Monday, March 25, 2013

Top of the Lake

I’m not going to lie. I was in love with this show before the opening credits were over. The imagery was so unique and full of meaning. An elk’s head, a fetus, a photo of a little girl, all buried beneath this incredibly picturesque lake, images of masculine and feminine, all overflowing. I was already deeply impressed, and that’s not even to mention the cast.

The show itself is very much like a New Zealand Twin Peaks or The Killing, telling a long-form mystery over the course of a season, all revolving around a rather unspeakable crime done to a little girl. But, instead of being about death, Top of the Lake is about the pregnancy of twelve year old Tui Mitchum (played by the excellent Jaqueline Joe). Unlike any of its contemporaries, Top of The Lake has a much clearer focus. The fact that this is about a pregnant girl makes the story much more about gender relations than it is about human depravity. The conflict inside Tui, a little girl with an unwanted boy growing inside her, really captures what the show is trying to tell us about human beings. This strange and unsettling conflict of the internal war between genders lives in every character.

There are two clear story arcs for this show. The first features Tui’s father, Matt Mitchum (played by Peter Mullan, a veteran character actor and an absolute joy to watch on screen) and his Neanderthal sons pitting themselves against a women's retreat, lead by a strangely gender neutral Holly Hunter. And while there’s comedy in watching Mullan being forced to listen to a long insane story about a woman and her chimp boyfriend, there’s also a clear meaning. This intersection of heightened masculinity and vaguely tortured femininity is the focal point of the show. Having the woman detail a failed relationship with a primate is really the cherry on top.

The second story arc is about a detective (played by Elizabeth Moss), working for child services, trying to find out who impregnated little Tui. She has a host of possible suspects. Moss is, in a lot of ways, the perfect feminist hero. With her strong features and totally unique look, she’s great to look at without being sexualized or even attractive. Squaring her off against a host of almost comically fragile woman and apish men makes for constant drama.

I could dissect each scene, pulling out the gender-related themes and analyzing each one in turn, but suffice it to say, writer/director Jane Champion infuses her thesis into every moment, while never derailing the tension or the mood. The mood remains like the first image of the lake, serene yet foreboding, while just below, dark and unsettling imagery conveys the terrible struggle embedded in our genes.

Article first published as TV Review: Top of the Lake -"Pilot" on Blogcritics.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Bates Motel

What is the point of a prequel? It’s something I’ve been asking myself a lot these days, what with The Carrie Diaries and The Hobbit. I understand remakes. I understand the thought process behind “Hey, I like the idea behind that film but think I can do it better.” It takes balls, but sometimes you’re right and you can make it better. But a prequel, especially when it’s made so long after the original, lacks the courage of a remake. It’s as if the writers of Bates Motel are too scared to try to do what Psycho did, so instead they’re just hanging out at all the same parties as Psycho and hitting on Psycho’s ex-girlfriends.

That being said, the actual premise of Bates Motel is fine. A boy and his mother move to a new town and buy a motel. There she faces the challenges of running a motel, and he faces the challenges of high school and possibly having a criminally insane mother. The problem I found was that none of these conflicts was handled with even a modicum of realism.

I’ll start with the high school. For whatever reason, this high school seems to be filled with women. Like, far more women than men. And on top of that they all seem to immediately befriend this new, very awkward, young man. It seems every single woman who sees Norman immediately starts flirting with him. I remember high school pretty vividly, and the weird kid named Norman was not surrounded by six or seven hot girls at all times. On top of that, all these girls seemed to lack any real character besides “Hot girl who’s into you,” “Hot teacher who’s into you,” and “Hot girl with crippling disease who’s into you.”

Then there’s the mother’s plot-line with the comically disgruntled ex-motel owner. I liked his initial introduction as the crazy guy who warns of dark times to come, but let’s just say his role in causing these dark times is utterly silly.

One thing I’ll say in favor of the show is that there’s serious chemistry between Norman and his mother. And it’s clear that the creators of the show have a deep appreciation for Psycho. There are a number of shots pulled right from Psycho, not to mention a pretty terrific “Ree Ree Ree” moment. I really felt the love the writers of Bates Motel felt for Hitchcock's masterpiece, while at the same time feeling they were basically pissing on Psycho's corpse.

Article first published as TV Review: The Bates Motel -"Pilot" on Blogcritics.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Red Widow

Watching the first half of the Red Widow two-hour series premiere was a truly harrowing experience. I actually stabbed myself in the leg at one point to make sure I was still alive and not trapped in some hell dimension where I have to watch lifeless pilots for all eternity. Luckily, the second half wasn't horrible. But it couldn't really make up for how much a waste of time the first hour was.

If your show is about a widow (Radha Mitchell) who inherits her late husband's debt to the mob, then fucking do that in your pilot! Don't do anything else! This pilot spends so much time on tangential side-plots and convoluted world building that it barely has any time to set up the show's central premise. When we meet the main villain, the plot finally picks up momentum, but at that point I've already sat through an hour of pointless side plots, from the main character's sister's wedding, to her kid bringing a gun to school. What do any of these plots have to do with the core concept? Nothing at all. 

Any of the many plots in this pilot would have been great B plots in later episodes, once we've gotten to know these characters, but in the meantime they mean nothing. They have no dramatic relevance because I don't know who these people are. I frequently noticed the writer attempting to create some thematic tie-ins for her various subplots. But using a child bringing a gun to school to illustrate the negative consequences of your dad being a mobster is a waste of screen time. We all know the mob is bad. We don't need that explained to us.

The second half of the pilot, thank god, focuses on the actual plot. We see Radha start to pick up the various pieces of her husband's life. Taking on his work and, more importantly, mob responsibilities. We start to get a vague idea of what she might bring to the table as a mobster, solving situations with finesse instead of blunt force. And while the mistakes of the first half are quietly swept under the rug, the bitter after-taste remains. I still have no real clue why a mob boss wants her to take on her husband's responsibilities in the first place. She has no real skills that would make her a successful criminal. I assume the show plans on having her grow into a mobster, becoming harder and more cunning, but this doesn't change the fact that there appears to be no reason at all for her to have been chosen in the first place.

It is this reviewer's opinion that a pilot need only answer two questions: "Who?" and "Why?" Who are your characters, and why is this your story? Everything else can wait. As long as you have compelling characters and a unique perspective, I'll come back for more. Red Widow spends 90% of its precious time letting us know who every side character is, in great detail. But when it comes to explaining why anything is actually happening, the answer is more or less "Because we said so."

As a final note, I'd like to point out that some of my favorite episodes of TV, like Firefly's "Trash," or The West Wing's "In the Shadow of Two Gun Men," or almost any episode of Lost's first season, are ones in which the writers give us the back stories of our characters, telling us how they have come together. The reason these episodes are so terrific is that we get to know these characters in action, as fully formed people who we can relate to, before seeing their formative years. But if any of these flashback episodes had been the pilot, they would have been terrible. Without the context of what these characters will become, all these humble beginnings are horribly boring.

Article first published as TV Review: Red Widow -"Pilot"/"The Contact" on Blogcritics.
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