Monday, September 30, 2013

What I Am Watching... Summer '13

Fringe Season 4 - Revisiting Fringe from the beginning has proven an exceptionally rewarding experience, particularly in seeing how the first season really set up everything else that was to come. While they didn't quite stick the landing, the build up to the final season makes for pretty incredible watching.  Fringe did a lot of things well, but it's their character and relationship building, destruction, and rebuilding that centers the show.  By the end of the third season, Peter and Walter had reconciled and secured their father-son bond, while Peter and Olivia managed to overcome the Fauxlivia scandal and connect as lovers only to conclude the season with Peter blinking from existence and restructuring the show's entire timeline.  It made for fascinating viewing the first time around, but I'm finding the second time around to be a little frustrating, since three years of the show stories are made somewhat irrelevant, at least for a little while, and the just established status quo is so frustratingly obliterated.

The first few eps of the season find Olivia, Walter and Astrid as the Fringe division team under Broyles, with Earth 1 Lincoln Lee brought into the fray.  Walter is afraid of society without Peter to ease him back into it in this timeline, Olivia being his guardian, and Nina Sharpe has somehow become Olivia's foster mother.  It shows a "what-if" aspect to the show, but, as I did the first time around, Peter's absence from the first few episodes is all too palpable.  Equally the minimal use of Earth 2 remains supremely disappointing.  Earth 2 was a fascinating place and if season 4 fails it's in not utilizing it enough after making it so integral in season 3.  When Peter does finally come back, though, the show starts crackling with great energy and tension again, as Walter refuses to acknowledge him, and Peter is all too aware that this Olivia is not the one he loved (not falling into that trap again).  How they reconnect the time-lost lovers, though is brilliant.  Season 4 also carries the Observers masterplan forward a little more consistently than season 3 did.

Season 3 was easily the show's apex, but season four is quite solid, if perhaps a five episodes overlong.

Young Justice Season 1&2 - In Canada we tend to miss a lot of great cartoons since we don't get the Cartoon Network up here.  If we're lucky our Canadian cartoon station, Teletoon, will pick up the domestic license, or perhaps YTV.  But even if they do, unless they're really, really popular, they get run once, never to be seen again.  Young Justice ran on Teletoon on Friday nights at 7ish, but as it wasn't appropriate for a 3 year old, we never watched it.  I honestly didn't think I was missing much.

When it was cancelled earlier this year there was quite the stink in the comics community because, apparently, people thought it was pretty awesome, and it ended on a bit of a cliffhanger introducing Darkseid as the big bad of the series (erm, spoiler I didn't hurt my viewing of the show one bit).  We picked up the DVDs to see what the stink was about and within three or four episodes, my wife, my stepson and I were completely invested.

DC Comics are built for cartoons: brightly colored, highly visual characters, wildly impossible powers, completely unbelievable scenarios, big concept action.  There have been a lot of great DC-derived cartoons: Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans, Batman: Brave and the Bold, and honestly, I think Young Justice is the best of them.  Young Justice has everything I've always want out of a superhero cartoon, which is that it acknowledges a history and a larger superhero universe.  It doesn't confine itself to its team of heroes, it has mentors and elders and young allies, and piles and piles of villains to contend with.

Still quite unique to American animation, Young Justice runs with a tight continuity featuring an ongoing major arc that serves as a throughline throughout the series, as well as continuing character arcs which sees not just the major character growing, but a lot of the minor ones advancing as well.  Season 2, even when you're prepared for it, is a bit of a shock, as it jumps forward five years into the future, advancing the central characters from the first season dramatically, and introducing a whole new cast, most of which we don't get to know quite as well.  But season two ups the hero ante immensely, and it's glorious how many costumes and capes we get to see.

Aqualad is easily the breakout character from the show, with an insanely cool and visually impressive power, a distinct personality - the product of a foreign culture, and where he winds up in season 2 is bewildering at first.  The character designs, by Jerome K Moore and Dusty Abell, both veterans of the 90's comic scene (and personally, much missed) are sleek and modern, but also don't stray too far from the classic look and feel of the characters.

It's an amazing series, by the fourth or fifth episode I was already angry knowing that it was cancelled (apparently because the toys weren't selling well), having hit its stride very early.  By the end I was even more upset, it's 2 season run not nearly enough to satisfy my excitement and enthusiasm for the characters, their journey, and the epic storyline they didn't get to finish.  We can only hope for a comic book or direct-to-video movie finish.

Axe Cop - I don't know why I didn't think Axe Cop would work as a TV show, but I was wrong.  The idea of a 5-year-old "writing" a comic strip/book and his professional cartoonist older brother translating his script into something not only readable, but genuinely charming, frequently hilarious, and thoroughly entertaining was a winning idea.  Moving that all into a cartoon setting, I don't know, I guess I just thought it would be too surreal. But the creators of the Axe Cop cartoon weren't looking to temper the whims of a young mind into something a general audience would want to watch, instead they looked to the Adult Swim model of 12-minute episodes and embracing the utter absurdity of it all akin to Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job.

Audiences these days, after a steady diet of Spongebob in their youth are ready and prepared for absurdity, and Axe Cop satisfies any craving immensely.  With brilliant casting, the show crackles with the comedic energy of its voice talent. Nick Offerman as the titular character is the perfect choice for a nearly-psychopathic seemingly omnipowerful individual.  Offerman's reserved delivery plays into the mental instability of the character (which is completely the result of trying to rationalize a child's storytelling whims into a coherent continuity), but also his dominant alpha male nature and his absolute egocentricity.  The core cast is rounded out with great comedic actors Rob Huebel, Ken Marino and Patton Oswalt.  A short six-episode test run on Saturday nights this past summer made for perfect 11pm stuck-at-home-on-a-Saturday-night viewing  (as part of Fox's Adult Swim-inspired Animation Domination block.  The block's follow-up show, High School USA  employed a wonderful Archie Comics-inspired animation style, but leaned too heavily on supposed taboo topics as a humour mine, resulting in painfully unfunny material.  If you want a great animated high school cartoon, look back to Clone High).  Axe Cop, is proving great in every medium so far, (web comic, traditional comic, card game, animation), a video game would be incredible, and a film (with Offerman in the lead role and directed by Tim and Eric) would be mind blowing...

Pushing Daisies - Years ago, when it first debuted, I watched the first two episodes of Pushing Daisies and thoroughly enjoyed them, but for some reason never went back to them, though with every intention to return, some day.  Both episodes were directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Addams Family, Men In Black, the Tick) and established a rich visual aesthetic to the show, filled with vibrant, primary colours that are contrasted with elaborate fabric patterns or cleverly constructed (if often impractical) sets.  It's about as close to the 60's Batman style as any show has ever come, without intentionally trying.  There's definitely an outmoded sense of whimsy to the overall structure that hasn't really been employed with any regularity since the 1940's, and it's extremely rare to see shows or movies with continual third-party narration.

Daisies is the product of death-obsessed showrunner Brian Fuller (see also Dead Like Me, Hannibal), here employing the filter of whimsy and humour to the concepts of mortality and murder, but also overlaying themes of family, friendship and romance.  It is, in actuality, a romantic comedy with just a hint of supernatural elements and and surreality.  Lee Pace is perfectly cast as Ned, the pie maker, who has the ability to bring the dead back to life with a touch, and take it back with another, but if they live for more than a minute, someone else in the vicinity will die instead.  Ned's carried the secret since childhood with only his dog knowing, until Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) a private eye, accidentally witnesses a resurrection.  Cod blackmails Ned into helping him solve crimes, which adds a detective narrative to every episode.  The first episode finds Cod and Ned investigating the death of Charlotte Charles (Anna Friel), who turns out to be Ned's long-lost childhood sweetheart.  Ned can't bring himself to de-resurrect Chuck, as the emotional connection and now romantic sparks fly immediately and intensely.  But how can people be lovers when they can't touch?  The final facet of the show is Ned's employee, Olive Snook (Kristen Chenowith) who has long held a crush on Ned, just to add a romantic triangle to the mix.

The show revolves around it's of-the-week case that Emerson draws Ned into and Chuck, with nowhere else to go, tags along.  It carries the continual narrative of Ned and Chuck's complicated romance, Olive's wariness of the new girl, and Emerson's exasperation.  Olive and Chuck's childhoods, both their shared history and individual development, play an integral role in their adult lives and the formation of their somewhat unusual characters.  I was worried after rewatching the first two episodes that I would find the intentionally sweet and off-beat nature of the show to wear thin quickly, but the counterbalance of morbid humour keeps it in check.  We blasted through season one rather quickly, but a lot of distractions hit in the past little while to keep us from getting through season two as swiftly.  But the season 1 closing reveal has so far provided a lot of ammunition to keep season 2 interesting.  It's a unique show that perhaps could have enjoyed a longer life, but equally I think got a life just long enough.  Rumours have circulated about a Pushing Daisies movie this year if it could get funded via Kickstarted (but then every cult show has had the same rumour since Veronica Mars pulled it off).  It'd be nice (especially Brian Fuller's idea of making it a zombie movie), but not getting my hopes up, though I would definitely put money into it.

Low Winter Sun - We got two or three episodes into this AMC translation of the British mini-series about a police detective who is manipulated into murdering a fellow detective, and then quickly learns of his manipulation and must contend with a corrupt police department, a brewing drug war, and internal affairs investigating his victim's murder.  It should be a more compelling watch than it actually turns out to be.  Mark Strong reprises his role from the British series and is incredible to watch, so obviously comfortable in the role, but as much can't be said for the rest of the cast.  Lennie James as the manipulating detective being investigated by IA is solid in the role, but his character is tossed into certain scenes without clear motivation (or any understanding of the stakes) making for some less than engrossing viewing.  The B-plot of the series involves a group of small time drug dealers making a push for their own slice of the city, but the actors involved in the role aren't up to Strong's scene commanding caliber, their characters are generally unappealing, and their storyline seems unimportant and unnecessary.  They try to dovetail the two lines together early, but it feels awkward.

The use of Detroit is perhaps its best feature, with the set decoration of the police precinct about as grimy as I've ever seen.  The technology the cops are working with is antequainted, the plaster is falling off the walls, the paint is peeling, the desks are beaten... it's obvious that there's no money being invested, moreover there's no money to invest.  The city looks like it's falling apart at the seams, neighbourhoods are abandoned where wild dogs have taken roost, the show's producer are keenly aware of their surroundings and the part they can play.

There are some great elements to Low Winter Sun, but they're overshadowed an overwhelming amount of tediousness, and nothing really propelling the show forward other than will Strong's otherwise respectable cop get away with murder, and whether he really wants to.