Posts Tagged ‘horror’
I won’t say that Fear the Walking Dead’s very, very occasional brushes with insight and intelligence are the most frustrating thing about it — you know, that “why can’t they be like this all the time” kind of frustrating. No, the most frustrating thing about it remains how everybody acts like brownshirts the moment they meet another group of people, and how the show presents this as fundamentally sound behavior. (Unless someone’s doing it to our heroes, in which case it’s bad, and our heroes therefore have every right to murder the perpetrators, which isn’t a whole lot better.)
But still! Fear the Walking Dead’s very, very occasional brushes with insight and intelligence are pretty frustrating. The doomed romance between Victor Strand and Thomas Abigail, Nick’s wordless journey through the wilderness, Strand talking the bereaved newlywed in the hotel through his loss — this stuff is restrained and thoughtful enough to make you imagine a zombie show that was like this all the time, a wish we know is no more likely to come true than a cure for the zombie plague itself. “Date of Death,” this week’s episode, added a few more moments to the “Okay, that was actually good” pile. Not a lot, and not enough to outweigh the usual allotment of idiocy, but enough for said idiocy to feel like a real slap in the face instead of business as usual.
I was delighted to become (I think) the first ever recurring guest on Shallow Rewards, the enormously insightful podcast from music criticism’s adulte terrible Chris Ott, to discuss the use of standout pop songs on the soundtracks of prestige television shows. We focus on Mr. Robot and Stranger Things (so watch out for spoilers) but touch on Halt and Catch Fire, The Sopranos, and The Wonder Years, with plenty of digressions into film soundtracks and film in general (Cameron Crowe, Martin Scorsese, SLC Punk, Under the Skin) as well. Chris is one of my favorite critics of any kind and it’s a pleasure talking to him. I hope you enjoy the results!
We’re turing the podcast Upside Down this episode with an in-depth discussion of Stranger Things, the hit summer thriller series from Netflix and the Duffer Brothers. Wearing its many, many genre influences on its sleeve so proudly that said sleeves might as well have had “STEVEN SPIELBERG” and “STEPHEN KING” directly embroidered on them, the show gave its fans an ‘80s nostalgia fix like few others. But is there more to the whole than the sum of its parts? Sean and Stefan explore that question at length, touching on related issues such as the nature of horror, the hegemony of nerd culture, the ever-increasing prominence of the ‘80s in contemporary entertainment, and of course the show’s similarities with and differences from the approach to genre taken by A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Grab your D&D dice and roll for initiative with us!
Despite its portentous, Lot’s-wife-referencing title, “Pillar of Salt,” this week’s Fear the Walking Dead had little more on the docket that simply showing us where everybody is (except Chris; thank heaven for small favors) and what everybody’s doing. A “surprise” ending that features one of the show’s top-billed actors getting closer to the other top-billed actors, after an episode filled with more of the same, is all too fitting. There’s was nothing going on here, good or bad — the episode simply existed.
No one believes me when I tell them this — no one except other critics, anyway — but I’m in the liking-things business. When a television show is bad I’m going to say so, and when it’s really bad I’m going to say so hard. But the pact I’ve made with myself to stay relatively happy and sane is to assume, at the start of every episode, that there’s every probability that I’ll have considered it time well spent by the closing credits. If I didn’t want to enjoy myself every time I sit down to watch a TV show, I wouldn’t watch them for a living, you know? Bad shows don’t fulfill my pessimistic expectations, they disappoint my optimistic ones. Even in the case of Fear the Walking Dead, a series I think is not just “bad” but also ethically and politically noxious, I’m out here every week looking for diamonds in the rough. If the best I can come up with is cubic zirconium, hey, I’ll take it.
The worst part, by far, is Elena, the mad fascist…hotel manager. Yes, this winner of a character willingly sentenced an entire wedding party to death when one of their number turned zombie. Why? “I had the hotel to think about. We were at capacity.” Oh, well, alright then! “I contained the situation,” Elena explains. You know who else “contained the situation,” Fear the Walking Dead? You might say that Elena found the final solution to the guest question in her hotel.
It’s not inconceivable that Elena might react to a sudden zombie outbreak in her hotel’s ballroom by locking everyone at the party in with the dead. Had she been shown to be panicked, preoccupied, or even just a little nervous about reports of “the sickness,” that kind of snap decision would make sense. On the contrary, she blows off the mother and father of the bride’s concerns about the dawning apocalypse mere seconds before the dad drops dead. (A tidy bit of plot-hammering right there!) In that light, her reaction to the infection of a paying customer, and his sudden decision to chew the face off his child in the middle of their father-daughter dance, looks either insanely sociopathic or insanely poorly written. But hey, this is Fear the Walking Dead — why choose?
I reviewed this week’s Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. This show is fascist, right down to the philosophical incoherence.
The malevolent beauty of “Mr. Robot” Season 2 is such that knowing and not knowing are equally unpleasant options. The show’s twists earn it constant comparisons to films like “Fight Club” and “The Sixth Sense,” but its ability to create and sustain the look and feel of a bad dream has much more in common with David Lynch’s roughly contemporaneous, twist-based mind-benders “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive.” You’re no better off on one side of the reveal than you are on the other.
I reviewed tonight’s creepy Mr. Robot for the New York Times. A point I’m trying to make here is that an overly literal focus on Elliot’s dissociative identity disorder, either in terms of twist-based plot mechanics or psychological realism, misses the point, which is to viscerally illustrate powerlessness and dread.
Unfortunately, high-rise-hotel-dwelling zombies attracted by the ruckus raised by the extremely drunk Maddie and Strand in the lobby weren’t the only things that went plummeting on “Los Muertos,” this week’s episode of Fear the Walking Dead: The show’s quality did, too. After airing its first top-to-bottom Good Episode with last week’s quiet, thoughtful, Nick-centric survival-horror road-trip ep “Grotesque,” the series has returned to form: fascist tribalism, ham-fisted dialogue, half-baked philosophy, and more idiotic and inconsistent behavior than you can toss an empty shot glass at.
Saying Stranger Things wears its influences on its sleeve is like sayingBarb had a lousy time at Steve’s party: It’s true alright, but it understates the case considerably. Entire articles have been written detailing the themes, concepts, creatures, fonts, sound effects, and imagery swiped more or less wholesale from other films — here’s Vulture’s, just for example. And any fan of genre entertainment, particularly (though by no means exclusively) from the ’80s, can rattle off the creators whose original visions fueled the Duffer Brothers’ own without breaking a sweat. Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter are the most obvious touchstones, but you can also spot Judd Apatow, Shane Black, John Byrne, James Cameron, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, Richard Donner, Fred Dekker, Jonathan Glazer, Gary Gygax, Tobe Hooper, John Hughes, Richard Kelly, John Landis, David Lynch, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Robert Zemeckis from a mile away. Any show assembled from building blocks that solid is going to be entertaining, at the very least; factor in universally fine performances from the show’s many child and young-adult actors, the strongest such cast assembled since Game of Thrones, and you’d be tempted to move Stranger Things out of the “hey, that was kinda fun” column straight into “this is a stone classic, gimme season two immediately” territory.
But unlike many of its countless forerunners, Stranger Things’ story of small-town terror communicates little beyond the contents of its creators’ Blu-ray collections. It’s so fixated on stirring nostalgia for the science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and adventure tales of yore that it has no time or energy left over for what made those horror tales compelling in the first place: wrestling with the fears and desires of the time period, and the different kinds of people — boys and girls, men and women, parents and children, kids and teens and adults — who found themselves struggling with them. Nearly everything difficult about the original works, everything weird, gross, uncomfortable, unexplained, and hidden beneath the surface (“occulted,” to use an evocative lit-studies term) has been stripped away in favor of a lowest-common-denominator pastiche that retains the surface elements but loses the power within.
The more I saw of this show, the more what it did with its source material bothered me. I went in-depth on how Stranger Things squandered its potential to actually be a stranger thing for Vulture.
The beauty of all this is that Nick is neither a born survivor nor a feckless, hapless loser. He’s a guy trying his best, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. The false dichotomy usually present in Fear the Walking Dead’s survival stories, where living to fight another day usually comes down simply to how violent you’re willing to be, is nowhere to be found. And throughout, director Daniel Sackheim — veteran of some of television’s best-made shows, including The Leftovers, The Americans, and Game of Thrones — frames Nick with some of the series’ most striking shots to date, driving home both his isolation and the lyrical, largely wordless nature (after all, he’s got no one to talk to) of his emotional and physical world.
It’s reminiscent, frankly, of the long, lovely, riveting silent stretches of, say, The Leftovers or Better Call Saul. Sure, it shows how much potential Fear squanders — imagine if it were like this every week! there’s really nothing stopping it! — but even so.
All in all, Nick’s journey here favorably compares to similar passages in, say, Stephen King’s The Stand, where the main obstacle to survival was distance itself — the vast amount of terrain that survivors of the apocalypse had to cover, and the sheer variety of dangers, large and small, they’d have to face on the way. Frankly, this entire franchise has never earned a comparison with a genre touchstone that strong before. I fear it won’t last, but for one week anyway, it’s manna from survival-horror heaven.
I reviewed last night’s Fear the Walking Dead mid-season premiere for Decider. Believe it or not, I liked it a lot! I think it’s the series’ first top-to-bottom good episode. For many reasons detailed in the review I feel a worthy follow-up is unlikely, but still.
I’ve never seen a show fail as spectacularly as Preacher did in its Season One finale. I mean that in every sense of the phrase, honestly. As is the show’s custom, “Call and Response” went as far as it could possibly go, then pushed even farther. Graphic violence of virtually every variety, narrative zig-zags and head-fakes and dead-ends that would make Lost go “now hold the phone,” gross-out moments as stomach-churning as a basic-cable show can get, more tragically hip music cues than a mid-‘90s Miramax movie soundtrack, a complete and total abandonment of taste, decorum, or even just the sensible fear of being corny as hell: Preacher has always been willing to go for it, and went for it the finale did. It just so happens to have gone for the goddamn face of a cliff. It was spectacular, yes. It was also a failure. A complete, total, spectacular failure.
I’ve been hard on Preacher, and that’s never been harder on me than this week. By any objective measure last night’s episode, “Finish the Song,” ended with the sort of sheer convention-shredding narrative audacity every TV critic worth their salt would commit at least a misdemeanor offense to see more often. It’s actually heartbreaking to how far the show is willing to go, and how hard it works to get there, only to watch it fall short again.
Preacher made one of the boldest storytelling decisions I’ve ever seen on TV, and it still didn’t work. I tried really hard to unpack why in my review of this week’s episode for the New York Observer.
If you want an object lesson in how Preacher is just about half a head shy of being an actual good show, you could do worse than to look at this week’s episode. ‘El Valero’ could be considered a climactic installment, insofar as Odin Quincannon’s forces succeed in taking back the church from Jesse Custer, while the angels fail in removing Genesis. But nearly everything that happens hints at greatness, or at least damn goodness, that goes frustratingly unrealized.
Take Odin Quincannon. This episode begins with a flashback to what amounts to his origin story: He lost his entire immediate and extended family to a ski-lift collapse while he was stuck at home working, then went slightly mad and disemboweled both a cow and his daughter’s corpse to “prove” that the idea of a human soul is bullshit. Yes, the Quincannon family’s totally-‘80s wardrobe and hairstyles are played for laughs, and yes, Odin’s over-the-top reaction is there for the gross-out factor. But at least once it becomes clear that this wasn’t a murder he orchestrated — i.e. an attempt by the show to demonstrate just what a badass bastard he is — but a genuine, tragic accident that cost children their lives and broke a man’s spirit with survivor’s guilt, the performance by Jackie Earle Haley as the grief-stricken, mad-at-god meat magnate thrums with real sadness and anger and hate. His reversion to type throughout the rest of the episode — barking sarcastic orders at his men like the opening scene had never happened — cuts the impact off at the knees. (Or shoots off its dick, as the show would likely have it.)
Jesse Custer’s in a really bad mood. Accidentally sending a teenager to Hell will do that to you, of course. The fascinating thing about “He’s Gone,” this week’s episode of Preacher and the first I’ve felt has anything more on its mind than what you might find in a college sophomore’s bathroom reading material, is the complex manner in which that bad mood is manifested. This was the first hour I’ve spent in Jesse’s company that left me wondering what he might do next — not in an “oh shit anything can happen on Preacher…and usually does!!!” way, which is as predictable as anything, but in a “human beings are complicated, difficult creatures and we probe their mysteries at our peril” way, which is the hallmark of television worth watching.
The fight scene’s what will get most of the attention, but my vote for the best moment in which Preacher gets physical this week is when Jesse and Cassidy stand around in their underwear. With their clothes in the wash after a knock-down-drag-out brawl with the angels that left an entire motel room looking like Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton were staying in the adjoining suite, the two men (well, one man with an angel-demon hybrid inside him and one vampire) kick back with a morning beer and talk about their tattoos. Why? Because when you’ve got two guys in your cast with the physiques of Dominic Cooper and Joe Gilgun, why not? Preacher has been a show about spectacle and sensation from the start, and you don’t get more sensational than that.
So if there’s a problem with “Sundowner,” it’s not that heaping helping of eye candy, any more than the show’s bold stylization and blood ’n’ guts violence have been a problem as a whole. The generic Texas-shithole setting aside, Preacher has always been a heck of a thing to look at. The issue is what lies beneath, or more accurately what doesn’t. The glitzy surface conceals lapses in logic and a hollow heart that would easily have felled a less audacious and accomplished show by now.
The blasé manner in which characters react to the extraordinary events befalling them is endemic to the school of comics in which Preacher’s source material, the DC/Vertigo series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, is squarely located. Playing it cool around vampires, angels, demonic possession, and the wrath of God Himself has long been a way for writers of a certain vintage to mark their protagonists as either erudite sophisticates familiar to the point of boredom with the ways of the multiverse (“The Elder Gods do have a tendency to make one frightfully late for tea”) or hardcore badasses whose busy schedule of drinkin’, fightin’, and fuckin’ leave them no time to be wowed by the world beyond (“What’s the matter? Never seen the infernal legions before, new guy? Hurry the fuck up and shoot ‘em — I got a date with three strippers tonight and I’ll be damned if Beelzebub’s gonna cost me my nut”). With nerd culture’s Orwellian oligarchical takeover it was only a matter of time to see it so directly translated to the small screen, but that doesn’t make it any less joy-killing now that it’s happened.
Which brings us to the Red Wedding. A pop-culture touchstone the instant it took place, this bloody on-screen slaughter of House Stark’s leadership — most notably King Robb, his mother Catelyn, his wife Talisa and their unborn child — was payback by crusty old Walder Frey for the insult he suffered when the Young Wolf broke his promise to marry a Frey daughter. It was the ultimate revenge killing, for the pettiest of reasons. But more importantly, it represented as great a shock to the storyline as Ned’s death did. Before that fateful night, we’d assumed that while Dany’s dragons and the White Walkers would wind up moving to center stage at some point, the Stark/Lannister conflict would serve as a series throughline. Wrong. When Cat’s throat was cut, our understanding of what the show was about went with her. Suddenly the Lions were in charge, becoming the show’s ersatz protagonists simply by virtue of survival. A change that big required a massacre this graphic.
The same logic underlies the show’s most controversial and upsetting acts of violence: those against women and children. On this show, kings have ordered the murder of infants. Children have been sacrificed to White Walkers and the Red God. Peasant kids have been skinned, hanged, and burned just as a ruse, or devoured by the dragons their mother hoped would be humanity’s saviors. Young slaves have been crucified to send a message, young prisoners executed out of rage or simply for convenience. And from monsters like Joffrey and Ramsay to schemers like Littlefinger and Roose Bolton to ostensible heroes like Tyrion, women are treated like cattle: bargained for, bred with, and slaughtered at will.
It’s these deaths, whether they involve major players or minor characters, that are toughest to endure and most important to think about. Violence, like water, flows downhill, and inevitably drowns those most vulnerable to it. Depicting it in any other way would betray Game of Thrones’ central contention that however you dress it up, power is seized by the sword, with all the carnage that entails.
This is why complaints that Ramsay was too one-note in his cruelty miss the mark. Does he have a “character arc”? Not unless you count his legitimization by his father, which only made him more of what he already was. Does he grow, change, surprise? Nope — once he led Theon back to that X-shaped crucifix, we knew what he was, and he never challenged that knowledge. But there’s more to a character than this kind of by-the-numbers analysis lets on. There are the intangibles of Iwan Rheon’s performance — how he made the Bastard’s demented mirth feel so striking and singular amid an ocean of comparably cruel characters. There are the themes he helped articulate better than any other character — the inherent unfairness of Westeros’ class system, the way rich and powerful men can quite literally get away with murder. And there’s the spectacular nature of his brutality — how his extreme bloodlust forced every viewer to confront our own complicated feelings about violent stories, on-screen and off. We’re glad the bastard’s gone, but it’s good we got to know him.
Every once in a while a show will present us with a storyline that acts as a convenient metaphor for that show as a whole. At first glance, “Cassidy, the century-old Irish vampire, bamboozles two unkillable Cockney angels into paying for a superhuman quantity of drugs at a Texas whorehouse before a case of mistaken identity causes him to be beaten through a second-story window” might seem an unlikely candidate for this role. Take a second look, however, and…well, yeah, it still doesn’t make a ton of sense. But a third look — that’ll do it. In “Monster Swamp,” its first season’s fourth episode, Preacher is as wild and intoxicating as ever. But it’s a shallow high, with a hell of a crash coming down.
Take the cold open, a chase scene involving an underwear-clad woman fleeing unknown pursuers that ricochets rapidly between creepy and zany and back to creepy again. There’s a closeup on a light and a schoolbus drifting past. Then the town mascot wanders by. Then the scantily clad woman shows up. Then it seems like she’s running for her life. A truck pursues her, with a rifle mounted at the rear windshield. As she flees, she tries to hide, but her hiding place is occupied by twoother women in their underwear, who wave her away. By this point it’s clear she’s being chased by the macho employees of the menacing local monopoly Quincannon Meat & Power, meaning this is some kind of game involving a whole other exchange of meat and power. She keeps running, and is joined side-by-side by another woman, who gets shot by what looks like some kind of dart, not a bullet. When our heroine is finally cornered, her pursuer tags her with a paintball, indicating this is likely all some kind of bought-and-paid-for foreplay in Most Dangerous Game form. But just when you think all is well (or well-ish), boom, the ground opens up and she falls in a sinkhole and dies.
Pretty TWISTED, right???!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!
In other words, here’s the problem with Preacher: Its tracking shots, title cards, and go-for-broke mirth and mayhem make the show a lot more entertaining than a show by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg based on a retrospectively cheesy ’90s “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” series has any right to be. But being entertaining is a lot different from being interesting. Preacher talks in a language all its own, but that doesn’t mean it has anything to say.