Sunday, September 26, 2010

Television Review: Death Note

I have seen some great anime movies (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, etc.) but anime series have never really appealed to me. There must have been some I watched as a kid, though none I can actually remember much about. As a grown-up, I think it was mostly stuff like Pokemon and Dragon Ball that made me steer clear of the genre. They seemed too dumb and meaningless for someone who’s past puberty. When I think of those series, I picture a lot of close-ups of distorted faces – disfigured by intense emotion or possibly constipation – with energetic lines around them, meant to convey fast motion while in slow motion. Dragon Ball in particular seems to use the ‘soap’ formula for telling its continuing story: it tells a very intense story at a frustratingly mellow pace. Interior monologue and hysterics get in the way of forward momentum; it’s like someone is trying to tell a story, but the brakes are on.

Out of curiosity and to test my own prejudice, I recently decided to try out an anime series. Thematically there are a lot of anime aimed at ‘mature’ audiences like me, featuring extreme violence and more gratuitous, kinky nudity of the female variety than a gay guy like me could possibly endure. But I was looking for something with a little depth to it, like most of the best anime movies have. Googling around, I found a series that was in the ‘top favorite’ list of a lot of anime fans: Death Note.

Death Note is about a very intelligent but morally misguided student (Light Yagami) who finds the Death Note of the title. This is a notebook in which demons known as Shinigami write down the names of people who are to die. Shinigami’s Western equal would be the figure of Death, minus a scythe, plus a notebook and with an odd fondness for apples. Because Light has found the Death Note, he automatically becomes the owner of it and the Shinigami gets tied to him. The Death Note is governed by all sorts of interesting – though somewhat random – rules for the series to play around with. (For a listing, look here.) The basic rule is this: if you write down someone’s name in the notebook, he or she will die of a heart attack unless you specify a cause and time of death. Light ambitiously sets out to rid the world of Evil with it, offing criminals all over the place from the safety of his bedroom. He makes his intention known publically under the adopted identity ‘Kira’. His intent may seem noble, but pretty soon Light is corrupted by his own power and he starts to dream about having all of mankind cowering at his feet. His morals get trampled even more when he starts killing authorities who are on his trail.

Enter ‘L’. He is the leader of a special task force, formed to hunt down the enigmatic mass murderer Kira. Because L has figured out that Kira needs to see a face and know someone’s name to kill him, he stays hidden until he has put together a posse he can trust, among whom happens to be Light’s father, a police inspector. The plot thickens even further as a second Death Note pops up and a second killer starts imitating Light.

L is actually the most interesting character in the series in both looks and personality. He is lanky, barefoot, a bit awkward socially, has a weird way of sitting on a chair and is always eating something sweet. He can seem cold and uncaring, because reasoning and intellect rule over all else. The series is at its strongest in the beginning, when L and Kira are basically playing a lethal game of mental chess. Both are trying to outmaneuver each other, to get each other to make a fatal mistake and reveal himself.

The close-ups that annoyed me in anime do feature in Death Note and especially in the beginning it’s indeed the initially feared interior monologues that are driving the narrative, more than action. It actually works here though: the story doesn’t get boring, because the stakes are life and death and the cat and mouse game is very engrossing. Bu it does start to get obvious after a while that the chase is being stretched out too much. New factors are thrown in that distract from the basic set-up and dilute it. Some of the mini-arcs within the bigger arc are entertaining seen on their own, but disrupt the overall pacing.

About two thirds of the way into the series, there is a massive, daring twist. Unfortunately, it’s one that doesn’t pay off and one the series never fully recovers from. It loses momentum and for the last few episodes I found my attention wandering too much. I am not entirely sure if the plot became more convoluted towards the end, or if I just missed pieces of exposition here and there because I zoned out. The finale itself is satisfying even though the last part of the route there is a little logistically foggy and unbelievable. The ultimate fate of the main characters seems fitting, but doesn’t surprise, as there was a certain inevitability about it long beforehand. Without spoiling too much, the ending reveals the whole series to be a tragedy, so don’t expect people to end up skipping off into the sunset.

Even though Death Note lingers for too long and the series should have been cut by about ten episodes out of its 37 episode run, it would have been a tragedy squared if I’d missed out on the first two-thirds of the series. It works as pure entertainment, but there are also some interesting musings about morality and the finality of death. ‘Carpe diem’ seems to be what it boils down to: appreciate your life while it lasts. Give it a look, if only for proof that the pen can truly be mightier than the sword!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Television Review: The Vampire Diaries

I blame True Blood for getting me into The Vampire Diaries. My boyfriend needed a vampire fix in between the all too short seasons of True Blood, so we decided to add The Vampire Diaries to our watchlist. Though I carefully sidestepped the Twilight movies and have managed to avoid any amount of novels starring werewolves and vampires, I have ended up following ‘Dawson’s Creek with Fangs’, as some might call it. It is based on a series of books by L.J. Smith, which I will never read, and was developed into a series by Kevin Williamson, who also created the Creek series and wrote the first two Scream movies. His trademark is well-written peppy dialogue with a lot of wordplay and pop culture references. The episodes he writes himself do indeed feature that, though the average script for the series is noticeably less sharp.

Core of the series are Damon and Stefan Salvatore, brothers who were both turned into vampires in 1864 by the evil vixen Katherine, who happens to be the spitting image of Elena, a girl the siblings both meet and fall for in current day. There’s an explanation for Elena and Katherine looking the same, but let’s just say it’s complicated. (And let’s overlook the fact that the age difference between the Salvatores and their love interest is pretty damn creepy when you think about it.) This all happens in Mystic Falls, a town where the brothers own a mansion in which they lurk around moodily, from the first episode of the series onwards. There is a love triangle between the brothers and Elena, of course, and there is a lot of angst and romantic entanglement among the whole teenage (but really in their twenties) cast. At first the vampires seem to be the only ones out of whack in a fairly normal world, but soon there are witches, vampire hunters and rings that revive you if you die. Werewolves are also likely to put in a first appearance soon.

The series has two main narrative problems: the stakes seem low even when they are high (accidental pun there) and the series hasn’t figured out how to keep its main, popular bad guy around in a way that’s believable. To start with the first problem: those back-from-the-dead rings are a lazy narrative cheat, not to mention a somewhat silly one. In a recent episode, it was suggested that the reviving would only work if something or someone supernatural was involved in the wearer’s demise. So a vampire could twist your head around and you’d die for a bit and ultimately end up just fine, but if you’d trip and hit your head on a coffee table, you’d be toast. Apparently. A couple of times already, the writers have made a spectacle out of killing a main or regular character only to have them – ta-daa! – sit up with a jolt a couple of scenes later, none the worse for wear. That really takes the edge off the threat of mortality. Admittedly, some deaths in the series did take and some people stayed in the afterlife, but watching a death scene with the initial thought ‘Meh, maybe it won’t stick anyway.’ dulls the dramatic impact. Call it the ‘Comic Book Superhero Revolving Door of Death Syndrome’, as also seen on Heroes, where it was part of the decline of the series. The origin of these magic plot-device rings has not been revealed yet, but then the same goes for the rings the Salvatores wear to be able to walk around in daylight, thankfully not glittering Twilight-style as they do so. I wonder if an enigmatic mystic jeweler will soon be putting in an appearance.

The second problem is Damon (Ian Somerhalder), the cool, morally ambiguous and funny ‘bad’ Salvatore brother who gets all the best lines. There’s no doubt he is the most entertaining character and it’s clear he should be kept in the series, but he has done some fairly unforgivable things and been forgiven nonetheless. When one of the leads just mopes around for a couple of episodes when Damon kills (or at least tries to) one of their friends or relatives, you start to wonder why you as a viewer should care, since even the people on screen don’t seem to mind that much. The cast in general seems a bit too blasé about innocent bystanders falling by the wayside at least partly because of their own actions and the emotional impact of a life lost, doesn’t last much beyond a single episode. The good guys come off as irresponsible for letting a loose cannon like Damon run around and even go so far as to hang out with him in a semi-friendly way. The writers are pushing him out of the ‘bad’ zone and into a moral grey area lately, to make his prolonged presence believable, but he still takes the occasional detour across the ‘evil’ threshold. To make him too good would ruin the character, but somehow he needs to be forced into being a relatively good boy for the long term, against his more evil nature. Hey, it worked for Spike from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, even if it took first sticking a chip into his brain that prevented him from hurting humans and then giving him his soul back. For The Vampire Diaries a witches’ curse might do the trick, as I think in this series vampires still have their soul.

Hopefully The Vampire Diaries will find a proper place for Damon and do away with cheap gimmicks that deflate the tension. The series is unlikely to stick in the mind after it’s all done and dusted years from now, but it makes for entertaining, if highly disposable, viewing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Television Review: Medium (Seasons 1-6)

Medium is a guilty pleasure for me. Not because it is necessarily badly written or produced but because it is less edgy than the stuff I generally go for. To sum up the concept: psychic mom Allison Dubois (played by Patricia Arquette), her loving husband Joe and their three wholesome daughters deal with complications caused by mom’s gift, as she uses it to help Phoenix law enforcement solve crimes. In early episodes the emphasis was on the crimes, but over the course of six seasons the home front has been gaining more and more screen time. This is just as well, as the cases tend to be a bit formulaic and in Medium, home is really where the heart is.

Pretty much every episode starts with Allison waking up in a shock from a dream related to a crime past, present or future. Sometimes the dream is a simple fly-on-the wall observation of the act or of moments right before or after, but you can be sure you’re not being given the full picture. The perpetrator is rarely clear and the visions are often remarkably tricky and subjective, setting up a twist for the writers to pull out of their hat for the final act of the episode. It seems that Allison is meant to prevent further crime on the basis of the dreams, but the rules that govern them are confusing and inconsistent. It’s not really clear why the spirits don’t just spit out what’s on their mind but prefer to peel back the layers on their message bit by bit, in a series of dreams. Allison also sees the occasional ghost. These ghosts seem to know what’s coming up in the future from their vantage point, guiding or manipulating her one way or the other. Why these ghosts have it together more than the ones reaching out through her dreams is not explained. She also has the occasional vision when hearing someone talk or when holding an object. But this apparently happens only when a case would be dead in the water otherwise. In early seasons, it was stated that Allison’s power rarely - if ever - gave her insight into (or affected) people she knew personally, but as the focus of the series shifted to her family, so did her visions.

The more you watch Medium, the more you realize the modus operandi of the afterlife is molded to the needs of the plot of a specific episode. This makes the tension feel artificial, as you are aware you are being pretty blatantly manipulated by the writers. Additionally, once you have watched a bunch of episodes, you tend to get wise to what information is being distorted or left out early on. You’ll end up seeing the twist coming long before Allison does. Of course, the viewer has the unfair advantage of knowing Allison is in a television series, being moved through a plot, but figuring out the truth long before she does – time and time again - does make her seem a bit slow on the uptake.

Allison works on her cases with district attorney Manuel Devalos and detective Lee Scanlon. Neither of these characters is given a lot of depth or heart and mostly they serve to regurgitate plot points. Devalos is a straightforward, moral man who lost a daughter and truly loves his wife. Scanlon is a taciturn, rigid guy, with limited emotional range and commitment issues. Neither of them overflows with charm. They have odd lapses in skill, sometimes forgetting about fingerprints or DNA evidence which you realize – once it is revealed to you how a crime really happened – should have been found earlier on in the investigation.

The true fun is to be had with Allison’s husband Joe (played perfectly by Miguel Sandoval) and the three daughters, who are moving through their growing pains as the seasons roll by and are dealing with the psychic abilities they inherited from their mom. The eldest is sensitive and all about boys and make-up, the middle one is willful and goofy - more frogs and snails than sugar and spice – and the youngest one is quiet and shy (so far). Having kids on a show who are charming and funny without being obnoxious or precocious is a pretty rare occurrence and Medium has nailed it. My personal favorite is the middle child, though a friend of mine disagrees and gets irritated by the ‘funny’ one, so personal mileage may vary. Joe is also someone you care about, as he tackles his unusual home life with an entertaining and believable combination of pragmatism, humor and worry.

What makes the show work is the contrast of this charming, happy family with the big, bad outside world in which horrible crimes occur. In a sense, the writers hold the family hostage, constantly threatening to have something happen to one or more of its members. It is an empty threat, because they know it would destroy what works about the show if they carried through on it, but you still care because the characters are so damn involving. Occasionally the show can feel a bit static, because nothing really changes within the family as the crimes-of-the-week are solved and forgotten.

The creator of the show is Glenn Gordon Caron, who also created Moonlighting. There aren’t that many similarities between the series, but there is a feel for funny-but-realistic dialogue that carries over and a willingness to experiment playfully with the format of the show. Oddly, there is a ‘real’ Allison Dubois with a husband and three daughters, an alleged psychic on whom Caron based the series. She has written a couple of books about the role she played in solving various crimes, though the police denies having worked with her. This by itself doesn’t discredit her, as law enforcement can’t exactly go to a jury and admit their evidence was gathered by way of a psychic. But a lot of the stories she tells in the books were also discredited by regular people who were involved in them. She is somewhat aggressively dismissive of skeptics and has stated that the portrayal of her family in Medium gives a fairly good impression of her home life. If that is indeed the case and she does indeed have dreams and visions like the ones in the series, she might want to ask those in the great beyond to stop being so damn cryptic and give her something to undeniably prove her powers once and for all.