Friday, September 19, 2014

All That Is Old Is New Again: On the Current State of Doctor Who

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, in BBC's Doctor Who

This past winter, my wife knit a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf as a birthday gift for a friend. It turned out my friend has been wanting one since he was a kid, and could not have been more thrilled with the gift. He proudly wore the 12-foot scarf, its colourful tassels dragging along the streets of Washington, D.C., for the remaining cold days of the year, and even beyond them. Recently he told me a story: while walking to work on one such day, he crossed paths with a young boy (perhaps nine-years-old) and his mother. The boy, on seeing my friend, began jumping up and down and pulling at his mom's coat, yelling with delight: ""Doctor Who Scarf! Doctor Who Scarf!!!"

I tell this story, not only because of the profound pleasure the incident provoked in my friend, but because it reveals something I've long believed about Doctor Who as a televisual and cultural phenomenon. Even after 50 years and over 34 seasons, the show appeals across cultures, continents, and generations. (Tom Baker stopped wearing that scarf more than three decades before that young American boy was even born!) I loved the show as a child, when episodes of Peter Davison's Doctor aired on my local PBS channel, and as an adult the relaunched BBC series has topped my list of favourite shows since the show appeared in 2005.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Tainted Love: FX's You're the Worst

Chris Geere and Aya Cash star in You're the Worst, on FX.

The summer television season has come and gone, and it was a season of surprising, if ambitious misfires: Hollywood stars couldn't make Crossbones any less absurd or Extant any more compelling, and the less said about the return of Games of Thrones' much-lamented Sean Bean in TNT's painfully derivative Legends the better. But the show I'm already missing (even though it still has two episodes remaining of its 10-episode order) is the one I didn't see coming: FX's dark relationship comedy You're the Worst. Created by former Weeds writer Stephen Falk, the series doesn't come with any super-spies, worldwide apocalyptic events, or mysterious – possibly alien – pregnancies. What it does have is charm, humour, and a delightfully dark undercurrent that it plays without shame.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Saint Joss: Amy Pascale's Biography of Joss Whedon

James Marsters & Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"TV is a question, movies are an answer."
– Joss Whedon, from Joss Whedon: The Biography

Amy Pascale's biography of Joss Whedon, published as Joss Whedon: The Biography (Chicago Review Press, 2014) in North America, has a far less urbane, and in fact more honest, title in the UK: Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe. Pascale unapologetically approaches her subject from an initial position of awe, and the book often verges on the hagiographic. It is comprehensive: the book traces his early years, the impact of his mother and college professors, his long relationship with Kai Cole (his now-wife), along with the many frustrating false starts to his career as a screenwriter and script doctor in the 90s, through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Dr. Horrible and The Avengers, up to this fall's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.DVery little, in fact, of his IMDB page doesn't make the cut, along with innumerable ventures (like his famously dropped Wonder Woman project) which never saw the light of day – more than enough to quiet any criticisms from those who may feel a person that is just barely 50, and whose career is far from over, is deserving of an almost 400-page biography. There is a lot to tell and Pascale tells it – unfortunately at the expense of the man himself, who often gets lost among the details and anecdotes Pascale collects about his many beloved projects.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Old Country: Starz' Outlander

Caitriona Balfe stars in Outlander on Starz.

Last night, Starz – the cable network most famous for Spartacus (though in my opinion should still be best known for Party Down) – broadcast the first episode of Outlander, and fans of the network were in for a bit of a surprise. Based on Diane Gabaldon's best-selling book series (the first book was published in 1991 and the most recent, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, came out just this past June), the first hour of Outlander sets the stage for a cross-genre epic: historical drama, time travel/fantasy, with a heady dose of romance. Set primarily in 18th century Scotland (and filmed on location), Outlander has already exhibited something recent ambitious television rarely offers: patient storytelling. Though it may come with some 21st century sensibilities regarding violence and sex, the tone of the show feels like a refreshing trip back in time for the viewer – ethereal music, lush scenery, longer scenes, and a comfortable pace that makes the series novelistic in more than its origins. Set for a sixteen-episode first season (with eight episodes airing now through mid-September and the remainder scheduled for 2015), that sober, languishing pace that is currently its most interesting feature may turn out to be its greatest weakness. Still, its first hour is well worth your time, especially if you are still recovering from Game of Thrones' fourth season.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Unpacking an Inherited Past: Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat

Director Arnon Goldfinger and Edda Milz von Mildenstein in The Flat

Memory is a tricky business, all the more so when the memories involve the Nazi Holocaust. Hundreds of academic texts have struggled with the complicated dynamics of inherited memory, but Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat (Ha-dira, 2011) dramatizes the messiness of familial memory without pretense, building to a complex portrait of the said and the unsaid things that contribute to our family narratives. It is Goldfinger's second documentary feature – his first, the widely-acclaimed The Komediant released in 1999, documents a family of American Jewish vaudeville performers from the 1930s onwards. With The Flat, Goldfinger moves closer to home, in the most literal way. A cross-generational tale of history, mystery, and trauma (both personal and historical), The Flat never fails to hold the viewer's attention. It is a deceptively small story with world historical scope.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Arab Springs Eternal: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen

Author G. Willow Wilson (Photo by Amber French)

"They're marching together," said Alif, half to himself. "All the disaffected scum at once. I probably know a lot of them."
"We did this, akh. Computer geeks did this. We told these ruffians they could all have a voice, but they had to share the same virtual platform. And now that the virtual platform is gone--"
"They have to share the real world."
"IRL."
"In real life."

– G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

The classification of speculative fiction is self-consciously broad – including within it straight fantasy novels of the classic sort, hard and soft science fiction, alternate history, magical realism, and probably modes of storytelling still unimagined. And yet there is probably no book better suited for the label than G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (Grove Press, 2012). Winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Woman's Prize for Fiction, both in 2013, the novel tells the story of Alif – a skilled young hacker of mixed Arab-Indian descent who is more at home online than on the streets of the unnamed Middle Eastern city of his birth. Our hero – his self-given name taken from the first letter in the Arabic alphabet, which is nothing but "a straight line—a wall," he tells us – is young, naive in the way only someone who lives primarily that unseen realm of cloud servers and 1s and 0s can be, a citizen of everywhere and nowhere... but mainly nowhere. Alif's relatively safe world in front of his keyboard explodes into the streets and beyond when the love of his life – a beguiling woman of means and status who he could never, except in the anonymous world of chat rooms and aliases, be with – puts an ancient book in his hands. Dark forces from all realms – some very human, and some very much not – want the book and Alif goes on the run, compelled to peer into the city's shadowy mystical history and even shadowier political realities.

Set against the background of the Arab Spring, Alif the Unseen weaves Muslim theology, contemporary political realities, and the unmoored life of a computer coder into a compelling modern fable that transcends its geographic and religious content. Wilson – an American-born convert to Islam – successfully mobilizes her own singular background with a simple talent for storytelling to create a novel that effortlessly crosses cultural and spiritual boundaries. A delightful and often horrifying mixture of legend, religion, history, and politics – including a genuinely affecting love story – Alif the Unseen is the kind of book you will be recommending to friends even before you finish reading it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Songs from Dislocated Hearts

A scene from Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah (Tinghir-Jérusalem: Les échos du Mellah, 2013) is the first film by Moroccan-French filmmaker Kamal Hachkar, and seemingly a product of a journey he's been on for much of his adult life. In Tinghir-Jerusalem, we join Hachkar as he travels from the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, to Israel, and back again. Born in Tinghir, Morocco, of Muslim Berber descent, Hachkar emigrated to France with his parents at the age of 6 months. Growing up, mainly in France, he was inculcated with strong ties to his birth place, but when he sought to flesh out those stories himself, one recurring and unasked question haunted him: What, after millennia of living side-by-side, happened to the Jews of Tinghir? This is the question that drives him – and the movie – forward.

The film has been honoured at numerous film festivals, including winning Best Film at Morocco's Rabat International Film Festival for Human Rights and Best Documentary at Israel's Jewish Eye Festival, both in 2012. (This diversity of acclaim is the first and strongest indication of the sincerity of the young filmmaker's voice.) Armed with a cameraman, a book of published photos, and a seemingly uncharted wealth of natural charm, Hachkar knocks on doors and in minutes finds the kindred exiled hearts of his subjects. (One unplanned encounter with a Jewish Berber woman specifically will live long in your memory after viewing. Her pleasure, and her anguish, in recollecting her Muslim neigbours – from Casablanca in her case – is palpable and affecting.) Like the best film documentaries, Tinghir-Jerusalem paints a powerful portrait of a complicated historical and political moment, with humility and without didactism. Hachkar is as much a subject of his film as the numerous individuals he gathers together: a searching voice more interested in bringing people together than in resolving any big questions of history.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tragi-Comic: Jeff Lemire's Essex County Trilogy

Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.
                         – Stephen Leacock (quoted by Jeff Lemire in Essex Country)

In April, DC comics launched Justice League Unlimited, an ongoing comic series to be set primarily in Canada. The series is helmed by Canadian writer Jeff Lemire and artist Mike McKone and marks the return of Adam Strange (now newly Canadian!) to DC's New 52 universe, along with a other Justice League mainstays like Martian Manhunter, Supergirl, and Green Arrow. Originally titled Justice League Canada (that suggestive name still remains as the title of the series' first main story arc), the series also promises to introduce a new DC teen hero of Lemire's own creation: Equinox, a sixteen-year-old girl of Cree descent who hails from Moose Factory, Ontario (pop. 2500). The next issue of Justice League United goes on sale on June 11, but if you want a taste of Lemire's unequalled talent while you await the debut of DC's first First Nations hero, the best place to begin is with his now-classic Essex County Trilogy.

The three books – originally published as Tales From the Farm (2008), Ghost Stories (2008), The Country Nurse (2009) before being collected as the Essex County Trilogy in 2011 by Top Shelf – earned Lemire international acclaim, including a Harvey Award nomination for Best New Talent in 2008 and an Eisner nomination for the collection itself in 2010. Set in Lemire's home turf of Essex County, Ontario, the books are rendered with stark black-and-white lines and often minimal dialogue. While for many, the vast and urban Toronto likely dominates their image of life in Ontario, drive just 350 kilometres southwest from the city, and you will find suburban sprawl turn to prairie and longstanding farming communities with centuries-old histories. In three volumes, Lemire paints an unparalleled portrait of loss and survival, set among the fields, farms, and frozen rivers of small-town Ontario. Read individually, the books are powerful and poignant; read together, they tell an quiet but epic generational story that is as Canadian as it is universal.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Taste of Sicily: Italian Television's Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti as Salvo Montalbano in Inspector Montalbano

For any fan of crime fiction, finding a new detective series is an exciting experience. I recently discovered Salvo Montalbano, a police detective in the fictional island town of Vigàta, Sicily. Inspector Montalbano is the creation of Italian novelist Andrea Camilleri, whose first Montalbano novel was published in Italian in 1994. While Camilleri has enjoyed success with other books, his twenty-one Montalbano novels (the most recent was published in 2013) have earned him and his irascible protagonist a special place in the hearts of Italian readers, making Salvo Montalbano easily Italy's most famous fictional crime-fighter. (So famous in fact that Camilleri's hometown of Porto Empedocle, which was the basis for the fictional setting of the novels, officially changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigàta in 2003!) Since 2002 the novels have been steadily making their way into English – translator Stephen Sartarelli's version of the 17th novel Angelica's Smile will be available later this June – but for the telephiles out there, there is also an alternative way to enjoy Montalbano’s grumpy charm.  In 1999, Italy's RAI television network began airing Il commissario Montalbanofeature-length television adaptations of Camilleri's Montalbano storiesThe series, which is still in production, now boasts 9 seasons and 26 individual episodes – some with original teleplays but most using scripts adapted directly from the novels and short stories. An English-subtitled version appeared in 2012 for British audience on BBC as Inspector Montalbano, and the same episodes aired on the MHz WorldView network in the U.S., under the title Detective Montalbano. The show deserves a wider North American viewership, and fortunately, all 26 existing episodes are available on DVD. If you are a fan of crime dramas, and detective fiction in particular, you should seek them out.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

In for a Pound: Showtime's Penny Dreadful

Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Eva Green and Timothy Dalton in Penny Dreadful (Photo by Jonathan Hession)

Named for the Victorian-era pulp novels that captured the attention of young British men with their vivid tales of true crime and gothic horror, Showtime's new series Penny Dreadful premieres tonight. The show is a co-production of Showtime with Britain's Sky Atlantic and will begin airing for UK audiences on May 20th. The period horror series boasts strong production values, a talented cast of actors, and some genuine literary ambition. And also, it need not be said, vampires. Lots and lots of vampires.

With three seasons of FX's American Horror Story under our belt and the second season of its poorer Netflix cousin Hemlock Grove premiering in a month,  I wouldn't have thought that the television landscape needed another self-described "psychosexual" horror series. And honestly for this sometimes weak-stomached viewer, two horror series have sometimes been two too many, with the current shows erring too much and too often on the side of exploitation for me to enjoy them regularly. To its credit, Penny Dreadful  for all its gothic pedigree and explicitness regarding blood and sex  has succeeded in telling a story which is both creepy and entertaining. Sensationalist without being lurid, literary without being self-conscious, Penny Dreadful is a blast.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

FX's Fargo: Their Own Private Minnesota

Allison Tolman and Shawn Doyle in Fargo, now airing on FX

It's not a sequel. It's not a spinoff or a remake. Maybe it's more like a reboot? Right now I'm thinking of Fargo, FX's new limited-run television series, as falling into the "inspired by" category. My favourite theory is that its story is a riff on the same "true story" which playfully (and apocryphally) inspired Joel and Ethan Coen's feature. It shares a universe, an aesthetic of darkly comic, casual violence, and perhaps an area code with the Coen brothers classic 1996 film of the same name, but there is little other explicit overlap. (However, careful fans might observe a mysterious briefcase the show's opening scene.) Still, television viewers tuning in will be reminded of the film by the big skies, the unforgettable North Minnesotan dialect and exaggeratedly rounded vowels ("aw geez", "you betcha!"), and the signature pacing and tone. There are significant risks in toying with a beloved and critically acclaimed movie on the small screen, but so far, with nary a wood chipper in sight, FX's Fargo has already begun to stand on its own snow-booted feet.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Other Hugh Bonneville: Twenty Twelve and W1A

Hugh Bonneville stars as Ian Fletcher in Twenty Twelve and W1A, on the BBC.

As Downton Abbey fans worldwide eagerly await the popular ITV period drama's fifth season, it is a good time to point viewers to W1A, a new BBC comedy series whose brief first season will conclude this Wednesday April 9. W1A stars Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville as Ian Fletcher, the new-minted Head of Values for the BBC. Bonneville is returning to a character made famous (at least for British audiences) on BBC's Twenty Twelve, where Ian Fletcher was Head of Deliverance for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Both series not also demonstrate Hugh Bonneville's talent in a contemporary setting – far removed from his gracious, and sometimes other-worldly turn as Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey – but also put Bonneville's quiet but immense charm and comic ability on display.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Veronica Mars: You Can Go Home Again

Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars, now in theatres (Photo: Robert Voet/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Last Friday, the much-anticipated Veronica Mars film appeared in movie theatres, Video on Demand, and for direct download on iTunes and Amazon. Last March, when series creator Rob Thomas' famous Kickstarter campaign was in full swing, I expressed some mixed feelings about the project: both because the strength of the TV series was always so dependent on the television format, and because its third (and final) season had demonstrated some real signs of decline. Still, whatever reservations I may have had, I eagerly marked March 14, 2014 on my calendar, and, with my expectations not-so-firmly in check, couldn't help counting the days until the film's release. The verdict? As neo-noir filmmaking goes, this isn't The Usual Suspects; despite the ten-year high school reunion plot element, it isn't even Grosse Pointe Blank. What it is is Veronica Marssimpliciter. And for this long-time fan, that turned out to be more than enough.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mind Games: Third Time's Not the Charm for Kyle Killen

The cast of Mind Games, now airing on ABC

Kyle Killen's career as a television writer and creator is odd, even by Hollywood standards. In 2009, despite almost unanimous acclaim by the critics, his first creation Lone Star was famously cancelled by FOX after its second episode. He moved to NBC and put out Awake in 2012. That time around he got to air the show's full 13-episode first season, but the network officially pulled the plug long before its finale  earning the show first place on my brilliant-but-cancelled list for that year. I wrote at length about Awake at the time, but even two years later it still continues to represent for me one of the best examples of what can be done within the American network television model. A fantasy crime procedural, Awake was ambitious, innovative, smartly written, subtly acted, and always deeply human  all within the frame of what was still a traditional format.  It was a show that did everything right, except of course finding an audience. Two years later, Killen is back with Mind Games, this time on ABC. Mind Games is Killen's third series and third network, and I had medium-sized hopes for the series. Unfortunately, it looks like the third time is very much not the charm for Killen. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Amazon's Second Pilot Season: Cops, Oboes, and Jeffrey Tambor

A scene from Bosch, now streaming on Amazon Instant Video

In April 2013, Amazon stepped decidedly into the world of original television programming when it streamed over a dozen pilot episodes for free and asked viewers worldwide to vote on which among them should get picked up. Out of that great experiment in participatory democracy came two new series  the Silicon Valley comedy Betas and Gary Trudeau's political comedy Alpha House  which both premiered in November and were only available online for Amazon Prime subscribers. (Alpha House, starring John Goodman and Clark Johnson, turned into the surprise highlight of this past fall's TV season.) Now, less than a year later, Amazon's "pilot season" returns, stronger and more confident than before. Amazon's second year may offer fewer "prime time" pilots than before (two one-hour dramas, and three half-hour comedies), but the productions are more ambitious, and come with some genuinely high-profile talent both in front of the camera and behind it. We have Chris Carter's apocalyptic thriller The After, the well-crafted crime procedural Bosch (adapted from Michael Connelly's popular series of novels), Transparent with Arrested Development's Jeffrey Tambor, Mozart in the Jungle set in the cutthroat world of a New York philharmonic orchestra, and The Rebels, a more conventional comedy about a failing professional football franchise. While each of the pilots has something worthwhile, the two real gems are Bosch and Transparent, which are easily among the most polished and self-possessed new shows I've seen in a while.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Freedom, Family, and Basketball: Max Minsky and Me (2007)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on February 9, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


Emil Reinke and Zoe Moore star in Max Minsky and Me

"You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your place in it."
  attributed to Albert Einstein

In an era when films for and about adolescents have a rough time navigating the divide between Disney animated movies (strong though films like Frozen might be) and apocalyptic and pseudo-gothic fare like The Hunger Games and the Twilight films, it is always a special delight when a movie offers a sincere look into the lives of young adults. Max Minsky and Me (2007, Max Minsky und ich in German) is just such a movie. One of the few feature films of German filmmaker Anna Justice, Max Minsky and Me offers a well-crafted and often delightful story about the frustrations and joys of young adulthood, set in contemporary Berlin. Based on Holly-Jane Rahlens' award-winning novel Prince William, Maximillian Minsky, and Me (set in 1997, published in 2002) and adapted for the screen by the novelist herself, Max Minsky and Me stars Zoe Moore as Nelly Sue Edelmeister, a bookish Jewish girl who is more interested in astronomy than her imminent bat mitzvah, and Emil Reinke as Max, the sullen, slightly older boy that Nelly coerces into coaching her in basketball. The two teens could not be more different  but as the story unfolds, it is clear that they find in one another precisely what they need.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Yes, We're Soldiers": BBC's Bluestone 42 and FOX's Enlisted

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 26, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


War is never funny. But, on-screen at least, life in the army is another story. The culture, bureaucracy, and general absurdity of life in uniform has been mined for comedy and satire for centuries, and for good reason. Military service in times of war and especially during eras of conscription has become an (often involuntary) rite of passage for men. And as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H (both the novels and the films) demonstrate, the most fertile ground for comedy often comes from putting men into the army that simply shouldn't be there. But WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are long past, and our collective memory of the draft has faded considerably in the last few decades. Even as the US, Canada, and NATO forces are in their second decade of continual war in Afghanistan, military service remains the choice of the relatively few men and women who take that professional route as the choice of a few, it is difficult to mine for experience that can be shared with larger television audiences. In short, the time of Sgt. Bilko, F Troop, and McHale's Navy are over. War hasn't gone away, but the politics of warfare especially since 2001 have grown far more contested. In short, to apply a too-on-the-nose metaphor, the army sitcom has become a minefield.

All which of makes the fact that there are currently two army-centred comedies on television all the more notable. And they are set in our present era. (Stories set during a contemporary war have long been the purview of propaganda mills see the short-term industry of WWII-era Hollywood films.) Of the two series, one will begin its second season in April and another is just beginning the first is British and the other is American. It is perhaps not surprising that the BBC 3 series, Bluestone 42, is the raunchier, more biting, and as a result more consistently hilarious series, but Enlisted, which premiered on FOX two weeks ago, while still taking its first steps, already has charm to spare and has demonstrated a lot of potential.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Intelligence and Helix: New Science Fiction TV for 2014

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 12, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

A scene from Helix, now airing on the SyFy Channel

For the television audience, January sometimes brings some belated Christmas presents. TV's mid-season is no longer the place where networks dump the shows not quite good enough for September, and cable networks never really much cared about the old schedules anyway. This past week, two new science fiction dramas premiered: Intelligence (CBS/CTV) and Helix (Syfy). Both shows boast some familiar faces in front of and behind the camera, but whereas the former feels uninspired and derivative, the latter shows some real promise in its early episodes.