Monday, April 22, 2013

Hemlock Grove

The great thing about Hemlock Grove is that I have no idea what the hell it’s about. It’s weird and moody and mysterious, and I have no idea what’s going on. Unfortunately, that’s all it has going for it.

The show starts out great, a long eerie shot of Bill Skarsgard with a lopsided ice cream cone looking far more menacing than anyone with a lopsided ice cream cone has any business looking. Then, a number of other unsettling things happen until someone dies, horribly. The rest of the episode is partially devoted to the investigation into the possibly supernatural killing, but mostly devoted to wasting my fucking time.

I enjoyed the beginning, because I was getting a sense of the pace, and I was overwhelmed but entertained by all the information I wasn’t being presented with. The problem reared its hairy head after about 15 minutes when the show dropped into this stilted rhythm of constant, sloppy exposition. Every scene was so unbearably on the nose, people awkwardly shouting out their relationship to each other, clumsily stating exactly what they thought of everyone else. And the direction was so haphazard and lifeless that everyone just seemed like information robots, only there so you know what’s happening.

And the sad part is what’s happening is really cool. The characters are interesting, mysterious, and rich. The setting is bizarre and fun. The possibilities are endless, really, but for the show to work, it needs to move forward. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, a pilot is no place for flashbacks. I’d love to learn about all these people’s sordid pasts, but first, I’d love to just know them.

Sometimes a pilot is a blueprint. It’s like base camp – a building block from which the show grows – but in this case, I don’t think so. Knowing that Eli Roth will no longer be inflicting his tasteless direction on us again, I think this pilot is more like losing your virginity: the first, terrible, awkward, fumbling step towards a long and enjoyable sex-life.

Article first published as TV Review: Hemlock Grove - "Jellyfish in the Sky" on Blogcritics.

Friday, April 19, 2013


If you think Lost qualifies as hard sci-fi, you will not be a fan of Defiance. This is as hard as sci-fi gets. The advantage of hard sci-fi is that the potential for expansion is limitless. There’s nowhere it can’t go, and the writers of Defiance have proved they are willing to go there.

Defiance is, at least partially, the brain-child of Rockne S. O’Bannon, who previously created Farscape, so he’s no stranger to campy, prosthetic-heavy, sci-fi universes. And if you liked Farscape, this show is so similar, you could easily be convinced they are set in the same universe.

The show follows Nolan (Grant Bowler, who you may remember from Ugly Betty) and his adopted alien daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas, who you will not recognize at all from Mirrormask), and their role as new-comers in the town of Defiance, which was once Saint Louis. The town is populated with all sorts of strange aliens, as the world has recently become home to eight new alien species after a long bitter war. Since all of the old governments are gone, the town fends for itself, giving the show a sort of Wild West vibe. Basically anything can happen.

A clear O’Bannon fingerprint is how all the plot lines seem to fit into standard archetypes, but with a small twist. There’s a distressingly cut-and-dried Romeo and Juliet plot line - with aliens. But just when I was about to throw up my hands in disgust, the writers took R&J in a new direction, subverting expectations subtly, because we all know how Romeo and Juliet is supposed to end, and O’Bannon has no interest in giving you exactly what is supposed to happen.

In the end, a show like this always comes down to the characters. And on that score, I’d say they hit the mark half the time. The refreshingly down-to-earth deputy, the disgruntled alien doctor, and a few other minor characters kept me entertained. But, as with most O’Bannon shows (and most Syfy shows in general), the main character is a little wooden - not that it matters, because I see this show as an alien Deadwood, where the main character isn’t meant to be the center of attention, just a casual observer, guiding the audience through this strange and foreign land. What makes Defiance so compelling is that the foreign land used to be Earth.

Article first published as TV Review: Defiance - "Pilot" on Blogcritics.

Friday, April 12, 2013


I’m getting sick of serial killers. There are so many of them and they aren’t even all that interesting. They’re all far too prone to theatrics and gaudy contrivances. Every plot point feels like a variation of the world’s dullest theme. Even the lingo has become mind numbing. The words are so familiar that they begin to lose all meaning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV pilot about serial killers that has actually impressed me.

All that being said, you could do worse than Hannibal. A lot worse.

Bryan Fuller (the show-runner behind the brilliant, though saccharine-to-the-point-of-causing-cavities, Pushing Daisies) makes several good decisions, which keep Hannibal from falling down the slosh hole of serial killer TV. The show's focus falls squarely on the main character, Will Graham, a vaguely autistic FBI profiler, played by Hugh Dancy. Graham’s great talent and fatal flaw is that he can completely empathize with serial killers, though he is not one himself. He understands the urges of monsters, yet he possesses the humanity to find those urges terrifying. He’s a conundrum of a character and totally worth a series devoted to him.

Once Graham’s character has been established, the pilot follows a fairly standard plot. Graham goes from crime scene to crime scene, piecing together the mind of a Midwest serial killer. The killer’s MO is not terribly interesting; he kills pretty young women. But Graham’s method of solving the mystery is totally engrossing. Incidentally, a pre-Clarice Hannibal Lecter is working with Graham to find the killer (though he doesn’t actually help much).

In many ways, Hannibal is irrelevant in this episode. Nothing he does progresses the plot in any way, and you’d think one mentally unstable profiler would be enough. But, Mads Mikkelsen’s take on Hannibal is intriguing (albeit occasionally unintelligible), and I see how his relationship with Graham will provide the show with a sturdy foundation in future episodes. In a lot of ways, Hannibal ends up as the Scully to Graham’s Mulder, always appearing to be the sanest man in any room, despite the eating people thing.

The tone of this episode also manages to find a fresh leaf on the rotten head of lettuce that is serial killer TV. The focus is more on the imagery of madness than the indecency. The shock and horror of garish murder and bloody corpses is abandoned in favor of pensive, placid crime scenes. The horror here is not in the presentation of the crime, but the re-creation of it. The result is a pervasive hypnotic feel, appropriate for a show about mad psychologists.

I wouldn’t say I’ve had my faith in serial killer TV restored, not with just one pilot. But I’ll certainly come back to watch episode two, maybe with some fava beans and a fine Chianti… 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Orphan Black

Orphan Black’s concept is so complex that we probably won’t know what it is until the third episode. Normally, this would make me hang my head and weep, but writer Graeme Manson (the man behind the film Cube which should tell you a lot) pulls it off by simply earning every beat. Instead of rushing through each moment so he can fit his massive and unwieldy concept into a single episode, he lets the plot progress, making sure to earn every choice and every character’s motivation.

The plot, as far as I understand it, is that an orphan and thief, Sarah (played by the confusingly attractive Tatiana Maslany) witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks exactly like her. This gives Sarah the not entirely unreasonable idea of faking her own death, using the dead woman's body, as a way of stealing all of the woman's money. Once Sarah, in her new identity, convinces the authorities that the dead woman is actually herself, it gets Sarah out of all the debt she’s accumulated. This would be all fine and dandy, but the life she’s jumped into is a very complicated and dangerous one. And then it just gets weirder.

The thing that makes this story so much fun to watch is that we, the audience, are like Sarah, imposters jumping into the lives of a dangerous and mysterious clone (maybe?). And as she discovers further challenges and conspiracies, we discover them with her. To Manson's credit, every solution she comes up with is just the right amount of clever to make us sympathize with her, without being absurd and unrealistic. In a lot of ways this pilot reminds me of Cinemax’s Banshee, another show about an imposter, but where Banshee just burned through the plot in order to get to the Amish blowjob tooth-pulling stuff, Orphan Black takes its sweet time, going through every little harrowing detail (there is a particularly crushing scene involving Sarah’s daughter and Sarah’s own fake funeral).

But, the thing that makes me most excited to come back to this show next week is that it has proven itself to be truly unpredictable. Because every scene is dominated by the human will, and not a grand theme or week by week plot arc, it is a truly volatile show, as volatile as the human condition and just as captivating.

Article first published as TV Review: Orphan Black -"Pilot" on Blogcritics.

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