Empty spirit/ In a vacant space

Month: October, 2013

Wish I’d Never Bought This Hyundai

by gradus22

The Walking Dead kicked off it’s fourth season this Sunday with a perfectly watchable episode – there was some light thematic work, a little character movement and a lot of zombies getting their heads caved in. Overall, it had a back-to-school feel to it: say hello to all your old friends, and hey, look, here’s the new class. This year we’ve got D’Angelo Barksdale, whose character has some type of an alcohol problem, I wonder how long he’ll stick around.
When The Walking Dead premiered, it was planned as part of AMC’s Emmy machine, but it went against the trend and somehow traded critical success for a wide viewership; Sunday’s premiere was seen by approximately three times as many people who saw the Breaking Bad finale. The show’s success is based on the fairly obvious appeal of an already popular genre in a medium that had never figured out a way to broadcast it properly. Zombie movies had been insanely popular and successful for decades, but any concept involving multiple murders per episode was never going to make a network television. Enter AMC.
Still, I think there’s a certain shelf life for any story that relies on the deaths of its principal characters as plot delivery system. If the rate of attrition is too high, there’s no continuity, too low and it gets dull. You can bring in new characters to replace the old ones, but it’s never quite the same. Popular characters and children usually survive, and so on. And no matter how dark the series’ premise may be, it wears thin after a while. The best example is probably Oz, HBO’s prison show; by the eighth season, the show’s depiction of male-on-male rape was no longer horrifying or even thought-provoking, it was laughable.  
I have absolutely no complaints about a show that delivers exactly everything it promises, but I can’t say that The Walking Dead is really appointment television anymore. It is, however, still the only place on network television where you can find zombies, samurai swords, crossbows, motorcycles – fanboy marks of authenticity – in one place on a reliable basis. In the first season, I was invested in sheriff Rick, deputy Shane, the wife and the son who were caught between them. The show, drawing on already successful source material, offered a type of novelistic story-telling that I had not seen on television before: Rick wakes up from a coma to discover a broken world and tries to find his family. He encounters a chained door with an ominous message scrawled on it. The gripping last half of the pilot had Rick struggling against an insurmountable number of zombies, escape into a tank, and left him surrounded, helpless with no conceivable way out. The second season was still fun: Rick vs. Shane ran out of string and it met its inevitable conclusion, which was fun, but not quite as novel. The third season introduced new conflicts and characters, but a post-apocalyptic landscape is somewhat necessarily averse to world-building. And slowly, all those cynical, back-of-the-movie-theater observations started to intrude. The survivors’ light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson, still clean, reliable, and otherwise completely untouched by chaos and horror around it, became a regular part of the viewing experience. The fact that it was clearly a paid promotional consideration on the part of Hyundai just enhanced the viewing experience. At first, it was just a funny observation, like the extraneous red-shirted crew member from the original Star Trek; if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, take the Hyundai. By the end of the third season, I was looking for it in every scene. At the start of the fourth, I am now more invested in the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson than any of the characters. I was worried that Hyundai might have pulled their support, but there it was in this week’s episode, an emerald in a sea of lesser stones, still pristine under a light, non-disfiguring layer of dust.
I’ve never completely bought into the fear of advertising. I understand that advertising preys on people’s insecurities, it convinces people that they need things that they don’t and that it has had horrible consequences on female or underage viewers. Advertising did play a pivotal role in conveying cigarette smoke to the lungs of young people. But the pervasive fear, the idea that advertising is a form of brain-washing, still feels very 1990s to me: Generation X, David Foster Wallace, Pearl Jam protesting Ticketmaster. In a late stage capitalist economic system, is anyone over the age of fourteen really fooled by corporate advertising anymore? I expect corporations to do everything short of murder to get my money, and I suspect lots of people feel the same way. To me, the Hyundai-AMC relationship seems a like a workable Faustian contract. Hyundai can buy promotional consideration in The Walking Dead – money that fills AMC’s coffers, sure, but also pays the cast and crew so that I can continue to watch it for free. In exchange, Hyundai can either broadcast commercials, which I can skip or otherwise ignore, or go for broke, and try for some hilariously inept stealth marketing strategy. Sure, there’s some brand recognition and awareness gains here, and ironic purchases are made with very unironic dollars, but some essential facts remain: I have no desire to ever buy or own a light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson, or any type of Hyundai. I would not accept one as a gift. I will never visit the Hyundai website to learn more about the available models or accessories. And what’s more, I don’t know anyone who disagrees with me here. I don’t have a degree in marketing, but I have to wonder if Hyundai is really spending their promotional dollars effectively here.
If I was in charge of marketing at Hyundai or even just a writer for The Walking Dead, I would demand more scenes with or about the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. There has never been a more organic opportunity to deliver the creepiest part of every car dealership’s sales pitch – how easy it is to get blood, brains and fecal matter out of the upholstery. Characters could explain the safety features as they flee for their lives from swarms of zombies. But why stop there? It could be a central part of the plot. Sheriff Rick, still grieving for his wife, could have hallucinations of an eerily luminescent light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. Daryl, the reformed redneck, could credit Hyundai’s impeccable Korean engineering for his change of heart.
Who am I kidding? Even as just a fan of the show, I would like to see more of the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. I’m not sure if I want cast members to ever explain why it’s always clean or not. Part of me wants to see the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson to get torn apart by zombies so that new members of the Hyundai family can be introduced. Another part of me wants the car to just flat out start talking, I’m sorry to say. I think the Hyundai Tucson should be a credited part of the cast with its own backstory, flashback episode and emotional arc. I want it featured in all of AMC’s promos. I want the Hyundai Tucson interviewed at Comic-Con and on the red carpet for the premiere. I want it to resurface on another show in a couple of years when the spin-off doesn’t work out. Hyundai in the morning. Hyundai at night. As long as it doesn’t touch my wallet, it’s fine with me. Have you seen the new Honda CR-V? They make some pretty good cars, don’t they?


Some Final Thoughts on FX’s The Bridge

by gradus22

the bridge fx posterLet’s give FX some credit for trying.

In the last few years, FX has given us some solid dramas – Justified, Sons of Anarchy, and The Americans, to name a few. They’ve all had their moments – Justified, despite its pulp origins and ambitions, pulled off some great season-long story arcs, let Timothy Olyphant revisit his Deadwood role, and embraced a cutting, low-key country humor along the way. Sons of Anarchy’s “Sopranos meets Hamlet as told through a motorcycle gang” was bloody, explosive and fun, at least for a while. And who knew that Felicity, of all people, would be so terrifying as a KGB spy? Not only were these good halfway houses for former series stars, these were great ideas for tv shows. Given a one sentence premise document for each of these shows, who didn’t want to learn more? If these shows never quite reached the must-watch, Mad MenBreaking Bad plateau, at least they were different and refreshing. FX could be greenlighting New York police procedurals, fat-guy and skinny-wife sitcoms, subversive-but-not-in-a-good-way bro-comedies or over-the-top network style melodrama, and they went with these instead. That has to mean something, right?

Which brings to that confounded Bridge, another great idea show. The inspirational material – the disturbing number of women who been murdered or gone missing around Juarez – is a story disturbing and different enough to merit its own show. The leads are appealing, at least on paper: Diane Kruger as a damaged American detective with Asperber’s, and Demian Bichir as her Mexican counterpart, which should provide some degree of mismatched partner scripting humor, but the dynamic just isn’t there. Kruger’s depiction of a character with Asperbers’ sometimes sacrifices entertainment value for truth, which is not necessarily the best choice to make for a television show, as the success of The Big Bang Theory shows. Kruger’s character wins you over through prolonged exposure; she has trouble with emotional subtlety, she can’t lie or read a situation correctly, but her good intentions come through eventually, it’s frustrating for the other characters as well as the audience. Bichir has a charm and a comedic sensibility of his own, but it’s not clear if he’s a lead for this show, or if the writer’s haven’t found his character yet.

El Paso and Juarez are filled with arresting imagery that doesn’t get a lot of TV time otherwise, and the supporting cast builds an odd, sub-Lynchian atmosphere that’s distinctly its own. Characters have lots of unexplained tics and vocal impediments. Matthew Lillard makes a surprisingly strong comedic showing as a douchebaggy reporter with a drug problem. He doesn’t do anything that you didn’t seehim do  in 1998, but it’s nice to remember that he had a certain type of charm at one point. He might be due for a Jason Batemanish revival; it’s nice to have him back, and frankly, he’s suffered enough. The pieces for a good show are certainly there, but they aren’t in the right places, at least not yet. In 2666 (every post on The Bridge must include one 2666 reference, so here’s mine), Roberto Bolano approached the Juarez murders by insinuating that they were the work of one deranged man, and introducing a group of detectives to hunt him. After many long pages of detailed murder scenes, the detectives rest at a local bar. One of the police officers tells a sexist joke. Another joins in, and then another, and the detectives trade sexist jokes and the scene continues long after the initial humor wears off. It’s Bolano’s way of pointing out that the Juarez murders could not possibly be the work of one person, or a group of demented individuals, but something from a deeper, more frightening problem implicating all of human nature. It’s a brutal passage and a grueling work to read, and it takes a long time to build the desired effect. It remains to be seen if The Bridge will follow this example.

The first season of The Bridge left many questions unanswered, but none more compelling than this: is that Demian Bichir singing the theme song over the opening credits? And if not, can we get Demian Bichir for season two? Is that too much to ask? It worked for Frasier and his tossed salads and scrambled eggs, didn’t it? (Seriously though – how the hell did that happen?) Opening montages, no matter how well put together, are boring by the second episode anyway. I’m pretty sure Gilmore Girls (and I want to say Ally McBeal? Don’t ask me how I know these things) featured awkwardly cast musicians for that sole purpose. The Wire had that guy who played Bubbles’ drug counselor. Seinfeld originally began with Jerry’s standup. Donald Glover even sings the theme song for Community. (That last one might not be true.) Wouldn’t your enjoyment of every show be demonstrably improved if you knew that a cast member was performing the theme song? It would be like those public schools that insist that the teachers coach the sports teams. Better yet, the credited cast should be required to perform the song, Muppets-style, live on television, using whatever musical skills they – and they alone – can muster. Why can’t this happen?


by gradus22

As you may or may not already be aware, the Milwaukee Bucks, my favorite basketball and team and chosen form of masochism, selected a Greek teenager named Giannis Antetokounmpo (or Γιάννης Αντετοκούνμπο in the Greek alphabet) in this year’s NBA draft. This is intriguing for several reasons:

1) Watching basketball jersey manufacturers struggle to get a thirteen-letter last name to fit on the back of a NBA jersey. Will they use smaller letters? Will the name be printed in a 270 degree arc? In either case, don’t plan on reading it from the cheap seats.

2) Antetokounmpo was born in Greece, but his parents are originally Nigerian.  I suppose this could make him “Nigerian-Greek,” if second-generation national identities can be said to have any real meaning or purpose. If only we had Kurt Vonnegut here to define “granfaloon” again. For what it’s worth, Antetokounmpo played on the Greek national team, and waved a Greek flag when he was drafted.

3) That’s Ray Allen’s old number. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

3) “Antetokounmpo” has been translated at least twice – converted into the Greek alphabet and then into English. Let me explain. The seemingly unpronounceable “nmp” combination is the letter-for-letter translation of “νμπ,” which is pronounced like an English “b,”  – a letter otherwise unrepresented in the Greek alphabet. (English speakers and mathematicians may insist that the second letter of the Greek alphabet, b, is pronounced “beta” with a hard “B” as in “brother,” but those stubborn Greeks just keep pronouncing it like “Velveeta” all the same.) If Giannis Antetokounmpo’s parents had emigrated to an English-speaking country, his name would have probably been transliterated into a slightly more manageable, “Antetokumbo” instead. I think most Americans would read that name and assume that he was Nigerian – well, at least from some country in the African continent, let’s be realistic. As it is, there’s a distinctly Greek consonant combination stuck in there. His name reads as both Greek and Nigerian. In the last fifty years, it’s been exciting to watch those national and ethnic identities break down, but you rarely get such an immediately visible example.

4) Since the 2009 housing crash, Greek politics has gone completely off the rails. In the 2012 elections, the right-wing “Golden Dawn” party – for all intents and purposes, the Greek neo-Nazis party – gained eighteen seats in the Greek legislature. Their popularity has continued to swell since then; Golden Dawn is currently the third most popular political party in Greece. It’s terrifying and disturbing. When Antetokounmpo was drafted, the leader of the Golden Dawn party compared him to a chimpanzee and was rightly condemned by Greece’s more mainstream politicians. Obviously, my own sympathies will lie with anyone who opposes neo-Nazis in any form, but a Greek teenager who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks? It’s like it’s been plucked from interior monologue already. Come to think of it, I think the last time a Greek teenager came into conflict with the Nazis was The Guns of Navarone. I love that movie! This just keeps getting better and better.

5) As the roster currently stands, the Bucks are poised to challenge for the eighth seed in the East Conference, a position that will get them a consecutive invitation to lose to Miami in the first round of the playoffs. If you watched any of that series this summer (and I don’t blame you for skipping it), you would not be eager to repeat the experience. If Antetokounmpo, his game, his backstory, his jersey, the spelling of his last name, or anything else Antetokounmpo-related can scrub those images of Monta Ellis taking contested three-point shots from my memory, I’ll be grateful.


by gradus22

I’ve been watching Luther for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say that I whole-heartedly recommend it. I think I can boil this show down its component parts pretty easily – it’s got Idris Elba in a starring role, and it’s essentially the British version of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, in both character and color scheme. Before we go any further, I should probably point out that Idris Elba doesn’t actually wear the costume to do his crime-fighting, but his character is still one of those obsessive TV detectives with a broken family life, an overdeveloped conscience, and a convenient set of lunatics on the opposing team to encourage the audience to wonder Just Who Is The Crazy One, but never force them into any truly uncomfortable territory. Luther never does anything truly objectionable, if he breaks the law, it’s For the Right Reasons, if he kills someone They Deserved It. It’s the shape and pattern of an anti-hero but never the real thing. Batman. Phillip Marlowe. Bruce Willis in Die Hard or Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon or any number of aging character actors who somehow get their own TV shows years after they stopped caring but still need the work. Or, if you prefer, we could re-appropriate Dookie’s summary of Dexter from the fifth season of The Wire: he’s a serial killer, but he only be killing other serial killers. (A seriously underrated moment from The Wire, by the way. You can just see Dexter wilting away. The Emmys are a joke.)

I’ve been over this before, but the whole obsessive cop story is a premise that has made good movies and bad movies, good TV shows and bad shows, and there will be shows about demented police officers long after we’re all in the ground. It’s probably a story as old as time. “Dostoevsky” and “brooding protagonist” go hand in hand. Hamlet. The rest of Law & Order: Shakespearean Tragedies Unit. I wouldn’t be surprised if cave paintings featured brooding Cro-Magnons looking for mastodon poachers. Or if original drafts of Don Quixote had the sad-countenanced knight and Sancho Panza hunting a cannibal through La Mancha. The good news about this ubiquity is that it provides the perfect environment to test an actor’s skills. And I have to say that Idris Elba does pretty fucking well. To be fair, it’s not like he’s working from a deficit – “Idris Elba” is practically a synonym for “sexually attractive” in today’s culture – but it’s easy to forget that the guy can really act. He was great as Stringer Bell, but he was surrounded by other great actors, and he was part of the greatest television show ever at the time. It was hard to get an accurate idea. In Luther, unencumbered by strange accents or complex character development, Idris Elba punches doors, pleads with his wife, interrogates suspects, gets shot at, and it’s all great. The man fucking owns it. It’s a lot of fun. Elba’s got those big brooding eyes and a hulking, limping gait that make him perfect for this sort of tragic superhero story. (People of the world who find Idris Elba attractive: no one will ever argue with you.) And to think, American media had this guy guest-starring in The Office? A second banana in the Thor movie? How is this guy not a movie star?

But a good police story is always a function of its leads, and Luther’s supporting psychopaths can be a little uneven. Ruth Wilson – an actress best known for a Jane Eyre adaptation that I certainly haven’t seen, thank you very much – sets the bar almost impossibly high. She knows her role and plays it perfectly – she’s in pure Hannibal Lector mode the whole time, almost impossibly entertaining, simultaneously funny and terrifying. I’m sure that Hollywood will manage to hide her in bland supporting roles for the next decade.