Associate Vidiot

Sometimes I am allowed to write about television. You are best advised not to read it.

The Problems and the Promise: Classifying “Agents of SHIELD”

Agents of SHIELD didn’t kill your dog.

Agents of SHIELD didn’t ruin your childhood, attack your family, or set your house on fire. At the very worst, it’s a big-budget, highly hyped disappointment that’s improving more slowly than it probably should. (So, sort of like the Healthcare.gov web site.) But you wouldn’t know that from the vitriolic reception it’s gotten in some quarters of fandom.

At this point, you can’t swing a LOLcat on the Internet without hitting eleventy billion “How to Fix Agents of SHIELD" essays. And, well, this is another one, sort of. Agents of SHIELD has real problems — just like seasons four, six, seven, and (arguably) one of Buffy. 

Or seasons one and four of Angel.

Or the first few (and some of the last few) episodes of Firefly.

Or whopping chunks of Dollhouse. 

Or the first 20 minutes of The Avengers

But (also like Healthcare.gov, oddly enough) these flaws don’t mean the whole thing’s worthless and should be scrapped. Should the flaws have been there in the first place? In the comfort of hindsight, from all us folks not involved in actually making the damn thing, probably not. But things are getting better. Some things have actually been good all along, and just get overshadowed by the problems.

And with a little time, patience, and luck, there’s every reason to believe that showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, and Jeffrey Bell, and undoubtedly stressed-out and sleepy overlord Joss Whedon, can turn Agents of SHIELD from something that’s merely “pretty good and fun” into the towering, ass-kicking bundle of awesomeness we were all dreaming of since the show was announced.

So let’s talk about what’s been holding Agents of SHIELD back thus far — and just as importantly, what it’s already getting right.

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The Best Medicine

The young old man, the traveler, skidded to a halt and turned to heave the massive doors shut behind him. From the cold stone floor he plucked a flung spear and ran it through the handles, just in time. The doors jostled and boomed, the anger of his pursuers speaking through them. But they held.

The traveler breathed a sigh of relief, both his hearts hammering in his narrow chest, and brushed a way a swath of hair that sweat had plastered to his forehead.

"I was only looking for the gift shop…" he muttered, as if to the increasingly furious door. "That sort of reception can’t be good for the tourism."

At the other end of the long hall behind him, something stirred in the shadows.

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The Best Thing About “Toy Story of Terror”

For all the justified accolades heaped on Pixar since the original Toy Story in 1995, there’s been one lingering critique: Most of their movies are, well, boy stories. Sure, they’ve created tons of terrific and memorable female characters — even when, like Ellie in Up, they only actually appear in the film’s first ten minutes. But the bulk of their narratives center on the concerns and tribulations of men and boys. Or, uh, guy-bots. Or man-cars. Or he-fish.

Brave is a happy exception, exploring the complexities of mother-daughter relationships in ways few major films ever bother to tackle. But Pixar infamously parted ways with original director Brenda Chapman halfway through the movie. And if you’ve ever seen Chapman, with her Merida-esque giant shock of frizzy red hair, you can guess that the project had a fair bit of personal significance for her.

Even The Incredibles, my favorite Pixar film, pays slightly more attention to Mr. Incredible and Dash than Elastigirl or Violet. (Although in fairness, Bob’s arc during the film is to become more like his awesome wife, and fully engage in family life instead of leaving all the domestic stuff to her.)

In that light, last night’s Toy Story of Terror special on ABC — which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on streaming, most likely because Disney really, really enjoys money — is a huge step forward for Pixar. 

SPOILERS follow…

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"Brooklyn Nine-Nine": A Solid 8, Maybe an 8.5

Oh, Andre Braugher, how I have missed seeing you be witheringly disdainful in a police precinct.

Braugher’s on the short list of folks I’d watch recite the phone book. The man can turn even the simplest line — “They have adorable chubby cheeks,” for instance — into a three-course feast. But who knew the erstwhile Frank Pembleton would make such a great comic team with Andy Samberg?

Braugher’s subtlety and sheer dramatic presence shouldn’t pair this well with Samberg’s endearingly shameless goofballery. But somehow, in Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it does.

From left to right: Braugher’s just spotted the ABC exec who demanded that Last Resort be more of a soap opera; Samberg hopes you’ll forgive him for That’s My Boy; and Melissa Fumero is imagining she’s a giant robot.

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Norse Tragedy: Analyzing Marvel’s “Thor”

Thor (2011)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Script by Don Payne and Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz, from a story by Mark Prostevich and J. Michael Straczynski

On the surface, Marvel’s Thor is a big, goofy superhero movie about a gigantic slab of blond beefcake who hits bad things with a hammer.

It’s rife with corny slapstick, silly one-liners, and canted camera angles (which director Branagh explains as his attempt to capture the energy and dynamism of the comics he read as a kid). There’s a charming sweetness to the whole film, from the delightful chemistry between stars Chris Hemsworth and an otherwise checked-out Natalie Portman, to the warm, soaring score that closes out the film. 

But when you peel that surface away, Thor is a heartbreaking tragedy about a guy who sets out to do the right thing, and winds up destroying his entire life by his own hand. 

His name is Loki.

The god of mischief may be the villain of Thor, but in the classical sense championed by screenplay-analysis deity Todd Alcott, he’s also the film’s protagonist. His desire sets the plot in motion, and the gap between what he wants and what he actually gets provides the film’s dramatic heart.

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Late to the Party: God Help Me, But MTV’s “Teen Wolf” Is Actually Pretty Good

Getting older, and acquiring a life along the way, has pushed me even farther from the vanguard of pop culture than I was before. And I was pretty dang far. Welcome to Late to the Party, where I’ll occasionally discuss great TV I missed out on the first time around, just in case you haven’t discovered it, either.

Shame has kept me silent until now, but I just gotta say it: MTV’s Teen Wolf is a pretty great show.

I know, I know. It’s a needless reboot of an ever-more-irrelevant bit of ’80s pop culture flotsam, given a heavy gloss of Twilight for the basest of cash-in purposes, airing on a network that has basically become a 24-hour advertisement for skin care products, poor life choices, and venereal disease. And yet.

Under developer and Criminal Minds vet Jeff Davis, the show has neatly evaded all of the many, many opportunities it had to go horribly wrong. It’s smart, funny, consistently surprising, unexpectedly heartfelt, and a great big goofy pile of spooky pulp fun.

Like the Michael J. Fox original, this Teen Wolf involves a lycanthropic high schooler named Scott McCall, who pals around with a brainy dork named Stiles. But while the show worked in more than a few wry references to its cinematic predecessor in its first season, any similarities between movie and TV show end there. This version throws in a Twilight-style star-crossed romance with the daughter of a local clan of heavily armed werewolf hunters; a pack of morally gray fellow loup-garous with their own agenda; and more supernatural weirdness than you can shake a stick at.

Also, for some reason, lacrosse. The lacrosse may be the strangest thing about this show. It gives Teen Wolf a chance to show something you don’t often see on TV, and avoid the usual football and basketball cliches in the process. But otherwise, the less said about it, the better.

One suspects the show’s producers cast Tyler Poesy in the lead role for his facial and abdominal resemblance to Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner. This did not turn out as badly as it might have.

Scott’s fundamentally a good-hearted, brave kid with the moral steadfastness of a rock — and the intellect to match. While you shouldn’t expect to see Poesy among the Emmy nominees anytime soon, he has an earnest, puppyish sweetness that plays well against his character’s dangerous nature, and he makes Scott’s general lack of brains more endearing than aggravating. The show hasn’t yet succeeded in making Scott feel truly scary or out of control, but he can muster a certain measure of heroic badassery.

So can his co-star Crystal Reed, as Allison, Scott’s paramour of unfortunate parentage. (If you thought meeting your high school girl’s father was intimidating, just imagine knowing that he has a garage full of automatic weapons, and his sole purpose in life is to hunt you down and bisect you with a broadsword.)

Far from a hapless, lovesick twit, Allison’s smart and confident and plenty resourceful — one of a welcome panoply of strong, complex women in the show’s universe. As attached as she and Scott are to each other, Allison’s her own independent person. I like that the writers actually have her character feel angry about the rare times she has to depend on Scott for protection. When she insists, “I can take care of myself,” you know she actually can — particularly when she’s packing a collapsible crossbow in her purse. (And when Scott doesn’t believe her, you know that he’s once again being an idiot, albeit in believably human fashion.) Reed’s quite winning in the role, and does a great job of conveying Allison’s intelligence and determination.

As good as she is, the show’s MVP trophy goes to Dylan O’Brien as Stiles. Week after week, he turns in a deeply funny, surprisingly affecting performance in what could’ve been a thankless sidekick role. Stiles is as smart as Scott isn’t — and perceptive enough to be keenly aware of his social outcast status, and his own capacity to screw things up for the people he loves.

There’s an incredible scene toward the end of season 1 in which Stiles finds his dad, the local sheriff, up too late poring over crime scene photos with a glass of scotch. Dad’s in a melancholy mood, reminiscing bittersweetly about Stiles’ late mom; Stiles needs information from his dad to help Scott solve a crucial mystery and stop a supernatural Big Bad’s bloody rampage. So Stiles deliberately plies his dad with more and more booze, just to loosen his tongue and get the info he needs. All the while, O’Brien wordlessly makes it clear just how sick, remorseful, and disgusted with himself Stiles is for doing so.

You don’t expect that kind of sharp, understated drama from MTV, nor such depth to the characters. Heck, nearly everyone on the show, actors and characters alike, proves better and more interesting than they ought to be.

Colton Haynes’ Jackson and Holland Roeden’s Lydia start out as high school stereotypes — mean jock and queen bee, respectively. But the show actively pushes them into more complicated moral territory. Jackson’s never gotten over learning he was adopted, and his aggressive need to be the best stems from his fears that he’s not good enough for anyone to really love him. Lydia’s ditzy facade hides a genius-level intellect, emotional scars, and genuine bravery. (Yep. The smartest character on this show, by a country mile, is a girl. It’s pretty dang awesome.) 

Even Tyler Hoechlin’s hilariously broody werewolf leader — imagine a cross between Eddie Munster and Edward Cullen who’s spent a whole lot of time at the gym — gets a few good moments of sarcastic disbelief amid his over-the-top smoldering. He’s got a weirdly compelling, mismatched-buddy-comedy chemistry with O’Brien’s Stiles, which the show never fails to exploit well. (The fans, of course, are shipping the holy hell out of these two. In keeping with its delightfully big-hearted approach to gay and lesbian characters, the show is completely cool with this.)

Davis and his writers take pains to make even their villains complex and believable, driven by understandable motives toward twisted ends. And the writers aren’t afraid to toy with your sympathies; they can have two characters face off at different points in the season, and completely reverse which one of them you’re rooting for in each encounter.

Even Shantal Rhodes, who won a contest for a walk-on role on the show, absolutely killed in her brief but memorable appearance. That’s how much this show cares about, and encourages, good characterization.

And what about the scares? Horror fans rightfully complained that Twilight defanged vampires, but Teen Wolf isn’t similarly toothless. You can only show so much blood and gore on basic cable — if you want visceral horror from MTV, stick with Jersey Shore reruns — but Davis and the writers have found clever ways to still make things creepy. They go for more cerebral, unsettling scares: Jarring hallucinations, unseen things prowling in the shadows, and in what may be the show’s all-time freakiest moment to date, a live snake squeezing its way out of the corner of someone’s eye socket.

More than once, the show has paid explicit homage to the elegant horror of classic producer Val Lewton, whose movies overcame miniscule budgets through shadow, suggestion, and their audiences’ imagination. In Teen Wolf's case, having Highlander's Russell Mulcahy around as executive producer and frequent director helps give the show the style and energy it needs to skate past any financial limitations.

Teen Wolf's not without its flaws. Toward the end of its second season, the plotting gets muddled, filled with unexplained leaps of faith as it barrels toward its big finish. (How did that one guy come back to life, now? Oh, never mind, let's just keep moving.) The consistent characterization keeps the show from flying off the rails completely, but I did find myself wishing the creators had stuck the landing better. 

I’ll be interested to see whether Davis and company can keep up the quality in the impending third season. The show’s moving from Atlanta, whose woods gave the series a distinctively haunted and autumnal look, to L.A. It’s losing the talented Haynes to a contract dispute, right when his character seemed poised for bigger things. And it’s doubling its episode count from 12 to an unprecedented-for-MTV 24, which could tax the writers’ ingenuity even further.

Still, the first two seasons — available in full on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and MTV’s site — prove once again that you can’t judge a book by its cover, a show by its title, or a teenage lycanthrope by his six-pack abs.

Beware the Doppeldeaner

Few great TV shows can continue to thrive without their original showrunners. The seasons of Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Angel that he entrusted to Marti Noxon and Jeffrey Bell are universally considered both series’ weakest. The farther J.J. Abrams strayed from Alias, the more uneven (and ultimately crudtacular) it got. And The West Wing only survived Aaron Sorkin’s departure by becoming an entirely different, and still not as satisfying, show. 

Fringe stands out as a rare and happy exception. Under creators Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, it played like a shinier, vastly more boring version of The X-Files. But when they left for more lucrative pastures, their successors J.H. Wyman, Jeff Pinkner, and (weirdly enough) frequent guest writer Akiva Goldsman found the show’s heart. Their bold ventures into parallel universes, and their knack for devising weird cases that neatly reflected the characters’ personal challenges, transformed Fringe from an OK show into terrific entertainment.

I just don’t envision the same fate for Community in the wake of Dan Harmon’s unceremonious firing. I know his replacements created the much-praised Aliens in America. But producer Sony’s ruthless purge of Harmon, and the previous or subsequent departure of nearly every remaining longstanding writer and producer on the show’s staff, suggests the studio doesn’t really care about maintaining Harmon’s tone or style.

That’s a damn shame, because — for all his self-confessed faults as a showrunner and a human being — Harmon created a series that both broke every rule in the TV book, AND stuck to the important ones with greater fidelity than most shows can ever muster. Every fan of the show heaps deserved praise on its format-busting “theme” episodes and its wry, self-aware humor. But Community also excels in rock-solid character writing, ensuring that every member of its cast — yes, even Chevy Chase — always behaves according to consistent and sympathetic motivations. The new leadership can try every outlandish theme episode under the sun, but without Harmon and his writers’ palpable love for their weird, damaged characters underneath the gimmickry, the show just won’t be the same.

The storyline that closed out Community's third — and, renewal be damned, essentially final — season now seems weirdly prescient. The weird, deeply troubled, sometimes uncomfortable, but fundamentally decent guy who just barely managed to keep Community running is gone. The greedy powers behind the scenes, eager to serve their own narrow self-interest, want you to think that the guys trying really hard to pass for him are him. But they’re not, and they never will be. They’re nothing more than doppel-deaners. 

Marketable Princesses, Assemble!

Last fall, ABC debuted Once Upon a Time, its umpteenth attempt to duplicate the success of Lost — this time, with fairy tales. Fans of Bill Willingham’s long-running comic book Fables quickly began grousing that the show was a cheap ripoff of a proposed, but scuttled, TV version of the comic. Willingham has since graciously doused those rumors, but I think his fans were half right.

Once actually is heavily inspired by a comic book — but not the one most people seem to think. And even more improbably, it may actually have a shot at being a structurally stronger show than Lost ever was.

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