Monday, September 30, 2013

Pilot Season: The Blacklist (It's A Bit Too Toothless)

This one has been coming in as a popular request, so I guess it’s time to get down to it and talk about The Blacklist. Yes, I have seen it, and yes, unsurprisingly I have opinions. Like you really considered otherwise.

But first, know that this entire article will be full of SPOILERS. Just so you know.

Okay, we’ll get to my overall impressions of the show and all that good stuff in a bit, but first I have to ask a question, because I honestly haven’t read all that many articles on the show yet, and I am quite possibly out of the loop but we’re all clear that he’s her father, right? I mean, they couldn’t have gotten less subtle about that if they’d written it on a baseball bat and hit her husband with it.

This isn’t just me, right? Because it seems really, really obvious.

Anyway, on to our analysis. The Blacklist is a hybrid show, a combination of serialized drama and cop procedural. It follows Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a newly minted FBI profiler whose first case is kind of a doozy. She’s called in to speak with Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), a virtual evil genius who has surrendered to the FBI with the intention of helping them track down every evil jerk on the planet. But, and it’s a very important but, only if he speaks only to Lizzie.

And off we go. Liz, who is utterly creeped out by Red’s obsession with her, nonetheless does her job well and goes into meetings with the man. Red reveals that a political malcontent with issues with America’s foreign policy (like everyone, let’s be serious) intends to kidnap a certain general’s daughter and make her into a bomb. Liz tracks down the girl, she gets taken, it’s all very tragic, they crack the case, girl is saved, high fives all around.

Okay, I can admit that I wasn’t super involved on the case level. The story was engrossing and all, but it didn’t have any immediate danger attached. It’s an NBC show, so there was really no question that Liz was going to survive the pilot, nor was there really any doubt that the little girl would as well. NBC isn’t going to kill a child in their first episode. Especially not a child strapped to a dirty bomb.

Which is kind of the problem with this whole show. Oh, it’s watchable, don’t get me wrong. It’s excellently written, suspenseful, tense, and well acted. The characters are just deep enough to be interesting, but not so much that it’s distracting, there are some familiar faces (Harry Lennix and Diego Klattenhoff), and Spader is clearly having way too much fun. I like it. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

Actually, it usually means exactly the opposite. Perfect shows are boring. And also non-existent. Except for Breaking Bad. Maybe.

The problem with The Blacklist is that it’s toothless. This is a show that would make me wet myself with terror if it were on a cable channel. Why? Because then the stakes would actually be real. On AMC or FX or HBO or Showtime they would kill the girl. They would kill the kid and maybe a dog or two and we would completely understand that not only is this going to be a high stakes game, it’s one where we can’t even see the board.

For all of his evil posturing, Red is clearly a good guy. Yeah, I said it. He virtually admits it in the pilot episode, that he spent twenty years with lowlifes and now he wants to bring them down. Bad guys typically only want to bring down other bad guys because they want more power, not out of moral objections. Clearly Red is working some sort of longer game here, and clearly he’s the good guy. Ultimately.

But it’s all so easy. I mean, not for the characters. They have to go through hell. In the first episode alone Liz discovers that she’s been requested personally by a supervillain, her husband gets beaten nearly to death, she almost goes up in an explosion or four, and she finds out said husband is a spy. Clearly she is having a crappy day.

Unfortunately, while Liz’s day is bad for her, it’s all just a little too simple for us, the viewers. You see, there’s no mystery here. We know that Liz is going to devote her life to catching these bad criminals, in the process growing closer to Red (who is totally her dad). When her husband is officially outed as a spy that will only serve to further sever her connection to the outside world. But since Red is really a good guy, at some point they’ll have to go on the run, continuing to do justice while hunted by a suspicious FBI, etc, etc, etc.

It’s too easy.

Probably what bothers me most out of all of this, though, is the toothless thing. Here we have a character who is built up to be the scary of scaries, and he’s really just kind of flamboyant. Like, I know that dignified class and upscale dinner parties are supposed to be scary because of our dear Dr. Lecter, but Spader doesn’t seem scary. He looks like he’s just having a nice lunch.

It’s hard to remember that this show shares a network with the actual Hannibal, which never balks at the genuinely terrifying, and has actually made me severely nauseous several times. That is a show with stakes. This? This is child’s play.

No one is seriously hurt. Well, no one we like. The good guys all live. The bad guys die. Nothing bad happens. Hurray. It’s just really…bland.

Now, none of this is to say that the show can’t wildly improve all of a sudden. It can and I hope it does. It’s got a lot of potential. But right now that’s all it is. Potential. Until the show learns how to really take grownup bites and sink its teeth in, we’re going to keep having this problem. The problem of predictability.

And that is a damn shame.

Marry me.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Linksgiving (Fake Geek Girls)

Comic books were once written specifically for little girls. The more you know.

Welcome back to Linksgiving Theme Weeks! As I've said, instead of just going through the week's most interesting links, we're going to spend a little bit of time clearing out my bookmark folder and talking about some specific issues. This week? Fake geek girls.

Have fun!

1. "Nerds and Male Privilege" from Kotaku. Exactly what it sounds like.

2. "How Geek Gatekeeping Is Bad For Business" from Forbes. Kind of awesome to see an economic argument against discrimination in the geek community, and in marketing.

3. "Tropes Vs. Women Protagonists" from the Escapist. An awesome dude goes back over the Anita Sarkeesian awfulness and explains exactly why it proves her work is necessary.

4. "The Psychology of the Fake Geek Girl" from the MarySue. A legit shrink goes through and examines why we are so insecure as to be threatened by the idea of someone "faking it".

5. "The Problem with 'The Problem with Political Correctness'" from Forbes. Kind of a cheat since it's responding to an article not on this list, but still worth reading. A defense of political correctness in videogames.

6. "Guy Trying to Call Out Fake Geek Girl Gets Destroyed" from Dorkly. It's not long at all, but it is beautiful.

7. "Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames...About that Harassment Stuff"from Kickstarter. Anita Sarkeesian herself on the whole controversy about her Kickstarter campaign and desire to make media less sexist. And how people hate her for it.

8. "Does Felicia Day Matter At All? (Yes)" from Forbes. Man, Forbes has three articles on this list. That's super cool. Anyway, here's an explanation of why it matters to have a hyper-visible, awesome, female geek celebrity.

9. "The Felicia Day Moment: How People Handle Inappropriate Language on Twitter" from D Nye Everything. A further exploration of why Felicia Day matters, and calling out sexism matters even more.

10. "The 7 Most Ridiculous Things About Calling Out Fake Fangirls" from Cracked. Self-explanatory and lovely.


11. "Forget Wonder Woman - These Women Nerds Are Our Real Superheroes" from New Relic. It's mostly just heart-warming.

And, don't forget, a video:

Tune in next week for a Linksgiving Theme Week on...Superheroes! And ladies, obviously.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Strong Female Character Friday: Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project)

To be entirely honest with you guys, not to imply that I am usually less than honest, but to be honest, I don’t actually like The Mindy Project all that much. I mean, I get what it’s going for, and to that extent, I appreciate it, but I don’t really love it. It’s more that the show has potential. I could love it. If it ever really got its act together. I could fall in love. 

And that’s what I hold out hope for. A hope that for the record, became just a little bit closer when I saw the season two premiere.

So, first, the basics. The Mindy Project is a single camera sitcom created by and starring Mindy Kaling. Kaling is also the head writer, so one can imagine that she’s a teensy bit invested in this. Kaling plays Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OBGYN practicing in Manhattan. Mindy Lahiri is presumably somewhat different from Mindy Kaling, but it’s genuinely pretty hard to tell. Not the point, but interesting.

Anyway, as you can see in last year’s pilot report, I didn’t totally love the show at first sight. I mean, it’s good. It’s very well done. The execution is flawless. But I never really connected with Mindy as a character. She’s kind of a terrible person.

But now I wish to lionize her. Not because Mindy Lahiri has grown up. No. Because she hasn’t. And, in this moment, I want to recognize that and appreciate it.

With me so far?

Look, I still maintain that the idea that women are only funny when we hate ourselves is total bullshit, and the self-deprecating humor in The Mindy Project still rubs me the wrong way. The difference is that this season, it kind of feels like the show is in on it. Which means that maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to see Mindy face conflicts that are bigger than herself.

Mindy Lahiri is a mess. A total mess. Like, a walking timebomb of a person. I can’t imagine being around her let alone trying to be friends with her, and the idea of having her as my doctor stresses me out. Not because she’s a bad doctor. She isn’t. She’s just such a freaking mess. She’s not particularly likable, she’s mean-spirited, and she’s shallow. But. She knows it.

I think that’s what’s turning me around here. Mindy Lahiri is a total jerk of a person. But she knows she’s a jerk, and she’s trying to figure out what to do about that.

At the end of last season, her solution was to join the pastor she was dating on a summer mission to Haiti to work in a hospital there. This season picks up with Mindy in Haiti. It looks like she’s grown. She’s not complaining. She’s living a humble life of service for others. And she professes not to miss her shallow ways.

For about ten minutes before she gets airlifted back to New York to have gallstone surgery and realizes how much she wants to stay there.

Unfortunately, her life has moved on without her. She and her pastor boyfriend are getting married, James Franco has replaced her at the office, and her best friend Danny (Chris Messina) is blissfully entering into coupledom with Chloe Sevigny. (I really hate looking up character names, okay?)

So, Mindy is forced to ask herself if she really does want to get married on the cheap in her apartment, if she really does want to go back to Haiti, and if she actually and genuinely has grown up.

The answer to all of those things is, shockingly, no. The thing is, Mindy knows it. She even says it out loud. “I thought I had gotten better about liking stuff, but I really just got better at pretending I like stuff.” Or something like that. I couldn’t find a transcript.

The point is, Mindy knows that she wasn’t really happy, and she knows that she didn’t really grow up. She is aware of the depth of her ignorance and the level of her vapidity, and she doesn’t really like it.

That’s not exactly curing cancer, but it’s good. And, honestly, it’s refreshing to see.

Now that we’ve all calmed down from thinking that the fate of women in comedy was going to be determined entirely by The Mindy Project or really any one show or movie, it’s easier for me to look at this show and appreciate it for what it is. What I mean is, this is a network sitcom starring a woman of color as a frankly unlikable character. I don’t want to spend time with Mindy Lahiri, but I love the fact that she exists.

Because she so easily could have been nice. It would have been a lot easier to make this show if Mindy were a creamy confection of pleasantness. If she were just a doll to work with and everyone liked her. That would be a lot less effort for the showrunners and the network executives. But it would be a lot more boring.

Women are not universally nice. We are not universally strong-willed or empowered, nor are we universally comfortable with ourselves or, you know, even remotely deep. We are unique, diverse, and sometimes kind of mean. 

Mindy Lahiri is not a woman I would pick to represent us, which is kind of why she’s a great character. She’s not a representative. She’s not our best foot forward as a gender. She’s just some chick with issues who happens to show up on everyone’s screen for half an hour a week to complain about her boy issues. I’ve heard of worse things.

So while I’m not going to recant last year’s rant on how much I am over this show (which was impressive, since last year I only saw one episode before writing that), I do want to say that I get it. Mindy Lahiri is unlikable. She’s a jerk. And that’s what makes her a good character.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pilot Season: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (I Like Everything But Samberg)

So, I liked Brooklyn Nine-Nine more than I was expecting to, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Because the specific thing I did not like, well, it’s kind of a big thing.

The show (which airs on Tuesdays at 8:30p and is available on Hulu) follows the cops of Brooklyn’s 99th Precinct, in a weird but strangely appealing combination of cop procedural and workplace comedy. There are real cases, and the characters are (reasonably) competent cops, but the show mostly follows their workplace antics and interrelationships. So, you know, it’s interesting.

The pilot episode has a case in it, but I honestly have very little memory of what that case was, because it was really secondary to the actual story. The story involved the Precinct getting its replacement Captain and everyone dealing differently with the new Captain’s desire for actual rules and order and stuff. Very character driven, genuinely funny comedy, there’s just one problem – I don’t like the lead.

Since the procedural aspect isn’t worth recapping, here’s how our pilot went on the workplace comedy side of things. Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), a “lovable” screwup who happens to be a competent detective but is definitely a dick, basically runs the precinct. While his ambitious partner, Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), rolls her eyes in frustration, Jake gets away with murder. Or at least with wild antics and a complete disregard for protocol. He gets away with it because he’s good at his job, but he does have a tendency to take it a little too far.

Into this comes Captain Holt (Andre Braugher, who starred last year on the underrated Last Resort, and is basically skewering his usual roles here). Holt is a veteran officer, highly decorated, and committed to his command. He loves rules and order, and immediately takes offense to Jake’s laid-back, mildly offensive ways. He decides to make Jake an example. And then hijinks ensue.

The whole show is only twenty minutes or so, so the emotional arc is pretty quick, but the basic setup for the series is solid. Holt wants Jake to grow up, Jake doesn’t want to grow up, laughter, etc.

In addition, the background characters are really well done. Each one is both a parody of a cop show regular and also a reasonably fleshed out character in their own right. Amy, for example, is an uptight, by the books cop – the yin to Jake’s yang – but she also has seven brothers, a fierce competitive streak, and a hardcore “I told you so,” smugness to her. I like her. She’s screwy.

And we have Detectives Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) and Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), partners who have pretty much nothing in common, except that they both think Rosa is awesome (which she is). Charles is constantly trying to ask Rosa out on a date, only to be faced with her really terrifying impassive stare, and apparently picky movie choices. They’re cute, in a weird way, and you actually kind of hope they get it together. Maybe. She might eat him alive. But it’d be fun to watch.

There’s a cop who’s afraid of crime, Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews), who prefers to stay in the office, and remarks several times that he would love to be able to lock himself in the records room because it could not be further from the action. His character is already pretty complex, since we know from his backstory that he both lost a lot of weight recently, and also became a father, which contributed to his overwhelming fear of, you know, everything.

Chelsea Peretti appears as Gina Linetti, the gossipy civilian liaison (or something like that), and manages to be both inappropriate and really really relatable at everyone all the time. Basically, great cast, great setup, and good writing. What could go wrong?

Well, you could have a main character that I absolutely can’t stand. That could go wrong.

Here’s the thing. I really enjoy this show. I laughed actually out loud while I was watching it in my room alone on my computer, and that’s weird. That’s unusual. Normally I just sort of snuffle a little into the blankets. This had me straight up, “My sister is going to think I’m crazy,” laughing. So you can take that as some indication of quality.

But I was always laughing at the side characters. At their reactions to our lead. Jake, I found, is not a sympathetic character. Actually, I really want to slap him. And not in the way that means I also find him attractive and charming, in his boyish way. No, I literally want to slap him. He is annoying. He is frustrating. And just spending twenty minutes watching him on my computer screen made me endlessly sympathetic to everyone else in that precinct.

I mean, in a way, this is a good thing, because it got me pretty well invested in the show, right? I really care about all those other characters. I just happen to care about them at the expense of caring about the lead.

And I think I know why. Andy Samberg, first of all, isn’t really acting with this character. He’s doing an extended pastiche of his Lonely Island persona, and it’s super grating. Jake Peralta is a child in a man’s body, and while that has worked for the past couple of years, I think we’re over it now. I, personally, am ready to root for a grownup.

The other problem, though, is simpler than that. Jake is a jerk. He’s a privileged white guy who has no idea how hard it is for the people around him, and as a result, he trivializes their struggles and appropriates their achievements. Jake, the upper-middle class white male protagonist, has no concept of what it would be like for Amy Santiago, a lower class Latina woman, coming up in the NYPD. Just straight up no idea. So when he calls her boring, or complains that she’s too ambitious, we have to understand that he’s not a free spirit raging against the machine. He’s a privileged dick.

Or when he finally figures out why Captain Holt wants him to wear a tie – because he wants their team to really be a team, and because Holt is desperate to prove he can run a precinct, as the only openly gay Police Captain in the city – Jake is only really concerned with how this affects him. He has no ability to sympathize, because he has no idea what struggle is.

He callously mocks Terry’s fear of getting hurt, even though that fear is actually shown to be pretty well justified and comes from a place of love. And he is just generally a really terrible human being.

Look, I like my slightly sociopathic geniuses as much as anyone else, but what I really like is seeing them grow. I don’t know if we’ll get to watch Jake grow up, but I certainly hope so. Because he sucks. Just as a human being. He’s terrible.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a good show, and it’s definitely worth watching, as far as you can tell from the pilot, but I find myself disappointed in it, simply because, out of all of those interesting, compelling, and funny characters, they chose to focus on the white affluent man-child. Because of course they did.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pilot Season: Agents of SHIELD (Of Course I Love It, Duh)

Let’s get all of that suspense out of the way: Yes, Agents of SHIELD is awesome. Yes, you should totally watch it. And, yes, the title is really annoying to write out and I will be referring to it as SHIELD and not S.H.I.E.L.D. because obviously.

But with that little piece of blather out of the way, how was the show really? Does it live up to our (ridiculously high) expectations? Can we assume that it’ll be a rousing success and spawn many seasons and spinoffs?

Man I hope so.

Look, the thing you have to remember here is that pilots are, ideally, the worst episode of any television show. I get that this sound bad, but bear with me. The pilot episode is the one that the network has picked over. The writer has picked over. It’s the single episode that is supposed to introduce the world of the show, the characters involved, the main conflicts, mysteries, and locations. It’s kind of a lot to pack into one episode, and most of the time pilot episodes kind of suck. When the pilot episode is actually really good, that’s when you start getting uncomfortable, because it suggests that the writers have nothing left for the next episode.

So, there’s reason for hope here on two fronts. First of all, the first episode was really good, which means there’s a pretty good path laid for the show to be really ridiculously awesome from here on out, and second, it wasn’t perfect. Which means that it has room to improve.


Before we get into the nitty gritty, I’ll do a little bit of a recap, but just so you know, SPOILERS shall abound.

Agents of SHIELD is a one-hour action dramedy set in the Marvel Movie Universe that follows the adventures of a SHIELD taskforce. It occurs concurrently with the Marvel films, and completely adheres to their timeline. So, while we watch Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 and find out what the big guys are up to, the show gives us a view to the small guys on the ground dealing with the day to day frustrations of a world gone mad.

Our hero is Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), the same Coulson who ostensibly died in Avengers. According to Coulson himself, he was dead, but only for a few seconds, and then he spent a few months recovering in Tahiti. But, since this is Joss Whedon and it was heavily lampshaded, that’s probably not the case. Sinister things ahead, I’m sure. (My money is on Coulson actually being a Life Model Decoy.)

Coulson is putting together a team. This team will presumably work on the ground trying to deal with the new world order upon us. Fighting HYDRA cells, finding rogue superheroes, taking down shadowy organizations. In the pilot, they’re tasked with investigating a single occurrence of superheroism. J. August Richards, playing a nice guy with a bland name, saves a woman from a burning building and accidentally outs himself as a super. Unfortunately for him, this means everyone and their mother is after him now.

The team, who we meet only briefly and stereotypically, has a level of promise for the future. Of course we all know and love Coulson, whose level of sass has only grown in his absence, but there are also a whole host of other characters to appreciate. There’s Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), a semi-retired badass with a stoicism and level stare that feels quite refreshing, especially since she isn’t a sweet young thing.

We’ve got the scientists, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), a pair of bickering but lovable Brits. They’ve got the patter down, but we don’t really know them well enough to adore them yet. I’m sure it will come in time. Oh, and we musn’t forget Agent Ward (Brett Dalton), the surly but dreamy action man on the team. He pretends not to like anyone, but you know he does. Somewhere. Deep down inside.

The pilot itself is pretty standard, actually, as far as these things go. Richards outs himself as a superhero but manages to keep his identity slightly under wraps. SHIELD takes off to find him so that they can help him manage his situation, while a hacker working for “The Rising Tide”, a sort of Anonymous-esque organization also tracks him down.

Skye (Chloe Bennet), the hacker, is a conspiracy theorist and general anarchist, but eventually SHIELD wins her over as their asset, mostly because Coulson is amazing, and she’s able to help them track down Richards. Good thing too, since the superhero-creating implant in his arm is likely to make him explode. Literally.

There’s a third act showdown in a ridiculously clean version of LA’s Union Station, and everything does turn out right in the end, but that’s actually not what I cared about in this show. Let’s be real. The plot itself was a formality. The real point of the show was to get us into the world, invite us into the lives of the characters, and set up the team who we were going to be living with from here on out. And they did that admirably.

No, I don’t love everything about the show so far, but that’s okay. Actually, it’s better than okay. That’s kind of great. Because it means that the show hasn’t shown me its best yet. If this were perfect and amazing and a pinnacle of human achievement, that would suck, because anything they do next would be a disappointment.

It’s not perfect. The pilot dragged a little, the plot was predictable, and the whole thing felt a bit by rote. Plus, the actors were fairly choking on exposition and explanations and setting up this whole new world we’re in. It was a bit hard to get through.

And that’s okay.

Let’s look at the bare bones of this: The characters are interesting, if not particularly unique yet. The concept leaves lots of room for development and also some pretty kickass stories. And the cast is reasonably diverse (could be better), and pretty gender neutral. Yay!

If you’re feeling like I should be more critical or analytical here, I’m going to have to apologize, because I don’t have critical feelings about this yet. Sure, it didn’t really blow my socks off, but I enjoyed this show. It was fun. Sometimes it’s okay to just like things.

I feel good about the promise showed in this episode. Was it perfect? Heck no. Were the characters fleshed out enough for me to actually remember their names without looking them up? Nope. But was there potential? Definitely. And am I going to keep watching? Try to stop me.

Here's why. For all that this purports to be an ensemble show, for all that the cast appears to be talented and interesting, this is not a show about a team of agents. It's about Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. And that means that this is going to be a hell of a show. Why? Because we already know the important things here. Clark Gregg is going to do an amazing job playing him, and Whedon and Tancharoen are going to be spectacular at writing him. You can relax. We're in good hands.

Actually, that's kind of the ultimate message here. I trust Marvel. I trust ABC. I trust the Whedons and Maurissa Tancharoen, and I trust the hell out of Clark Gregg. It's going to be a good show, and I will stick around until it finds its feet.

And in the meantime, I’ll be over here, trying to figure out why I like Melinda May so much already and where I can get an action figure of her.