Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pilot Season: Jane the Virgin (Leans Into Telenovela Culture)

Jane the Virgin is probably the weirdest show concept I've seen in recent years, and yes, I am including Sleepy Hollow in that list. It's an hour long drama done in the style of a telenovela parody, featuring a predominantly Hispanic cast, about a young woman who is accidentally inseminated with her boss' sperm and then has to decide what to do about her surprise pregnancy. And that is probably the most plausible thing to happen in the pilot.

What I'm getting at is that this show is a whole big bag of crazy. Not only is the plot, well, telenovela worthy, the show is populated entirely by unknown actors, huge chunks of the dialogue are in Spanish (with subtitles), and there's this all knowing voiceover that likes to make jokes at our heroine's expense. And you know what? It's great. I love it. It's so great.

As with most shows that have a slightly unusual background or premise, Jane the Virgin is all about the execution. If anything about this production were just slightly worse, the whole thing would fall apart. If Gina Rodriquez weren't such a good actress, or if the writing weren't so dang funny and charming, or of the whole show weren't so freaking cute, well, you get the point. It works because all those little pieces have joined together to make a really wonderful piece of television.

Even better? That wonderful piece of television is unabashedly centered around a group of women of color. And not in the "we're adding diversity" way. No, I mean that in the entire show, there are precisely two major characters we meet who aren't identifiably Hispanic. And of those, only one of them is white.* 

There's even a scene where the doctor is trying to take down a (white) patient's information, and keeps asking her to spell her (very white) name again and again. The joke of course being that in this world, white people are the anomaly. And that's great.

The pilot episode races us into the premise of the show without making a lot of pretense about trying to set up a realistic world first, which is frankly helpful. I mean, the premise here is so utterly ridiculous that if it were to be established that this is a realistic, normal world, then it would be hard to believe, frankly. Anyway, the show starts out by establishing a couple of things. First, that Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) is a virgin. The product of a teen pregnancy, Jane grew up living with her mother and grandmother, and has had it drilled into her head since a young age that her "flower" is very important and should be saved for someone special. So even though she's been dating the same guy, Michael (Brett Dier) for two years, she's still a virgin.

Second, Jane is a very determined, kind, loving person. She's working as a waitress while she puts herself through college to get her teaching degree. She has a plan, and she's going to stick to it, even if her waitressing job at a hotel in South Beach, Miami occasionally forces her to put on a mermaid costume and pour drinks from the pool.

Jane's life takes a rapid turn for the ridiculous when she turns up for her gynecology appointment after a late night at work only to find her regular gynecologist out sick and the replacement, Dr. Luisa Alver (Yara Martinez), a crying wreck. See, Dr. Alver, whose brother, Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni) owns the hotel where Jane works, found out her wife was cheating on her the night before. And now Dr. Alver has to come to work and cover twice the normal number of patients. So she's not really at her best.

The big mistake is deceptively simple. Dr. Alver has two patients, one in room seven and one in room eight. One of them is Jane, in there for a regular pap smear. And one of them is Petra Solano (Yael Grobglas), in there so that she can be artificially inseminated with a sample of her husband's sperm in order to save her failing marriage. Her marriage to, I hope you're following this, Rafael Solano. Good? Good. Well, Dr. Alver gets the room numbers mixed up, and before Jane is even really aware what's happening, she's been inseminated and sent on her way. Dr. Alver realizes her mistake as soon as she goes into the other room and finds Petra there, but it's too late.

Two weeks later, Petra is definitely not pregnant, and Jane definitely is, much to her own horror and the horror of her super religious grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll). Her mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) is more blase about the whole thing, though she does have a moment of panic where she thinks her daughter has immaculately conceived and is some kind of religious messiah. It only takes a few phone calls to find out from Dr. Alver what happened. Jane is pregnant, with her boss' baby, and she has no idea what to do.

The whole plot sort of spins out from there with soap operatic (telenovela) tendencies. Jane really doesn't want kids right now, but she's also very devout and the idea of getting an abortion is uncomfortable to her. She seriously considers it, which is an honest and good moment, but she's not sure she can go through with it. Her boyfriend, Michael, doesn't want her to keep it either, and because this is a ridiculous dramatic show, he proposes to her just as she's telling him about the baby. 

Meanwhile, Petra and Rafael are furious about the mistake, because that was the only sample of Rafael's sperm that exists. Turns out that a few years ago he had cancer, and now he can't have kids. That was their only shot. Also, Petra is cheating on Rafael with his best friend and trying to wait out their pre-nuptial agreement so that she can get ten million dollars in the divorce. And Rafael really wants to divorce her but also wants Jane to give him custody of the child, which she isn't apt to do if he's in a divorce.

Also there's this whole thing where Jane and Rafael kissed five years ago and are so obviously soulmates but they're both in other relationships and also deeply in denial.

And Jane's father starts showing up around this time too. He was her mother's high school boyfriend, and he was a loser back then, but now he's got his act together and he's a telenovela star. Jane knows nothing of this.

So yeah, there's a lot going on in this show. I haven't even managed to get through all of the plotlines introduced in just the first episode alone, and the show will only get bigger from here. But that's not a criticism, it's a compliment. The reason Jane the Virgin works is because they recognized that the basic premise of the show was completely ridiculous. And instead of being ashamed of that ridiculousness or trying to mask it or make it more legitimate, they just leaned into the crazy.  

It's like they looked at the script and figured that they could try to go legit and just make it all serious and angsty and intense, or they could fling their hands in the air and yell, "Hell yes this is a telenovela! Now strap in and shut up!" They did the latter, and I am so glad they did.

I've talked about this a lot, but it bears mentioning again. Asking for diversity in the media is a lot more than just asking that shows or movies or books have a diverse cast. It's about more than just seeing lots of different kinds of people telling the same stories. There's also a level of cultural diversity that's important too. While I'll be the first to admit that I know just about nothing about telenovela culture, I do know that it's very important globally, and that it's a big part of Hispanic culture.

Jane the Virgin is actually based on a telenovela, just like the obvious comparison, Ugly Betty, was. In adapting it for American television, the show obviously had an option to make the show over and Americanize it. What I really respect is that it didn't. It kept very close to its telenovela roots, and in so doing, made a project that's honestly just lovely to watch. It doesn't feel like anything else on network television. It's different. It's new. Don't we want that?

More than that, the show makes no beef about being firmly rooted in Hispanic-American culture. Alba, Jane's grandmother, speaks almost entirely in Spanish. Jane and Alba are both deeply religious, in a way that could easily feel stereotypical, but ends up feeling incredibly real. Xiomara is the stereotype of the oversexed young mom, but she doesn't feel cheap or easy. She's been humanized and contextualized within her culture, and she comes off as one of the most sympathetic characters. She's an aspiring singer and performer, and her bids at stardom don't feel desperate, they feel honest. All of it feels honest.

Basically, I think you should watch Jane the Virgin. It's seriously great. Funny, heartwarming, a little bit cheesy, and really unexpected. Totally worth your time.

*Technically speaking, Yael Grobglas who plays Petra is Israeli, not Hispanic. But I'm reasonably sure that her character is meant to be Hispanic.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

NEWS: Marvel Announces Black Panther and Captain Marvel Movies

Chadwick Boseman announced to play Black Panther.
Man alive has this been a rollercoaster. I posted last week about how Marvel and DC are in some kind of diversity arms race right now, and it feels like they're trying to prove me right. Yesterday it came out that Dr. Stephen Strange would be played by Benedict Cumberbatch (who's a perfectly good actor, but not what we were hoping for), and it seemed like our dreams of a Marvel Cinematic Universe that's not just white guys were dribbling away.

But then! Today we got the announcement that Marvel has fully planned their "Phase 3" film projects, and they include not only Captain America: Civil War and Dr. Strange, but also Black Panther in 2017 and Captain Marvel (the Carol Danvers version) in 2018. Followed by Inhumans and a two part Avengers movie that deals with all of the infinity gems, it looks like.

So I'm having a pretty good day.

Granted, I'm still bummed that we won't get to see Oded Fehr take on Stephen Strange, and I really really desperately want a Black Widow movie to happen someday please. But the announcement of two new movies headlined by a man of color and a woman is a big step in the right direction. 

Also, we have been informed that the Black Panther movie already has its lead, with Chadwick Boseman coming in as African king T'Challa. He'll be appearing in Captain America: Civil War as well, so there's a strong possibility that the story there will actually stay pretty close to the comics. As in, T'Challa will hopefully be the one to fix Steve's broken shield, not Tony. Yay! Because in the comics T'Challa is a verifiable technology genius, and frequently outperforms Tony Stark. It'll be nice to have some great representation like that on the big screen.

This casting and the movie schedule does seem to confirm my suspicion that Chris Evans will be stepping out after Captain America: Civil War, though. I don't blame him - he's been very open about how much stress the Marvel movies cause him and how he really wants to go back to doing more indie work and try his hand at directing. More power to him for choosing where to go in his career. But if Evans is stepping out (and that would be the logical time to do it), then that suggests Steve Rogers will, in fact, be dying in Civil War

So who's going to pick up the shield for Avengers 3? Bucky Barnes or Sam Wilson?

Just generally speaking, all of this is good news. Marvel hasn't announced a writer, director, or actor for Captain Marvel yet, but they did suggest that the news would be forthcoming. Personally I'm holding out for Kathryn Bigelow to direct if they're going to be setting it in Carol Danvers' more military background. If they're going to go with the stories of Carol in space, though, a la her current run and crossover with Guardians of the Galaxy just in time to bring everyone together in Avengers 3, then I have no idea who should direct. I'm just plain excited.

As for the casting, I'm willing to bet that Marvel will be picking a more unknown actor. But then, who knows. Katee Sackhoff is still the fan favorite, but there are other women who would be equally interesting in the role. Anna Torv has been mentioned a few times, and I personally would be really interested to see what Teresa Palmer does with the role. Or someone else. I'm mostly just glad they're doing it.

That's your update for today. The diversity arms race rages on. Stay tuned to see how DC fires back.

If Teresa Palmer plays Carol Danvers, then does that mean we can get her husband, Mark Webber (Scott Pilgrim) to direct?

Think of the Children! Tuesday: ParaNorman and Communication

Ah Halloween. That lovely time of year when tumblr goes freaking nuts (not that it's really the paragon of sanity the rest of the year), candy goes up in price, and I have an excuse to dress up like a goddess or a princess or something. It's also the perfect time of year to finally get around to reviewing a few cult classics. Like, say, ParaNorman, which hasn't been out for that long (since 2012) but has already achieved a sort of immortality. Probably because while it's not quite old enough to be a classic, it does reference a lot of the old Roger Corman movies. A fact that makes me pretty happy, not gonna lie.

So ParaNorman is a pretty standard kids' movie in terms of theme and character arc. It's about a little boy, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who doesn't fit in and feels like no one ever listens to him, not even his family. To make matters worse, he's sort of the town freak. But when a tragedy/freak event shakes the town, they come to see that Norman and his "freakiness" is the only thing that can save him. And then he saves the day by being kind, and gentle, and a good listener.

In broad strokes this isn't really the kind of story that's remaking the wheel. I mean, it's good, don't get me wrong. I am all for stories about little boys who save the world by being good listeners. But it's not super new and exciting. What sets ParaNorman apart isn't the arc or the theme. It's the details. The details of this plot are pretty freaking great. And very different.

Norman is a little boy who doesn't fit in. That's definitely true. What's cool is why he doesn't fit in: Norman sees ghosts. Lots of ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. From his grandmother's ghost (Elaine Stritch) sitting in the living room to long dead ghosts who yell at him on his walk to school, Norman sees the dead. And he knows that makes him weird, but what's he supposed to do? Not see them? Act like he doesn't see them? That would be rude, and dishonest.

He doesn't really have any friends at school, either. He's constantly picked on by the local bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and can't seem to do anything right. But his luck turns when he is befriended by another outcast, the adorably chubby and goodnatured Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Even at home Norman can't quite fit in. His father (Jeff Garlin) finds his ability to talk to ghosts weird and a cry for help, while his mother (Leslie Mann) is just sort of vaguely not helpful, and his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) thinks her little brothers is just the worst.

Into all of this turmoil and prepubescent angst comes, of course, plot. Right before Halloween, which is a big deal in the fictional town of Blithe Hollow*, Norman's uncle, Mr. Prendergast (John Goodman) comes to him with anxious news. It's now been three hundred years since the good people of Blithe Hollow killed the evil witch that was plaguing them, and it's been three hundred years since her curse (that seven townspeople be turned into zombies) was cast. If Norman doesn't manage to stop it, then the witch will rise and the town will fall!

Oh no!

Norman is at first not super believing of his uncle's message, but when said uncle dies of a heart attack right before the witch is supposed to rise, Norman figures he might as well try to stop the apocalypse. But since things are never as easy as they seem in movies, the film has him go on a hilarious and madcap adventure with his new friend Neil, Neil's older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), Norman's sister Courtney, and the town bully Alvin. Hijinks ensue.

Now I really don't want to spoil the actual plot of the movie (I've really only brought us into the early second act here), but suffice to say that the movie doesn't really do what you're expecting it to. It turns out that the witch's curse really isn't so much a mean thing as it is a bid for understanding. And the original charges against her? Just scared townspeople who thought they were doing the right thing.

In the end, Norman doesn't fight anyone or defeat anyone or even really save the town. Mostly what happens is that Norman teaches the townspeople how to be brave. Because "It's okay to be scared. But you can't let fear change who you are." And there's something so inherently lovable about a movie where the zombies have more to fear from us than we do from them.

The heart of this movie, it's bread and butter, is communication. Specifically, the communication that really needs to happen between family members and friends and loved ones. The movie makes it very clear. We have got to listen to each other if we want to live in a community that doesn't suck. If you want a good relationship, if you want a good life, you have to listen.

It demonstrates this by giving us a series of relationships that are really pretty broken. Norman is ostracized at school, sure, but you get the impression that he could deal with that just fine if he were really emotionally supported at home. He isn't. His father thinks that this whole seeing ghosts thing is a side effect of his grief over his grandmother's death, and believes that all Norman needs to do is man up and get over it. He did, and he's fine.

His mother, meanwhile, is of more or less the same opinion but in a quieter and more emotionally comforting way. She thinks that Norman is a special boy, but not really that he sees ghosts. And while she doesn't insist, as his father does, that he cut this crap out, she does suggest that he try being a little less conspicuous. It'd be easier on him if he didn't stand out so much, after all. She's nice, but she's not the kind of champion that Norman feels like he needs.

And Courtney, well, she mostly doesn't care at all what Norman's going through. She's in high school, she's a cheerleader, and the last thing she needs is some weird little brother bringing her down. Really she doesn't need a weird little brother at all. She's going to rule this town, and she'd just prefer it if people didn't know she and Norman were related.

The only person that Norman can really talk to is his dead grandmother. It's hard on him. And at the beginning of the movie it's very hard to like any of Norman's family at all. But as the film goes on and we see more of them and their motivations, it actually becomes clear that Norman's father isn't great at dealing with emotions, but he does love his son. He's just worried about what other people will do to Norman. His mother is compassionate and kind, but not really sure what advice she should give her son. And Courtney? She's kind of surprised by the awesome kid that Norman turns out to be, and by the end of the movie, she's his staunchest defender.

All that really needed to change was for Norman's family to see the world through his eyes for a day. They needed to see not just that he really is seeing the dead and they should believe him, but also that it's not a bad or scary thing he should stop or try to kill about himself. It's part of who he is, and it's okay. The third act of the movie starts when Norman's parents decide, you know what, they're going to listen to what their son has to say. Even if no one else will.

This isn't really the sort of stuff that feels profound to write about, or that seems earth-shattering in a movie. And to a large extent, it's not. Healthy communication is not the sort of thing that gets sonnets written about it. It's a really easy problem to identify. What makes this movie important, though, is that it actually shows this obvious problem being solved. Not just solved for a day, but solved for good. The movie makes it clear that communication is necessary for any good relationship or community. And when it becomes clear how much fear has clouded communication up to this point, the town makes a concerted effort to be better at it. Norman's family makes a definitive effort to be better.

That's what makes ParaNorman such a good movie. It's not the zombie horror pastiche or the adorable set dressing, or even the really impressive stop motion animation, but it's the fact that this story is about people learning to listen to each other, and how much that can transform a life. No, it's not groundbreaking news. Learning to communicate better is a really obvious step. But it's not easy. It takes effort. And it's really good to see a movie for children acknowledging that.

Plus, it's always valuable to see a children's movie that presents problematic family dynamics, a problematic parental relationship, and then explains how to heal it. The movie never gets all after school special on you, but it does make it clear that sometimes our families aren't the places where we feel safe. And then it shows how to make a safe space for yourself. It means demanding that people hear your voice, and listening to what they have to say too.

It's not rocket science. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.

Horrified zombies are the best zombies.
*For the record, it wasn't hard to figure out what real life town Blithe Hollow is based on. I mention this because there's really only one New England town that's made its fortune by capitalizing on the traumatic witch trials it endured a couple centuries ago. That's right, Salem, Massachusetts. I have such fond memories of visiting the animatronic Salem Witch Trial Museum on field trips. Which is totally a thing that we did. I grew up twenty minutes away. Just saying.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Art of Colorblind Casting on BBC Radio's Neverwhere

I know it sounds weird to say it, but the recent BBC Radio 4 broadcast of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere was one of the most racially diverse, wonderfully colorblind casts I've heard in recent memory, and I am overwhelmed with joy at the way that the radio program made a point to include characters of color in the story. More than that, they went out of their way to turn implicitly white characters into characters of color, using not only the casting process but also allowing the actors to use non-standardized English accents to imply a world of great racial diversity and ethnic heritage.

What's super cool about this, of course, is that they really didn't have to. I mean, the program in question is a radio broadcast. It'd be kind of funny if they didn't include any people of color in the casting, but honestly they could have easily argued that with a non-visual medium, there was no real demand for it. But they didn't do that. They went the extra mile, and that's really freaking awesome.

To back up a couple of spaces, the radio program I'm referring to here is called Neverwhere. Broadcast in March of 2013, the show is now available on iTunes (and probably some other places). It's a couple of hours long, and follows the plot of Neil Gaiman's original Neverwhere novel quite closely. The only difference? Well, it's a radio broadcast, so everything that happens has to be conveyed through dialogue and sound effects. They did a good job, it's a well done program.

Our hero is Richard Mayhew (James McAvoy), a Scottish boy come down to London for a big fancy job in the city. He's got a high maintenance fiancee he can't really stand (Romola Garai), a job he doesn't particularly like, and an apartment he's only so-so on. All of this changes, though, when Richard stops to help a poor homeless girl, Door (Natalie Dormer) who's been injured outside his apartment. He brings her in and bandages her up, but finds that not only is she not really from around here, she's also being chased by two very frightening men (Anthony Head and David Schofield).

So Richard, who is a kind soul, helps Door find her friend, the Marquis de Carabas (David Harewood) and go on her merry way. By now Richard has come to find that there is a magical world underneath London, called London Below, and that whatever Door is mixed up in, it's got to do with this crazy place.

The story really gets going, though, when Richard goes back to his flat and his job and his life, satisfied that he a did a good thing helping Door but ready to put it all behind him, only to discover that his old life doesn't fit him anymore. More than that, he doesn't really exist anymore. No one can see him, no one recognizes him, and it's like he never was. He's fallen through the cracks, and now the only place left for him to go is the sewers and tunnels of London Below, hoping he can find Door and find a way back up to the world Above.

That's the basic gist of the story, as far as I can tell you without getting into too much detail and ruining the whole suspense thing. Richard helps Door find out what happened to her family while he also searches for a way back to his old life. The details are awesome and unusual, but like I said, what really stands out here is that casting.

In the book, none of the characters have a set or determined race. Neil Gaiman isn't the sort of writer, thank goodness, that generally goes around describing people's skin tones, and most of his works, while very culturally white, are colorblind when it comes to the specific appearances of their characters. 

Yet, as we've already seen in relation to Welcome to Night Vale, race is possible to convey in a completely auditory medium. Furthermore, it is possible to emphasis racial diversity, even in a medium where the audience cannot see the characters. Even more? It's important to do this. Very important.

Because while race is not explicitly conferred by the way that people speak, there are implicit signals that we interpret and understand as racial signifiers. A certain turn of phrase or accent or cadence can imply a racial background. For white people, we're used to hearing white cultural phrasing and accent as the default, and all others as deviations from the form. But for non-white listeners, it must be incredibly refreshing and comforting to hear implicit racial signifiers in the speaker's voice that convey familiarity and a shared background.

And since white speech is generally considered "educated" and "proper", how wonderful to hear a variety of accents and voices on BBC of all things! A whole plethora of non-standard accents telling a story about the outcasts and magical denizens of a London filled with strange and wonderful places. These accents imply to the listeners that London Below, and therefore the world of magic and fantasy, do not belong solely to white people, but rather to everyone. And that's a pretty important message.

So it matters a lot that even in the list of the main three characters (Richard, Door, and the Marquis), one of them is a person of color. It matters that Hunter, the greatest fighter and survivalist the world has ever known, who slew the tiger of Calcutta, and a thousand other mighty beasts since time began, is voiced by Sophie Okonedo. It matters that the BlackFriars are predominantly voiced by men of color, and led by George Harris as the Abbott.

Actually, I want to pull the BlackFriars out as a particular example, because I absolutely love how they're done in this version. Like it says above, in the book the BlackFriars have no determined race. They have weird funny names, and they like tea, and they've been guarding their keys and secrets for a thousand years or more, but we don't know a whole lot about what they look like or who they really are. They're rather minor characters, all told.

Which makes it all the cooler that the directors here made an intentional choice to give the BlackFriars identifiable non-English accents. If I had to take a guess, I'd say they sound West African, but I am by no means an expert. Whatever the actual origin of the accents, the men are clearly identified by their voices as non-white, and potentially non-native. Only they're monks who guard a secret underneath London and belong to a society that's been in place for thousands of years. And they're not white.

Cue the screams of joy and gladness that a fictional work is acknowledging the presence of black people in London prior to the eighteen hundreds!

You see, it's not just notable that the casting director included actors of color at all, it's also worth pointing out that the roles these actors play are ones that we rarely see actors of color in. The Marquis de Carabas is a member of the nobility. Sure, it's the nobility of London Below, and he's a disreputable character with shady morals, but it's really important that he's a nobleman. He's a black nobleman. That's great!

Hunter is established as the most badass badass to ever badass, she's thousands of years old, and she's black. How cool is that? How cool is it for the little kid listening to the radio to hear this super awesome woman fighting monsters and being amazing, only to look up her actress and see a woman who looks like them! 

A nobleman, an ageless warrior, and a kindly old man of God? These are exactly the kind of complex, compelling, interesting roles that we want to see more actors of color get. So yeah, it's a little weird to compliment a radio program on its colorblind casting, but that's precisely what I want to do here. Bravo, Neverwhere. Not only did you make a really good radio program, you also did it while expanding our understanding of what it means to be British. All of the characters in this program are incredibly British, and all of them belong to London. Thank you for making it clear that not all of them are white.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Marvel, DC, and the Diversity Arms Race

Yesterday a friend and I were joking around about DC and Marvel when she pointed out that while Marvel did just announce a whole bunch of new comics titles featuring women, DC just greenlit a bunch of solo movies featuring women and men of color. To which I added that DC has just announced a Static Shock live action television show, and then we both remembered that we're getting not only Agent Carter from Marvel, but also shows centered around Jessica Jones and the Heroes for Hire.

In other words, Marvel and DC appear to be in some kind of giant diversity arms race, and it's pretty much the best thing ever.

I've been noticing this for a while, but it took until yesterday for me to really realize what was going on. And that's because for a long time, Marvel's been sort of playing this game on its own while the executives over at DC decided whether or not they were going to engage. But they did engage, and with the announcement of the Wonder Woman movie, as well as casting men of color for Aquaman and Green Lantern, they shot back in a big way. The diversity war is on!

What's funny, though, is that I feel like most people aren't understanding why this is so awesome. If you go on tumblr you'll find a lot of posts taking sides. Yelling at Marvel for not greenlighting a single solo movie for a non-white male superhero. Arguing that all DC is going to do is screw up these characters that we love. We've gotten so used to diversity being used against us that it's hard to look up and see that the tide is changing. But it is. Celebrate!

No, seriously, celebrate with me! Because the tide really has changed. Both Marvel and DC are acknowledging that they need diverse characters and diverse storylines in order to sell their products. Not only that, but the social capital they can gain by announcing these projects has officially become more important than the social capital they could possibly gain by appealing to "mainstream comics fans". Because, as it turns out, mainstream comics fans like diversity too.

The thing to remember about the diversity arms race is that no matter who wins, we all benefit. There is no lose here. Marvel and DC are going to go after each other see who can greenlight more diverse projects first? Well that is officially my best day ever. 

In the game of diversity, everyone wins. It's not like the fact that DC is making a Wonder Woman movie is going to mean they stop making Batman movies. It's not like making Aquaman a Pacific Islander is going to mean Arrow gets cancelled. It's not like giving Peggy her own show means people will no longer care about Steve Rogers. It's actually the opposite. The more of this stuff we get, the more of it we can appreciate. The more we can find stuff to love, and the less we will all fall on one particular property and tear it to shreds for not accurately representing all of us all the time.

The more diverse media we get, the more we all benefit. I'll be honest, I don't give two craps about Aquaman normally. But am I going to watch Jason Momoa tear it up in that standalone movie? Heck yes I am!

It's easy to see this in a bad light, though. Because if we assume that there are limited resources, that there are only so many projects that Hollywood can greenlight, that there are only so many comics stores will sell, that there are only so many shows the networks can film, it can be easy to think that we can't actually have it all. That we can only have Batman or Wonder Woman, not both.

As it turns out, though, that is complete crap.

Take Sherlock Holmes adaptations, for example. Not only are there two currently running shows based on the crime novel series (BBC's Sherlock and CBS' Elementary), we've also got the Robert Downey Jr. films, the mockbuster films that go along with that (starring Gareth David Lloyd, as it happens), and a whole host of other properties using the Sherlock Holmes characters, ideas, and stories. And you know what? That's freaking great. Seriously. None of these shows or movies has suffered from the competition. Arguably they've all succeeded because of it. Because someone who watches Sherlock heard about Elementary and decided to give it a try. In the game of diversity, everybody wins.

This fall has been really awesome for me as a television lover. I mean, other years have had more female lead shows by the numbers, but this year has had an overwhelming number of shows coming on the air that are racially diverse, feature compelling female characters, and have the full support of their networks and studios. Shows like Selfie, which features an Asian-American man as the romantic lead, and Jane the Virgin, which features a predominantly Hispanic cast and a story centered around a young woman's sexual history, and even Forever, which centers on a white male lead, sure, but also includes a Hispanic leading woman as well as a diverse, compelling cast of secondary characters.

In other words, this year is a good year to be a person who likes diverse media. It's hard to remember that sometimes, if I'm honest. I spend so long staring at all the worst stuff that pop culture has to offer, that it's difficult to take a step back and realize, hey, you know what happened this year? Lucy, a female lead action movie, dominated the summer box office. Maleficent? Made a ton of money. Frozen is freaking universally beloved (much as I take issue with some of it), and Disney just announced that their next princess movie? It's gonna be Moana, about a Pacific Islander explorer princess.

I don't think the fight is over, but I do think the tide has turned. Look around, guys. We did it. There is so much good stuff happening. There are op-eds on major websites talking about the need for more diverse media. We're gonna get another Disney princess of color. Marvel and DC are in a diversity arms race.

So let's egg this thing on! Let's get Marvel and DC at each other's throats to prove once and for all who can make the most inclusive, diverse, compelling stories! Let's goad Marvel into finally giving us Black Widow and Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies. Let's taunt DC into making a Harley Quinn TV show, a Power Girl show, a Zatanna movie. Heck, let's get Sony and 20th Century Fox involved and make them give us Miles Morales on the big screen and a Storm solo picture. We finally have the social power to make a difference.

Everybody wins.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pilot Season: The Flash (A Superhero Movie Every Week)

It’s pretty rare for any show to come out of the gate swinging, to be fully formed and ready to go in the first three episodes. It’s even rarer for a show that is essentially one big corporate synergy advertisement to do this. Generally speaking what we saw with Agents of SHIELD is the norm. A show struggles to find its footing in the first half of the first season or so, and then somewhere along in there it clicks and suddenly the show works and is great and we’re all on board for the ride.

In the rare case when this doesn’t happen, I always feel a little suspicious. Like with shows that immediately wow their audience, I’m always kind of worried that this means that they spent all their best material in the first few episodes and there’s nothing left to keep them going. Take for example the first seasons of Heroes and Prison Break and even Glee. These are all shows that by and large were consistently great in their first seasons, that never really needed a minute to figure out what they were doing, and that collectively pooped the bed in the second season.

So when I tell you that The Flash is hilarious and wonderful and fully realized right out of the gate, I hope you understand the level of trepidation that gives me. It makes me nervous when a show knows what it’s doing so early on. And I’ve got stats to back me up.

But only time will tell if Flash is going to have staying power or not. The real question I’m here to answer is a lot simpler. Should you watch it? Hell yes you should.

The Flash is the kind of show that really arguably shouldn’t work but absolutely totally does. It’s based on one of the better known but not really as popular figures from the DC canon, features a rogue’s gallery that virtually no one remembers, and stars an actor whose previous major role was as a bit character on Glee. In all logic, this show really shouldn’t work. But it does.

It works because, as it turns out, all of those things are assets, not hindrances. Sure, The Flash is pretty much no one’s favorite superhero (I mean, logically he’s probably someone’s, but you get what I mean), and this iteration of the Flash is even less popular than the better known Wally West version, but that’s why the story works. Just like how no one watches Arrow and gets all upset at the way the show mangles Green Arrow’s lore, no one really cares enough about The Flash to get upset if the show changes something. Which is great.

See, this show has the exact opposite situation from Gotham. There the show kind of fails because the source material is so well known, and so popular, and the characters are so memorable, that the writers feel like they’re tied to the source material. They can’t deviate more than an inch without fearing legions of angry fans and angry studio executives.

The Flash, meanwhile, benefits from a sort of laissez-faire approach, the CW’s specialty, where it can do pretty much whatever it wants with the original material, as long as it makes a show that feels like the original property. And so, they did. And it’s freaking great.

The basic premise of the show adheres pretty well with the comics (though I have to admit that I really know very little about the Flash comics because I just never got into them). Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is a chronically late, messy, adorable CSI tech in love with his best friend Iris (Candice Patton). On the night that the Star Labs particle accelerator goes online, though, his life changes dramatically. A massive storm interrupts the particle accelerator, sending a wave of energy stuff through the city. Barry himself is hit by a lightening bolt. He nearly dies.

But he doesn’t die, because that would be a terrible beginning for the show! Instead, he wakes up months later in a hospital bed at Star Labs to find that while he was sleeping the world changed around him. The particle accelerator explosion killed a fair number of people in the city, and created a number of metahumans, including him. Barry now has the ability to go really, really, really fast, and he has absolutely no idea what to do with this new power.

Fortunately for him, the good folk of Star Labs are happy to help him test his powers. From Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh), the CEO of Star Labs who was crippled in the explosion, to Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), whose fiance died that night, to Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) who was right there when Caitlin’s fiance died, they’ve all got explosion-related baggage. They’re eager to find that something good came out of the blast.

And that good thing turns out to be Barry, who quickly decides that he wants to use his superspeed and advanced healing to help the good people of Central City deal not only with crazed metahumans like himself, but also with run of the mill muggers and bank robberies and carjackings. 

Contrary to most superhero shows, Barry doesn’t really do much to keep his superhero identity secret. Not only does the whole Star Labs crew know about him, his foster father, Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) does too, and he finds out in the very first episode. True, Barry’s best friend and longtime crush Iris doesn’t know, but she is always pretty much on the verge of finding out.

So yeah. Mostly Barry fights crime and is a nerd and saves people with the power of compassion and being really really fast. There’s also a plotline about Barry’s mother, who was killed when he was a kid. The cops (including Detective West) arrested his father for the crime, but Barry and his father both maintain that she was killed by “a man in a streak of light”. Which is a pretty accurate description of the Flash, so probably we’ve got a bad guy with the same powers thing going on here.

Also we’ve got the obligatory romantic story going in the background. Barry is hopelessly in love with Iris, who is totally oblivious and (secretly) dating her father’s partner, Eddie (Rick Cosnett). Ah the traditional love triangle. Of course, it’s made a little more complicated by the fact that Iris and Eddie are genuinely super cute together, and Iris and Barry don’t really ping that way, and Barry has amazing chemistry with Caitlin, actually. Kind of hoping the show pulls an Arrow and changes the romantic plotline accordingly.

Oh, and there is some weirdness going on with Harrison Wells, the CEO of Star Labs. Great weirdness, I should add. It’s unclear now whether or not he’s a bad guy, but he’s certainly an amoral guy with a mysterious agenda, and that is a fantastic little Easter egg to have in the background of all of his scenes. Also he might have superpowers. I don’t know what’s going on with him, but I love it.

This is what all is happening in The Flash, but the real heart of the show is with Barry and his desire to help people. It’s funny, because this is a DC property, but it really feels like one of the Marvel movies. It’s a world where there are people with superpowers but the heroes focus on saving everyone, the little people too, instead of just fighting supervillains. It’s a show about the little guys. And that’s what makes it so darn watchable and so much fun to tune in to every week. 

Plus the writing is top notch, really doing a great job of blending the necessary drama with some wry and slapstick humor that keeps it all humming. The cast is pleasantly diverse, though white dudes still abound, and the world of the show is neither so dark it’s kind of confusing why anyone still lives in this city, nor so complex and unknowable that it’s hard to follow the plot. Central City feels like a real place with real problems, that just happens to have a surprisingly large metahuman population. No big deal.

As for how this show will tie in with the other DC properties, from TV to movies to comics, remains to be seen. The show already has a strong link to the other CW show Arrow, and will be crossing over (officially) next week. But they’ve already crossed over in the pilot, and last year when there was an episode of Arrow that served as a backdoor pilot for The Flash. So clearly that relationship is solid.

It doesn’t seem overly likely that The Flash will cross over with Gotham any time soon. Not only are they on completely different networks with completely different tones, they also happen in very different time frames. Gotham is a prequel, so it’s not likely to crossover with The Flash, that happens in the present day, give or take. 

Of course, the powers that be have yet to confirm or deny whether or not the upcoming Justice League movies will exist in the same universe as these television shows. I kind of doubt it, to be honest, but there’s always time to change my mind. See, I don’t think they’ll crossover with the movies because The Flash is so completely tonally different from the “no jokes” ethos of the official Warner Brothers DC movies. I just don’t see it happening.

But maybe that’s for the best. After all, comics have been maintaining separate universes and storylines for the same characters and worlds for like half a century now, and that’s worked out pretty well for the fans. I won’t complain if they do decide to make it all one universe like Marvel has, but I’m not holding my breath.

The real upshot here is pretty much just if you like superhero movies, and fun, and warm fuzzy feelings, then you should watch The Flash. Yes, it might burn and crash in a season or two. But for now, it’s one of the funnest shows on television, and well worth your time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Book of Life and Cultural Sharing

There is no word I can think of that more aptly describes Book of Life than “charming”. As in, “It was so freaking charming. I am so freaking charmed.” I say this because these are actual quotes of my roommate and I leaving the theater, still stuck in a world of magic and wonder and all you can eat churros, thinking about how happy we were to see that movie, even if it was in an empty theater late on a rainy Monday night.

I’ve been excited for this project for a while, actually, ever since I heard that Guillermo del Toro was producing an animated film set in his home country of Mexico and devoted to telling a story from traditional Mexican folklore. Those are words that I enjoy hearing, so I was pretty pumped. Then when I heard who was in the cast (Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna, Ron Perlman, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Channing Tatum), I got even more excited and confused. 

What the crack could this movie be? Was it possible that this was the holy grail of children’s animated flicks? Were we really going to get a movie about a non-white culture, with entirely non-white characters, that was produced faithfully and lovingly by a cast and crew of predominantly non-white people?

As it turns out, yes. Yes that is exactly what happened. I am so so happy right now.

Now I’ll be up front and say that I know next to nothing about traditional Mexican culture or folklore. Seriously, I know extremely little. But that neither hindered my enjoyment of this film, nor did it make it seem like this movie wasn’t for me. Rather the opposite, actually. In a very real sense, this movie feels like an attempt to explain and celebrate Mexican folklore in a way that non-Mexicans can understand.

The story is a complex but delightful one. On the Day of the Dead, the two rulers of the Realms of the Dead come to earth and watch over the mortals as they celebrate their ancestors. One of the rulers, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), rules over the Realm of the Remembered. She’s warm and kind and loves people because she believes they are inherently good. In her realm live all of the dead who are still remembered by their families and loved ones.

The other ruler, Xibalba (Ron Perlman), rules over the Realm of the Forgotten, a cold wasteland of souls who have been completely forgotten by those in the Realm of the Living. He hates it there. It’s cold and miserable and he hates it just like he hates humanity. But since he was banished there for cheating during his last bet with La Muerte, there’s nothing he can do. Unless…

Xibalba challenges La Muerte to another wager. If he wins, they’ll switch places. And if she wins, he’ll forever stop interfering with the living. Which, since it’s the only fun he ever gets, is something he’s not prepared to do.

The wager is this: Maria, the town sweetheart in San Angel, has two friends. Her friends, Manolo and Joaquin, are both clearly in love with her. So each of the rulers picks a side and chooses their champion. The bet will be completed when Maria chooses which of the boys she will marry. Xibalba chooses Joaquin, son of the town’s last hero and a strapping young lad who loves fighting and bravery. He gives him a special medal (the medal of everlasting life) to give him a heads up. After all, every girl falls in love with a big strong man, right?

La Muerte, though, chooses Manolo, the sweet, sensitive guitar-playing boy whose family wants him to grow up to be a bullfighter. She bestows a blessing too, but her blessing is simply that Manolo will always stay true to his heart.

It’s funny because from this point on you really do know exactly who’s going to win the bet. There’s no question that Maria and Manolo are totally right for each other. And, to a large extent, that’s the point. The fun of the story isn’t whether or not Maria will choose Manolo, it’s how all of this will go down.

So we fast forward ten years or so, until Maria (Zoe Saldana) has returned from being educated in Spain, and Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are all grown up. Joaquin has become renowned throughout Mexico as a great hero who fights the bandits and is the only one who can protect them from the evil bandit Chakal, while Manolo is mostly known as a potentially good, but shamefully laid back, bullfighter.

Maria’s father, who happens to be the mayor, shoves Maria towards Joaquin, but she prefers Manolo. As Xibalba watches, he realizes that he’s going to lose the bet, and so he decides to cheat. When Manolo and Maria meet at dawn to talk about getting married, Xibalba enchants a snake to bite Maria, seemingly killing her. Manolo is devastated as is the whole town. He falls down and sobs that it should have been him.

Of course, Xibalba immediately appears and agrees that it should have been him. So, is Manolo willing to sacrifice himself to be with Maria again? Manolo is, and then two snakes appear and bite him. He dies.

And then immediately wakes up in the land of the Dead, the Realm of the Remembered! He figures that Maria must be there too, and he searches all over for her. But before he finds her, he runs into his whole extended (dead) family, including his mother and grandfather and all the Sanchez bullfighters who came before him. They all agree to take him to La Muerte’s castle so she can help him find Maria.

Upon reaching the castle, though, they discover Xibalba has already taken residence. See, Maria isn’t dead. That one snake bite only put her in a trance. Joaquin was able to wake her up pretty quickly. But two snake bites? That’s lethal. And now Maria will marry Joaquin, and Xibalba will win the bet.

But Manolo isn’t going to take this lying down. He knows that if La Muerte found out Xibalba cheated, she would annul the bet. So all he has to do is make his way down to the Realm of the Forgotten and tell her.

Much, much easier said than done.

Okay, I’m going to stop recapping here, because you should all just go see the movie for yourselves. But trust me that this is only the beginning, and the whole story takes you on this rollercoaster through all the realms, through true love and sacrifice, and in the end you just can’t stop smiling because it’s so wonderful.

Even if this were a generic story, and I weren’t so invested in cultural representation in children’s media, I would still be pretty pumped. Because it’s a freaking well made movie. It’s beautifully written, funny, gorgeous to look at, and all of the characters are interesting and fleshed out. For all that Maria is “the girl” and basically a prize the guys are fighting over, she’s actually a really well realized character. She’s irritated by their rivalry, gets pissed when all anyone talks about is who she will marry, and is effortlessly badass in a way that doesn’t feel like a joke.

Joaquin, who would be easy to write off as “the bad guy” simply because he’s the one who doesn’t get the girl in the end, is actually a pretty fun character. He and Manolo genuinely are good friends, and they don’t let their rivalry over Maria get in the way of that. Sure, he’s a braggart and he thinks every battle can be won with fists and he doesn’t have very enlightened views on marriage, but none of that is presented as being bad guy material. He’s just not the right guy for Maria, and to a large extent he knows it. We even get the impression that when all is said and done, he doesn’t want to marry her anyway, because he knows she loves Manolo.

And Manolo? Yes, he is the sweet, sensitive romantic archetype, but he’s a very well thought out iteration of that trope. He’s an accomplished musician as well as an accomplished bullfighter, and his great fear is not that he will get hurt or even that Maria will not love him back. It’s that he will disappoint his family (who are famously all bullfighters) by following his heart. Also he’s a bullfighter who refuses to kill the bull and at one point literally sings his way to victory. How can you not love this guy?

Granted, there are things about this movie that aren’t perfect. As great as all of the female characters are, it still only barely edges its way over the Bechdel Test. And while Maria is a really compelling and fully realized character, she’s still basically the ball in a game of soccer between Manolo and Joaquin. The third act is okay, but parts of it felt a little perfunctory. Like, of course the MacGuffin is coming into play here. And of course they can only defeat the bad guy together. Not bad tropes by any means, but there were moments when I wished for a touch of the originality that flows through this whole film to hit the third act.

Still. Those are incredibly minor complaints, and the overall effect of this movie is one of wonder. The story is charming, the characters are lovely, the art is gorgeous, and the whole message is just so freaking wholesome and heartwarming and true. Guh. I mean, it’s a kids’ movie about how the truest form of love is self-sacrifice. How is this not your favorite thing ever?

Purely from a technical standpoint as well, the film is just masterfully done. In order to get around the people like me who know absolutely jack about Mexican folklore, the film built into itself a framing device: this is all a traditional story being told to a group of school kids on a museum field trip. But the framing device actually manages to transcend its origins as a simple excuse for voiceover narration and becomes a compelling storyline of its own when we grow to really care about the kids hearing the story. Because it’s not an accident that they’re hearing it. They’re hearing it because they need to learn how to live a good life. And that’s pretty awesome in and of itself.

There’s just so much to love in this film. For me, though, it really feels like the anti-Disney film. In the best possible way, I mean. Because where Frozen used parts of native cultures appropriatively, with no reference to the origin and meaning of those cultural symbols, Book of Life is completely steeped in its culture. It’s not a movie with some Mexican stuff thrown in for the sake of “political correctness” nor is it a film shamelessly ripping off indigenous culture. It’s a film by Mexicans for everyone about Mexican culture.

Heck, in the beginning few minutes of the movie the narrator actually says, “Now, as we all know, Mexico is the center of the world.” And she is neither kidding, nor being intentionally ironic. She’s just stating a fact. Mexico is the center of the world. And, yeah. This is a Mexican folktale, so Mexico in this story is the center of the world. That’s a given.

It pretty much highlights the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing. Because this is a movie made for a predominantly non-Hispanic audience (hence why they’re always explaining everything), but it’s made with love. As a sort of, “Here’s what we love about our culture. You are free and welcome to love it too.” And I want more of that in the world. That’s a great thing. It’s not about us coming in and taking anyone’s culture, it’s about them deciding to share it. Who doesn’t want more of that?

Major props are due to the writer/director, Jorge R. Gutierrez, who reportedly worked for fourteen years to get this to screen. Apparently studio executives were convinced that no one would want to see a “Hispanic story”. Which is total crap. But if this movie doesn’t blow them away at the box office, I’m a little afraid it’ll become an excuse for them to not bankroll the next amazing culturally sensitive film that comes along.

Which brings us to my plea for everyone to freaking watch this film. It’s appropriate for all ages, inherently wonderful and full of joy, and just the sort of thing that you want to see on a dreary October day leading up to Halloween. So please go see this movie. Please. You won’t regret it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Prison Break's Riots, Drills, and the Devil - How to Write Tension

Yesterday as I was laid up in bed with a nasty cold, I decided to finally get around to rewatching one of my old favorite shows: Prison Break. I was introduced to it just as the first season was airing, way back in 2006, and I was instantly hooked. It's a tense, thrilling, devastating show about the American prison and legal system, governmental conspiracies, brotherly love, and the consequences of our actions. It is almost entirely made up of things I love. (And a few things I hate, but we'll get to that later.)

Admittedly the first season of the show ended up being the only one worth watching, a fact that still disappoints me, but I am happy to go back and watch through twenty-two episodes of freaking phenomenal television. There's not a single episode in there that isn't tense, engaging, and absolutely brilliant. But within those episodes there are a couple that rise above even that high standard and have become the standard against which I judge all dramatic writing.

Yup. My standard for good dramatic writing - writing that keeps the reader hooked, continuously raises the stakes without falling into melodrama, and that manages to develop the characters simply by showing how they react to certain situations - is a two-part episode from season one titled, "Riots, Drills, and the Devil." It's so good.

But before I can drag you all through exactly how and why this episode is amazing (which it is), I should probably give you some background. The show Prison Break, which aired from 2005-2009 and was only good from 2005-2006, is about, you guessed it, a guy breaking out of prison. 

Our hero is Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), a seemingly well-off, cultured, intelligent man who we see in the first few minutes of the pilot hold up a bank with a gun and get himself arrested. He then proceeds to get himself the maximum sentencing at a local prison: Fox River. As the pilot unfolds, we start to understand why he's decided to get himself put in jail. He's going to break out, and he's going to bring his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) who is on death row, with him.

That's the show in a nutshell, but there are a lot of nuances to it. For startes, Lincoln's in prison for killing the vice president's brother - a crime the he strenuously claims he did not admit. He insists, and Michael agrees, that the evidence against him was manufactured by some opposing force or conspiracy. And, it turns out, he's right. But by this point in the season (just six episodes in or so) we don't know why.

Michael, meanwhile, is more than just a smart man who loves his brother. He's a freaking genius who is obsessively and a little weirdly close to his brother. Michael, who grew up with Lincoln as his primary parental figure after age eight, has strong abandonment issues, a keen analytical mind, and a blueprint of the prison tattooed on the upper half of his body. He's got this.

And, in a weird way, that's why the show works. Because the premise of the show isn't that Michael has to figure out how to break him and Lincoln out of prison before Lincoln is executed. Before the season even started, we're told, Michael figured out the plan to the most minute, ridiculous detail. He found out what other people were imprisoned at Fox River and who he could ask for favors or who he could blackmail into helping him. He planned the entire escape route and set an ambitious time schedule. Hell, he even figured out a way to make sure that his cellmate wouldn't rat on him for the escape attempt.

So the tension in the show isn't about wondering if Michael can break them out of prison, it's wondering what's going to happen that Michael hasn't planned for. In other words, the actual breaking out stuff is mostly handled. What's left is the human element. And that's where this episode comes in as one of the best I've ever seen on television.

Okay, so that's the setup for the show. Here's the setup for the episode. Michael and his cellmate Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) have already dug through the wall behind their toilet. If the toilet is in place you can't see anything, but there is in fact a giant hole there. 

The next step is that they need to drill through a giant wall of six inch concrete that's between them and an access tunnel that will lead to the next part of the escape. Unfortunately, Michael's plan requires them to do this at times when no one will notice that he's out of his cell, and since this is prison, that time is extremely limited. He has to drill through the wall in the next 24 hours or else they won't escape on time (as in, before Lincoln is executed).

That's the basic premise of the episode. In order to know where to drill, because there are other pipes back behind that concrete wall that lead to less friendly pipes that might be full of explosive gas, Michael has set up a sketch of the devil, taken from his tattoo, that will show them the exact points to drill through in order to upset the tensile strength of the wall. Because Michael is a crazy brilliant engineer and also a little crazy.

But, again, it's hard to drill seven precise holes in a wall with an eggbeater if you're constantly having to come back to your cell for headcount. What's a con to do? Well, the only way to stop the count is to get the whole prison block put on lockdown, where the guards lock their cell doors and leave them all to stew for a few days. Sucre and Michael figure that if they can do this, they can finish the wall and continue as scheduled. Only that means they have to figure out a way to agitate the prisoners into getting put on lockdown.

The key? Break the air conditioning and everyone will be so hot and grumpy that they'll get riled up. Problem solved.

And, to a large extent, it works. That's what's so great about this episode. Michael breaks the air conditioning and the prisoners get riled up (because it's freaking hot and they live in a place with no windows), so the guards put them on lockdown. His plan works. But because he's Michael and because this show is brilliant, he forgets about the human element. Yes, the guards put the block on lockdown. But then the prisoners turn it into a full fledged riot, storming the guards, taking the guard booth, and unleashing anarchy in the prison for two full episodes. In other words, Michael gets exactly what he wants, and the consequences are ones he is not prepared to deal with.

What makes this episode really amazing, though, is that the hits just keep on coming. Because of setup we saw in previous episodes, Lincoln was, at the time the riot broke out, meeting with his lawyers and discussing the conspiracy against him. The lawyers leave and go to check out an other lead, but that means Lincoln is being escorted back to his cell when the prisoners come through. His guard (Michael Cuditz) is a rookie who's just trying to do a good job, and Lincoln likes him. But as the only guard not locked away from them, the prisoners decide he's the perfect target and swarm Linc to get him.

The guard ends up prisoner of T-Bag (Robert Knepper, in the role that made him a critical darling), and dragged through the prison as a token of the prisoner's power. T-Bag shoves the guard into an unused cell so that he can have his way with him (T-Bag is a convicted rapist and murderer, so this is not at all surprising), only to find a giant hole in the wall. Because it's Michael's cell. So now T-Bag and a guard have seen the hole and know about the escape. Crap.

John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare), the mob boss that Michael is blackmailing into helping him, discovers T-Bag and the guard in there and is enraged to find that T-Bag immediately wants in on the escape. More than that, he's prepared to scream their plans to the whole prison if Abruzzi doesn't count him in, and he'll kill the guard to sweeten the pot. Michael, of course, is horrified to find that T-Bag knows, and even more horrified by the idea of him killing a cop, so he just insists that the cop stay alive. They'll figure something out. Besides, as long as they have a hostage, prison SWAT and the national guard aren't going to come in after them.

On top of all of this, Michael finds out that Dr. Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies) is trapped in a room of the infirmary during the riot. She's in danger of being pulled out and abused as a symbol of the prisoner's power (as well as because she's pretty much the only young woman in the whole prison). Michael, who knows that all of this is his fault, decides to go rescue her. He'll go, Sucre will keep drilling through the wall, and Abruzzi will watch T-Bag and the guard.

Obviously that is not what ends up happening.

So now we've got like four different, vitally compelling and tense storylines. Add onto that the fact that Lincoln is now being targeted by a contract killer from within the prison (as setup in previous episodes). The guy plans to use the prison riot as a distraction so he can kill Linc and have it look like an accident. And outside the prison walls there's tension too. Lincoln's lawyers, Veronica (Robin Tunney) and Nick (Frank Grillo) fly to Washington DC to follow up on a lead and find themselves in the crosshairs of a conspiracy much bigger than they thought.

Oh, and LJ (Marshall Allman), Lincoln's son, is watching the news about the riot on television, freaking out about his father and uncle being in there, when he comes to blows with his stepfather over issues that have been building all season. Also the Warden (Stacy Keach) and Governor Tancredi (John Heard) nearly come to blows over how the Warden is handling this, and the fact that Dr. Sara Tancredi, the Governor's daughter, is trapped inside. Meanwhile conniving prison guard Bellick (Wade Williams) tries to use this as the perfect opportunity to overthrow the Warden as head of the prison.

There's kind of some stuff going on. And all of it is crucial and tense and compelling and, this is the key bit, completely related to everything else that's going on. No single storyline is unrelated, and everything that happens in the episode happens because Michael needed some more time to drill. That? That is good writing.

Screw it, that's actually amazing writing. Because while this would be fantastic writing on its own, it's made even better by the fact that all of this serves pretty much as backdrop for some stunning character development in every single storyline. By this point we know who all of the major players are (so far) and these two episodes serve show us more about who these characters will become by placing them in stressful and unusual situations and letting them go.

Because the stakes are so high for everyone, and because these episodes afford the opportunity for characters who've never worked together to interact, we come out of it knowing a hell of a lot more about everyone, and not in a way that feels trite or manipulated or involved a single flashback. We didn't need flashbacks or exposition. We just needed to see how the characters interact.

I'm not going to go through all of the characters and explain their development, because that would take forever, but just let me point it out with T-Bag. These two episodes are really where he became one of the main characters and a force to be reckoned with. Up until this point we knew next to nothing about him. 

In these episodes alone we come to find out that, yes, T-Bag is racist and perverted, but he's also a gifted public speaker who can rally an entire prison block around him - dude would have made an amazing politician. We find out that his character is the product of incest, and that his parents are screwed up on a level that no other character can touch.

More than that, though, we spend time with T-Bag, and we really get to know him. We sit in that jail cell with just him and a guard for chunks of the episode. And all he does is talk. That's all he has to do. He sits in that jail cell and has a nice friendly conversation about the man's children and his wife and what it must have been like to see his baby girl go off to prom. It's one of the most unnerving scenes I know of. Then, when the riot is done and they no longer need a prisoner, T-Bag holds back until the others go by, then shanks the guard in front of everyone. By the end of these two episodes, T-Bag has established himself as the single most dangerous person in the whole prison, and also essential to the escape. It's just plain brilliant writing.

Now, caveat time, I don't think everyone should just troop off and watch Prison Break. It's really really really not for everyone. It takes a strong stomach and a soft squishy stuffed animal to get through most of the episodes. So, no, you probably shouldn't watch it unless you already know that you like this kind of thing.

But I do think it's worthwhile to examine shows that know what they're doing and do it very well, like this one. "Riots, Drills, and the Devil" may not be an episode with universal appeal, but it does demonstrate perfectly how to write complex drama that never lags or stops or fails to deliver. The kew to that, in a nutshell is this: consequences and character development.

The whole theme of this episode is consequences. Because Michael broke the AC, all of these things happened. But it's also deeper than all of that. Because Michael decided to save Lincoln, a lot of things happen that would not have otherwise ever happened. In fact, when you look at the show, it's arguable that Michael should have just let Lincoln die, and everyone's lives would have been better.

So clearly consequences make for a compelling story. Also necessary, though, is that through the development of these consequences our characters find more of their true personalities being revealed. For example, this is the episode that we discover that Michael does not, in fact, think of the plan before all else. He's willing to scrap the plan for a little while in order to save a woman who's just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We also learn that even though Lincoln is generally resigned to dying in his execution, he's really not okay with dying anytime before then. Character development. It's important.

Like I said above, I don't think Prison Break is a perfect show. There are some things in here that bother me, like the utter lack of interesting, non-damseled or fridged female cahracters, and the fact that the show is bizarrely white for being set in a prison. But these are minor quibbles when compared with how awesome a job the show does at, well, pretty much everything else.

Basically, if you want to write a drama, figure out how to give it stakes and figure out how those stakes and the actions your characters will take to overcome them will affect every other character in the story. We do not exist in a bubble - all of our actions are interconnected. If you want to write and write well, you need to remember that.

Also, any nightmares you have about being chased are probably good fodder for scenes like this.