Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Life on Mars (US) - Pilot Remake

Remember this? This was a June entry in this blog, comparing two lines from various makes of the show Life on Mars. The former was from the UK version, starring John Simm, the latter from the US pre-air pilot released over the summer and widely panned.

TYLER: I used to come here. I bought my first… Gary Numan. ‘Cars’.

SAM TYLER: I used to get all my CDs here.

This is what I wrote about these two lines, summing up my views on the pre-air episode:

The first is precise, human, delighted with the memory, evocative, and harkens back to another era, if not quite this one. It reveals detail about the character.

The second is boring, entirely uninventive, vague, and perhaps refers to the very first years of the 21st century, when Sam bought ‘his CDs’. I understand that the choice of artist might need to be different, as may the language used to express the sentiment, but that doesn’t mean that a slick, fat line can be replaced by a shoddy thin one. The lines were there for the adapters (Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Scott Rosenberg) to see. They turned a fat line into one there purely for plot purposes.

But there's a new contender for this line. Yes, they remade the episode and wrote a new line for this moment in the show. Here's the new lineup:

SAM TYLER: I used to come here. I bought my first… Gary Numan. ‘Cars’.

TYLER: I used to get all my CDs here.

SAM TYLER: Wow! My mom used to take me here. I bought my first Hall & Oates album-- er, my, my, first Led Zeppelin album here.

Let's pause for a second to review these lines again, because the gods have indeed been kind to us.

Yes, as evidenced by the above dialogue, this new version of the remake is better than the pre-air. In this new version, the writers fixed many of the problems I noted in my original blog post. Whereas the pre-air was bland, uninspired by the era and muddled the characters in such a way that they lost much of their quality, this new pilot captures more of what made the original UK pilot so excellent.

I've heard it said that the pre-air was much closer to this September pilot script-wise, but I would argue that they are both equally distant. While the pre-air kept many of the exact same lines as the UK version, it seemed to stray exactly in the wrong places, muddling the script so much it seemed . The woman police officer in a man's world Annie lost her moment to be the hero, for example, and it was given to the lead Sam. In the September pilot, the line was returned to Annie, but re-written for her. The words are different, but the important bits are once again the same. The writers, who as far as I can tell are the same fellows who wrote the pre-air, seem to have woken up and the show has woken up again with them.

The writing is only part of the improvement. I wrote before about how I felt nothing evocative from the era to which Sam returns. There was no joy in an era long past but still remembered by so many people. This joy is back- perhaps the transplant of the show to New York opened a few doors in the creators memory. The music of the era once again dominates, the culture is vivid, the camera-work, photography and art direction is more inventive, expansive and full of delicious details.

Here's what I said I would like to see in the remake:
A slicker, wittier, more evocative, far more compact, more detailed and more nuanced performance from the writers and cast, and more expansive, scene-sensitive work from the director.
We got all of this. The show was almost ten minutes shorter than the pre-air, getting right to the details with none of the meaningless, slow talk that we saw before. I've already mentioned the increase in details in the writing and the production.

All that remains is the acting and the actors. It was better, even from the lead Jason O'Mara, who was wholly slab-like in the pre-air. The reintroduced details in the script gave everyone, including Jason O'Mara, a little more to cling onto. It is much easier to deliver the first and third lines of dialogue listed above than the middle one. That said, O'Mara still pales in comparison with John Simm's Sam Tyler, as do all the cast, even with the improved script. The only main actor who really seemed to be making the role his own was Harvey Keitel, playing the role of Gene Hunt. Keitel was, like most of the Life on Mars actors, taking over from another actor played in the pre-air by Colm Meaney. Although I preferred the actor playing Annie (Gretchen Mol), I don't think that any of the replacements were necessary. Perhaps the move from Los Angeles to New York played a significant role in which actor were available.

Although this September pilot mostly sticks to the plot of the UK version, there is a small plot change in the way the pilot unfolds, especially towards the end. I didn't mind hugely, except it seemed a little shoddily handled. (An eyebrow-raising key plot detail had to be explained with the the cringeworthy line, "you're not going to believe this, but..."). However, this new show already has several episodes under its belt and needs to tread its own path, even if it means a few missteps at the beginning.

I must say, having three versions of the same television episode made no more than a few years apart is amazing. I doubt it has ever happened before. It is a unique opportunity to really see what makes a show tick and what makes it grind to a halt.

Will I watch more of Life on Mars? Perhaps. For all the improvement on the dire pre-air it has achieved, the US show must make itself stand apart from the UK show before it can truly catch my attention as the original did. The good news is that from what I've heard it has improved, which is a good thing from a reasonably promising beginning.

I just wonder what was going through the writers heads when they wrote that pre-air.

Friday, November 7, 2008

An American in America

It must be strange to be an American this week. So many people overseas and not-so-overseas were following this election that it almost seemed as if President-Elect Obama had been elected President of the World, not just one of the United States of America.

I was just beginning to pay attention to government and international relations when President Bush was elected, so for me it feels like Bush has been president forever. It's a shock when I hear a voice on the radio speaking with similar authority but in such an entirely different way. Bush is folksy. He makes foreign policy sound like a very complicated discussion on what kind of barbecue sauce to use.

Obama is the complete opposite: in his much-applauded acceptance speech at midnight on November 5th, Obama promised his daughters a puppy. Discussion about the type of puppy Obama will get for his girls has been rampant. I heard a response from Obama on this topic and the President-Elect can make a discussion about what kind of puppy he's getting sound as serious (although not as complicated) as foreign policy.

Whatever you may think about Obama's policies (more about them later), he will certainly be a very different type of politician. Obama is a fairy-tale President. It's an enlightening coincidence that in the lovely movie Dave, Dave is the 44th president and, at the end, runs on a slogan of change. Dave is an Obama president. Or Obama is a Dave president. Both fulfill an idealism imagined in the fairy-tale world of stories. Obama is an American among Americans.

What kind of resistance will the politics of hope receive among a real population? Can Obama pull off the kind of change he outlines at change.gov? What does the fairy-tale look like when it is put into action on earth? I look forward to finding out.

You will hear more from me about this subject. I'm not an American, but I live less than an hour from the border. And Barack Obama may not be my President-Elect, but his approach to this election has actually elevated his candidacy past the mere winning of the presidency of America. He has in fact managed to centre himself- at least for a brief period- as one of the first new, truly electric leaders of the almost entirely interconnected Earth of the 21st century and this millennium.

Stay safe, Barack Obama. We all want to see what you can do.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Review: Merlin (Pilot)

This review contains no plot spoilers.

British mythical history is a rich resource that television loves to mine. Doctor Who is arguably a new vein; the adventures of Robin Hood an old one. None, though, is quite so old as King Arthur of Camelot. Merlin delves into Camelot from, obviously, Merlin's point of view- through the eyes of a young man with rather astonishing skills.

I think that the makers would have had to try very hard to leave nothing worth watching, but there is more than just competence here.

First, some parametres. Merlin is a light ahistorical 'family' show- more so than Robin Hood or especially the new Doctor Who ever were. The pilot, at least, has a relatively simple story and the magical aspects usually lean towards the humorous/corny, a fact not due to the special effects themselves, but to the way they are included. However, the show is well written, well-acted, well-produced, interesting, funny and entertaining.

A few things stand out for me in this first episode of what promises to be an excellent show. The first was the dialogue: it is good. For a show that delves into high fantasy (an area avoided by most television due to the difficulties of pulling off the word 'destiny'), having solid dialogue is of the utmost importance. Merlin has managed to do this and it gives the entire production- the acting especially- something solid to stand on.

Or perhaps it is the actors that can make the dialogue sound convincing. This is not a deep drama, but the cast is one that could easily handle something far more complex. We have Buffy's Anthony Stewart Head playing a rather more believable-and-interesting-than-normal 'bad' character. I was delighted to see Eve Miles (Torchwood, Doctor Who) also being highly convincing, and Richard Wilson, who I didn't recognize but has an extensive, high-quality and wide-ranging repertoire of television and film experience that is clear in the first few minutes of his appearance.

Merlin himself, the keystone of the show, is another Doctor Who actor, Colin Morgan. He's got little beyond Doctor Who in his imdb profile but the choice was precisely the right one. He's captured a youth delighted with a new city, over his head in a number of ways but intelligent and confident to act as he sees fit. He brings humor and believability to the role of Merlin and tightly ties the show together.

I can see how this show could disappoint some. It pays no little to other Arthur myths or timelines, or to the real history of Britain. It is not as dark as it could be, nor as complex.

And yet this first episode is solidly written and acted, highly entertaining and hints at greater things to come. It is an apologetically modern, fantastical take on a tale rich with detail to pick and choose from. I hope it continues to develop into its own version of the King Arthur legend, to draw on complex themes alongside the childlike glee it has begun with.

I'm looking forward greatly to the next episode, and what more can you ask for?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Extraordinary People

Canada’s role on the world stage stands on the brink of a knife. We have all that it takes to say, “Here we are, world; this is the future; Canada is the future.”

Canada is the second largest country in the world. It touches the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It is hugely rich in all vital basic resources: water, energy, food, minerals. It is not militaristic. It has a reasonably stable economy when its closest ally flounders in economic confusion. It is successfully multicultural and increasingly so. It values education, intelligence, tolerance, ideas. It prospers.

It seems to have everything required to take the future in our grip. We do not have to merely be competent; we do not have to copy everyone else's methods.

So what should we do to turn that corner and set along that path of being the country of the twenty first century? Should we imprison our youth for their entire lives, increasing the prison population and achieving little else in the process? Should we eschew those who value creativity and invention as if there is some real distinction between us (‘ordinary people’) and them? Should we subvert environmental issues in lieu of economic ones and lose out on a chance to promote Canada as one of the first truly environmentally conscious nations?

I do not think that these ideas will help Canada very much.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Canada, with all its wonderful wildlife and landscape that has historically been so integral to the development of this modern nation, became known world wide as a country that successfully combined energy, mineral and food production with stringent environmentally-conscious efforts? Canada has that chance.

Wouldn’t it equally be amazing if Canadian arts- no, not only Canadian arts, but Canadian invention, Canadian science, Canadian engineering, Canadian creativity- became not only renowned and respected worldwide but also sought after, inviting in droves of budding intelligences to learn and then return to their home nations taking their Canadian values of tolerance and education with them? Canada has that chance.

Wouldn’t it also be great to demonstrate to the world that a multicultural nation can work and work very well? That it can be richer in every area for being tolerant, accepting and even forgiving. That it can be environmentally conscious without sacrificing economic stability. That it can be tough and seek justice without becoming militaristic. That ‘ordinary people’ excludes no single group.

I’m not targeting a sole party leader here, although I am using one particular party’s ideology to illustrate my concerns. Canada has such potential the air in this massive, incredible nation should be palpable with possibility and yet people would rather vote south of the border. We have so much going for us and yet we flounder.

Somebody, please think firmly of that future- one of intelligence, education, environmental consciousness, arts, science, invention, tolerance, multiculturalism, peace, justice, cities and great empty landscapes, imagination and reality- and at least try, at least try, to grab a hold of it and hold on with all your might.

Because we can be that country.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review: The Mentalist (Pilot)

Concept-related spoilers. It would be difficult to discuss the show without these spoilers but I highly recommend watching it without preconceptions, as I did.

The Mentalist, according to imdb, is a show about a ' A mentalist turned private investigator [who] uses his skills to help the police.' However, this show isn't the science fiction show I thought it was going to be. Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), uses- gasp!- his mind and his astonishing eye for detail in order to help the FBI. It's incredible that the show comes across as refreshing given its obviousness.

The show is good. Simon Baker plays a sly, frank, deadpan, impersonal character that seems to manage to dominate every scene in a very understated way. The character invites comparisons to Sherlock Holmes but manages just to sidestep being an updated version of the character along the lines of Gregory House. This gives the show its surprisingly refreshing feel.

The writing is very sharp and slick, going straight to the point, or keeping back from its audience unimportant information until it sees fit to let us know. Like its main character, the whole tone of the show is understated, although not particularly always surprising. This is not a show where the audience is kept guessing for very long at all. The Mentalist is nevertheless interesting enough too keep us watching throughout, using instead wit and intelligence to capture and hold its audience enthralled. It's not a whodunnit or a howdunnit, but a how-will-he-get-them and perhaps that's another reason it doesn't feel like just another crime show (which it in very many ways entirely is.)

The supporting cast is somewhat standard but promises good things- looks like we might be delving into subjects that don't come up very often in a serious fashion in North American TV. Religion and the supernatural are skirted around, ignored and often complicated by the presence of fantastical elements, but here the characters met them head on- and rather uncomfortably. More particularly, Robin Tunney (you may recognize her as the deathly ill kindergarten teacher from the very first episode of House) was especially convincing and likeable in her role.

There were a quite a few moments of delight, especially at the beginning of the show. There is certainly enough sly humour on the part of the main character to bring us safely through the darkness, which there promises to be plenty of. Overall, this was a very solid pilot which is most notable for its powerful, fascinating main character.

I'm interested to see how well this premise holds up over time. Can The Mentalist's brand of magic tricks pull out a new show every week?

The pilot reaches television on September 27th.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dramatic Times

Some of the metaphors used to describe the troublesome economic situation in one edition of the CBC News:

"necrotizing flesh"



Monday, September 8, 2008

Review: The Middleman (2008)

This review contains only very general spoilers for the show The Middleman.

There's a new television superhero on the block. His name is The Middleman and he is very silly and a little bizarre, but highly entertaining.

The Middleman is a new American television show based on the graphic novels of Javier Grillo-Marxuach (a writer I was surprised to find on the other end of that link worked on the first two seasons of Lost, among other things) and Les McClaine (the artist). Grillo-Marxuach is the writer and producer for the show, which I suppose makes him show runner.

We've had rather a lot (too many?) superhero shows and films lately. Most put traditional superheroes in the 'real' modern world. Smallville is still puttering along, tracing the tumultuous life of a young Superman. Tobey Maguire has just signed up for two more Spiderman movies. Batman has of course recently hit the big screen for another of the darkest re-imagining of a superhero's story ever.

Among all these, The Middleman might seem like a rehash, capitalizing on the popularity of the genre. 2007's embarrassingly bad Flash Gordon is an example of a superhero show gone horribly wrong. And yet, The Middleman manages to sidestep both the pitfalls of being yet another superhero-in-the-real-world show as well as all the problems in being what it is-- a show that makes fun of the traditional and modern superhero genre. The result is bizarre and silly, but ultimately a fun, cheerful romp through a familiar landscape.

IMDB characterizes The Middleman as a drama, but it's not. It's a comedy. It's one large, constant joke. If there was a laugh track, there wouldn't be anywhere to put it in. The funny is in the characters, in the dialogue, in the situations, in the monsters, aliens and arch-nemesii that populate each episode, and even in the onscreen place labels.

The characters, especially The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) himself, are deliberate stereotypes of the genre. However, this very fact sets them apart. The Middleman is so stereotypical, he is unusual. Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), the young artist who becomes The Middleman's sidekick has her own stereotype crosses to bear but again the stereotype becomes part of the character, rather than the other way around. The result is undeniably quirky but (of course) loveable characters.

The whole show coasts on this principle. Instead of avoiding cliche, The Middleman embraces it wholeheartedly and unashamedly. Dialogue, the monster of the week, jokes, scenes, plot elements, music, forth-wall-breaking-comments... all manage to avoid the horrible wincing of cliche by being entirely cliche.

There are moments, yes, especially early on, when this principle doesn't always work. This is the case with almost all pilots of shows, however. The first episode or two, the actors haven't quite figured out how to deliver lines writers haven't quite figured out how to write. The Middleman is no exception to this. However, the pilot moves with such lightening speed that there's little time to wince, and once it truly gets going, there's no stopping it.

It's not the dark superhero show brooding in a pile of gore and angst we've all come to know and love. It's lighthearted and sustains a low hum of hilarity throughout. The Middleman does what every TV show yearns to do: It pulls it off.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Reoccuring Plotline: The Deadly Antarctica/Arctic Virus

Due to its nature this post contains general spoilers for a number of episodes of a couple of shows, but not specific ones unless you follow the links and read in detail.

I'm sure you've noticed. There are certainly plotlines that occur again and again in science fiction shows. Writers seemingly can't seem to avoid doing their own version of these reoccurring plotlines. I like to play snap with plotlines and I thought that when I come across three shows that contain the same plot I would share it with you.

One that occurs quite often and is strikingly similar in its basic plot elements is The Deadly Antarctica Virus story.

The story goes like this:

A team of Gentle Bearded Scientists (never the main characters) on remote research base in Antarctica or the Arctic make a biological discovery. It can be botanic, zoological, bacteria or 'unknown', but it is always dormant in its frozen state. However, this biological always has the same effect: almost immediately, this biological turns out to have a disease or have disease-like qualities. Gentle Bearded Scientists start acting strangely and/or fall sick.

The Main Characters arrive at the base either because of the discovery or because of the reported strangely-acting Gentle Bearded Scientists. They always arrive before the infection is truly apparent or taken hold and so never take precautions against infection.

However, once the Main Characters are on site, the situation rapidly goes downhill. One Gentle Bearded Scientist likely dies. As the plot progresses, one or more main characters might become infected. The Main Characters must battle against not only an infection that not only kills its carriers, but often turns them into murdering maniacs. The virus often has the added danger of destroying the world should it escape from the remote base (due to its ancient or alien nature).

The situation is remedied by the Main Characters and the few remaining Gentle Bearded Scientists, who in this story are the Red Shirts (for the uninitiated, a term originating in the original series of Star Trek that means they are expendable characters used to raise the stakes of the story by dying.) As always, the world is saved. The biological is never preserved, whatever it is.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you've seen this plotline in Stargate SG-1? Or maybe you've seen it in The X-Files? (If you count the movie, twice). If you're like me, and have a fondness for rather old science fiction, you may have seen it in Doctor Who (those are my three examples). Perhaps there are other shows that I've overlooked that also contain the Deadly Antarctica Virus in one form or another.

It is of course the remoteness and unusual conditions of the Earth's poles that make it an attractive target for writers, and not only in Science Fiction. House, for example, once diagnosed a patient in Antarctica. The first season of ReGenesis revolves around a Deadly Arctic Virus (although not an ancient or alien one). Antarctica is the only continent that is mysterious to us temperate creatures. The age of the ice and its preservation properties, the concentration of small groups of humans living in tiny restricted communities on the edge of the world, the ease with which bad weather can cut off communications and travel... all contribute to an exciting alienness that makes Antarctica ideal for a Science Fiction show setting.

And so the Deadly Antarctica Virus is born.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Election (?) Ads

Today while watching CTV's line up of Sunday Night crime shows, I saw two ads which told me how much I should vote for Stephen Harper. "Hold on," thought I. "There's an election?"

Turns out there might be. I guess Harper's people want to get a head start if they've already started running the election ads. Harper is tough on crime, good for veterans and mustachioed middle-aged men with hair like Harper's, bleached-blonde mothers with their blonde kids in parks, and young, neat Asian women who no doubt represent the 'safe' portion of the immigrants in Canada. The whole ad is topped off by a (creepily) smiling Harper.

I can only imagine two things. One, Harper's people don't know that the ads aren't terribly inspiring. Two, they're not looking for votes outside of the constituencies defined above, and are only trying to remind people within the middle-aged-men-with-mustaches-and-oddly-bad-hair constituency that Harper's their man, and he's no Stephane Dion (I'd like to point out that "squeak" is spelled wrong there).

Either way. I guess we're (Canadians) having an election, too. We should totally have it the same day as the Americans. That would be awesome.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Number of Medals to Population

Because it makes the most sense to do this. Conclusion: Smaller countries produce higher ratios of medals to population.

Population numbers taken from Google's response. Medal count as of about 11:15pm EST (11:1 am Beijing) today (Tuesday EST, Wednesday Beijing).

New Zealand: 1 medal to 514,471 people

Jamaica: 1 medal to 556,026 people

Australia: 1 medal to 583,833 people

Denmark: 1 medal to 911,353 people

Britain: 1 medal to 1,841,704 people

S. Korea: 1 medal to 2,043,532

Canada: 1 medal to 2,568,472 people

Germany: 1 medal to 2,942,893 people

Russia: 1 medal to 3,366,136 people

USA: 1 medal to 3,811,898 people*

Japan: 1 medal to 5,792,431 people

China: 1 medal to 17,392,788 people

India: 1 medal to 1,129,866,154 people

Congratulations to New Zealand, Australia and Jamaica.

Obviously, there needs to be some kind of shift for lower population values, and also one for the age range of available athletes. Some countries will have more children or more adults too old to compete in most sports. I'd love to see this done properly.

*Eight of these medals are one man's, so the US is producing fewer Olympians than this number implies. This is true for any repeat medal-winners, such as Usain Bolt of Jamaica. This is another thing to consider.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mr. Whedon and the Conclusion of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog


So, if you're on top of things at all you will have hopefully seen the third and final episode of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. May I remind you again that this post contains Major Spoilers, although I'll try not to spell it out so if you're skimming it over you won't see it. There are also very vague spoilers for all of Whedon's work, so if you want to experience the full effect, don't read this post.

Joss Whedon is one of my favourite writers. I think he's a pretty special guy, especially in his own genre: television. His characters- villains and heroes both- are vivid and unforgettable, each stealing the show as he or she and very occaisionally 'it' passes through, be it for an extended period or simply for one episode. His dialogue is always witty and funny and I think he makes it easy for other writers to write the same witty, funny dialogue for his characters. His plots are gripping, hilarious, surprisingly deep and moving and- on many occaisions- horribly tragic.

However, that doesn't mean that he does have his foibles. Many of Whedon's most ardent fans are able to peg down his style, knowing when he is likely to kill off a beloved character. Like all writers- like everyone in the world- he has a tendency to walk the same path again and again.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog captures Whedon in all his glory. Including, and here's the spoiler, the tragic ending. I have a love-hate relationship with Whedon's tragic endings. By far, the most moving episodes of television I have watched have been Whedon's. I know the traditional Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode to name in this context is The Body, but I put forth The Wish for equal consideration. And then there's of course the final episode of the Buffy television series, among many others. In the Buffy spinoff, Angel, there are a similar number of tragic episodes. And finally there's the movie Serenity which was the capstone of the short-lived but fabulous tv series Firefly, that I have on good authority makes strong men weep.

So Joss Whedon likes to make us cry. What of it? Why am I writing an entire post about this?

Whedon is very cruel to his audience. He knows what the worst case scenario is. He knows who and what we hold dear. Although many of his fans, as I mentioned before, have learned to expect the tragic conclusion or shocking (also tragic) twist, he still manages to surprise us and break our hearts.

It is what brings us back again and again that interests me. Whedon is very dark, but he's more of a realist than a pessimist. People die; Whedon's 'tragedies' acknowledge this, but he's not pessimistic about it. Whedon's deaths, especially the ones that have no episodes following them in which to heal the wound, often have twists that follow them that allow us to look through the tears and smile about it in the end. Think of the end of Serenity, the ultimate end of Buffy and- here in particular interest- the end of Dr. Horrible. Instead of leaving us down and destroying our faith in all that is good and holy, Whedon turns the end up just a very little, and gives us a little hope.

It has been noted by watchers more astute than I that whereas at the beginning of the 'blog' Dr. Horrible is expressing himself through the blog and the public figure is the mousy Billy, this is reversed at the end of the show. Dr. Horrible is very much the public figure and Billy, shown in the last scene, is expressing himself through the blog.

The final line of the show is, "I won't feel a thing." Whedon and his Dr. Horrible comrades have Dr. Horrible, garbed in red, conscience-free, boldly sing, "I won't feel..." then cut beautifully to a very sad, unconvinced Billy facing the camera in his video-blog position, who finishes the sentence with "... a thing." The sentence is complete, but the musical phrase does not end in a satisfying manner.

Not only does the Billy side of Dr. Horrible, however beaten, get the final word, he gets to say it in a way that makes it very clear that he does feel. He feels it very much so. His conscience is still there, crushed but present and, because of that incomplete musical phrase. And that is the little smile at the end of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, betraying the inner core of optimism that keeps us, Whedon's beleaguered but adoring audience, coming back- able to come back- for more.

Now go watch it all again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Review: Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog (Act I)

Joss Whedon is changing the world. Well, television. Well, internet television.

In a moment of madness brought on by the writer's strike, Whedon- the writer of such beloved shows as Buffy, Angel and, relatively recently, the tragically murdered Firefly- along with a few friends and relatives, decided to turn their sights on low budget internet media far too silly for real television. The result was Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. That link is to a fan site. Why? Because at the time of this post, the real site is down due to the huge numbers of people attempting to watch Act I which was released early this morning.

Dr. Horrible is a three-act of fifteen-minutes-an-episode musical show that is almost, but not quite, as silly is as it sounds. The main character is a wannabe super villain (Neil Patrick Harris) and the antagonist a superhero (Firefly's Nathan Fillion). It's hugely adorable. Despite being only fifteen minutes long, the first act is so full of stuff that it feels much longer. It's got loads of funny, romance, action, science fiction and yep- songs. It's better than any show like it.

But as Whedon and interviewer C.A. Bridges note in this interview, there isn't really anything like it. Dr. Horrible is something new. It is internet media written and acted at the same calibre (above the same calibre) as anything on the major television networks. It doesn't need to conform to any standard rules, and so it's not only very good, it's fresh in a delightful, hilarious, adorable way.

Although the official site is down, you can get it from iTunes or pirate it directly- with a few audio/video errors- from a torrent site. (What!? How am I going to get into the Evil League of Evil if I don't cultivate my skills?)

Tell your friends.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

On Absent Parents

This entry contains very mild spoilers for the movie Spiderwick.

So, I just watched Spiderwick, which is a well-made, reasonably well written, funny kids’ fantasy movie (I’ve not read the book- shockingly- so I can’t tell you how it measures up). No, it hasn’t got the depth or startling newness that other fantasies have, but it’s certainly worth watching.

However, this is not the focus of this entry. After watching the film I headed over to rottentomatoes.com, which for those of you who do not know (!) collates reviews from various sources and, based on what the reviewers say, gives each movie a rating. It’s a good source of all kinds of reviews.

Because I enjoyed Spiderwick, I was more interested in the negative reviews. Most were along the lines of it being fairly run of the mill as far as plot goes. However, one by Cynthia Fuchs focused on a different problem. She writes:

“As Spiderwick keeps time with the notion that kids’ fantasies must feature bad, absent, or otherwise troubling parents, it also offers precious little in the way of clued-in adults or even adults with a modicum of competence in dealing with their children’s fears or worries.”

She’s right, of course, that children’s fantasy contains many bad or absent parents. Think of the Narnia series, of many of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, of A Little Princess, of Roald Dahl and of Harry Potter. Parents are dead, missing, lacking in some way or simply unimportant. Even when parents and family are present and important, such as in Susan Cooper’s Dark series, they are rarely part of the adventure.

But why is this the case in so many of the most beloved series?

Any child knows the answer. Parents, of course, are the barrier between children and the adventures they imagine they would have without them. Parents put their children to bed on time, make them eat their vegetables, make them go to school. Without parents, there are dragons and demons and all kinds of nasties and wonderfuls waiting just around the corner. A child alone is a child on the brink of adventure: they must be brave, and clever, and resourceful, even noble and powerful.

(Not in reality of course, but in fiction and imagination, which is where kids and authors- hopefully- live.)

A child in a fantasy world most often knows things the adults around him or her do not know, or can see things that adults cannot see. This secret knowledge is central to children’s imagination, even if they tell the nearest ear all about it. Even if the knowledge is very mundane, pretty much all children think they know things better than adults. Adults are, in a child’s viewpoint, constantly thinking about the time, and work, and the next thing, and oh-my-god-what-am-I-going-to-cook-for-dinner-tonight. Their minds, in a child’s view, are too busy to perceive the magic going on all around them. Almost every fictional series has the younger members of the group believing- and seeing- first. Think of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door: it is Charles Wallace who sees the ‘dragons’ in the vegetable garden. And the Murray family is hardly a normal family.

Adults not believing kids is part of this, which is why so many of these stories have a scene where the truth is revealed. The child is right. The adult is wrong. No, it’s not a reflection of reality. Only adults want to read books where there isn’t really a drove of dragons in the vegetable garden.

In this age, where kids are never far from adult supervision, it’s not really all that surprising that orphans thickly populate the pages of fantasy fiction.

Is this such a problem as Cynthia Fuchs thinks it is? In my view, no. Decidedly, no.

The only people who might mind about the portrayal of parents are parents themselves. Children aren’t reading these books and watching these movies and thinking “Hm, parents obviously are supposed to be absent and mean. What are my kind, caring parents who visit me in the middle of the night when I think I hear something go bump doing wrong?”

And nor is it teaching children that parents are wrong. Most books don’t contradict the normal things that parents say (eat your vegetables, it’s bedtime). Children know that what is happening in the book is complete fiction. It’s a different child, in a different world, with different parents.

If anything, stories like these give children the opportunity to not only dream about adventure, but also the independence they will some day have to embrace (that is a lot more complicated than even the trickiest story describes). Characters in these books are brave, kind and ingenious; the stories are often about finding your true strength in the absence of the protective shield that exists most of the time in the real world. It’s not a bad thing for a child to mentally practice that kind of independence and moral behaviour in complete safety.

And if by chance there is a child who does experience this kind of trauma, what better chance to escape than to a world where the child is powerful and can escape from evil forces? Most of these children find wise, kind parental surrogates who guide them in their adventures. Even happy children can relate to that kind of outsider validation.

All in all, the absent parent does no harm, except to over-anxious and less-absent parents. It sets up the ideal dream adventure world for the reading child, and maybe even helps them on the all-important road towards growing up themselves.

Review: Wanted (2008)

Summer movies are like Coca Cola. Drink it carbonated, and the bubbles hide the less-than-inspiring flavour and the cloying sweetness. Drink it flat… well, how many people do you know that drink (and like) flat coke?

Wanted, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, is a perfect example of a carbonated movie. Drink it bubbly, full of fights, violence, bullets and explosions, pretty people (James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie), hero moments, reasonably good acting, lots of CGI, and a few interesting plot points, and it is a good summer movie.

However, drink it flat, and you’re left with a bit of a mess. In Wanted, the laws of physics are not only absent they are ludicrous, you see the ‘twists’ coming a mile away, the guiding principle of the movie is more ludicrous than the physics and the characters are ambiguous in their motivations.

Wanted marches boldly beyond normal action movie amorality into a kind of blind amoral madness that is only emphasized further by the movie’s premise. This is so stringent at the end of the movie that I was wondering if the movie was more supposed to be a kind of reverse morality like this Berenstain Bears book (“This is what you should NOT do.”) A little research proved this theory correct, in a manner of speaking: the script is an adaptation of a comic book series of the same name (by J.G. Jones and Mark Millar) which boldly embraces the ludicrously amoral main character.

Sadly, this clarity of vision is lost in the screenplay- perhaps by mistake, perhaps by design. Instead, we are left with a character who asserts morality in fits and spurts, apparently following some inner moral compass that is in reality mostly (but not entirely) ignored. In all… a bit of mess that is carried off solely by carbonated bubbles of gunfire.

Needless to say, Wanted (rated 18A, entirely for violence) is pretty bloody. It’s bloody in slow motion! It’s bloody in real time! It’s bloody for extended periods dedicated entirely to blood! Luckily, there’s a plot device to allow large amounts of gore in a short time without having the characters wind up in a hospital bed for a couple of months.

So, if you’re looking for something carbonated, something a little amoral (but not deep or thoughtful about it), something without the laws of physics or logic, and something a lot gory, Wanted is your ideal summer movie.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review: Leverage (Pilot)

There’s nothing more adorable than television crooks, and the new show Leverage has the most adorable crooks I have ever seen. Like Fringe and the US Life on Mars, the available episode of Leverage is a pre-air pilot, presumably released to spark interest. However, where Fringe and Life on Mars have had respectively prompted a mixed reception and an entire remake, Leverage seems to have done what it set out to do.

I’ve been complaining a lot about character development in these new pilots, but Leverage doesn’t have any of the problems that Fringe and Life on Mars exhibited. Instead of fumbling with poor dialogue, the writers of Leverage go (Dean Devlin, John Rogers) directly to the point of the characters, providing a snapshot of a moment that tells you who the person is.

This technique wouldn’t work for every show, but it works for this one because Leverage is a lighthearted, funny show that allows for that kind of thing. However, the characterization doesn’t stop there. The characters act and speak in ways that are consistent with their established personalities, or personalities that become more apparent as the show goes along.

And does it ever go along. If Leverage does have a few weaknesses it gets away with them by being slick, speedy and funny. When we are laughing, we are too delighted with the joke to poke holes in the show. When each scene is just as long as it needs to be, and reasonably fat with content, we are not languishing around, we are on the edge of our seats. A tight show can get away with a few flaws.

All shows have flaws. In Leverage, Beth Riesgraf, playing a character who is supposedly insane, does not quite manage to capture a woman who doesn’t quite have her marbles. She more seems as if she is pretending to be insane to get away with being slightly different. The result is that Riesgraf is almost, but not quite, perfect for the role (there are moments that are great). I feel that if the intention of the writers and directors is to have her be genuinely unhinged, it will not take much to get the actress there.

The other characters, as I mentioned above, are adorable. I’d seen a younger Christian Kane in Angel before, and he was perhaps better in Leverage; his role fit him like a glove. Gina Bellman and Aldis Hodge were great and immediately loveable. Timothy Hutton was immediately charismatic as the ‘Danny Ocean’ character, and when depth was required in an otherwise lighthearted show, depth he had.

My main fear for this show is that it will not manage to keep itself together. I love the lightheartedness of it, and it has great episodic Chuck-like potential, but I’m worried that it will be too happy-go-lucky for its own good. It calls itself a drama, but it was more of a comedy-with-serious-bits. (I forget who said that). Hustle, a great British show which is very, very similar to Leverage (Life on Mars US please take note), also makes good use of the comedy inherent in the situation of criminals, but managed a gravitas that never quite crossed all the way over into heavy drama to lose the show’s greatest strength- the humour. I think Leverage must aim for this same balance between the drama masks or risk becoming all fluff.

Backstory tragedy is not enough. If the final scene of the pilot was an indication, I think the writers might have a chance to go a CSI-style route to emotional growth, exploring the individual characters through their interactions during the episode.

What I want to see is stakes for the characters, even if they are small incremental ones. We already love the characters, now let’s see them get caught, be wrong, and grow while retaining at least some of that adorable glow.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for something with a low emotional commitment to lighten your mood, the pilot of Leverage is an excellent 56-minute ride into the totally unreal, adorable world of television criminals.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review: Life on Mars (US) - Pre-Air Pilot

I loved the UK Life on Mars so when I heard there was a pre-air floating around of the US Life on Mars, airing this fall, I snagged it immediately. I thought it would be fun to watch the two together and compare them.

This has minor spoilers on what I consider well-known facts about the show, and a few vague dialogue and character references.

I’m afraid that compared with the sparkling UK show, the US one loses much and adds (almost) nothing to make up for it. The result is a lacklustre copy that leaves you wondering exactly who thought it would be such a good idea to remake, and what exactly they had in mind when they suggested it.

I’ve heard that two of the cast, Colm Meaney (of Star Trek: TNG fame), playing Detective Gene Hunt, and Rachelle Lefevre playing Annie Cartwright, are going to be recast. I’m not sure why this is happening, since they were not the major problem in the episode. The writing was poor, the directing was lacking and Jason O'Mara, playing the main character Detective John Simm, was by far the weakest of the cast.

First of all, if you’re familiar with the UK version, you’ll recognise the plot of the US version. All of the major plot elements are the same, down to, in many cases, the physical attributes of the characters. The setting is LA, rather than Manchester.

However, the US Life on Mars has lost the sharp, slick writing, plot, character development and attention to detail that the UK show immediately demonstrated. In the UK show, which is a whole eight minutes longer than the US version, it takes six or so minutes to get to the moment Sam Tyler time-travels. The US version takes almost twice as long. What is in this extended period of time you ask? Talking about what they’re going to do before doing it. Shoddy conversation presumably intended to develop character. Longer, indistinct fight scenes.

This delay characterizes the pilot in general. What the writers appear to have done is lost details and certain interesting bits of the plot and instead of replacing them with country-appropriate moments of interest, it simply skips them. In order to get up to an average American pilot length (51 minutes), events are slowed down, conversations are longer, scenes flow together in a more languid way. Contrary to popular belief, fight scenes do not build excitement.

For some reason, the dialogue and character development has suffered peculiarly. Although of the dialogue has survived somewhat intact, it is often it is modified or given to another character. In a previous post I argued that this is a good way to adapt, but in this case, the same scene with the same characters exist but the dialogue is exchanged, resulting in less well or re-defined characters. For example: Instead of the main character Sam Tyler being wrong, he is instead made right and the girlfriend (with the tinned characteristic of “spunky”) gets to be wrong. Instead of her getting herself into danger, he sends her into danger. Presumably this is intended to give the character more guilt over what happens, but him being right and then also being responsible for her wholly undermines her character.

This switching of dialogue roles occurs again later on, again resulting in a bit of a muddle. Generally, the main character is given more ‘hero’ moments, instead of being complicated, and showing his intelligence in using other people’s expertise. The character of Annie Cartwright, supposedly the woman in a men’s world who is allowed by the more modern Sam Tyler to show her intelligence, is reduced to spinning camera and romantic music while Detective Tyler gets to answer the question again. (This very much annoyed me.) The choice of actor doesn’t help: Jason O’Mara is a bit of a slab, without the bright-eyed intelligence and nuanced performance given by the less-hunky John Simm.

Two characters from the UK version- the rookie and the enemy- are missing from the US version, and their absence makes the show even sparser. The only new character was an embattled lawyer, who actually introduced a little interest to the show, but his appearances were minimal.

And then there’s the modification of dialogue. Compare these two lines, occurring at the same point in the story, when seeing a familiar music store:

SAM TYLER: I used to come here. I bought my first… Gary Numan. ‘Cars’.

SAM TYLER: I used to get all my CDs here.

The first line is the UK pilot, and John Simm is peering through the stained record shop window in delight (the camera inside the store behind dirty glass, Annie in the background and records in the foreground visible). The second is delivered by Jason O’Hara while crossing the road after seeing the store.

I don’t even know where to start with these two lines. The first is precise, human, delighted with the memory, evocative, and harkens back to another era, if not quite this one. It reveals detail about the character.

The second is boring, entirely uninventive, vague, and perhaps refers to the very first years of the 21st century, when Sam bought ‘his CDs’. I understand that the choice of artist might need to be different, as may the language used to express the sentiment, but that doesn’t mean that a slick, fat line can be replaced by a shoddy thin one. The lines were there for the adapters (Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Scott Rosenberg) to see. They turned a fat line into one there purely for plot purposes.

It is also the director’s fault. His work is also un-evocative. This show is a chance to lovingly reproduce an era that many of his viewers may remember. It might be a chance to bring a new generation into his audience. And yet he does not deliver with this nostalgia. I’m surprised, because the director, Thomas Schlamme, is one who was heavily involved in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The West Wing, both of which I like very much. Thinking about it, both of those shows required much indoor shooting- corridors, rooms, offices etc. Life on Mars is more scenic and those scenic moments is when I noticed the directing lacking.

All in all, I found comparing these two shows a fascinating opportunity. The same plot, reproduced with different writers, cast and crew? Delicious. Sadly, the comparison was not a positive one for the new Life on Mars. Almost every aspect of the US pilot fared poorly. The writing was slow, empty, thin and confused. The directing did not make use of the era, and was not as slick as I would expect. None of the actors shone, although perhaps they were held down by the shoddy dialogue and character development. O’Hara was particularly uninspiring.

What I would like to see: A slicker, wittier, more evocative, far more compact, more detailed and more nuanced performance from the writers and cast, and more expansive, scene-sensitive work from the director.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Review: The Golden Compass (2007)

The Golden Compass, controversial work of Philip Pullman, adapted for the screen this last December by Chris Weitz, who also directed. Rotten Tomatoes gives this film 41% Fresh, which I think is pretty darn right on.

I realize December was six months ago, but there are certain movies that elicit from me a reaction that explodes into a long rant that emerges every time I think about the film in question. This is one of these movies.

There are a few spoilers but nothing remotely major. Apologies for length.

I found The Golden Compass what I'm going to call "enjoyable". Frankly, I expected worse, possibly explaining why I actually rather enjoyed it. The strength of Pullman's wonderful story managed to struggle through the failings of the film, against tough odds. The art direction and costumes were stunning, the acting was good and (although I generally pay little attention to such things) I'm told the animation was excellent.

Sadly, in the areas where it really counts, The Golden Compass was weak. These areas include writing, directing, adaptive inventiveness/imagination and plot logic, so pretty much the things that make a film really good instead of 59% heading-towards-a-new-life-form. A great cast dressed in great costumes wandering aimlessly around a great set cannot quite carry a film by themselves.

I’m going to discuss writing in detail, because it’s what strikes me most. Interestingly, the writing has an odd story. The script was originally written by Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and, although I haven’t, was allegedly slow and ponderous. I can well believe it. Stoppard is brilliant but as far as my experience with his work goes, far too thoughtful for what boils down to a children’s adventure film.

According to the internet, Chris Weitz wrote a fourty-page treatment of the story and was subsequently hired, despite the script already existing. His passion is admirable. The excitement in his script undeniable. According to a New York Times blog the initial Weitz draft, although long, was much better than the finished product. The blog complains that the movie’s trimming ruined the original Weitz adaptation, but I disagree that shorter necessarily has to get so thin and ludicrously cliché as the final product.

Nobody denies the complexity of the plot and characters of this book. Some simplification and modification is inevitable and necessary. The film managed to somewhat do this, reversing the order of elements to give it a more natural, watchable flow of events. However, within the basic framework, the film finds itself weighed down by explicit (as opposed to implicit) exposition and resorts to cliché dialogue, poor logic and tired plot elements.

Part of the problem is caused by simple lack of inventiveness and imagination. In order to modify a well-loved, complex story in such a way to have it fit onto movie-sized screen, some imagination and thought is required. I think this is especially true of fantasy films, where it is necessary to quickly establish an entirely new world in a few minutes. Although I know many people are not huge fans of the Lord of the Rings adaptations, they are nevertheless a good example of an inventive and imaginative adaptation that beautifully conveys a sense of each people it visits without hitting you over the head with a large club. The LOTR books are much longer and yet even the Theatre Releases were bristling with plot. This was not the case with The Golden Compass.

An inventive adaptation expands the basic story down and up, rather than lengthwise. It layers each scene to provide more information than you think you are getting. This is not only using layered dialogue, this is using setting, body language and action to convey plot, character, mood etc. For example, the movie begins well, with the children’s clay-throwing fights described in the second chapter of the book, and yet almost nothing is revealed about the world in this scene that is useful to us in the coming two hours; there’s plenty of time to build Lyra up and all it takes is a well placed clod of clay to make us like her.

What we really need to see is the world and given the way the movie unfolded, what would have been nice would be to set this clay-fight along the river and the gyptians’ longboats. It would have given us a sense of their importance, their culture, could have introduced us to important characters such as Ma Costa. Her calling ‘Billy’ into the dusk would be enough to establish her as a maternal character, introduce the existence of Billy, and, as her voice fades away as we watch Lyra streak towards Jordan College to the next scene, set up a sense of ominousness that did not require the obligatory dark shadow. (Which, if I remember correctly, was employed in the film).

An inventive, thoughtful screenwriter can turn a thin scene into a fat one. They unravel the story and mine the details to put it back together. They should not only provide a competent play-by-play of the plot, but also provide depth, even if that requires shuffling of dialogue, setting and even plot.

This said, I think that one ‘rule’ to think of when writing an adaptation is to not use a new line or scene when an old one will do, even if it’s patched in from the description or another character. Many of the best adaptations make use of the language of their source material liberally interspersed with the new material.

To some extent, Chris Weitz followed this ‘rule’ that I have just invented. However, there are certain instances where his deviations are bizarrely unnecessary. At one point, the little girl Lyra says to another character after a scary moment, “I thought I lost you”, a line that anyone who has read or seen more than a couple of stories knows is far too overused to be used again. Aside from being tired, does anyone really say that, let alone the character Lyra? Here’s what she says in the book: “Let me help you - I want to make sure you e’nt too badly hurt…” We do not need to be told the line “I thought I’d lost you”; the actress was good enough to show us her fear, the original line truncated is enough to show us her concern and, more than that, it reveals things about her character. Her need to do act, rather than talk, for example.

As it stands “I thought I’d lost you,” conveys exactly one thing, and it not a good one.

In all, I disagree with the assertion that a longer script would have been tons better. If the scenes and dialogue were left as-is, with simply more of them, it would have continued to be thin and cliché, if not quite so illogical as before. What the script lacked most was not length, it was depth. Little more than one thing was occurring at once. Ideas were introduced consecutively rather than concurrently. Exposition was clunky, taking up a vast amount of the early dialogue that could and should have been employed much more efficiently.

An adaptation is a challenge not only to trim and rearrange, but also to imagine, to think and to delve. ("When is he going to start delving? I asked myself." - This one's for you, Mr. Stoppard.)

These same ideas apply to the directing. The director can produce a thin film, or he can produce a fat one. It is up to him or her to look beyond the script and pull out things from the book that are not written there. Perhaps it was a bad idea to let Chris Weitz, however competent and passionate and excited he was, to both write and direct alone. A director can bring new ideas to a writer’s script. A director-writer is only bringing to life what he or she wrote. This can work brilliantly, but I feel that in this instance, with a complex story and world to bring to life, the movie would benefit from two separate minds with two separate imaginations.

Review: Fringe (Pilot)

There's a new super-hyped show coming this September, brought to you by J.J. Abrams, the fellow behind Alias and Lost. Somehow, either by mistake or design, the pilot has made it out onto the internets. I was particularly interested in seeing it because I had "casually" (yes, I know nobody really thinks people just "happened to be passing", even if they were) wandered past this show being filmed on location and a shot I had seen being rehearsed or filmed made it into the commercial, which you can see on YouTube.

Having got my hands on a copy of the pilot, I've reviewed the show for general interest's sake. It's non-spoilerish- I've tried to restrict my 'reveals' to things commonly mentioned in descriptions in the show, but like any review, you're going to pick up some idea of the show. If you want it to be entirely new, you shouldn't read reviews at all. :P

I found the pilot mostly competent, but nothing really striking. The whole thing without commercials (obviously) is 81 minutes long, and apparently cost $10 million to make. Presumably, with J.J. Abrams and his frequent co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci at the writing and producing helm, there was a certain amount of carte blanche going on. Perhaps this isn't the best idea. Success tends to make people sloppy.

The opening was grotesque (warning: if you are squeamish, the opening scene might be one to skip) but other than being eye-catching in its grossness, provided little in the way of interest.

The credits were very reminiscent of Lost's. The title and the various place names throughout the show reminded me very much of the words you create in 3D-Max. I think if it was simplicity they were going for they should have got with flat words. The choice to have place-titles as part of the scene itself was pretty interesting but in my opinion stood out as a little gimmicky.

From the opening hook, the plot progressed in a fairly standard manner, introducing the three main characters, all of whom were pretty standard. All three of the main characters seemed to have been given character traits like you buy tins at the supermarket (I'll have a small tin of womanizer, a tin of tough, a tin of mad scientist). None of these traits, or any others, were particularly convincing. The genius (Joshua Jackson) exhibited few signs of extreme intelligence and never once had a chance to use his brain, the mad scientist (John Noble) didn't seem terribly mad (although he got the only humour in the show and fared well for it). The other main character (Anna Torv) was given few individual traits, but seemed to carry the part off reasonably well.

Any tension between the characters was presented with half-hearted dialogue, and quickly dispelled as the plot progressed.

However, I liked Lance Reddick in his role as someone-who-knows-more-than-the-rest-of us. He managed to provide more mystery and ominousness with his obvious dialogue than any scary shrieks and music could summon. I liked to see ReGenesis star Peter Outerbridge passing through; he didn't have much to say, but he did a good job not saying it, if that makes any sense. A woman who I think was played by Charlotte Rampling was suitably evil, but there was nothing unremarkable or new about her portrayal of the Evil Woman character.

Wobbly characterization is normal in a pilot. The writers are still hammering out the ways the characters act and speak and actors are still figuring out who their characters are off the page. However, Fringe does not suffer from this kind of wobbliness. The characters do not make sense, are inconsistent and bland. Any tensions are resolved or swept away far too quickly (although they may be resurrected in episode two, I suppose.)

Thankfully, despite the problems with character, Mr. Abrams delivered an episodic plot that wrapped up at the end of the episode with hints of more X-Files-type plot to come. That said, at the moment, I'm getting little of the sense of gleeful mystery I get from the X-Files. The characters display surprise at or disdain for the various science fictiony bits, but there's no sense of fascination from even the mad scientist. What scientist working at any level doesn't take some kind of fascination in his or her work, let alone somebody working in a field unknown to majority of the world?

What I most enjoyed was seeing the bit of Toronto I've spent the last four years living in, doubling variously as Harvard and Boston. I'm referring to the environs of the University of Toronto. The choice of the new wing of the Royal Ontario Museum as the Evil Corporation was interesting. It was lovely to see University College and Knox College (and even the stump of the CN Tower- I guess they have a giant tower in Cambridge, too) doubling as bits of Harvard. Meehee. And the flashiest bits of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology as a centre of operations. The University of Toronto looks good on camera (you can also see it in The Hulk).

Overall, I think the show suffers from a lack of heart. J.J. Abrams can deliver a reasonably good show- I truly enjoyed the first season of Alias- but here he has barely produced a competent one.vOn top of that, there's a spark that is conspicuously absent from the plot, the dialogue, the characters and the mystery.

What I'm hoping to see: Much better characterization, better dialogue, a slightly less cliché plot. Much more spark.