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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Stranger Things of Westworld and Criticism

Westworld’s first season ended Sunday night. The 90-minute finale sparked numerous essays from professional critics, bloggers, and folks on the message board. I read long essays in support of the show and long essays that criticized the show. Every essay I read, except for one, extensively wrote about the prominent Westworld themes: consciousness, freewill, the self, the soul, meta-narratives, genetics, etc. Whereas some critics thought of the finale as brilliant, others did not and wondered why Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy would tell a 10 hour prologue to the story they want to tell in season two (expected to premiere sometime in 2018).

I watched season one with bland indifference. The show became interesting to me once I read the various theories that surfaced around episode three, but those theories became a lightning rod in TV critical circles. Alan Sepinwall damned the show for telegraphing the solutions to its mysteries too clearly. Other outlets blamed Reddit for ruining Westworld. Another reviewer on Doux Reviews criticized her own reviews for her perceived failure to draw the links between timelines and other theory stuff I won’t spoil in case anyone reading wants to watch the series. Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter was happy for the people who felt happy about Westworld. Now, it’s Wednesday, and everyone has moved past the premiere.

I didn’t like the finale, and I won’t watch the second season; however, the abundant perceptive theories that all came true didn’t ruin my experience; the show’s themes about the self and the soul, consciousness, freewill, change, freedom, meta-narratives, etc. didn’t sour me—in fact, I like those themes. The structure of the show’s narrative is rather admirable, actually. They weaved some intricate patterns that the adept viewer noticed. Vladimir Nabokov would commend those attentive viewers. Nabokov would fail me. He would fail me so hard. Nolan and Joy undid it all, unfortunately, by explaining each and every ‘twist’ in a series of monologues and flashbacks. Nabokov uses one word—‘waterproof’—for Humbert’s clue to the reader about the identity of Lolita’s abductor. The reader, then, has to return, or re-read, the book to see what she or he has missed the first time, and then repeat as more things reveal themselves in the novel. Of course, Nabokov was a better writer than nearly every working TV writer today, and a better critic than every critic alive today. If you like themes of consciousness, the self, and the soul in your art, read Ada or Ardor a few times and them complement it with Brian Boyd’s book about the book, Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness. Brian Boyd is the best living critic in the world. Follow that with Speak, Memory

Nolan and Joy also made the crucial mistake of prioritizing mystery over character, which was Sepinwall's essential gripe with the show. Westworld drew comparisons to LOST, as any genre show will forever and ever. Abrams is an Executive Producer. Bad Robot produces the show. Westworld still bungled the formula. 

Damon Lindelof said, during the Writers' Panel's 300th episode, that, "the real cheat of the show (LOST) from the word 'Go', which was frustrating to the audience, was that the characters couldn't give a shit about the mysteries...You had to have the character dynamics [be] involving enough."

Damon Lindelof told David S. Goyer, co-creator of FlashForward: 
"One of the problems you're going to have is the lead of this show is the FBI agent responsible for solving the flashforward, so the show is going to have to have an engine of mystery solving versus just have it be all about these other characters who are affected by the flashforwards but are not tasked with solving it. This was the Twin Peaks problem...Dale Cooper's job was to find who killed Laura Palmer and, so, the idea that the show isn't about the characters and the conditions of living in Twin Peaks, it was about the resolution of this mystery. And, so, one of the things that was really hard for us to do on LOST and why we kept expanding the cast was trying to find stories that were engaging enough to believably understand why the characters were not asking the same questions that the audience was." 

FlashForward made mystery its driving force instead of character, and it failed. LOST made central its characters, and writers have, a decade later, still failed to recreate LOST, including Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy. Sepinwall wondered how much the mystery matters if the characters don't resonate at all, if they only exist for the sake of the mystery, and it's a good question. Many viewers of LOST will reverse the question because a majority of fans felt disappointed and ripped off by the end of LOST. Damon and Carlton didn't answer many of its mysteries. Sepinwall offered a succinct explanation for why LOST succeeded even when its answers underwhelmed, disappointed, or enraged the viewer: "LOST always had more to offer besides questions."

Westworld revealed the shortcomings of contemporary critical TV/film circles. There’s too much to watch and to review every month to devote any serious mindful viewing and re-watching of a series to engage in a substantive critical discourse. Every site or blog you read, including my own, is full of hastily written shallow, surface level reviews and essays. Consciousness in Westworld is the easiest to grab onto and run with for today’s swamped critics and editors desperate for clicks. I used ‘Identity’ as a crutch for my undergrad papers when I was crushed by other work. Certain shows produce a critical rat race in these three-month cycles and then one rarely ever reads about an individual episode again. Of course it falls to devoted message boards to explore the guts of a show and to deeply engage with it. Mainstream critics don’t have the time for it. They only have the responsibility to tell you whether or not to watch a show in their pre-reviews, but if they commit to weekly reviews, or post-finale reviews, then they need to work harder so as not to waste the readers’ time, or make a choice. If 7,000 other websites all run the same basic Game of Thrones & Westworld reviews and yours won't stand out in any way, don't write it unless you find something no one else has found or you argue something no one else is.

A NOTE ON STRANGER THINGS

I watched Stranger Things. I have no relationship with 80s pop culture, so the show was flat for me. For example, the penultimate episode had an extended E.T. homage. I didn’t know it was a homage to E.T. until I read it was online. I liked parts of it. One’s relationship to 80s pop culture will determine your love, or indifference, for the show. It was a two-hour movie blown up to eight hours—another problem of contemporary TV. I will not watch season two.

CHEKHOV MURDERS MONTE CRISTO

Anton Chekhov abridged Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo for the Russian newspaper, New Times, run by his friend Aleskey Suvorin. His brother, Mikhail Chekhov, remembers his brother making a ‘bloody mess of it.’ Chekhov wrote in a letter to Suvorin: “What shall I do with Monte Cristo? I’ve abridged him so much he looks like someone who’s just gotten over typhus; he started out fat and ended up emaciated. The first part, while the count is still poor, is very interesting and well done, but the second part with very few exceptions is unbearable because everything Monte Cristo says and does in it is pompous and asinine. But in general the novel is striking.”

Monte Cristo’s one of the many bloated 19th century books. The public loved reading serialized novels in the same way we in the 21st century love consuming TV shows in long binges. TV seasons have significantly shortened over the last five years, only networks continue to produce 22-25 episodes per season, but the number of series has increased by an incredible rate. TV shows have resembled movies more and more in structure and execution since the emergence of streaming platforms. I’m sure some complained about the length of The Avengers’ sequel or Captain America: Civil War, but Netflix made a 13 hour Jessica Jones movie and a 13 hour Luke Cage movie. Critics wrote that Jessica Jones could’ve had four or five episodes cut and lose nothing and that the lack of stand-alone hours affect’s one interest in revisiting certain episodes. The unique individuality of episodes should continue being the thing movies can’t replicate. Instead, TV executives and creators have chosen to replicate the structure of a movie.

Of course, TV is vast, the options are many, and one can find whatever one wants to, but as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other streaming platforms continue to develop original content to replace expensive licensed shows, they’ll likely continue developing bloated long movies.


IN CLOSING 

That’s essentially what’s been on my mind about TV lately. The Vampire Diaries is having a terrible final season. They could’ve benefitted from a less stringent serialized format. I will post a ‘Best Things I Watched This Year’ sometime within the next two weeks.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Vampire Diaries "Detoured on Some Random Backwoods Path to Hell" Review

A few things in “Detoured on Some Random Backwoods Path to Hell” stuck out to me, the first being the old saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, becoming a literal plot point for Stefan. Stefan’s tried his hardest to act with good intentions, but, once again, Damon draws him down a hell-ridden path. This time, he’s actually going to hell, or a version of hell, with either the literal devil or an approximation of the devil tasking the brothers with bringing the darkest souls to him, because of a deal Damon and Sybil thought up that would save Caroline’s and Alaric’s children. The deal seems to suggest, as did the last episode too, that Damon, even after giving up on feelings, has a modicum of humanity in him—that, maybe, he’s playing a long con. His way of manipulating the Sirens was consistent with good guy Damon. Yes, the writing for Damon could be inconsistent, or there’s a pattern (yes, perhaps a pattern of inconsistent writing). So, Stefan’s good intentions landed him in hell. The irony may be his selfless sacrifice for the sake of children makes him akin with Christ.

The second thing that stuck out to me was the last scene between Bonnie and Enzo, post-near death for Enzo. Bonnie wondered why Enzo beat mind control and Damon didn’t. He explained why, and Bonnie said, “You make me sound like an angel.” Enzo said, “No, you’re the world.” Damon’s world is Elena. Sybil removed his world, even though she sort of didn’t. (Damon remembered Elena well in the last episode.) That’s unfair to Damon. Aside from the library voices Kat Graham and Michael Malarkey used in that scene and every scene they have together (is that what Plec and Williamson want?), it was a touch poetic.

Also, their story has the recurring theme of CW shows, but, specifically, TVD, and the narrative world of Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec, which is the redemptive power of love, albeit a power that ignores the unhealthy parts of it. Burning your own cabin down in hopes the love of your life will remember his or her love for you is no way to save a relationship. There’s a cut scene from Dawson’s Creek laying somewhere in Williamson’s house in which Dawson burns down the Potter residence for Joey’s love.

The third thing that stuck out to me was Sybil’s lines about what people will do to avoid dying because it continued The Vampire Diaries’ impressive to express unexpected but effective sentiments about death, whether it’s dying or the death of a loved one. There are critically acclaimed dramas past and present that haven’t had a character say so simply that people would do anything not to die because it’s scary and unknown. Maybe David Chase would have Tony Soprano feed a horse and tend a farm for an episode in an elaborate metaphor about death.

Sometimes, in writing, the clearest, simplest expression of thought will hit the viewer or the reader with more force than the most ornate metaphor. There’s a part in a Chekhov story—“My Life”—that staggers me whenever I read it because of the clarity and directness of the language Misail uses when he writes about taking his niece to his mother’s grave. Of course, a Sopranos episode in which Tony tends a farm and feeds a horse that’s dense with meaning, allusions, and suggestions can hit the viewer harder once he or she has thought it over, researched references and allusions, and etc, as in the end of chapter nine in Ulysses, and, really, all of Ulysses, when Stephen thinks of the birds of augury outside the National Library.

Anyway, those three parts stood out to me because the rest of the episode was beige. Alaric and Caroline searched for their children. Alaric decided to leave Mystic Falls with his children, forgetting that leaving didn’t help him escape the ‘darkness’ the last time he left, but I liked the scene when Matt and Alaric ‘killed’ Damon. It broke the monotony of this season. Elsewhere, Enzo tried not to die, and Stefan chose more of the aforementioned selfless sacrifice for his brother’s sake.

This episode emphasized the darkness of everything. Of course, in an episode that made real such clichés as angels on one’s shoulder and the road to hell is paved with good intentions, you know what they’ll find as they near the end of their dark tunnel.

Other Thoughts:

-Next week’s episode will be Stefan’s last as a free vampire. The previews show that TVD has continued its tradition of our heroes dining with the villains.

-Enzo’s story was the worst in the episode. I didn’t like the editing of his brainhack, but I thought parts of Enzo’s story had the best videography of the episode, namely the series of shots beginning with the slow zoom off of Enzo’s face from overhead and concluding with the slow zoom in on his face. I wonder what lenses Paul Wesley and Darren Genet used.

-Remember when Enzo made it his life’s purpose to ruin Matt Donovan’s life? Matt didn’t. He sounded like Mitt Romney when he praised Enzo to Bonnie.

-All season I'm looking out for "Which cast member has clearly checked out?" This week's winner is Kat Graham. 


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-Kyle McElroy directed the episode. Paul Wesley directed it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Vampire Diaries "Coming Home Was a Mistake" Review

I read a comment on the TVD Previously TV message board about last week’s abysmal episode regarding Seline’s evil timing. She acted good up until Sybil explained her backstory to Stefan, and then she waited until the moment Matt told Caroline and Alaric the truth about to kidnap the twins so she could raise the not-quite-the-devil-but-close-enough Cade. I laughed with the comment because it poked fun at the writers’ reliance on lazy plot conventions. The plans of Sybil and Seline run parallel not because of any mind link between the sisters but because both act with incredible slowness. Sybil wanted to own Damon’s mind. Seline waited until Alaric was preoccupied, I guess, but she had plenty of opportunities to take the twins because him and Caroline are never around their kids.

Season eight continued its plodding pace. The end of the episode rushed to a mini-cliffhanger with Matt recognizing Seline as the second siren, Seline taking the twins, and Damon deciding that he’d like to quit humanity forever. Before that, Bonnie saved Enzo by making him realize his worst fear, which was losing Bonnie forever. Elsewhere, we watched the same old story between Stefan and Damon. The other characters were in standby mode.

Tyler’s death was the emotional anchor of the episode. Damon believed murdering him meant he couldn’t come back from it. Stefan decided to put Damon down for awhile in an effort to spare him from an eternally damning crisis. Their conversation at the carnival repeated the same brotherly beats. Damon felt that he’s beyond redemption. Stefan believes that Damon will find redemption when he quits feeling sorry for himself and tries to be good again. Sybil granted him permission to brighten his soul with Stefan to make it hurt, I guess, more when he decides to go all evil at the end.

You know that old line “I’ve been to hell and back”” Writers always give that line to the hero or heroine of the story in the third act after he’s been to a figurative hell and came back. TVD is about to make that line literal. Damon’s third act hero turn is coming soon in 2017.

Other Thoughts:

I think that Jeremy’s death would’ve resonated more. Elena, of course, forgave Damon for killing him once. I don’t know what happened between, if anything, Steven R. McQueen and Julie Plec, but he seems unlikely to make a cameo this season. Tyler’s funeral would’ve been the time for such a cameo.

-I couldn’t recall what Elena said to Tyler in her last episode, so I used TVD’s wiki to remember. I thought their last scene together had direct bearing on why Damon murdering would be unforgivable. It does not. She told him to leave Mystic Falls and live an extraordinary life. So, yes, Damon denied him an extraordinary life, but she’ll forgive the bugger. She always does.

-The carnival recalled the spectacular second season episode “Brave New World”. Stefan remembered his ferris wheel ride with Elena, and Caroline remembered that great scene when she freaked out after losing control as a vampire and Stefan helped her cope with her new nature. Season two was TVD’s best.

-I appreciated Damon reminding Caroline, Alaric, Bonnie, and his brother that they, too, will go to hell. It’s true. They will.

-Alaric's intern works all the time. He had the line of the night about the tuning fork.


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-Celine Geiger wrote the episode. James Thompson III directed the episode. It was his directorial debut. I wonder if the two fire scenes intimidated him. Probably not. He did a great job.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Vampire Diaries "An Eternity of Misery" Review

This episode felt like an eternity of misery. Holy moly.

TVD flashback episodes always rank among the worst in the series, and this flashback episode was no different. Sybil droned on about her origin story and slowly—so slowly—revealed more of the mythos of the season. She has a sister (Seline, the nanny). Cade’s the devil feasting on the souls of the damned. Stefan will need to kill the devil to save Damon. I needed three sentences to sum up those plot points. Williamson, Plec, and the writers needed 41 minutes. It’s clear that the show doesn’t have enough story (not even stories) for sixteen episodes. TVD always avoided ‘stand alone’ episodes. Buffy and ANGEL benefitted from the ‘stand alone’ episodes, but TVD never steps away from their serialized storytelling, no matter how grating and boring and frustrating it is to watch. Their resistance to any ‘stand alone’ storytelling has really affected the show in its later seasons.

“An Eternity of Misery” tried to throw in a double-twist, but Seline as the second siren was clear from her first scene in the episode. The last image of the episode shows Georgie being sucked into the abyss like Katherine was when she went to hell in season five, and it’s treated as a momentous reveal, but if Nina doesn’t return for the series, who really cares? There’s an opportunity for Stefan to journey into TVD’s interpretation of Hades wherein he passes old, dead characters from the past, including Katherine, but I doubt such an episode is made.

The whole episode’s about Sybil’s story and the little reveals about Seline and the existence of a physical hell world. Caroline is barely in the episode. Enzo is off-screen verbally abusing an off-screen Bonnie. Matt Donovan returned. The audience met his father, Peter Maxwell, and together they found the dead body of Tyler in the trunk of a car. Matt repeated Tyler’s words that Damon’s murder of Tyler would make him irredeemable. Again, Tyler’s not that important. Damon’s totally redeemable and will be redeemed either by his brother or by a Spike-like sacrifice in the series finale. As for Matt and Peter, Damon took an important heirloom from Peter’s shop for the Sirens’ nefarious plans.

Season 8’s been incredibly dull through four episodes. For instance, the parallels between the sisters and the brothers was laboriously spelled out and connected for the audience despite the plain truth that the viewer would get it without an expository monologue serving as the soundtrack to the flashback scenes. Watching TVD now is like slogging through thick Siberian mud outside Tomsk circa 1890. The good thing is that the last flashback TVD will ever make is over, but the stalling for the endgame has only begun.

Other Thoughts:

-I think Paul Wesley won this week’s “Which cast member(s) has clearly checked out?” I wonder what the man thought as he continued clanging the tuning fork against the wall. There’s a metaphor somewhere in that.


-Neil Reynolds & Brett Matthews wrote “An Eternity of Misery”. I forget who directed!

About The Foot

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot. I write regular posts about Grimm & The Vampire Diaries.