Monday, July 28, 2014

One Episode: Black Mirror, The Strain, Extant

One Episode is segment in which we talk about shows we have watched one episode of (and sometimes more). We would like to watch less volume and more quality Television but that involves wading through a bevvy of meh to get to the good stuff. Sometimes we find gems which, for one reason or another, we don't (or haven't yet) watched another episode of.

Black Mirror - via TMN
The Strain - via FX Canada
Extant - via Global



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Black Mirror is a British anthology series from Charlie Brooker that seeks to "tap into collective unease about our modern world".  It's not an outright horror, sci-fi or fantasy series, but it taps into aspects of such genres for a meaningful, if often crude, examination of first-world society, a modern Twilight Zone, if you will.  The first episode, "The National Anthem", is set in an alternate Britain, with a different Prime Minister and royal family, but otherwise not to dissimilar to our own.  In the story the young, popular Princess Susannah is kidnapped an held for ransom, but the demand is not for money or any sort of political reason, but solely for the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig, live on camera, and finish to climax.

When the ransom details are revealed, the crude and distasteful nature of it sends the immediate impulse to turn the television off.  It's a disgusting premise, and yet, the effect it has on the actual viewer is the same that it has on the viewers within the show.  Brooker with director Otto Bathurst don't simply cut to the chase, nor do they just focus solely on the Prime Minister or any investigative team.  They jump around to different households and public places, following a few average Britons as they monitor the story's progress via the internet, social media and television and engage in surveys and debate over whether the PM should or should not.  As the political damage control team try to find other options, and a swat team chases leads and dead end, the Prime Minister wrestles with the decision that will affect his career, his family, and another person's life.

It's the classic train wreck scenario.  You don't want to watch, but you cannot look away.  It's a thoroughly uncomfortable premise, and yet it's masterfully executed, complete with a not-quite-a-twist ending that really hammers home the message that we can all be all too willing to devote our attention to media and miss the events going on around us.  But the message is layered, in that messages can all too easily be subverted or buried, thus missed and deemed pointless.  The show's brief epilogue takes place 1 year later and shows the good and the bad fallout, and just how grey everything remains.  Black Mirror has had two seasons consisting of 3 episodes each.

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The Strain is based off a successful book trilogy written by film director/avid fanboy Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, a series which I would like to read but have little time or patience for novel reading.  The series is being adapted into comics by Dark Horse comics and I've bent an eye towards picking the collected editions of that up (as I have much more time for comics reading), but I just haven't had time yet.  So when The Strain was announced as a new series from Del Toro and Lost producer/showrunner Carlton Cuse, I knew I could make time for it.

Particularly exciting was learning Del Toro had directed the pilot episode, which meant a more refined visual sensibility than your average TV program, which I guess is what made it all the more disappointing upon actually watching it.  The first episode of The Strain does indeed look good, but it suffers painfully from too-much-too-soon syndrome.  The show starts with a plane left disabled on the tarmac, all its windows closed and its passengers and crew inert inside.  The Center For Disease Control investigates and quarantines the plane and the facilities, discovering weird little worms and an odd 9-foot-long, intricately carved box full of dirt not on the manifesto.  It has the set up of an intense plague thriller, but then it jostles wildly into vampire mythology, and once more into zombie terrain.  Its more fantastical elements aren't teased or toyed with really at all, and it's ultimately awkward and off putting the manner in which they're revealed.

There's a heavy pulp fiction element to The Strain, the characters are rather broadly drawn, and if there's any nuance to them, the actors haven't really found it, at least in the first episode.  It's far too hectic and introduces way too many characters and scenarios to allow for any real development.  The story leaves very little in the way of surprises, but also a lot of questions, less about the plot and more to do with its consistency and plausibility.  It's not a wholly believable world.  With its in-your-face, pointless gruesomeness, and abundance of unlikeable characters, the first episode of The Strain leaves plenty to be desired, and very little to entice a return.

But I have watched the subsequent two episodes and they're marginally better, yet still suffer from pacing and structural issues.  The cast is still oversized for so early in its run, but they're slowly getting weeded out.  The introduction of Kevin Durand as a rat exterminator in the second episode has been the show's brightest spot, with David Bradley as an aged pawn shop owner and holocaust survivor with previous experience with the vampire/zombie/worm plague brings an intriguing historical element to the show that should be more in-focus.  Like Richard Sammel as the creepy, seemingly ageless Nazi broker for the vampire overlord puts in a good turn, and his squaring off with Bradley in the second episode further demands expansion in the show.

But the problem keeps coming back to too many disparate elements running concurrently to make for a satisfying whole.  The third episodes starts to bridge the gaps, but it doesn't make for any less clunky a start

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There has been such a spate of genre-related shows that have debuted or returned this summer, like The Leftovers, The Last Ship, Dominon, the Strain, Under the Dome, and Hemlock Grove,  that Extant sort of got buried in the summer release schedule, in spite of its high-profile star (Halle Berry) and producer (Stephen Spielberg).   There is literally too much television happening.  Not just genre TV, but in general.  Not only are there dozens upon dozens of networks, all producing original content, but there are "digital networks" like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Yahoo all looking for their own stake of the ever game geek market and the crossover share that can accompany.  I worry about idea exhaustion, retreading the same familiar ground too often, but moreover I worry about burnout, just taxing not only the fans of this type of material but the larger general audience who may only be willing to tolerate so much of it.  (With four DC Comics-based TV series and two Marvel-based ones, plus an endless parade of movies for the next decade, superhero burnout is only the beginning).

Extant thankfully is not a rip-off of Gravity, which I feared it would be from the trailers I had seen of Halle Berry's astronaut Molly returning home after a lengthy and troubling solo mission in space.  But outside of one spot of trouble where a solar flare knocked out power and communications briefly, it was a smooth 13-month mission.  Oh, except for having impossibly seen her dead boyfriend on board immediately after the solar flare, and has impregnated her somehow, even though she'd been unable to conceive, trying for a decade or so before.

Molly's husband John is a roboticist, working a new theory of evolution of the human/machine dynamic.  He's created Ethan, an lifelike artificial intelligence grown mentally in a lab and transferred into a human-esque body.   Ethan has effectively lived as Molly and John's son for years, but Molly having been away for so long has put strain on her relationship with both of them.  John's trying to secure funding for more advanced research of his "Humanichs" program, which comes in the form of Hideki Yasumoto, owner of the Yasumoto Corporation, the same company that owns the International Space Exploration Agency (space exploration has been privatized in this near-future).

Molly's return has been difficult, but even more so because of her experience on the Seraphim.  She deleted her video of her encounter with her ex's spirit, and has encouraged her friend and physician to withhold her pregnancy from her superiors.  The astronaut who was on the mission before Molly had faked his suicide, but has gone a little conspiracy nuts in the interim.  There's something she's not being told, and something is going on in this world, both with aliens and robots, that needs to be explored.

The titles start off reading "Extinct" before shifting ever so subtly to "Extant", which means there's something much bigger behind both the robotics and possibly alien encounters than just this world having robots and ghosts.  There's much at play and it's a fairly intriguing set of circumstances creator Mickey Fisher has pulled from all sorts of different sources (for example: Solaris, A.I.) to seed a decent mystery.  If the show has a problem, then, it's in the awfully dry acting of all players involved.  Berry is serviceable but doesn't quite wear the weariness and discombobulation of her return to Earth.  Goran Visnjic plays John, but he's never had a great emotional range, and there's no real spark between him and Berry ... they feel like actors.  Pierce Gagnon plays Ethan, he's a child actor playing a robot, so he naturally is asked to have a dead-eyed stare and a natural state of aloofness.  There are moments where Ethan seems engaged with the world, but far more where he's almost completely detached (and his pausing before a dead crow uttering, "It was like that when I got here" is supposed to send ominous shivers after all the discussion about robot overlords overtaking humanity, but it's really too easy and cliche).

I've watched the second episode and the mystery really heats up, as does the theme of extinction get a proper introduction (Ethan asking Molly, "Are you weak?" was an aces scene) though the acting stays understated.  But still the concepts are engaging and there's something bigger at play that it's leading up to.  I'm hoping it executes a single story for it's initial 13-episode run, one that can be elaborated on if need be, but also feels satisfying on its own.  Not excellent, but worthy.  David will like all the future tech innocuously used in the show.