Books, Television, TV Shows

Surprise, Surprise Dept

A week before the first episode of the Watchmen TV show aired on screen, I found myself writhing with complex emotions about my own intentions. Burdened with the weight of my love for the graphic novel and the creator who has disavowed any media spin-off, completely disillusioned by DC/Warner’s attempts so far to rape the corpse monetize the brand. The 2008 movie adaptation, which I eventually got around to sitting through, is like bleaching your eyeballs and . There was a bucketload of interconnected prequels called Before Watchmen, written by corporate hacks and designed to suck out every ounce of mystery in the series’ backstory, copies of which now frequent bargain bins. Moore-wannabe Grant Morrison has of course been ejaculating occasional spurts of verbose comic scripts over the years, each attempt touted as the next series that will out-Watchmen Watchmen, to no avail. Even as I write this, Fanboy-turned-Nostalgia-Humper Geoff Johns is wrapping up his 12-issue corporate manifesto, called Doomsday Clock, which is a concerted effort to incorporate the characters of Watchmen into the DC Universe proper. Because why bother with something that is one of a kind, when you can have multiple mediocre copies? (See also: Star Wars sequels, “franchises”)

Yet. I could not resist the siren song of the “fresh take” that the HBO TV series promised, the endless cross-media sound-bytes about respect and wanting to abide by the spirit of the original series. There it was, the curiosity of the pop-culture optimist that desperately wants to believe that it is possible to improve on the past without shitting all over it. I would like to think that it’s never been my position to confine myself and to wallow only in things gone by, especially when it comes to the arts. Every year, there are new books and music, films and comics that leave me flabbergasted and filled with enormous joy at how they chart new paths despite all that has gone by. Yes, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen was…is incredible. But if a creator comes out and says he can remix it, my interest is piqued.

But there was trepidation, too. This was Damon Lindelof, the guy that, for every season of Lost, also has Star Trek: Into Darkness. For all the good he has done with adapting Tom Perrotta’s Leftovers, let us not forget that he also co-wrote Cowboys vs Aliens. Which side of the shit/gold bucket would this attempt be shelved?

Three episodes in, and I wasn’t expecting this.

This. THIS. Sitting down on a weekday night to write about a show that is just three episodes in. I wasn’t expecting the universal adulation that would make me sit and watch the first episode the day it was aired. I definitely did not think that Angela Abar and Judd Crawford would scratch that corner of my brain that, in times past, Walter White and Jessie Pinkman seared with guns, acid, and dark dramedy. At the end of every hour-long episode, I have wondered at the things I did not notice in this densely-packed motherloving work of love, and have marveled at threads that were woven, tightened, and dangled in front of me. Three episodes in, and I am all in. There has to be a substantial amount of fucked-up ball drops in the next six episodes for me to change my mind, and based on empirical evidence, I don’t think that will be the case.

Random things off the top of my head:

  • The first episode has people saying out the Roman poet Juvenal’s Latin phrase out loud, the very same phrase that the name of the series and the book are derived from.
  • Robert Redford’s ascension to the Presidency was hinted at in the last page of the graphic novel, as was the publication of the Rorschach papers
  • Pagers and rotary phones instead of the Internet is a bold idea
  • The first words Louis Gossett’s character says to Angela: “Do I look like somebody who can lift 200 pounds?” refers to their next meeting, under the tree
  • Time seems to pass differently around Adrian Veidt and his acolytes, and I wonder if this arc is the Black Freighter equivalent of the book
  • Scenes mirror the beats in the book, and there are red herrings. The shooting of the policeman in the car in the very first scene turns out to not be the death that launches the story.
  • Pirate Jenny, Red Scare, Sister Night, and Looking Glass are excellent vigilante names
  • The interplay of words, voice-overs, scene transitions, and narrative beats is eerily precise, just like the book. The final scene of episode 3 is not just a denouement to the brick-layer’s daughter theme of the episode, it is an echo of the last lines spoken in episode 2.
  • I don’t own a record player, and I have made myself a promise to never buy vinyl, but the three-LP soundtrack to the series, of which the first one has been released and the other two are due later this month, is the closest I have come to breaking this vow. The drone-and-beat infused sonic washes that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are known for suit the mood and tone so, so much.
  • Did you know about the Peteypedia, HBO’s “enhanced materials” website that accompanies every episode of the show?

Tick tock, five days till next episode.

Additional Reading:

Art, Television

Daredevil Season 2: The Posters, and a bit of optimism

Netflix’s Daredevil was one of my favorite TV shows last year. It may possibly have been one of my favorite comic-book adaptations ever, especially at a time when my tolerance towards comic-book adaptations is running pretty thin. I made the show last for a whole month, watching it as slowly as I could, loving nearly every minute of it. Netflix then followed it up with Jessica Jones in the later half of the year, and by then my forbearance was at an end. I binged on it over a weekend, and came up for air after with a grin on my face.

The next season of Daredevil is due middle of March, and I have to admit that despite my pop-culture-jaded exterior, I am pretty damn excited about it. But what is really making me giggly is noting the Renaissance art references in the season posters. Not just because I like the old masters, but because it takes a very special kind of marketing team to pay attention to a campaign like this. Daredevil is a series that draws from the character’s Catholic upbringing – hey, the first scene in the series begins at the confessional altar in a church – and it makes sense to use elements of paintings to advertise the series.

Up first were the cast posters, both of which were inspired by Michaelangelo paintings in the Sistine Chapel.

Michaelangelo – The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Michaelangelo – The Last Judgement

The next few posters have been character-oriented, and wear their baroque origins on their sleeves. Case in point, both Karen Page and The Punisher’s posters were inspired by Caravaggio paintings, while DD’s is influenced by Rubens’s St Sebastian.

But as fun as the referencing is, I will admit that the posters do look a little strangely-designed if you do not know the antecedents of each one. And that explains why fandom is screaming about Photoshop and bad design about each of these posters.

What do I think about the second season? Well, I am not a big fan of the HighlyVisibleNinja trope in American popular culture, in which ninjas are dumb fight-fodder a step above zombies. I liked the way the supernatural elements dripped slowly into the world established by the TV show, in the first season. It made sense that one of the most grueling fight scenes in the season was between Matt and Nobu, and that was a serious boss-fight. Now that the Hand has officially made their way into the story-line, it’s but inevitable that the fight-scenes become generic martial arts sequences. I am also concerned about the fact that Drew Goddard is no longer headlining the crew, and that Jeph Loeb is still around as head of Marvel’s TV division.

The other, more important reason why I am a little cautious about the show is what I like to call the natural entropy of a superhero story based on an existing property. Where there’s the urge to throw every knuckle-headed reference to events related or unrelated to the main story-line, just to acknowledge to the viewership that hey, yeah, we know, and you know, and we know that you know, and isn’t life dandy. The creative team in Daredevil has been remarkable in their restraint so far; the first reference to Elektra last year was part of a long conversation about learning Punjabi that nearly got me belly-laughing, and the use of the line “give me a red” came out of nowhere, not only establishing a secondary character’s future reappearance, but also the eventuality that Born Again is in the cards. I like subtle references that way. It will get annoying though – yes, “will” because I am asking to be contradicted – when there is the necessity to shoehorn the Defenders universe eventually, and fit it into the bigger Marvel Cinematic Universe. What bothers me about this is the fact that it robs a story of an ending. The best stories are the ones that end. Always.


A Scandal in Belgravia

You start giggling approximately a minute into the opening of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, when a Bee Gees song begins to play. And the laughs just don’t stop, as writer Stephen Moffat and director Paul McGuigan create a rousing remix of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories that is adventure laced liberally with humor.

Spoilery observations and tee-hee points:

Much of what I like about Sherlock is the innovative modern-day parallels that the series brings to the original stories. An American opera singer is transposed to a British dominatrix, a photograph becomes a bunch of photos and videos on a phone, and a region in Germany becomes a London district. A whole bunch of other Holmes cases are punningly name-dropped. The Speckled Blonde, The Geek Interpreter. The blog counter stuck at 1895. Well-played, guys, well-played.

Irene Adler’s War-Dress is a joy to behold.

“Brainy is the new sexy.”

I liked the way the central focus of the original Holmes story – that of Holmes having to find the picture for his client – is covered in the first 1/3rd of the episode, and the remaining portion is devoted to exploring this delightful – relationship? – between Holmes and The Woman. A relationship that involves her vital statistics, her pulse, her password – and of course, her death.

“It’s a bit rude, that noise, isn’t it?”

Great use of the supporting cast of the show – specially Mrs Hudson. Sherlock and Watson both show a tremendous amount of affection for this lady, played with just the right amount of eccentricity by Una Stubbs. Most of the regulars turning up at a Christmas party at 221B Baker Street (which also features the most uncomfortable deduction scene ever) is a treat, having them all being subjected to Sherlock’s moody quips and yet be around, most amusing.

Did anyone check out @TheWhipHand on Twitter? Or John Watson’s Blog? Also this, which is hilarious beyond belief, but please proceed with caution. The title of the blog gives out one of the most crucial plot points of the episode.

Crackling dialogues abound. One of my favorite scenes involves Mycroft and Sherlock in the corridor of a hospital where, between puffs of a cigarette, the two brothers stare at a grieving family in the distance. “Look at them”, Sherlock says. “They all care so much.” The camera frames the two brothers in profile, through an assymetrical frame on one side of the screen. “Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?”, he wonders aloud. “All lies end”,  the elder brother responds. “All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage.”  There is a reason why their mutual enemy refers to him as “The Iceman”.


All in all, Sherlock season 2 is a perfect example of how quality programming speaks for itself. Just today morning, Adi Tantimedh wrote about TV shows burning out, citing two once-popular shows that have jumped the shark in recent times thanks to lazy writing and needless season renewals. This show, on the other hand, proves that if you bring your best to the table, you can win over viewers regardless of production delays and non-adherence to an annual schedule.

“But initially he wanted to be a pirate.”

An excellent start to the New Year. Two more episodes lie in wait for us, and I have high, high hopes for both of them.

Television, TV Shows

The (Spoiler-Free) Breaking Bad Post

What if you knew you had six months to live?

A lot of talented storytellers have already done variants of this particular narrative scenario in different mediums. The TV series Breaking Bad is just one of them, and when you first hear about the premise of the show – mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White learns he has cancer and takes to cooking and dealing crystal meth with an ex-pupil, a junkie named Jesse Pinkman to provide for his family – you feel tempted to get dismissive about it. Too much been-there-done-that. Didn’t Weeds have a similar setting of a non-criminal taking to crime and making us cheer for the anti-hero? But I got around to watching Breaking Bad sometime last year, thanks to a belated reading of a Patton Oswalt blog post. The post seems to have disappeared, fuck you Myspace, but critical commentary on the post remains online, thank you Internet.

I believe I was well and truly hooked at the point where, as I was balancing my dinner plate on my lap and trying not to spill rice all over my underwear, strange goings-on involving dead drug dealers, hydrofluoric acid and a metal bath-tub were unfolding onscreen. I believe that was it, the mix of gut-wrenching, edge-of-the-seat drama, interspersed with laugh-out-loud moments of gruesome humor, that made me regard Breaking Bad as being something more than Just Another TV Show. I finished the first two seasons in a weekend, and then learnt that there was a third season that had just gotten over, watched that too. When the fourth season started this year, I resolutely refused to see it until the season was over.

Having completed the season finale of the latter just two days ago, I feel … empty. It feels like the year has given me the best it has to offer, and there’s nothing more to look forward to before The Dark Knight Rises releases in 2012. Of course that is just self-inflicted hyperbole that will dissipate in a few days(I hope, whine whine). But it’s a rare artistic offering that produces such an effect in me, this emptiness and this feeling of contentment at the same time, this sense of wonderment at a story that takes its time to unravel and is so fucking satisfying. At no point in the course of this TV series have I had the occasion to roll my eyes, or shake my head at an illogical plot-point. Trust me, there is none. This is ridiculously good writing right there. It has messed with my head, it has shattered every expectation I had, and it’s done a stellar job in balancing violent bursts of action with quiet emotional moments and nerve-wracking tension.

Season 3 ended with a gunshot. Season 4 shows us the repercussions of that shot, beginning with a flashback sequence that is a reminder of the magnitude of what just happened. Episode 1 has one of the most visceral sequences I’ve seen in recent times, a perfectly-pitched set-piece that is aided by its excellent sound design. The season then becomes a carefully-played, slowly-unfolding game of cat-and-mouse between the two major players in the story, with additional complications that are introduced by the choices made by the other inhabitants of this world, most of them from Albuquerque, some from across the Mexican border. Every episode has moments that other lesser works might milk for as much onscreen value as possible. But this show knows just when to pull back, when to let the individual moments speak for themselves.

The moments, oh dear Lord, the moments. The final sequence of Episode 11, the aptly named ‘Crawl Space’. The use of a Spanish song on a car ride that spans a day. The camera angles in some Jesse sequences – from a shovel, from a Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. The terminator moment. Jesse asking for “phenylacetic acid, bitch”. Walt’s attempts at self-defense. Skyler’s plans within plans. Saul Goodman’s wise-cracks. “I am the danger. I am the one that knocks”. “Your wife, your son, your infant child.” “Is that your real name?” I could go on all night, you know. Part of me is tempted to let this post be and go rewatch Season 4 all over again, but I have herculean self-control and I am not afraid to use it.

The most striking aspect of Season 4 was the way it toyed with every one of my emotions towards the major characters. It is hard to empathize with most of the principal characters in Breaking Bad – even the “innocent” have shades to them. This incidentally is a blocker for most people when they begin watching the show, that the characters are unlikeable, or too “ordinary”. It is but natural for any work of fiction to have us take sides; Breaking Bad shows us that in real life, you can take any side. Just as it gives us characters that can make real choices, not just ones that maintain the status-quo (*cough* Dexter *cough*) It gives every character time to shine, and lets you get into his or her skin. Just when you seem to be getting comfortable with your feelings (good or bad), the writers introduce something that dramatically changes the equation. It’s like being bitch-slapped into submission at the hands of an expert Swedish masseur, and it feels great.

Yup, get this straight – there is no status quo in Breaking Bad. The only predictable thing about the show, the only bit of consistency since S1EP01 is that it is still primarily about Walter White and his relationship with Jesse Pinkman. The cancer angle has all but vanished – it would be ridiculous to assume that the show is still operating under the plot mechanic it began with. At some point in the middle of the season, it struck me – perhaps a little too late – that Walter White is the cancer that is eating away at everything around him. It also seemed to me that Walt represents every negative cliche associated with middle age – the feeling of dissatisfaction about having made the wrong choices in life, the idea that one’s lack of assertiveness is mistaken by others as weakness, the continuous sense of proving one’s worth as the head of the family, the need to be the provider, the need to be respected by your wife, your relatives and your children. Then I started thinking about whether the show is an examination of the seven cardinal sins – though I cast that interpretation aside because I could not fit gluttony into my theory. Elsewhere, Patton Oswalt tries to draw a parallel between the characters and comicbook super-villains, which is a bit too hard-core even for me. Like him, however, I was also struck by how similar the series is to Watchmen, in the sense that it is the kind of layered work that reveals themes and patterns with multiple viewings, and the themes are themselves open to scrutiny and interpretation.

I call Breaking Bad the best thing TV has to offer. It is my generation’s Godfather, it is what Deadwood and Sopranos have wrought, the flowering of the ideological seeds laid down by these shows, that television can be used for outstanding sequential narratives.  Many people would agree – the Emmies sure do, because the show, in particular its lead actor Bryan Cranston, has won multiple awards these last three years. Cranston has also directed episodes of the show himself and they are magnificent. Others may try to counter my statement with mentions of Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. I have not watched either, I probably will, and then we’ll talk, you and I. But I am confident about my assertions about this series, and it will take something really special to make me budge.

Probably the only series that I think might break this stronghold at the moment is the The Wire, recommended to me by none other than The Mage of Northhampton himself, he whose tastes bear serious weightage. I am almost afraid to watch The Wire now. There’s the nagging feeling that it might just be better than BB, and then there’s the other nagging feeling where I am underwhelmed by it, in which case I would have failed The Bearded One. The poster on my wall would glare disapprovingly at me every single day, questioning my lack of taste, my ill-found judgement.

Behold, His Look of Reproach

Oh, the pressure.

If you’re into stories and storytelling techniques, if you want to witness masterful jugglery of multiple plot points and narrative devices, if you’re up for some serious emotional involvement with characters that have a life of their own free of predictability and brimming with free will, and most importantly, if you aren’t averse to traumatic violence, watch Breaking Bad. And while you’re at it, go read the episode guides on AVClub as you finish them one by one. Read the comments even, there’s a surprising lack of trolls on the boards, which either proves that people watching the the show are more rational, or that Breaking Bad is good enough to merit serious discussion sans offensive buffoonery. Go watch, and when you’ve wrapped your mind around that last shot at the end of season 4, take a deep breath, come back here and thank me. There’s one more season to go still, and we can all mourn and celebrate the inevitability of time together.