Tuesday, November 12, 2019

WATCHMEN 1.04 - "IF YOU DON'T LIKE MY STORY, WRITE YOUR OWN"


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I wrote a whole piece last year about “legacy” sequels generally (and HALLOWEEN 2018 specifically), pondering the compounding challenges of revisiting a character or story after a significant time gap. Every sequel has to contend with the same inherent tension, between the need to bring something new to the table in order to justify its existence as a separate entity, and the conflicting need to recreate enough of the first one's successes to justify making it an actual continuation of the same story, rather than a new thing with some loose inspiration from the original.  This is tied indelibly to the central appeal of sequels or franchise storytelling in general, which is the implicit promise to hit a particular sweet spot: a single package containing the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of a new experience.

When, as has increasingly become our wont, the sequels come after 20 and 30 year gaps, the balancing act between these needs becomes even more precarious.  It’s an issue you can increasingly see creators struggle with across all kinds of genres and media, and that struggle is similar whether you are resurrecting an 80’s action beefcake or a 90’s hangout sitcom.  When we are reconnecting with an elder version of Han Solo, or Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker or Rocky (or Rocky, or Rocky) or John McClane or Rambo or Deckard or Michael Myers or the guy from TRON or IndianaJones or Maverick or Danny Torrance or Al Swearengen or Wolverine or Veronica Mars or Dale Cooper or Murphy Brown or Rory and Lorelai or Mad Max or GordonGekko or Shaft or Derek Zoolander or Roseanne or the Trainspotting gang or Harryand Lloyd or the Bluth Family or Johnny and Daniel-San or Will and Grace or Mulderand Scully after a span of many years, then they need to be at least recognizable as Han Solo, or Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker or Rocky or John McClane or Rambo or Deckard or Michael Myers or the guy from TRON or Indiana Jones or Maverick or Danny Torrance or Al Swearengen or Wolverine or Veronica Mars or Dale Cooper or Murphy Brown or Rory and Lorelai or Mad Max or Gordon Gekko or Shaft or Derek Zoolander or Roseanne or the Trainspotting gang or Harry and Lloyd or the Bluth Family or Johnny and Daniel-San or Will and Grace or Mulder and Scully.  Or else what are we even doing here?  Why even invoke the famous name if it is basically a completely different character? 

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And  no offense to Han Solo, or Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker or Rocky or John McClane or Rambo or Deckard or Michael Myers or the guy from TRON or Indiana Jones or Maverick or Danny Torrance or Al Swearengen or Wolverine or Veronica Mars or Dale Cooper or Murphy Brown or Rory and Lorelai or Mad Max or Gordon Gekko or Shaft or Derek Zoolander or Roseanne or the Trainspotting gang or Harry and Lloyd or the Bluth Family or Johnny and Daniel-San or Will and Grace or Mulder and Scully, but JESUS CHRIST IS IT THAT HARD TO MAKE UP A NEW CHARACTER EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE?

At the same time, if the passage of large swathes of time are not acknowledged in some fashion and it seems like the world of the story just stopped moving entirely until we were ready to pick it back up again, everything rings immediately phony and hollow. This creates something of a trap.  Act like nothing at all has changed over the intervening decades, and you can create a sense of contrivance and even unintentional sadness, that the character apparently stopped learning or growing at all half a lifetime ago.  This was an issue for me with the Netflix revival seasons of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, where the idiotic shenanigans started to feel less farcical and more bleak as the characters’ titular lack of growth contrasted more sharply with the visible aging of the cast.  And it bothered many in the GILMORE GIRLS reboot, when Rory carried over a bunch of teenage obliviousness into her 30s.  To do it well, you have to allow the character to have undergone real change during the interval between installments, but this new version of the character you are (re)introducing has to follow intuitively from what we knew of them before and what we are being told has happened to them since.  Some of the good examples would be the way LOGAN manages to keep Wolverine and Xavier familiar and recognizable to us, even as offscreen events have completely broken them down from where any X-MEN movie left them.  Or, despite the comparatively small gap between them, the complete but entirely logical transformation of Sarah Connor between TERMINATOR and T2. 

And as is often the case, you can look to STAR WARS for both a really good and really bad example of the same thing.  THE FORCE AWAKENS clumsily mashes a reset button on the state of galactic politics and almost entirely fails to register the crushing sadness inherent in Han and Leia’s capitulation to the horror that befall their family and retreat back to the comfort zones of their youth, so eager is it to return us in the audience to our own comfort zone within the franchise.  But then THE LAST JEDI follows through with a rather brave (in the context of the ultimate four-quadrant blockbuster it occupies) depiction of a Luke Skywalker that is believably ravaged by the years since we last saw him as the triumphant young hero, and finding new ways for the character to continue to grow and change.

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COURAGE is part of this complete breakfast

And it all comes down to change, really.   Change is the driving force and raw material of all drama, of all fiction.  The reason storytelling is so deeply ingrained in human society and consciousness, how it defines so much of our perceptions and identities even for those that don’t read novels or watch premium cable Emmy-bait, is that stories are how our brains are able to process change.  Call it a character arc or a Heroes Journey or whatever academic term you prefer, but the fundamentals of a story are “this happens, and so that happened, and that’s how we ended up with this new state of affairs at the end.”  Whether scripted or otherwise, our poor lizard brains need a story to be able process how we could possibly be at Point C now when it knows we were definitely at Point A before.

So, and I swear I will relate this back to WATCHMEN in a minute, the difficulty in drafting a sequel that revisits characters after a lengthy interval is that, in order to maintain a baseline of believability,  you have to allow for significant change to have occurred “offscreen”.  And that is sort of anathema to the basic purpose of telling a story, which is to track and explicate change, step by step by step.  When you skip important steps, the story feels incomplete, and yet that is what the legacy sequel is required to do.  Which is all a very long way of getting to the point that I think WATCHMEN the show might be screwing up the character of Ozymandias.

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And possibly Doctor Manhattan and Laurie too.   I mentioned in passing previously that I was not enthused about the prospect of sleuthing for who could be Dr. Manhattan in disguise every week, after the idea that he could impersonate “real” people was introduced.  My resistance to this idea was based less on it being beyond the blue guy’s range of powers than it requiring a major shift in his characterization.   The Manhattan in the comics was a unique and fascinating creation, and that hinged entirely on how he was increasingly disinterested he was in walking amongst humans and pretending to care about their doings.  He did learn a certain appreciation for the uncertainty and absurdity that human will brings into the universe at the end, but that did not stop him from leaving the galaxy for “a less complicated one” at the end.  Could Lindelof’s follow-up justify a reversal of this decision, and the established characterization, such that it would adequately explain why he would suddenly care enough to not just walk among them once more, but do so in disguise?  When if he just wanted to observe, he could just as easily do so from a microscopic level, or turn himself invisible?  Maybe.  But it is a very stark turnaround to have happen offscreen, without dramatization.  Particularly for a character whose motivations are so explicitly non-human, and thus requires a bit more hand-holding for us to glean his intentions.  Or perhaps the writers view that unknowability as a license to just have him do whatever the plot needs him to do, because, like, how could we understand his thought process anyway so screw it let's just have him do anything?

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....Nah, they would never...

But that is probably getting ahead of things, and I can bitch about it for real when the show actually crosses that bridge.  I think they are doing better with Laurie, although I am not sure if it is more that her characterization as a hardline anti-vigilante agent flows naturally from where the book left her off or just that I am really digging Jean Smart in that snarky, hard-bitten mold.  If I were being really critical, I’d note that the book actually had her make some sort of peace with her crimefighting past, and the mother that pushed her into it (and gave her a name that wasn’t Blake).   But Smart’s performance has immediately become one of, if not the, best thing about the show, so I’m cool with it.

What gives me pause is the handling of Veidt, and to a very minor extent, Rorschach.  In the comic, both are complex characters, a “hero” with profoundly villainous qualities and a “villain” with genuinely altruistic motives.  The contrasts and contradictions were the entire point of the characters, and I have some qualms that the show may be simplifying them into a more straightforward Bad Guy mold.  With Rorschach, of course he died in the original so it is only his legacy being co-opted by the villainous racists.  I’m not really put out by that because it is actually an example of the world continuing to develop on its own when we aren't looking, and as such I also find it an eminently plausible development that racist gangs would do that.  Rorschach himself may even have been sympathetic to the bad guys, being something of a fascist bigot anyway.  It only gives me slight pause when I look at it in conjunction with Veidt’s portrayal, and a few other minor bits such as Robert Redford being president.  

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Who the fuck would ever vote for this shmuck?

The very end of the books made an offhand reference to Redford considering a presidential run, and of course the most memorable bit of alternate-reality worldbuilding from it was that Nixon had passed an amendment allowing him to serve 5 terms of office thanks to the popularity boost he got from a Dr. Manhattan-assisted victory in the Vietnam War.  So this has a direct basis in the source, I'm just not particularly impressed with taking it exactly one step further and letting that dictate the status quo 35 years down the line.  It may serve a purpose (beyond a fun cameo from the man himself down the line), but it is not winning any points for creativity in my books.  It is actually one of the few things in the show that reminds me of Zach Snyder’s beautiful, utterly lunkheaded film adaptation from 2009, which had a way of taking these subtle notes from the book and rendering them in the most obvious manner possible.  Rorschach speculates that Ozymandias may be gay in the book, so Snyder inserts a file titled “BOYS” on his desktop when they are hacking it; the Comedian makes a joke about not asking him where he was when JFK was shot, so he actually shows him committing the assassination; the Silhouette is murdered after being outed as a lesbian and excommunicated from her superhero team, so Snyder of course has to actually stage the tableau of she and her lover’s murdered corpses lying in bed with “LESBIAN WHORES” scrawled on the wall in their blood just in case someone might have missed the point.  WATCHMEN the show is certainly thoughtful and creative enough in the vast majority of its worldbuilding to give it a pass on some of these minor points.  Except the characterization of Veidt is not really a minor issue.

I actually have been enjoying the Veidt scenes for the wackadoo interludes that they are (and, on a purely shallow level, because Ms. Crookshanks is cute as goddamn button).  But as they have gone on, he has been acting more and more overtly crazy and dastardly. Which is fun because Jeremy Irons does a world-class dastard, and its arguably “believable” that being trapped in some sort of time-space prison with only idiot simulacra to interact with for years on end could easily drive anyone nutso, even the World’s Smartest Man.  But this portrayal also runs entirely counter to what made Ozymandias such a fascinating character, which is that he truly was not the “Republic serial villain”, despite executing a convoluted master plan involving tachyon rays and an interdimensional space squid.  He was more interesting because he did the most monstrous things for sincerely altruistic reasons, because his warmth and friendly demeanor was rather genuine, because his superhuman intelligence was matched with superhuman patience, and he was precisely not the type to throw murderous hissy fits or be overtly cruel to his underlings or exhibit any of these types of superfluous venalities that comic books typically use to mark villains as entirely worthy of scorn. 

Again, this all could work quite well just because Jeremy Irons as a supervillain is, y’know, pretty great.  But it does seem to be eschewing the shades of gray that the source material trafficked in, and that is a fine line that I am eyeing closely as the show develops.   Also a fine line is the metacommentary where Lady Trieu rolls her eyes about the purposefully obtuse trail of breadcrumbs William is leaving for his granddaughter to follow.  Maybe this is just me, but if you have to hang a lampshade on a character’s motivations not making much sense by having another character call them out on it, then maybe you should just rethink that character’s motivation?

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Oh, and there was a bunch of other plot stuff going on with trillionaire and nu-Veidt Lady Trieu pawning genetically engineered babies and cloning her own offspring and apparently feeding them intravenous memories of Vietnam War atrocities and building a giant clock with vague time travel implications.  I am actually digging all this stuff, but I’m fairly content to just take it as it comes for now and see where it all ends up in a few weeks.  So now, Bullet Points.

BULLET POINTS


  • Lady Trieu has one of the most striking character introductions ever, but pssht, whatever, she is totally overshadowed by the main event, the grand debut of LUBE MAN!!!!   Lube Man may not be the hero we need, but he is most definitely what we deserve.  And he deserves a better name.  There is a comment section below to register your vote for which alternate moniker should be used for him in the future:  Kaptain KY, the Astroglidist, the Spectacular Slipperman, Lubric-Antman, the Slimefighter, Ghost Slider, Captain PAMerica.

  • Or I guess we could just call him Agent Petey.  If his identity was supposed to be a mystery, they probably should have introduced at least one other person on the show with a vaguely similar physique.

  • Angela’s face with the ancestree hologram reflecting on it looks like she is wearing an inverted Rorschach mask, which…okay, looks kind of cool but am not sure what it is really supposed to signify.  

  • I want to be on your side, Angela, but there are less dirty ways to pick a fight than dropping classic literature spoiler bombs in the living room.  But Okonkwo hanging himself in the end continues the hanging imagery that surrounds Judd’s death and Hooded Justice.
  • Jeremy Irons repeatedly launches dead bodies into a void in space with a medieval catapult in this episode.  I know I was mostly critical of the handling of Ozymandias above, but I think we all need to just appreciate that one of the most expensive television productions of the decade featured Jeremy Irons repeatedly launching dead bodies into a void in space with a medieval catapult in this episode.


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

WATCHMEN 1.03 - "SHE WAS KILLED BY SPACE JUNK"



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Jean Smart takes center stage in “She Was Killed By Space Junk” as special agent Laurie Blake, aka Laurie Jupiter, aka Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Silk Spectre II, and she wears as many narrative hats as she has accumulated aliases over the years.  She is the “hero” and POV character of the hour, while also operating as an immediate antagonist to our previously established “heroes”, and our first window into the larger world of the story outside of Tulsa.  While also providing the first really direct link to the source material, making the show into more of an actual sequel, where previously it seemed more like a vaguely-inspired riff on some of the visuals and motifs from the book. The Rorschach masks were the most overt connection in the first two episodes, but given that Rorschach is embraced unironically by the most racist and misogynistic portions of comic fans in our world, having a hate group co-opt his look would probably make as much sense as if they had picked, say, a sad cartoon frog.   She’s a new character for the show, played by a new actress, but also an old character from the comics, but one that has been aged up and reimagined for a new story, in a new medium in a new era.

She’s also, in a way that perhaps is only interesting to me, a spiritual twin of Lindelof’s prior leading lady on THE LEFTOVERS.  In fact, the whole hour felt very close to an episode of that show.  That show could be a frustrating experience, but was made watchable and often extremely compelling by Carrie Coon's turn as another brittle, jaded skeptic that functioned as the chief investigator/interrogator of the its central genre conceit.  The easy way Laurie strolls into Tulsa and promptly punctures the distinctive aesthetics the show has just established, with Smart’s pitch-perfect delivery of “cool” in response  to the cops nicknames, or quick, unimpressed read on Looking Glass’s intimidating Pod as “a racist detector”, was very similar to how Nora Durst would operate in this world.  And the oddball touches like a giant blue dildo or phone booths where the public can pay to leave God a voice mail also feel like they came straight out of that show.  Not to mention the resolution of a doubter being confronted with something so strange and coincidental that it can really only be interpreted as a passive-aggressive nudge from some sort of supremely unhelpful deity. 

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I know no one watched that show, but they should have, if only for the lion sex boat cruise

But as I mentioned with prior episodes, Lindelof’s earlier series acted as a training ground for deploying this brand of matter-of-fact surreality.  I think that WATCHMEN finally presents a perfect bowl of structural porridge for these sensibilities, though.  With LOST, the sudden and crazy turns often felt like a crutch being deployed to hastily zig away from any of the (frequent) plot points they stumbled into without any idea of how to resolve.  That show constantly struggled to navigate the fine but crucial difference between a twist that makes the audience ask “what was that?” versus “what could that mean?”.   THE LEFTOVERS deployed the strangeness to greater, more consistently unsettling effect, but that show also struggled to produce an investment in an overarching narrative outside of its character focused, novella-of-the-week structure.  This was largely because it became apparent rather early on that what plot there was would be driven by characters continually searching for answers that the show would never, thematically, be able to allow them to figure out.  And so it was entirely reliant on brilliant performances and making the individual bits of weirdness unique enough to keep thing compelling week by week, in spite of the creeping predictability about how in the end, the characters’ endless howling at the void would always end up producing only the most maddening glimmer of an unintelligible response.

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Details like, and I feel this bears repeating, a lion sex boat cruise

What WATCHMEN the graphic novel provides is a template that actually includes an obtuse, barely-engaged deity as a character, who can be howled at directly. And as we see here with Laurie doing exactly that, it allows for existential angst to remain better tied to a plot that grounds it in a feeling of immediacy and forward momentum.   At the same time, the source has a sense of structural experimentation and heavy philosophical bent baked in enough to (hopefully) avoid the reverse issue that plagued LOST; of feeling like an adventure serial that only ever becomes a theological treatise when the adventure serial stuff is stalling out.  So far, this balance is working a treat, at least for me.

But getting back to Laurie specifically, while I don’t really think I’ll ever view these characters as actually the same people as those from the book, I immediately loved Jean Smart’s ability to be somehow playful and no-nonsense at once.  She is funny, and she is immediately formidable and highly competent in spite of her damaged and self-destructive tendencies.  A lot of this is obviously Smart’s quickness and measured intelligence that she brings to every line of dialogue, but there is also some deft writing at work that allows her to get herself fully up to speed on everything we learned in the first two hours. plus a little more, almost entirely offscreen. We don’t see how she figures out the civilian identities of Night and Looking Glass, because we don’t really need to and its actually more impressive if she just knows.  And even after spending most of the episode with her she is still able to backfoot us (and Angela) by casually dropping in that by the way, she found Judd’s secret compartment immediately, with a single visit and no hints from homicidal grandfathers to clue her in. 

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"THE EGGS!!! ITS ALL ABOUT THE EGGS!!!  Or something.."

I also appreciated how she allowed us to see some of the world outside of Tulsa,  which gives us some context that we really need to ground us in this alternate reality.  What is apparent, or if not exactly apparent then at least discernable to those familiar with the source material, is that this is a world where masked vigilantes are fairly common and have been rather influential culturally.  That’s not the hardest thing to explain, but it is complicated by the setting of our story being a unique case even within this alternate reality, in that it's the only city where the cops are wearing masks too.  That is a tough thing to establish organically, and “Space Junk” does stumble over itself trying to do exposition and direct references to the source material at times, even as it excels at the nuanced character work.  For every bit of wonderful, precisely rendered character detail – from Smart’s perfectly delivered “cool” in response to the cops’ codenames, to her correcting Keene’s grammar or Angela correcting her own in the eulogy – there is an entire scene of an FBI director giving a 101 level summation lecture on the most infamous events in recent history to a roomful of experts that must surely know all about them already.  Or Veidt making awkward, elbow-nudging references to “Republic Serial villains”, because hey, he said something about that once in the book!  Or the entire framing device of Laurie telling a joke to Dr. Manhattan, which evokes the Pagliacci joke, but seems to miss the whole part about it being an actual joke.  When she ends with “Roll on snare.  Curtains. Good Joke.”, she’s quoting Rorschach's journal, maybe intentionally in character, but it is probably not supposed to make me think “uh….not really though?"  The Pagliacci joke, like the one that Alan Moore used to close THE KILLING JOKE, have actual punchlines that are amusing on their own and pick up added resonance and poignancy from their context.  Laurie's was pretty much just a direct dump of backstory about the old characters, along with some not-so-subtle foreshadowing that she will be the one to finally “kill god” at the end of the season (i.e., off Dr. Manhattan) at the end of the season.  It went straight for the subtext, and forget to install the surface.

But that’s a relatively minor gripe, in what was overall my favorite episode yet.  It was probably wise to hold back Smart and Laurie for a couple episodes, given how close she came to just blowing all our new characters out of the water.  Angela holds her own, though just barely. I’m sure those two gals will be working together soon enough, so for now lets look at some random notes and conspiracy theories:

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 RANDOM NOTES AND CONSPIRACY CORNER

  • This week was a little slower and sloppier than usual; family was sick Monday and there was less time for TV shenanigans.
  • Tartarus is basically Greek mythology’s version of hell, a place of monsters and eternal torment.  So…”Tartarus Acres” is about the worst fucking name for a cemetery imaginable.  At best, it reminds people of tooth decay.   Or a writer mistaking classical allusions for actual depth.
  • I don’t know if it was intended as a gag, but the little puff of the smoke bomb the Batman guy used before leaping out in the bank tickled me with its pointlessness.  If anything, it only drew more attention to his entrance and hurt his element of surprise. 
  • There are four main mystery/twist areas I have my eye on:  what Veidt is up to, who is a potential Dr. Manhattan in disguise, Judd’s secrets, and Joe Keene’s real agenda. Well, five when we factor in Angela's grandpa, but their whole thing didn't really factor in directly this week.
  • Veidt appears to be a prisoner rather a recluse, which is interesting I guess.  It’s hard to imagine who his captor could be, to hold the World’s Smartest Man in check, if not Dr. Manhattan.  I find I don’t have much real interest in trying to figure this out in advance, since it is so disconnected from everything else and so esoteric in all its particulars, that I just kind of think oh well, that will sort itself out whenever it needs to, I guess.  Two things I did note – there appeared to be a design for some sort of crude catapult in Ozy’s workshop, and going by the anniversary cake, we seem to be jumping forward a full year each episode, which means the whole thing is likely way out of sync with the main show, temporally.
  • Keene is clearly not to be trusted (he’s played by Bob Benson, fer Chrissakes), but the obvious conclusion that he is working with the 7th Kavalry is a little too pat.  I think the show tipped his hand when he brushed off a reporter’s question about the Russians building an intrinsic field generator, saying that he didn’t care about them and 7K was the real threat.  The intrinsic field generator is what made Dr. Manhattan, so I imagine that Keene is stoking the conflict in Tulsa to distract from his working with the Russkies to build a new superman/god. 
  • Though I suppose there are some holes in that theory.  If the graveside kidnapping was a false flag that Keen orchestrated himself, it is an unnecessary risk to have the bomber actually have a functioning suicide vest and dead man switch.  But naaaaah.  I mean, American politicians would never stoop to collaborating with hostile Russian actors to stoke up racial resentments within the US just to serve their own venal political interests, right?
  • As for Judd The Secret Racist, it’s still super confusing that he is so committed to his friendship with Angela from beyond the grave as to force her to sing at his funeral.  This must be working to one hella-racist payoff in the works, if it is going to make all these years of actively and publicly fighting against racism worth the deception. Though I guess it is just possible that Judd was more or less innocent, and its his wife with secret klan robes and ties to Keene that is coordinating the brewing race war, for the benefit of his political ambitions? 
  • Agent Petey is our Dr. Manhattan suspect of the week, I guess.  He has more knowledge than humor or personality, sleeps with Laurie, and most pertinent from a visual cue department, is shown returning to his motel room at night when her voice-over joke describes god finishing his day and packing up to go home.   I really hope they just reveal this soon one way or the other, so I don’t have to look at every character side-eyed the entire season.