there — Amy is downstairs now binge-watching the entire seven years of West Wing on Netflix, something I did a few years ago myself — and I think we’ll need the original thinking of companies like Marvel Studios, which is taking continuity concepts from comic books and repurposing them for higher-budget visual media, to provide content that fits the new way we view what soap opera fans have long referred to as “our stories.” The multidimensional interconnections provided by the MCU may be the perfect model for a world in which TV and movies are only distinguishable by the size of the screens we watch them on — and much of the time not even by that.

I, for one, am thrilled to see the new era arrive. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.

 

Welcome to Level Seven: S.H.I.E.L.D. at PaleyFest

I’ve already blogged more than once about the ABC series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not because I think it’s a great show but because I think it could be a great show and because it’s getting better with almost every episode. Shows produced by Joss Whedon, even ones like S.H.I.E.L.D. where he isn’t involved in its production on a day-to-day basis, tend to start out slowly and hit their stride at the end of the first season or even the beginning of the second. Honestly, there are times when I wish I could look into the future and see if S.H.I.E.L.D. is really going to live up to the promise I think it has, because I may just be wasting 60 minutes of my life each week by watching it. But I don’t think I am.

And, as if by magic, I got a peek into the future last weekend and saw next week’s episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. I can report that it’s getting even better, but it’s still not quite as good as I’d like it to be.

Felicia Day

Geek goddess Felicia Day hosts a panel of tiny little people from the ABC show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

One of the advantages of living in Los Angeles, as I’ve been doing for the last five years, is that you occasionally get the opportunity to look into the future of television, even if it’s only a week into the future. Last Sunday I drove to the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood (that’s where the annual Academy Awards ceremony is held) to watch part of Paleyfest, an event put on annually by the Paley Center for Media. I was there to watch a panel on S.H.I.E.L.D. and it was an impressive panel indeed, at least in terms of who showed up. Basically the entire regular cast of the show — Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge — were there, as were the show’s three showrunners: Jed Whedon (Joss Whedon’s brother), Maurissa Tancharoen (Jed’s wife) and Jeffrey Bell, along with co-producer Jeph Loeb. The panel was hosted by geek goddess Felicia Day, best known to Joss Whedon fans like myself for her roles in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and several episodes of Dollhouse.

Actually, you didn’t have to live in LA to see this panel. If you knew about it in advance, you could have watched it on streaming video using the PaleyFest app — and maybe you did. But if you were actually at the Dolby Theatre you got to see something extra, something that wasn’t included in the streaming video. You got to see the April 1 episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Jeph Loeb asked all of us to go home and tweet or blog about the episode or at least about how much we liked it. We were advised not to give out spoilers. Yeah, right.

I suspect by now hundreds of attendees have given out spoilers in defiance of Mr. Loeb’s request, so it would be completely redundant for me to do so here. Therefore all I’ll say is that it’s one of the best episodes so far, largely because it focuses purely on the show’s serial arc and doesn’t attempt to stand alone in any way. I suppose it would be a minor **SPOILER** to mention that it centers around J. August Richards’ character Deathlok and the oft-mentioned but never-seen character known as “the Clairvoyant.”

I love serial TV shows and generally don’t care for standalone episodes of those shows, so the mere fact that this episode stuck to the serial arc was enough to make me happy. But it also advanced the serial arc significantly with a few surprises and plot twists, which is more than I can say about most episodes to date. And that’s all you’ll get out of me without inserting flaming bamboo splinters under my fingernails. For more spoilers, you’ll have to go elsewhere. Try Google. Or Twitter.

As for the panel, I have surprisingly little to say about it. It was fun seeing the cast and producer/writers in person, along with the lovely Ms. Day, who I’ve followed on Twitter for a year or two now because she’s a great source of geeky news about Joss Whedon TV shows. In general, though, the conversation on the panel didn’t reveal anything that I didn’t already know or at least suspect, such as the fact that Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Phil Coulson on the show, is a really nice guy. Twice, he literally leaped off the stage and ran into the audience to give someone a hug, most touchingly when the huggee was a youngish female fan who appeared to have Down Syndrome and was having difficulty articulating her question to the cast. I laughed when Chloe Bennet mentioned that fanfic ‘shippers — fan fiction writers who like to invent relationships between fictional characters from television and elsewhere — had created a romantic couple out of her character (Skye) and Elizabeth Henstridge’s character (Simmons) and were calling the couple “Skimmons.” (A quick check on Google revealed that, yes, there’s actually fanfic about “Skimmons.” It had slipped right past me.) Otherwise, the conversation consisted largely of cast members answering banal questions from the audience like “What superhero would you like to be?” (For the record, not all of the questions were banal. If you were there and asked a question, I can assure you that it wasn’t one of the banal ones. Hey, you’re intelligent enough to be reading my blog, right?)

Also, if you were watching the streaming video you probably saw me without realizing it. When a heavyset guy in a Captain America sweatshirt got up to ask a question, I was the gray-haired guy with glasses over his shoulder on screen right. I reached up twice to touch my glasses, not as a signal to anyone viewing the video stream or as a nervous tic, but to make sure the guy I was seeing on the giant video screen above the panel was actually me. Sure enough, the guy on the video screen reached up to touch his glasses too.

Two other pieces of important news gleaned from the panel — actually, from Jeph Loeb’s introduction to the panel — are that, starting with the April 1 episode, there will be no more interruptions in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. schedule for seven straight episodes, right up through the season finale in May, and the April 8 episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be a direct follow-up to the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which will be released to theaters on Friday, April 4. (Hey, that’s today! Better get tickets soon!)

If you saw the screening of next week’s episode or you’re reading this after it’s already appeared on TV, I’d be curious to hear what you thought of it. Feel free to leave a comment on this post.

And keep your fingers crossed that S.H.I.E.L.D. gets renewed (word has it that it will) and that it has the greatest second season of any show in the history of television. Or at least of any show executive-produced by Joss Whedon.

That would make a lot of people, including myself, very happy.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Situations: The Walking Dead

When asked why I enjoy genre fiction, by which I mean fiction that wouldn’t be put on the literary or even straight fiction shelf at the bookstore but on shelves with names like science fiction or fantasy or thrillers, I reply that it’s because I like stories about how ordinary people will react when placed in extraordinary situations. There’s more to it than that, but it’s sufficient for a short answer and it’s the closest I can come to an accurate one that wouldn’t have to be expressed at essay length. When I was younger the best fiction in the science fiction and fantasy genres was being done in written form but today much of it is in movies and on TV, especially on TV. Of those TV shows I’m familiar with, the best one about ordinary people in extraordinary situations is, without question, The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

It’s a show about an extraordinary situation that’s become so familiar, even cliched, over the nearly half century since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead first appeared on movie screens that you’d expect it to be dead now itself, yet like the creatures that it’s about, it just keeps coming back and back and back. And somehow it just keeps getting better. Movies, video games and TV shows about the walking dead — colloquially known as zombies, but almost never referred to by that name in the stories themselves — continue to appear on a regular, almost monthly basis, and currently The Walking Dead is the best of them. It’s a TV show just winding up its fourth season that’s already on its third showrunner — that’s the producer-writer responsible for day-to-day decisions on the creative aspects of the show — and it just keeps getting better with each one. The characters — those ordinary people caught in the extraordinary situations — continually become deeper and more interesting, and to anyone whose been following the show since the beginning they’ve become almost like members of the family. The cast of The Walking Dead and the writers who create the characters that they play are as good as any actors and writers on a television show today, and unless there’s something I’m missing (I haven’t seen Orphan Black yet, so it’s still in the running), The Walking Dead has become the best genre show currently being produced on television. In fact, it might be the best show, period. Yes, even better than Game of Thrones, which (though I love the books, especially the first three, and think that the adaptation to television is masterful) sometimes becomes a little too complicated for its own good.

Last Tuesday night Amy and I had the good fortune to a see a presentation at the Writer’s Guild in Beverly Hills hosted by Chris Hardwick, star of Talking Dead, the show that follows The Walking Dead every Sunday night on AMC. His guests were Scott Gimple, the show’s current showrunner, Bob Kirkman, creator of the comic book that the show is based on and a frequent writer for the show itself, Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie, and Steven Yeun, who plays Glenn. The program ran for two hours and, as you can imagine, it was much too short.

Walking Dead Panel

From left to right, Chris Hardwick, Scott Gimple, Robert Kirkman, Lauren Cohan and Steve Yeun.

Much too much happened for me to give you a full report, but I can make a few observations:

  • Bob Kirkman is one of the most outgoing writers I’ve ever seen and took immediate command of the room. If Hardwick hadn’t been available to host, Kirkman could have done the job handily with no preparation whatsoever. He was witty, smart and obviously quite proud of, and amazed at the success of, his creation.
  • Scott Gimple is a quiet, intelligent man who probably shouldn’t be put in a chair next to Kirkman, because Kirkman’s larger than life personality (which goes with his somewhat larger than life physique) pretty much left everyone except Hardwick in his shadow. I think Gimple’s the best showrunner the program’s had yet, as proven by the masterly way he’s divided the cast up in recent episodes so that we can get to know the characters better through individual vignettes on the way to what will obviously be their inevitable reunion after the battle with the Governor and the destruction of the repurposed prison they had been living in sent them all scampering into the woods at the end of the first half of the current season.
  • Steven Yeun, as Amy noted after we left, is a lot like his character Glenn on the show — quiet, sweet, handsome and softspoken but with enough stage presence (and distance on the panel from Kirkman) to hold his own in the conversation.
  • Lauren Cohan is nothing like her character Maggie, except that she also seems to be a nice person. She was raised in New Jersey until the age of 13, at which point her family moved to England, so she has one of those peculiar mid-Atlantic accents that fluctuates back and forth between American English and British English in a way that would have made her origins hard to pin down if I hadn’t looked them up on Wikipedia first. So naturally she plays someone with a rural Southern accent. She’s also quite beautiful and cleans up nicely when not covered with zombie guts.
Partial Walking Dead Panel

From left to right, Scott Gimple, Robert Kirkman, Lauren Cohan and (partially cropped) Steven Yeun.

It was a great evening and I was glad that we went. If you don’t watch the show because it’s about zombies, you’re making a mistake, because like any good genre show (or book) it isn’t really about the implausible elements that make up its premise. It’s about the people who become involved with those implausible elements. And on this show those people are so brilliantly depicted that by the third season — which is when I think the show goes from being good to being great — you’ll be so caught up in the lives of these people that you’ll forget that you were ever put off by the idea of a zombie show, even when you’re watching very sharp knives being driven into the brains of the restless undead. The first three seasons are available on Netflix Streaming and I suspect the fourth will be shortly.

(For those of you following my discussion of video games as virtual reality, it should return in my next post.)

Batman, Lara Croft & Arrow: The Christopher Nolanization of Pop Culture

We all have something in our childhood years that we feel nostalgic about or, if we’re not quite old enough yet to get past the urge to reject our childhood years, a little ashamed of them. (If you’re not even that old yet, it’s okay. You’re still allowed to read this post.)

For me, it’s comic books. For about a decade, until I started college, I was obsessed with comics the way a junkie is obsessed with hypodermic needles. This was in an earlier era when comics weren’t quite as adult-oriented as they’ve become in recent years and Stan Lee was just inventing Marvel’s Silver Age line-up of heroes. In fact, if it weren’t for Lee, I probably would have stopped reading comics by age 12, but Spiderman put the hypodermic back in my vein. He had all the same problems I did. He was a geek, he was out of place with his contemporaries, he had no idea what to do around the opposite sex, and he kept having to deal with erections, by which I mean tall buildings that could only be surmounted by shooting a sticky web-like substance into the air and soaring off through the skyscrapers like Tarzan swinging through the treetops.

Batman Begins

You’ll believe a bat can fly.

We all have to grow up, though, and eventually I outgrew comics. The funny thing is, comic books kept refusing to let me outgrow them. And no one except perhaps the genius at Marvel Studios who figured out how to reassemble the Avengers has had more to do with this than Christopher Nolan. I don’t know whether the credit should go to director Nolan, his writer brother Jonathan, or frequent comic-book-movie scripter David S. Goyer, but when the movie Batman Begins came out in 2005, it made me see comic books in a whole new light. Until then superheroes existed in their own cartoon universe, where a peculiar set of rules insisted that they wear spangly costumes, battle supervillains who actually saw themselves as villains (all writers should make note of this immediately: real people don’t think of themselves as villains) and rely on science fictional tropes for about two-thirds of their plot devices.

Nolan asked a question that, with a couple of exceptions (notably Alan Moore in Watchmen), nobody had really asked before: If there were superheroes in the real world, what would they be like? If they wore costumes, why would they wear them? If they fought villains, what would those villains be like? Nolan tackled perennial favorite Batman, an obvious target because his lack of superpowers made him one of the most realistic of superheroes, and put him in a film noir universe where his bizarre activities made sense, his costume and fancy set of wheels had genuine utility, and the villains rarely bothered to dress up in Halloween costumes before threatening the eternally fragile peace of Gotham City. He even gave the villains realistic motivations: Ra’s al Ghul really believed he was going to save the world from crime — from Ra’s al Ghul’s viewpoint he was the hero and Batman was the villain — and the Scarecrow (who never actually called himself that, at least as far as I recall) was just a clever experimental psychologist on the payroll of a crime boss.

It all made sense and not the loony kind of sense that Tim Burton’s Batman had made. It only took a little suspension of disbelief to accept that Nolan’s world was real. It was dark, it was exciting and Christian Bale’s unexpectedly charismatic performance held it together like the glue in Spiderman’s web spurter. Batman Begins left me gasping in my seat when it was over and Nolan never equaled it in the remaining two movies of his trilogy, which were just bloated and pretentious rehashes of the original. It didn’t matter, though. Nolan had created a new paradigm and it has slowly but surely begun to stick. (Some credit should go to Bryan Singer for his more realistic depiction of the X-Men in the early 2000s, but — let’s face it — those movies just weren’t as good as Nolan’s.)

Arrow

The hoodie that launched a thousand arrows.

Now we’re beginning to see the Nolan approach take root in other gardens, comic book and otherwise, and until it becomes an overdone cliche I expect to see more of it in the future. The most obvious example is the series Arrow on the CW network, which might as well be called Green Arrow Begins. Even in the late 1950s, the superhero Green Arrow had been DC comics own cut-rate clone of the more successful Batman and he’s proved himself to be an apt candidate for the Nolan treatment. Like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, zillionaire Oliver Queen disappeared for several years, became tough and expert in exotic methods of fighting, then returned to clean up crime in his home town. (Gotham City is now Starling City, but not much else has changed.) His costume, at least until the most recent episode, is little more than a hoodie with some greasepaint under his eyes to make him unrecognizable even to friends — improbable, but only a little — and his only superpower is those tricked-out arrows, which aren’t much more fantastic than the gadgets Lucius Fox stuffed in Bruce Wayne’s utility belt. And the villains, even the more over-the-top ones, feel noirishly real. The show itself is little more than a slickly executed soap opera, but I’m glad to see superheroes treated realistically on television at all — Smallville, for all its attempts at realism and the brilliant performances of John Glover and Michael Rosenbaum as Lionel Luthor and his prematurely bald son Lex, was still more than a little silly — and I’m even more thrilled to see that the producers are apparently spinning off a second series based on a far greater superhero, the Flash. (I was actually rather stunned to see that their visualization of the Flash’s origin almost exactly matched my memory of the origin of the Silver Age Flash in the 1956 Showcase #4, with the quite reasonable addition of an out-of-control particle accelerator to replace the original lightning bolt.) If they can Nolanize the Flash at least as well as they’ve Nolanized Green Arrow, the producers have my kudos and a permanent setting on my DVR.

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

Arrows — for the tomb raider who has everything.

Perhaps the most surprising result of Nolanization is the new version of Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider video game series. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Tomb Raider games. Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones, has never been much more than a Barbie Doll with guns and improbable athletic skills. The games have always been mildly diverting and more than a little frustrating every time Lara fails at her trademark circus act of jumping from vines to ledges and climbing walls while shooting wolves and falling to her screaming death. But the reboot, which takes us back to Lara’s teenage years (which bear a remarkable resemblance to the backstory on Arrow, with Lara shipwrecked on a remote island crawling with AK-47-wielding bad guys), is surprisingly realistic. The carefully rendered graphics make Lara seem real and deeply human, and her sexiness is now just an incidental part of her character, not something for horny teenage boys to stare at while following her curvaceous buttocks down endless cavern hallways.

Tomb Raider 2.0 is a big game and, at last count, I was only about 37 percent of the way through it. (The map screen tracks your progress through the story.) If the rest of the game holds up as well as the first part, though, I look forward to the series that will inevitably follow and seeing Lara grow out of her teenage insecurities into a character realistic enough for someone like Christopher Nolan to make a movie about. (Let’s face it: The Angelina Jolie films weren’t exactly Lucasfilm productions.) I wouldn’t mind seeing the Nolanization of some other classic video game characters, though Super Mario Begins might be carrying things a bit far. Bethesda Softworks has already created their own Nolan-like world in the Elder Scrolls series, where in games like Skyrim the interactive environment seems about as real as a fantasy universe could.

We all need cartoons when we’re kids and sometimes we need them when we’re adults too. They provide a means of depicting the world with the absurdity that it deserves far too much of the time. But cartoons also have to grow up and if Batman, Green Arrow and Lara Croft can do it, I fully expect the Powerpuff Girls one day to star in a Sex in the City reboot. There’s a deep charm in the idea that the fantasies of our childhoods can mature even as we do and that Lara Croft can reinvent herself as a real person.

Well, a real person who can still jump from ledges, swing on vines, and climb walls while shooting at wolves. Some things should never change.

Okay, NOW It’s Time to Start Watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Joss Whedon was the last person in the world who should have directed The Avengers. But somehow he got picked for the job and accepted it, probably out of his love for comic books (which he sometimes writes), and turned it into the single most successful movie of 2012. The Avengers was a high-budget action movie of the superhero variety and, as such, emphasized spectacle, explosions and stunning CGI special effects. The irony is that this really isn’t the kind of thing that Whedon is best at, though obviously he can do it when he tries. I’m beginning to suspect that any hack director in Hollywood can do a successful CGI blockbuster because most of the REAL work is done during post-production by people other than the director.

agents-of-shield-pilot-pic-01 (1)

Fitz and Simmons: Not all heroes are super.

What Whedon does well is writing TV shows about quirky, witty, interesting groups of characters with unexpected and gradually revealed backstories, people united by chance and held together by comically dysfunctional yet simultaneously affectionate relationships. If you go back and watch your CD (or Blu-Ray) copy of The Avengers, you’ll notice that it has witty characters with comically dysfunctional relationships, but this fact might have slipped past you on first viewing because these things were being drowned out by explosions and noisy alien invaders. The Avengers was a Michael Bay epic as viewed through the Joss Whedon lens and as such seems to have appealed to the mass audience, a very massive mass audience, the same way that, say, the Transformers films do. I loved it less than many people did not because I don’t enjoy a good action spectacle — I do, actually, though I draw the line at the Transformers films — but because I know that Joss Whedon can do so much more than that. And what he does doesn’t require spectacle, expensively produced action and CGI effects, which is why it’s so perfect for the relatively low-budget medium of television, the medium in which he first became a success.

The success of The Avengers got Whedon, or more properly a team of people supervised remotely by Whedon, the job of creating the TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I suspect because the people who run Disney (which owns both ABC, the network the show runs on, and Marvel Studios, which owns the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept) figured that his name along with the S.H.I.E.L.D. name would draw in that massive audience that had flocked to The Avengers. And I suspect it did — at first. But I hear that the ratings numbers are dropping and I’m not surprised, because the show is becoming less and less like the movie and more and more like a Joss Whedon show. And that’s what I’m starting to like about it.

At first the TV show looked like it was trying to be the movie, at least a cut-rate version of the movie, even going so far as to have a superhero character of ambiguous intentions in the first episode. (What happened to that character, anyway? Did he just vanish? Will he be back?) But the connection between show and movie has been shrinking and the show is becoming better because of it. In the most recent episode, “The Hub,” it finally became quite good, because it ceased to have much connection with The Avengers and became a true Whedon show, which is to say that it truly became what I referred to in my last blog as a jigsaw puzzle show.

Ostensibly, “The Hub” was about a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission to go to a fictitious Eastern European country and disable something called the Overkill Device, the kind of ridiculous spy-fi name associated with bad James Bond films. (To their credit, the characters even commented on how ridiculous the name was.) But the Overkill Device was really just a MacGuffin, Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an otherwise meaningless object that serves only to bring characters together and let them interact. And that’s exactly what it did, quite well. “The Hub” wasn’t really about television spy action, though there was some of that in it, but about giving the show’s viewers a better sense of who the characters are, what the relationships between them are like, and what kind of mysterious backstories lurk in their secret S.H.I.E.L.D. dossiers.

Jigsaw puzzle shows, as I defined them last time around, are neither serial shows nor standalone shows, but shows that, in each episode, introduce pieces of a puzzle that at first seem almost random and then gradually fit together to form a picture that’s larger than anything in any single episode. In “The Hub,” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used the Overkill Device as an excuse for giving its viewers several major pieces of the show’s underlying jigsaw puzzle and the picture that’s starting to form from those pieces suggests that this show is going to have one of the best backstories of any Whedon show yet — and, given that Whedon is a master of backstory, that’s saying quite a lot.

Viewers have already had hints that Agent Coulson didn’t really spend the eight months after his reportedly brief death (depicted in The Avengers) recovering in Tahiti, as he supposedly believes, but now it’s clear that Coulson himself realizes that this is a lie and wants to learn the truth. It’s also clear that the possible solution to this puzzle scares the hell out of Coulson, which makes it that much more tantalizing to viewers, the way that the riddle of Simon and River Tam was so tantalizing to viewers on Whedon’s Firefly. However, “The Hub” also revealed that Skye, the gorgeous terrorist who has been subsumed for no apparent reason into the S.H.I.E.L.D. unit run by Coulson, has a backstory that’s far more interesting than has been hinted at up until now and that she has a preexisting history with S.H.I.E.L.D.: She was left at an orphanage as an infant by a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Why? Nobody’s telling us yet. But it’s another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, one that’s almost as fascinating as the Coulson part of the puzzle.

As I said earlier, Whedon’s major strength besides designing jigsaw puzzles is creating groups of characters who have interesting relationships and the show started doing that in earnest with this episode. We finally got a glimpse of the relationship between Fitz and Simmons, the show’s male-female geek team, and it’s fraught with both sexual and affectionate tension, with a special emphasis on the affectionate part. Unlike, say, Skye and Ward, these aren’t characters you’re dying to see jump into bed together, but the affection between the two of them is so palpable and charming that you just want to give them a great big hug. The objective correlative for that affection in this episode was a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich with just a hint of aioli and it was used to clever effect. The show also gave us some bonding scenes between the unlikely pair of tough guy Ward and uber-geek Fitz that started out with exactly the sort of friction and incompatibility that you’d expect in such a relationship, but then took a surprising turn toward mutual respect. And while Ward and Fitz were putting themselves in harm’s way, the show did something even more unexpected: it featured a bonding sequence between two of the show’s major female characters, terrorist Skye and Fitz’s female counterpart Simmons, that was deftly comedic and bodes well for the way that all of the character relationships are going to build on this show.

Mostly, though, “The Hub” was the episode that turned S.H.I.E.L.D. into what I’ve wanted it to be all along: a true Joss Whedon show. It’s finally clear that the spy show we thought we were watching up until now was just an excuse for a show about relationships and secret histories, which are the things I’ve loved about Whedon’s shows since Buffy. It’s at last become a show that’s genuinely worth watching and I’m starting to feel the love for it that I’ve wanted to feel since it started. In fact, the only reason I’ve stuck with it this long is that I knew that this was the type of show it would eventually become.

Because Whedon’s shows always do.

Fringe, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Perils of Jigsaw Puzzle Television

Back in 2008, I stopped watching Fringe after the second episode. That wasn’t because it was bad and I had a feeling that I might start watching it again later, but in the early episodes it wasn’t delivering what I wanted it to, which was something like the amazing shockwave that J.J. Abrams and his staff delivered with the first episode of Lost. In retrospect that may have been a blessing, since the first episode and entire first season of Lost turned out to be a high point that even the show itself was unable to equal in later seasons. Fringe, by contrast, came across as a tepid imitation of The X-Files, a show that I remembered fondly but didn’t want to have to sit through again. It had, after all, been done before.

Fringe characters

The jigsaw puzzle comes together.

Turns out I had it all wrong. Lost was a bomb, a muddled mess of a show that got only one thing (aside from a great cast) right: hooking the viewer so perfectly with its first episode and first season that for a lot of us it was hard to get unhooked. Fringe, on the other hand, is genuinely great television, even though it didn’t look that way at first. I’m now halfway through watching its third season on Netflix Streaming and can already see that it’s a much better show than Lost ever managed to become again after its first season and really isn’t all that much like The X-Files, a show that made only one major mistake: staying on the air too long. However, both shows fall into a category that I’ve only recently begun to realize exists: jigsaw puzzle television. Think of jigsaw puzzle TV as the point where standalone television meets serial TV and produces something that can go back and forth between the two or even gradually morph from one into the other.

The X-Files started at a time (1993) when only a few prime-time shows, like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, had played around with the idea of serial television, introducing plots that weren’t neatly tied up in a single episode but that continued over an entire “arc” of episodes. This was a concept that made television executives so nervous that early on, when Hill Street Blues was getting ratings so low that it probably would have been cancelled if NBC’s overall ratings hadn’t been so bad that the whole network was in danger of getting cancelled, an edict went down from the network heads to the show’s producers demanding that at least one plot (out of many simultaneous ones) be both introduced and resolved in every episode.

The X-Files couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be standalone or serial, so by the second season it was doing both, alternating between standalone “monster of the week” episodes and serial “mythology” episodes, which usually consisted of two or three parts each, which gradually filled in pieces of the backstory. The standalone X-Files and the serial X-Files were almost two different shows, with events in a standalone episode having very little effect on character relationships and plot events in the serial episodes. Both the mytharc and standalone episodes were done very well. But every now and then something would happen in a seemingly standalone episode that would turn out to be a part of the show’s continuing mythology. And that, I would argue, was when jigsaw puzzle television was born.

The two current masters of jigsaw puzzle TV shows are J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, though those are as much brand names now as they are human beings. Both Abrams and Whedon have gotten too good at making monstrously successful films like the Star Trek reboots and The Avengers to spend the kind of time with television that they used to, but they’ve managed to put together teams of producers and showrunners who can mimic their styles amazingly well and I’m convinced that both men are heavily involved in the creation of their shows and draw up detailed blueprints that their writing staffs can then follow in putting their shows together while the big guys themselves are off making billions of dollars in the more lucrative parts of their empires. In effect, they’re the guys who put together the big pictures that their writing staffs then cut up into the jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Fringe appeared initially to be an X-Files clone simply because the first episode featured a male-female pair of FBI agents who found themselves involved with supernatural and high-tech phenomena. Fortunately, the male half was immediately killed off and Anna Torv’s agent Olivia Dunham never became a clone of The X-Files Dana Scully, which may have come across as bait and switch to X-Files fans who tuned in hoping to see a reboot of their favorite show but was actually a clever move on the part of the showrunners. It allowed the introduction of one of television’s quirkiest teams of leading characters, Dunham and her new partners, the father and son team of Walter and Peter Bishop (John Noble and Joshua Jackson). All three leads are great, but it’s brilliantly crazy scientist Walter, one of the most cleverly conceived and bizarrely gonzo characters on TV, who really makes the show work. The fact that he seems to be part of the show’s mysterious backstory but is simultaneously so batshit crazy that he can’t remember exactly what part of it he is is what keeps the show from being like anything else anywhere on TV, the X-Files included.

The reason Fringe is a jigsaw puzzle show is that the early episodes bear a strong resemblance to standalone episodes of The X-Files, revolving around similar mysterious phenomena like people abruptly melting into warm jello or suddenly finding themselves cut in half, but every episode also adds a surprise piece of the show’s serial continuity, usually at the very end. As it becomes clear that elements like the apparently malevolent corporation Massive Dynamics and its elusive founder William Bell (whose very casting is a delightful surprise in itself) are going to figure into the show in a big way, it also becomes apparent that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are going to fit together into some kind of stunning and unexpected picture, as indeed they do.

In some ways, Fringe is the polar opposite of Lost. Abrams tried to make Lost a continuous serial. Unfortunately, the show was put together quickly, had a great beginning and great first season, then just became muddled. Completely serial shows like this are almost impossible to do and the only truly great example I can think of is Breaking BadFringe, on the other hand, never really tried to be completely serial, and it was much better for using the jigsaw technique. You could view at least half the episodes as standalone stories, but somebody put a lot of work into creating a terrific picture that would come together out of that jigsaw puzzle. Even if the quality of the show takes a nose dive after the middle of Season Three (which is where I am now), it will still have been a terrific jigsaw puzzle for one and a half seasons longer than Lost was. And I’m told it remains good for much longer than that.

Joss Whedon has elements of the jigsaw puzzle show in his early programs, like Buffy and Angel, but his first true jigsaw puzzle show was Firefly, which unfortunately was only given 14 episodes to put itself together. The jigsaw puzzle pieces in those 14 episodes, though, were interesting enough that Whedon was then given an entire movie, the terrific Serenity, to give us an idea of how wonderful the full puzzle would have turned out to be. The major pieces that we got were Simon and River Tam, a wealthy doctor and his sister on the run from the show’s evil government, the Alliance; Shepherd Book, a mysterious preacher with a very unpreacherlike past combined with a genuinely warm and comforting personality; and the Reavers, savage cannibals of unknown origin who appear unexpectedly in burned-out spaceships to eat the unfortunate populations of entire cities or perhaps even entire planets. Whedon got the chance to complete the parst of the puzzle having to do with the Tams and the Reavers in Serenity and he supposedly explains Shepherd Book’s backstory in a comic book, which I have yet to read. I wish we had gotten to see the completed puzzle lament the way it was meant to be seen, on television, and suspect it was altered considerably to fit a two hour film, but what we got was still great. We can blame the Fox network for not allowing us to see it the way it should have been seen. (Why Whedon did another jigsaw puzzle show, Dollhouse, for Fox is beyond me, but I’m sure there’s an explanation for it somewhere. At least Fox allowed him to wrap Dollhouse up in a second season, but the pieces were put together in such a rush that the completed puzzle was partly brilliant, partly a complete mess, and wasn’t wrapped up nearly as well as Firefly was.)

Whedon’s latest jigsaw puzzle show is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a sequel of sorts to The Avengers but on a much lower budget. Though I doubt that Joss Whedon has much to do with the show on a day-to-day basis, I’m sure he had a lot to do with putting together the initial jigsaw puzzle before turning it over to his brother Jed Whedon, his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen and former Angel writer Jeffrey Bell. So far the standalone episodes have only been fair-to-middling, but the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle — what happened to Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) after he “died” in The Avengers; what horrible event occurred to Melinda May (Ming Na Wen) that gave her the hated nickname “the Cavalry;” why strange artifacts keep turning up; and why they’re allowing a known terrorist like Skye (Chloe Bennet), who seems to be a quadruple agent — at least — for S.H.I.E.L.D. and its enemies, fly on their tricked-out jet — look like they could form a pretty interesting picture whenever they start falling together.

The problem with jigsaw puzzle shows is that they start out slow and usually don’t look more than mildly interesting in early episodes, sometimes in early seasons. That’s certainly the case with S.H.I.E.L.D., which could be mistaken for any run of the mill spy-fi show if you aren’t watching closely. I’m watching it because I’m convinced that it’s going to become great when the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall together. (I might note that, with the possible exception of Firefly, none of Joss Whedon’s shows has ever been more than mildly interesting before its second season, just as J.J. Abram’s Fringe didn’t really become great until its third season.) The question now becomes whether S.H.I.E.L.D. will remain on the air long enough for the pieces of the puzzle to come together and the show to realize its full potential. Ordinarily I’d doubt that it would make it that far, but it’s on ABC, which is owned by Disney, the company that also owns Marvel Studios, so maybe it will be given the chance to develop.

When it does realize its full potential, I truly hope that S.H.I.E.L.D. will be as great a jigsaw puzzle show as Fringe.