Thursday, August 30, 2012

Whedon Brings S.H.I.E.L.D. to TV

Confirming most people's beliefs (my money was on D-Man) it was recently announced that Joss Whedon's deal with Marvel to helm Avengers 2 as well as bring one of their properties to television will be focusing on bringing the super secrety spy organization to the small screen.

When you think about it, this is a project with nearly limitless potential. The lack of a central hero, instead of being a handicap, could open this to so many different things. Not only does Disney/Marvel have all their stars under contract, and thus are able to drop by for season finales or be featured for story arcs during sweeps, but it's the perfect testing ground for new B and C list heroes (and villains), individual S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, both canon and original, and science-fiction helicarrier office politics and monster of the week mash-up stories that not even the craziest Whedon fanfic writer has come up with.

Monday, August 27, 2012

AvX: From Bad to Worse

Despite the fact that at least two chapters remain, I think it's safe to say that AvX has been a failure. I'm sure it's done well in sales and it has certainly  monopolized the comic world's attention, but as far as the story goes and the quality of writing it's really rather embarrassing for such a grand, heavily marketed event. I resisted this admission, willfully choosing to enjoy it for what it was, but that in itself was an admission of this story's lack of substance. It's a shame because with such a basic, primal, fanboy premise I had high hopes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bunheads Season Finale

Summer truly must be ending if the season's best TV show aired its finale last night. (It's possible I need a better yard stick with which to measure the passage of life.)

Bunheads, in my humbly infallible opinion, marked Amy Sherman-Palladino's triumphant return to the small screen. The story of a discontented, quick-witted, eternally stuck Las Vegas dancer named Michelle who, through the combined efforts of a good man's boundless adoration and several martinis, ends up married and living with her mother-in-law in a town so small it's practically off the map, was not a revelation. But that was only due to my prior experience of Sherman's writing.

An almost perverse premise remarkably came off all sweetness and guffaws right from the pilot, and did not stop pleasing until the credits rolled last night. Critics, and there appear to be a good amount, abuse the lack of plot developments, the almost sleepy, pastoral scenes going on for minutes, the unexpected end of an episode where no horrible conflict reared its head and no plane crashed in the middle of the ballet studio, leaving teenage girls to pirouette perfectly to safety or perish in a shaky Hunger Games close-up.

But that's not the kind of show Sherman makes. (Suck it Shonda.) Gilmore Girls lasted for 7 seasons of  22 episodes, not by a cliffhanger every week, or seasonal deaths of major characters, pregnancies, affairs, secrets, etc., but by the intricacies of human interaction. Sherman likes to take the time to focus on actual life, showing us events that truly transpire, albeit made significantly more interesting by language that flows almost too fast for comprehension laden with enough wit and intelligence and humor to keep you completely engrossed in the communication between barista and customer, teenage brother and sister, playwright and  audience, realtor and homeowner.

She doesn't have demons and mystical forces and monsters to overcome, symbols of the battles inherent in life and maturation a la Whedon, though she can give even him a run for his money with recognizable, effortless dialogue heavily peppered with pop/culture references. Instead she illustrates, over a season of ten episodes in which one assumes several months have passed, the subtle changes of human relationships. The main one, between Michelle and her mother-in-law Fanny, is the most essential to the show.

As one could fairly easily predict, Michelle being a dancer and ending up in a home with a dancing school, last nights finale showed her heavily involved in all aspects of running Fanny's school, and in fact preparing to take over for Fanny for the summer. There is considerable pleasure in seeing the two of them bantering with the complete absence of any of the sarcasm or bitterness that had colored their first few episodes together (natural enough what with their meetcute being the blink-and-you'll miss it marriage to Michelle followed by the untimely death of her son.) Michelle's input is not only active and welcomed by the end of the season, but heartily approved as she takes a hand in the choreography of the schools most important performance.

The brilliance of Sherman is not in showing merely that they have bonded. After all they are fairly similar; dancers whose passion never dissipated despite the unexpected, uncontrollable twists of life, women who cared deeply for a man they expected to have around for the rest of their lives, women of independence and pride. No, the real fun comes when she reveals everything they have hidden and ignored and brushed aside and denied in all the past episodes where seemingly "nothing happened."

As the show progresses perfectly, Michelle makes the innocent, horrendous, hilarious mistake, when misting the dancers backstage to cool them off, of using her pretty can of pepper spray instead of the water, thus maiming all the students as well as herself, ending the performance and enraging the stereotypes of overprotective suburban parents who like to pay a lot of money for special services if only for the right to complain and threaten (I've met a few, and while I like to think they aren't as prevalent as TV would lead me to believe, they are a convenient shadowy background ensemble character here.)

Michelle's mistake, though she clearly repents and blindly (literally) puts the dancers' welfare before her own, is met with an appropriate level of anger and disappointment by Fanny, who has to cancel their most lucrative event as well as appease the rabid progenitors. However when it comes out in the same conversation that Michelle, who had been flush the previous evening with her newfound importance, respect and success, and consequently spreading her advice and wisdom all over the place, also interfered in Fanny's love life to the complete detriment of it, Fanny loses her filter, or rather breaks the rose-colored glasses she had been recently seeing Michelle through.

The interference of this woman, her meddling and snark, her unasked for existence, the blame she should bear for her son's death and disappearance, all come out. Not with tears and screams and guns and a psychotic break, but with control, and astonishment, and such brief, pointed disappointment that you know, even if Michelle were not the kind of woman who always ran from conflict and never grew roots, you just know she can't stay in Paradise anymore. (Major props to the versatile and talented Kelly Bishop, one of many Sherman-Palladino players that she brought back in this show.)

This conflict (yes, something happened; Sherman, while maybe more interested in filling her seasons with small town life and first world problems, surely knows how to make memorable finales and premieres) is followed by a dream sequence. While I had been longing to see Michelle sing and dance again, as well as some reunion of her and Hubbel and their unresolved romance, this wasn't my favorite part of the show.

First of all, I'm pretty sure Sutton Foster could do a better version of Maybe This Time than she gave us. Yes, she was a Vegas, Broadway dancer, but she's also well trained and clearly a good actor, so aside from mimicking past dream performances as well as her catastrophic non-audition in the pilot, the table-gyrating and leg crossing didn't seem to fit the song. An erect, minimal cocktail lounge type of performance would have been better. But I understand that she's a dancer and can accept the routine. The singing one loves that song more than me, and since it's often repeated a more thrilling version would be expected. (If Kristin Chenowith can kill it on Glee, I don't think Sutton should have any trouble--a comparison I'm sure she'd want to win.)

Regardless, the intent was clear and hit the appropriate nerve, and despite a couple clunky dream-dialogue-lines, seeing Hubbel was poignant and illustrated how much more positive and hopeful Michelle had become, only to see the old&new self-doubt more sharply, starkly, crushingly felt by her in comparison.

Her inevitable slinking departure occurred after waking from this dream, and the O Captain, My Captain of the girls was just like the show: funny, referential, sweet, and sad. Michelle grew to love them, and they her. With her in their lives the girls had changed; Sasha got through a dark time (and might have found a male counterpart in her identity struggle who happens to be cute.) Boo overcame diffidence and immature fantasy for a self-possession and an actually affectionate romance. Ginny began living life rather than following a routine, despite the inevitable unexpected pain that brings. And Melanie...well Melanie became a better friend, and no doubt feels more comfortable as a tall woman with Michelle around.

In their great wisdom, ABC Family has ordered more episodes, likely to air during Spring of next year. The fun part will be seeing where Michelle goes after leaving (back to Vegas? staying with the playwright? hopefully NYC) and how she'll find her way back to Paradise (Fanny tracks her down? the girls do? the unalterable fact that she owns the school and the house?) There's a lot to work with, and I have no doubt Sherman has some good ideas.

But it's not just her long-term plotting that makes her shows such pleasant experiences. It's that she focuses on the experience more than the plot. If you haven't seen this show, pre-order that DVD, decant some wine (it takes awhile) and let the story wash over you.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Barrowman and Abs Increase 'Arrow' Hype

It was recently announced that John Barrowman, he of Torchwood and Doctor Who fame, will be joining the cast of CW's 'Arrow' as a recurring character in this, its pilot season. (His character was not revealed, but let's be honest, he'd be a pretty good villain.)

'Arrow' stars Canadian actor Stephen Amell, whom I most emphatically DO NOT know from such work as Dante's Cove and Queer as Folk, as Oliver Queen, that lesser known vigilante hero of the DC universe who fights crime anonymously with the help of his large personal fortune. Known for his politics, archery prowess, bad temper and bizarre facial hair, one can assume that the CW is taking quite a different approach.

According to reports from San Diego Comic Con, where the pilot episode was screened, their approach has worked. People have raved and the interest in the show is escalating. The casting of John Barrowman is a brilliant move; it will guarantee the attention of sci/fi fans who were watching the Doctor Who reboot even before Matt Smith showed up on all the NYC buses. (Never underestimate that demographic.) Besides, if Barrowman's fans still consider themselves fans, after all those terrible Torchwood episodes, then they'll definitely tune into CW (a network that is clearly targeting the loyal cult fan base by airing Joss Whedon's Internet hit Dr. Horrible on primetime this fall.)

It's also exciting for Barrowman personally who, after literally bringing the Torchwood team to America, is still trying to break into the US market (like most British actors, though he spent many young years in Illinois.) His biggest news was his starring role in Gilded Lilys, a series I thought had much promise, despite the producer credit belonging to Shonda Rhimes, a woman who can turn a good idea into an insufferably dated, sentimental, cheesy, badly written schlockfest, when she's not picking righteous, hypocritical, racist fights with Amy Sherman-Palladino, a woman who actually knows how to write a television show.

OK, mini-rant over, sorry. Gilded Lilys was about a family of aspiring hoteliers in NYC in the early 1900s. I had the same idea of a grand period show after reading the fantastic book When The Astors Owned New York. To watch not only the remarkable development of Manhattan, but the advent of luxury, the maneuverings of business, the political and social events that were centered in those enormous hotels (from presidential campaigns to salons) all amidst the personal upheavals of an upper-class family and their upstairs/downstairs relations with hotel staff and servants would be overflowing with episodic opportunity.

Unfortunately ABC passed on the pilot. (I blame Shonda, natch.) I suppose it's possible another network could pick it up still, but it's already a bit late in the year marketing wise. Hence it's Barrowman's good fortune to still find himself with a place of some prominence when USA's primetime TV season comes around. And CW's smart move to see his talent, good looks, and loyal fan base.

Judging from initial reactions, DC should really pursue this TV show thing. (Might I suggest/plead for CW to revisit a Gotham Central series? I'm sure Rucka and Brubaker are capable of writing a TV script.) They're clearly skilled when it comes to rebooting entirely or tweaking slightly their characters for new audiences and demographics, and they have a wealth of B or C list street level characters who would flourish on the small screen. Ostensibly 'Arrow' is their test run, their foot in the water as it were, and judging from their marketing plans, it's gonna be a success:

Seriously DC, have I mentioned how brilliant you are? Cause you are. And I love you. Hey Human Resources, call me already. (Too much?)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Return of the Joker

Fans and insiders alike have known about the Joker's impending return this fall, starting with Batman #13, as the five-part Scott Snyder-penned "Death of a Family" story arc kicks into gear. This is Joker's first true starring appearance in The New 52 (an impressive feat to think about; not using the most iconic villain in history for an entire year of an important initiative) and as a result of his initial cameo in Detective Comics #1, where his face happened to be cut off, a new look was designed for him by Snyder's artist Greg Capullo.

Naturally Capullo wanted to keep the new look under wraps until the issue came out, but between the recently released solicitations and teasers, we have a fairly complete picture. Capullo expressed his dissatisfaction with the DC Powers that Be in typical fashion, claiming he is mature enough by now to not inflict property damage with his rage, and hinting at a marketing/editorial conspiracy where they decided to in effect inoculate the public to the massive impending horror the story will bring. This is perfectly in line with the man I saw at the Batman panel of NY Comic Con last year, as well as the one who in an interview, when asked about his reaction to getting to draw Joker, explained that "Well, as soon as I heard, my pants got very tight and my nipples stiffened." Thus confirming my theory that artists should generally not be interviewed (and Germany loves David Hasselhoff.)

In truth the new Joker is rather disturbing. He was not terribly comforting or aesthetically pleasing before, but the childlike aspect of his image, the purple suit and the flower (when you overlook that it shoots acid) felt familiar, somewhat comforting, and even enhanced the surprising nature of his psychopathy. Now with his face cut off, and him forced to quite literally hold his deviant smile in place, he has become physically separated from his familiar iconic deformities. A villain who already had considerable personality issues before he was able to remove his face was scary enough.

"Death of the Family" is obviously a twist on the Batman story "Death in the Family" in which the Joker famously takes a crowbar to Jason Todd and ends his tenure as Robin (by popular consent.) While I know no details, it seems Mr.s Snyder and Capullo have committed themselves entirely to a pure injection of the horror genre into the flagship Batman title. While the Court of Owls story that preceded it gave us a long elaborate plot with re-imaginings of Batman's very role and Gotham's past, not to mention the history and humanity of Bruce Wayne himself along with some pleasing superheroics, "Death" is shaping up to be a short, quick, intense dive into the horrific. According to Snyder Joker is a villain with a plan, armed with knives and traps, looking to shock and with a deliberate mission. The title of the arc implies that not everyone is making it out alive (look for great Robin and Batgirl confrontations) but Snyder is also comparing it to Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum, making it his definitive take on Joker and attempt to make us remember his capacity for evil. Combining the unsettling, moody manipulations of Hitchcock with the gore and violence and malevolence of modern grindhouse and torture blockbusters, I can quite honestly see Snyder scaring the bejeezus out of me. And as glad as I am Capullo has no hand in the dialogue, the idea of his newly redesigned Joker showing up in my apartment has a completely different effect on the state of my pants.