Saturday, May 14, 2016

TV Caught Up, Summed Up: Black Sails, X-Files and Hap and Leonard

Black Sails, 2014-2016, Starz

I never read Treasure Island; I only saw Treasure Planet. I know there is a Long John Silver and a long lost missing treasure. I think I knew the name Billy Bones. So, when Marmy pointed out to me that this show was a prequel to the classic novel, I was rather surprised. That peaked my interest more than just a generic pirate show. We had seen the first episode back in 2014 but, for some reason I don't remember, chose not to watch it. Maybe oversaturated on grim, violent melodramas? Anywayz, we were enjoying the gravelly voiced Zack McGowan in The 100, who embodies my generic D&D character, so she grabbed the first season.

Pirating a show about pirates. Snort. I am easily amused.

This is the crew of the ship that eventually buries a treasure somewhere that old Long John eventually goes after. This is the pirate ship Walrus (sorry, doesn't inspire fear in me) and the feared Captain Flint. Flint is ruthless, fearless and rules his crew with an iron fist. Not a literal one, but in these shows it's possible so I had to clarify. He has his looking glass set on the Spanish gold ship Urca de Lima, a legendary ship so full of gold that every pirate on his ship would become a wealthy man - forever. He will let no man stop him from finding that ship. No one.

When not on sea, the story takes place in the port of Nassau, a mostly lawless town ruled by Eleanor Guthrie, the fence who re-trades the pirate booty and keeps the town running. In town is Flint's greatest rival, Charles Vane played by Zack, who looks even more like a D&D character in this role. His partners are real life pirates Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. Vane used to sleep with Guthrie but she has taken to bed with the wiley courtesan Max. Max is smart, beautiful and has her own agenda. Just outside of Nassau, Flint has the kept lady Mrs. Barlow. There is some dark, hidden past there. There always is.

That is how the show begins, a soap opera on the high seas (is it really the high seas if it takes place in the waters that eventually become the Caribbean?) full of violence and intrigue. It was consider the boaty version of Game of Thrones. That's disingenuous. There may be as much blood and boobs as the former, but this show is much more contained. I wish it had stayed so contained, as it did with first season, being all about finding the spanish gold ship. Like most shows of this ilk, once they impetus to plot is captured, things begin to meandre. But eventually, we know the show has to lead to the book, so things have to fall apart.

Flint is a challenging character. You are not supposed to like him. He does things to and with his crew you are not supposed to like. But he is admirable in many ways, it just always seems to lead to him only taking care of himself. In many ways, Vane is more admirable as he has a path and he always follows it. Too bad he's the whipping boy of the show being constantly betrayed by those closest to him. As the seasons progressed, I actually found myself more attuned to the effete Jack Rackham, also known as Calico Jack in history. He has a very very real goal and sense of honour. He has loyalty to Vane, even when he betrays him, and to Anne, even when she throws Jack out of bed for Max's wiles. But he keeps on moving forward, eager to do right by his friends and keep to his path.

There was this point when I thought the show would embrace a very fascinating character element of Flint, that the man was gay. He had been forced to leave England due to his love affair with a Lord. The betrayals around that affair had Flint on a violent path to avenge his lover; England would suffer his wrath. But no sooner than this is revealed, then it seemed tossed to the side. By season three, we are more focused on once again connecting the story to the book. The treasure island has been identified, the spanish gold keeps slipping from everyone's grasps (becoming a very red herring) and Flint has other focuses.

That he is gay is barely ever mentioned again. Should it be? Is it bold just to have the character be so and then move on? I just feel they are hiding from the revelation fearing too many viewers will be soured by it, if it was embraced. The bisexuality of other characters, the ones with breasts, is embraced fully and at every opportunity. So, I am broken about this which I see as a plotting weakness, but truly, I am becoming bored with the less directed story.

X-Files, 2016, Fox.

Getting bored with a show is in my personality. Even before the golden age of TV, where there is literally too much to watch, I would see the attention span of the writing room fade and with it, mine.  I remember those first few seasons of the X-Files, that I was dropped into late because I didn't own a TV. In fact, when the first episode aired, I was sleeping behind the sofa at a friends and struggling to jury rig an antenna on his rarely used TV. I remember being excited that a show was recreating the premise of Project UFO that I loved as a kid. But is was its own show with two great leads and mysterious, engaging premise that flitted between an alien conspiracy and a monster of the week.

Press fast forward on the VCR remote control and I had become frustrated with the show's core mythology. Yes, there are aliens, no there are not aliens, it's a hoax, it's all real. As often as they revealed the real agenda behind Cancer Man (I always refused to call him Cigarette Smoking Man) and his alien hybrids and the shadow government, they unwound it with double blind conspiracies and doubts. But people lapped it up. By the time a terminator had taken over for Duchovny, I was out. I barely saw any of those seasons, but I did come back for the movies.

And I was always always always in love with the stand alone episodes, the "monsters of the week", especially the genre bending comedic ones that played with the characters as much as they moved the series forward.

The show continued and ended in 2002 with the definitive statement that the world would end/change on that date in 2012. It gave us a good decade of life before everything would be gone, as we knew it. Kind of bleak but in tone with Mulder & Scully.

Again, pick up that remote, but this time to a Bluray player. Much faster, a clearer picture. Pictures flicker by and we get the new series. Again, like in I Want to Believe, we find Mulder hidden away from society but invent a reason to put him and Scully into the basement with their posters.

That first episode is both fascinating and infuriating, dragging the show into the current age of conspiracy theories as entertainment, social media and a ubiquitous internet. But it all but jettisons the entire mythology built before it. It literally has Mulder dropping the entire confirmed alien conspiracy for another via the barest threads of truth. Dude, you SAW the aliens in Antarctica, you SAW a spacecraft lift off. And not a little one that could have been high tech helicopter, but a MASSIVE one. Whatever.

So, once we ignore the fact that the core element of the new series is absolute bullshit, it is kind of a fun reunion. And it has the best... episode... ever. Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster is a meta episode that references SO many of the best previous episodes. Written by Darin Morgan, known for his comedic episodes, it has continuity to the series (ala easter eggs), once again gives Mulder a verifiable addition to his cryptozoological menagerie. And it's hilarious. And sweet.

But the rest was very meh, fun to watch but not very.... good. It just confirmed, even to die hard fans, that Chris Carter should just leave the show alone these days.

Hap and Leonard, 2016, SundanceTV

Back in the 90s Charles de Lint, an author and book reviewer (aka ravenous reader like Marmy), was always happy when he could recommend non-genre fiction to us. Andrew Vachss and Joe R Lansdale were two suggestions we fell in love with.  Vachss wrote crime fiction from the point of view of righteous criminals and Lansdale wrote many things, but Hap and Leonard stood out. Set in the 80s in east Texas, the books were about a pair of good old boys, one a disillusioned ex-hippie, the other a gay black man capable of great violence. The best thing about the books, which were again crime stories but not stock mystery, was the relationship between the two good friends. They were just so bloody foul mouthed, I often found myself giggling with embarrassment at their interactions. Yes, words that could make you blush. Lansdale is a wonderful wordsmith.

Sundance adapted the first book Savage Season for their TV series starring James Purefoy and Michael K Williams. James Purefoy was an interesting choice, considering he's English, but actually carries off the ragged good old boy quite well. Williams was a perfect choice, even if you had not yet seen him as Omar in The Wire. The story is the introduction to the pair, where Hap's ex-wife shows up with a plan to make some easy money. Some bank robbers lost their money, decades ago, in a river Hap grew up near. Her new beau learned of it and wants Hap to help find it. He brings Leonard in on the deal, despite Trudy's hatred for Leonard, which is mutual. Trudy's new friends are revolutionaries who want the money to reinvigorate the 60s. Save the Whales or something or other, as Hap would put it. Of course, things don't go as planned. Things get violent and tragic.

The funny thing is that we never read Savage Season. We were reading his books back in the days when you hunted second hand stores for new authors. We never found that book. And in just reading it after watching the series (the wonders of pirating books), it is actually the tamest of the books, both in tone and action. But Sundance did a wonderful job of playing faithful. Of course, not all details are exact but they carry through on the tone and intent, startlingly so in some points. But the series needed to stretch in order to fill a season, so extra bits are added here and there, some connecting us to forthcoming seasons should it succeed in getting them.

The show does a very good job of establishing the fondness between the two men. This is not attraction and Leonard is very clear that he is not attracted to Hap. They conflict, they are polar opposites in many ways but there are ties that cannot be broken, not even by ex-wives or bullets. And Purefoy does sadsack so very well, though I have no idea how well the east Texas accent is pulled off.

Looking forward to next season.