Monday, November 17, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: State of Affairs

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Mondays at 10:00 PM on NBC

State of Affairs desperately wants to be Homeland.  It opens on Katherine Heigl's CIA analyst character Charleston Tucker (yes, you read that correctly) at a session with her therapist, intercut with scenes of her in Afghanistan, witnessing her fiancee dying in a chaotic firefight.  Spy with mental scars as a result of war?  Check.  Later in the episode, she receives intel that convinces her that her fiancee may actually be alive after all these years.  Nick Brody stand-in?  Check.  The pilot even slips in a mournful jazz song near the end.  Even when it's not trying to, it shares DNA with Homeland, seeing as the hostage trade scenario that dominates the first episode is exactly the same as a plotline in this most recent episode of Homeland.  The problem is that it takes that series and puts it through a network strainer, leaving behind a dry noodle of a show and none of the juice that would make it interesting.

Not even direction from Joe Carnahan (and a script co-written by him) can liven things up.  There's a nicely edited sequence near the middle of the episode that zips and pops, but otherwise the show is a hollow machine, making lots of motions but not producing much.  This pilot is just so busy.  Nothing exciting happens, despite the overbearing score and caffeinated editing insisting upon the contrary.  State of Affairs doesn't commit any outrageous sins, but it also doesn't do anything worthwhile either.  It's the very definition of a C show.

Grade: C

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) vs. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009)

I missed out on Fullmetal Alchemist during the peak of its popularity for reasons both practical and superficial.  On the former side of the equation, I wasn't yet into anime to a large extent and I could never catch it at the start of its run on Adult Swim.  On the latter, I was kind of turned off by it because most of the people who loved it were the type of people I hated in middle school.  So my impression of the show was solely based off the snippets I'd seen in promos and bits of buzz that wandered into my ears.  From that, I had assumed it was just a simple shounen show where the main characters fought a series of escalating baddies.  And instead of magic or super powers, these people fought with alchemy, or "science magic," if you will.

To my surprise, it's actually quite a morally, emotionally complex show.  In many ways, it reminds me of Avatar: the Last Airbender, not least of which is the fact that you can look at both from a distance and dismiss them as shows for children, but upon further inspection reveal themselves to be mature in their themes and storytelling.  Fullmetal Alchemist, especially in its introductory episodes, is steeped in loss.  Following the untimely death of their mother, Edward and Alphonse Elric take up alchemy and ravenously devour ancient texts in an effort to use its powers to resurrect her.  However, their attempt at playing God backfires and they pay a hefty price, the loss of Ed's right arm and left leg and Al's entire body.

The beginning of the show milks the tragedy of the Elric brothers for all it's worth, but that's what makes their journey so compelling.  Along their quest to find the Philosopher's Stone, a device that will help them get the pieces of themselves that they've lost back, Ed and Al are constantly reminded of the choices they've made, not just from the parts of them that are literally missing, but from the various people they come across.  Using alchemy as a way of trying and failing to deal with loss is a theme that comes up over and over; the show is almost a Fringe-level examination of the physical cost of pushing science to its limits.

One area where Fullmetal Alchemist does skew younger is in its sense of humor.  The comedy is absolutely dire, relying on simple jokes that repeat incessantly over the course of the series.  You'll understand that Ed is insecure about being short, that Hughes loves his kid, or that people initially assume Al is the Fullmetal Alchemist pretty early on.  That doesn't stop the writers from continuing to tell variations of those jokes, the already low response from it diminishing each time.  Occasionally, the comedy is used as a shorthand way of effectively fleshing out characters.  Part of the reason why a certain character's death about a fourth of the way through the show has so much impact is because the running joke about the character is what establishes the stakes of their story.

But whenever the show threatens to fall off its axis, it always has Ed and Al's dynamic to fall back on.  Their brotherly relationship is the rock that holds everything together.  They've lost their mother, and their father abandoned them when they were younger, so now they're the only family each other has.  The fierce devotion they have to one another is what drives their quest to return their bodies to a normal state.  Ed and Al's relationship is so strong that the story stumbles a little bit when it tries to bring conflict into the mix.  Al's suspicion, and subsequent anger, about the possibly that Ed manufactured his memories just doesn't feel true to the character.  Luckily, it's a storyline that comes and goes rather quickly.

Fullmetal Alchemist is also about the surrogate families that build up throughout the series.  Though Ed and Al are orphans, they've got their childhood friend Winry and her grandmother, who are there to provide physical aid (Winry uses her skills as a mechanic to fix Ed's mechanical arm) and emotional support.  Then there's Colonel Mustang's squadron, the gang of misfits who are united by their faith and loyalty to their leader.  Even the homunculi, the artificially created humans who make up the villains of the series, are bounded by their burden, their desire to be human.  It's not just the families we're given that matters, but the families we make as well.

Like many of the longer running anime that are based on manga, the show began putting out episodes at a faster pace than the source material, and had to deviate the story from its original path.  This led to an emphasis on the conflict between the state and Ishbala, which recalls the real life Middle East.  In fact, lots of the second half of the series feels like an Iraq War allegory.  Between the excessive military occupation, the idea of a government invading land to serve their own means (finding/testing out the Philosopher's Stone), and keeping information and motives from the general public, the real-world implications just pile on.  The city of Liore also has some Middle East parallels, in that a corrupt leader gets overthrown, but that only causes more chaos and mayhem.  "Dog of the military" is a phrase that comes up over and over again throughout the show.  It's a series that explores what it means to serve a country, to follow orders even when you don't fully understand or agree with them.  Moral gray areas abound, effectively portraying the atrocities of war that are committed on both sides.

Much like Avatar: the Last Airbender, one of the best things about Fullmetal Alchemist is the deep well of empathy that it contains.  Throughout its run, there are a few characters who remain purely evil, because most of the villains stick around long enough that we're given reasons to sympathize with them.  Most of the show's most tragic arcs come from those who don't start off on the side of good.  For example, Scar is introduced as a fearsome villain, an alchemist killer with a no-mercy attitude.  But when you actually learn why he has a grudge against state alchemists, your perspective on him completely changes.  Likewise with homunculus Envy, who causes destruction in search of the Philosopher's Stone because she wants to use it to become human again.

The ways in which we strive toward humanity is at the forefront of the series.  It tackles this idea literally with the homunculi's quest for the Philosopher's Stone, and in a roundabout way with Ed's desire to get his and Al's full bodies back.  But it's also all about the ways in which we try to do the right thing, to not compromise on our morals, but occasionally fall short.  Many of the characters are struggling under the weight of past sins or present predicaments.  Nobody comes out unscathed or uncompromised.

The overflow of themes and ideas Fullmetal Alchemist has is matched by the vast array of characters, an ensemble it has an excellent handle on.  There are so many varied and distinct characters in the bunch, and the show has a way of bringing back people who seem minor and then making them vital to the overarching plot.  It speaks to a larger point, which is that it's much better paced than most anime with 50 episodes.  That's probably because the show keeps its "filler" episodes clustered in the beginning, which helps you get a better sense of the characters, so you'll be fully invested once the plotting intensifies.  But even in the later stages of the show, it's able to incorporate some experimental episodes, such as the one that focuses on what Mustang's squadron does in their downtime (Avatar parallel #457: "Tales of Ba Sing Se").  All throughout its run, Fullmetal Alchemist mixes tones -- it could do light or funny or dark or somber -- but the narrative stays cohesive.

The conclusion of the series, which brings all of the ongoing storylines to a head, stumbles in a few crucial ways.  It's not an unqualified failure, but the final couple of episodes are by far the weakest of the series.  They are just way too overstuffed and, without giving away any specific details, they introduce some over-the-top, idiotic ideas.  Plus, for a show that's so grim and uncompromising, the ending feels very cheap and unsatisfying.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was created, in part, to make up for that ending and the fact that the original 2003 series went off in its own direction in the second half.  Now, with the manga complete, Brotherhood would be able to follow its source material to the letter.  So this 2009 sister series benefited those manga purists who were infuriated by the original, and if fans of the previous version found something to like in it too, then it'd be icing on the cake.

The biggest problem with Brotherhood is that it assumes that viewers have already seen Fullmetal Alchemist '03.  Of course, almost everybody had seen the latter, but the choice to simply barrel through the story in the first 13 episodes doesn't make for an enjoyable viewing experience.  In that early stretch of episodes, it feels like a soulless imitation of an anime I liked quite a bit and didn't need another version of.  There's so much emotional shorthand that not only make the beats work less in the present tense, but hurt future moments that lean on the foundation laid in the beginning.  The origin of the Elric brothers doesn't have one-fourth the power that it does in the original series, there are crucial scenes and episodes centered on Maes Hughes that are cut out, and Colonel Mustang isn't given enough scenes with the Elrics to establish their relationship.  Most of the humor in Fullmetal Alchemist was already execrable, but Brotherhood injects even more lazy and sometimes egregious (Izumi vomiting blood gets played for laughs!) comedy.  Most of all, the first arc is just plain boring.

Many of the characters end up feeling poorly handled.  Where Scar was an intimidating, but soulful character in the original Fullmetal, he comes off like the generic "badass anime villain" throughout most of Brotherhood.  A character like the first Brigadier General gets killed off before we even get to know him.  The 2003 Fullmetal had the intelligence to devote an episode to Barry the Chopper in his murderous human form, so that his reappearance at the 5th Laboratory as a hollow suit of armor has more impact.  Brotherhood just introduces him at the 5th Laboratory and fills in his backstory with a crudely animated sequence.  However, the show's biggest transgression comes from the writing of the homunculi.  Here, they are far less complex and thematically resonant than in the original series, where they were given backstories and motivations beyond an evil plot.  Brotherhood seems content with having them be manifestations of Father's sins.  So when Lust dies in the 2003 version, it's tragic because we've seen her origin and desires; in the 2009 version, it's simply a triumphant defeat of the bad guy.  And the less said about the Greed 2.0 storyline, the better.

Thankfully, there are a few saving graces that make it easier to get through the first half of Brotherhood.  It boasts much higher production values than its predecessor, across the board.  Even when the story drags, episodes immediately light up when an action sequence rolls around.  They're excellently paced, choreographed, and directed; a marked improvement on the already great action from the original series.  It takes a while to get used to the art -- thinner lines, rounder faces, manga-styled designs in the comedic moments -- but the characters designs are so unique and interesting that they can translate well to any style.  Many of the voice actors from the original reprise their roles, and like Fullmetal Alchemist, Brotherhood has a superb English dub.

At 64 episodes, 13 more than the 2003 version, Brotherhood has more room to expand, and it does so with great success.  In Fullmetal Alchemist, it was almost as if "the state" was the only real piece of land that existed other than Ishbal, whose location was unclear, but felt like it was somewhere nearby.  Brotherhood actually gives "the state" a name -- Amestris -- and gives it bordering nations with names and actual people who inhabit it.  Sometimes that leads to the inclusion of characters like Prince Lin and Princess May from Xing, a fictional nation heavily based on China, who are completely annoying and uninteresting.  But more often than not, learning more about the world of Brotherhood improves the show.  It's no surprise that the series actually starts to become good around the time that Ed and Al travel to the North.  Those episodes feel like we've had our eyes opened to a whole new world, complete with its own mythology and way of doing things.  It reminded me of The North in Game of Thrones: frighteningly cold, gigantic wall that stands as a barrier from dangerous enemies, misfits and sinners charged with protecting it.

The second half of the series improves leaps and bounds upon the first half, starting from that portion in the North and leading into the action-packed finale arc.  Its biggest strength is to be found in Roy Mustang's progression as a character, which is so satisfying that it's hard to imagine why the original didn't go in that direction.  (The likely answer is that this part of the manga wasn't finished yet, but his arc in Brotherhood feels so logical that all roads would seem to lead to it.)  He becomes the show's richest, most complex character, a man who wants power but also has a desire to remain good while doing it, and slowly realizing that that may be untenable.  His actions also factor into the finale's political intrigue-filled coup, which amps up the tension tenfold.  Great action sequences occur across multiple fronts, with deft cross-cutting between them all.  It's gripping, exciting stuff.

Brotherhood pulls out every happy ending imaginable for its conclusion: Mustang gets his eyesight back, Ed and Winry basically end up together, Al gets his body back, Havoc gains the ability to walk again, there's a new Selim.  All of it is a little too pat, but it's an otherwise sweeping, grandiose, and very moving closer.  While it ends up being more successful than the ending of Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), it's hard to deny that both finales are thematically fitting for their respective series.  FMA '03 was more about loss, so the ending was a bittersweet one, forever reminding us that sacrifices are necessary.  For Brotherhood, which was always a more traditional story, the ending is more hopeful.  The latter is very much about the cycle of violence that humans inflict on one another, which is what the homunculi capitalize on.  So the ending is humanity finally breaking that cycle and making steps toward peace.

Ultimately, I preferred the original Fullmetal Alchemist as a complete experience.  It's more consistent, darker, and more nuanced than Brotherhood.  The latter has its own unique pleasures, they just take longer to appear.  If you want a faithful adaptation of the manga, go with Brotherhood; if you like liberal adaptations, FMA 03 is the one to go with.  Of course, you can always just kiss 50 hours of your life goodbye and watch both like I did.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Run the Jewels 2 proves that sequels don't have to be disappointing

"The jewel runners, top tag team for two summers," Killer Mike says about Run The Jewels, the duo he formed with Def Jux founder El-P, on the opening track of their latest album.  He's not lying either.  The two first began collaborating in 2012, when El-P produced all of Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music and Mike delivered a blistering guest verse on El's Cancer 4 Cure.  Those were two of the best rap albums released that year, but apparently that wasn't enough for them.  They liked working with each other so much that they decided to start a group, releasing a short, but astounding album the next year (which landed at the number three on my best of 2013 list).  If they had just decided to make that one-off record and part ways, it would've been enough, yet here they are again with a fast and unlikely return a year later.

What makes them great as a pairing is that they're such different rappers.  El-P's got that idiosyncratic flow that he's evolved over the last 15 years into something serpentine and formidable.  It goes in, out, through, and above the beat, and he can shift gears to double time mid-verse with ease.  His lyrics are so dense, you need a fine-tooth comb to sort through them.  And he chooses his words with such precision that they come out of his mouth mellifluously.  Killer Mike, on the other hand, doesn't ride the beat so much as he stomps all over it.  His lyrics don't pack as many internal rhymes or as much assonance as El-P's, but he makes up for it through the sheer force with which he delivers them.  When he says "bunches and bunches, punches are thrown until you're frontless," you believe that he'll really do it.

What makes the two of them an even better pairing is that they're able to meld together so well, despite those differences.  In fact, some of the most thrilling moments of Run the Jewels 2 occur when the two of them are trading off little mini-verses back and forth ("All Due Respect," "Oh My Darling Don't Cry," "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)"), picking up on the other's last line and taking it in their own direction.  Their relationship is mutualistic -- they feed off of one another, elevating themselves in the process.  On "Blockbuster Night, Part 1" El-P does a highly alliterative verse, so Killer Mike follows suit.  Then on "Early," Killer Mike drops an introspective 16 about police corruption and El-P picks up the baton and delivers something just as thoughtful.

Their level of chemistry could easily make their music feel insular, but the guests on the album fit in quite nicely, even when they don't seem like they would.  It's unlikely that anybody read the Run the Jewels 2 tracklist a few months ago and reacted with anything other than a groan when they saw "feat. Zack de la Rocha."  But not only is "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" the best song on the record, de la Rocha's verse is excellent.  After three minutes of Mike and El breathing fire over a sludgy beat, he comes up and delivers some of the most entertaining bars on the entire album, gleefully sputtering lines like "I'm miles ahead of you, you can sip my bitches brew" or "Philip AK Dickin' you."  "Love Again (Akinyele Back)" seems like it's just going to be the album's obligatory "let's talk about sex" song, but then Gangsta Boo -- that's right, Gangsta Boo! -- hops on the track and delivers an eye-popping, delightfully vulgar verse that brings some much-needed perspective.  Even the less front-and-center guest appearances work.  Boots shows up for the chorus of "Early" and gives it vocals that fit the mournful, introspective tone of Killer Mike and El-P's verses.  Elsewhere, Travis Barker appears on the wild, pummeling "All Due Respect," drumming like an eight-armed madman.

But not only does this feature some of the best rapping you're going to hear all year, it's also got the best production of 2014.  The first Run the Jewels album opted for a retro style, full of boom-bap beats that were pretty fun and lively.  That production bumped in its own right, but for the sequel, El-P gets a little bit darker, less minimalistic.  It's much closer to the twitchy, paranoid sound of his solo work.  In El's hands, the beats aren't just a structured loop to be rapped over, they're sonic petri dishes, teeming with all kinds of sounds and instruments.  They're a force to be tamed, lumbering about like a behemoth, rising and falling and shifting.  "Oh My Darling Don't Cry" might be the greatest example of that.  It's a dizzying, furious series of movements -- at one point it sounds like a paranoid baby babbling, at another it's like a dial-up machine that's possessed by a demon.  Scraggly guitars; saxophone squeals; low, buzzy synths -- everything under sun can be heard on this record.

If you still prefer the first album, nobody's going to fault you for having that opinion.  Run the Jewels 2 is so cerebral that it will probably end up being less relistenable than its predecessor.  There's also nothing as exhilarating as El-P's verse on "Sea Legs" and there's no tough talk as fearsome as, "Me and Mike will go twin hype and do a dance on your windpipe / Put those jazz hands back in your pants or get them shits sliced" here, though it comes close in both respects.  But this album is more dense, more versatile, and just more impressive.  Run the Jewels is a gift that keeps on giving; let's hope they'll be the top tag team for many summers to come.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Taylor Swift goes "full pop" on 1989

In many interviews leading up to the release of 1989, Taylor Swift made it a point to emphasize that her latest album would be her "first documented, official pop album."  Though award nomination categorizations and radio station airplay may disagree, her self-titled debut is the only album that can truly be considered a country record (and even that might be a stretch).  Since then, each of her albums have come at pop music from a slightly different angle, from the country-pop of Fearless to the pop-rock of Speak Now to the singer-songwriter pop of Red.  Taylor Swift is an inveterate pop musician, there's no doubt about it.  But if she wants to call this her first documented, official pop album, then let's just roll with it.

1989 finds Swift free from shackles, not just from the ties of hyphenated pop, but also from her worries.  It's fitting that she chose "Shake It Off" as the lead single, because it serves as her mission statement for the album.  The song is big and dumb and goofy, featuring a strange grab bag of sounds that aren't usually in her wheelhouse: a horn blast here, a not-entirely-successful hip hop breakdown there, that insistent bassline throughout.  But it's so charming and infectious that it just works, and serves as the height of 1989's "so what?" attitude.  When the song was first released, some people criticized her, saying that she's creating a straw man by writing off genuine critics with a simple "haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate" kiss-off.  The real point of the song, however, is the "I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off" that comes after it.  It's a song about loving yourself no matter what, and that's so important for a young woman to say to herself, and for other young women to hear.  This is a lighter, more carefree Taylor, and it's an empowering look for her.

Another noted change in this album is Swift's more direct confrontation with her own fame.  She did a little bit of that on Red with "The Lucky One," but its structure made it easier to think of it as an abstract collection of short stories about life in the limelight.  "I Know Places," on the other hand, feels much more raw and real, depicting her relationship with a guy through the lens of paparazzi cameras, hunting Swift and her beau like foxes.  1989 also features her taking on her reputation as a serial dater on the album's most daring song, "Blank Space."  It's not hard to imagine her as Amy Dunne from Gone Girl as she says lines like "I could make the bad guys good for a weekend" or "darling I'm a nightmare dressed like a daydream."  Yeah, she's got a long list of ex-lovers, but she's got a blank space and she's not afraid to write your name either.

It has always been fascinating to track Swift's relationship with sex via her music.  On her first three albums, that relationship was almost nonexistent.  The one exception is "Fifteen" on Fearless, but that song is more about sex as a cautionary tale than as a pleasurable activity and it's, most importantly, about a friend and not herself.  An argument can be made that lines on Red like "took me to places I've never been" and "I'll do anything you say, if you say it with your hands" are about sex, but those are still pretty coy and sweet.  Compare that to 1989, where the references to carnal knowings are downright sexy.  On "Style," she sings "takes me home, lights are off, he's taking off his coat" in a way that oozes sensuality.  And though she may not go as far as overt tunnel-and-train metaphors, lines like "his hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room" ("Wildest Dreams") are even more evocative.  It's a bold, refreshing move from someone whose image can be so squeaky clean that it comes off as fake to her biggest detractors.

The album is full of sonic risks too.  1989 is a kaleidoscope of sounds and styles.  "Out of the Woods," with its airy background vocals and snares that dissolve into dust when they hit, sounds like the lovechild of M83 and Chvrches.  The noirish "Style" features a slick guitar line that would be perfectly at home on the soundtrack of Drive.  Both "How You Get the Girl" and "All You Had To Do Was Stay" have the sugary, bubblegum sound hinted at on Red's "22."  And "I Wish You Would" is the song that fully makes good on Swift's promise of an 80s sound for this album, complete with choppy guitars and keyboards that glimmer like starbursts, making it sound like something from a deleted scene of a John Hughes film.

This move to "full pop" dulls the edges of her style a little bit, however.  There's no doubt that this a collection of great pop songs, but it's hard to feel anything when listening to them.  Such a shame, too, given the emotional heights she reached on Red, with songs like "Sad Beautiful Tragic" and "The Last Time."  That's why "Wildest Dreams" is the best song on this one -- it's the lone track that truly stirs my emotions in the same way her previous albums do.  People say it's heavily indebted to Lana Del Rey, and you can see that in the vocal phrasings and the song's ornamentation, but there are so many other things about it that are vintage Taylor Swift.  It's got her terrific attention to detail, a deep sense of yearning at its core, and one of those killer bridges that she seems to be able to concoct in her sleep.

People don't give her enough credit for how good of a lyricist she is either.  Make lazy jokes about how she only writes about boys all you want, but you'd be doing so at the risk of overlooking the pure technique involved in her lyrics.  She's a master of meter, skillfully crafting lines that swirl around beautifully in your mouth when you say them out loud.  (Don't believe me?  Just whisper "careless man's careful daughter" to yourself.  Or the opening passage of "Enchanted."  Or just about any of her lines.)  She's poetic yet precise, able to convey so much in a frightfully small amount of words.  Most of all, she understands the importance of lyrical specificity.  The lyrics are less sharp on 1989, but even still, it's loaded with little gems of detail.  On "Style," it's not just that the boy in question can't keep his eyes on the road.  He can't keep his wild eyes on the road.  It's late at night in her room on "I Wish You Would," but specifically, it's 2 A.M.  The chorus of "Wildest Dreams" takes the time to set the scene of a lover remembering her, "standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset, babe / red lips and rosy cheeks."  She's a painter, a painter of pictures, and there's no stroke that she won't double back on, just to make it pop a little bit more.

But speaking of Swift talking about boys, she adds a new wrinkle to that too this time around.  Usually, her albums come off like they're about a pastiche of exes, but this one feels like it's about a single tumultuous relationship, one that seems stuck in an endless breakup-makeup cycle.  Let's spot the motif: "We were built to fall apart and fall back together" ("Out of the Woods"), the entire conceit of "Style," "But you'll come back each time you leave" ("Blank Space"), "Makes you wanna run and hide, but it made us turn right back around" ("I Wish You Would"), and so on.  Even "All You Had To Do Was Stay" and "How You Get the Girl" form a neat little pair -- the former features her admonishing his newly contrite demeanor after the latest breakup, while the latter could be seen as her coming around and instructing him on how to get her back.  Previous albums would make this seem sweet; here, it feels sad and destructive.

That's why "Clean" is such an important note to close on, because it's all about breaking that cycle.  Swift usually likes to end her albums on an optimistic note, and this one's no different.  It's all about purging your pain, just finally letting it all out instead of trying to manage it, and coming away better, freer.  I used to have this theory about her first four albums which posited that if you listened to them back-to-back, they chronicle her slow disillusionment with the idea of love.  If that's the case, then this fifth album is about her rising up again with more wisdom, realizing that relationships are a big deal, but they're not the end of the world.  So yes, 1989 is the beginning of the second act of Taylor Swift's career, not because it's her "first documented, official pop album," but because it's her finally realizing that breakups only leave a temporary stain, not a permanent scar.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Late to the Party #11: HBO's War Trilogy

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around.

The miniseries is a slowly dying format.  They were first introduced to North American television around 1974 with the CBC's National Dream, and reached prominence with the format's first blockbuster hit in ABC's Roots.  For those first few years, the miniseries was primarily a way to adapt popular novels to the small screen, and they resulted in astronomical ratings success for the networks that aired them.  Through the 1990s, the format remained popular, especially during sweeps period, but around the 2000s they gradually started to wane as the television landscape changed.  Nowadays, you can still find a handful of them every year -- and some, like History Channel's Hatfields & McCoys, still produce high numbers -- but they've mostly been corralled to a very tiny number of networks.

One of those networks that still has the luxury of producing miniseries is HBO, whose latest foray into the form, Olive Kitteridge, premieres in a few days.  And when the words "HBO" and "miniseries" are mentioned in close proximity to one another, Band of Brothers is probably the first that comes to mind.  The Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg-produced series was a big deal at the time -- its budget of about $125 million made it the most expensive miniseries production at the time it was created -- and it was met with a popularity to match that hype.  In fact, its DVD box set is still one of the best selling of all time, having made approximately $250 million worth in sales.

True to its name, Band of Brothers is about brotherhood.  It tells the true story of Easy Company, a crew of paratroopers in World War II, following their journey from training in Curahee to victory in Europe.  Throughout its 10-episode run, we're constantly shown that the safety of the whole matters more than the safety of the individual.  These are men who will do anything to protect the guys they're fighting with, and no matter how dire any situation becomes, it's always slightly leavened by the fact that these people are in it together.  Though the cast is huge, and they initially seem like an amorphous mass of faces, the writers do a great job of giving each of them tiny flashes of characterization that are easy to identify with and latch on to.  (It certainly doesn't hurt that they're played by actors, such as Damien Lewis and Michael Fassbender, who would later go on to greater fame.)  These are high-stakes situations that Band of Brothers depicts, and seeing funny, likable characters thrown into them make them even more gripping.

There's an episodic quality to the series, passing from major military event to major military event with little interludes of downtime tucked between them.  It's in those action sequences where the Band of Brothers' blockbuster budget really starts to show.  There isn't much time wasted in getting to the fireworks factory either.  "Day of Days," the second episode of the series, depicts the events that occurred when Easy Company landed in Normandy, and it's a brutal, propulsive hour that features nonstop action.  All of it is excellently staged and edited too, as a flurry of bullets fly, dirt kicks up everywhere, and soldiers dash through trenches while dodging the carnage.  It hardly lets up from there either -- from the two big setpieces in "Carentan" to the botched operation in "Replacements," the first half of Band of Brothers is characterized by high-adrenaline, action movie running and gunning.

While the second half still contains some breathtaking action, it slows down and starts to really dig into single-character focus episodes.  Though every episode technically has one or two main characters, it's not until sixth episode, "Bastogne," that the format becomes sharper and more experimental.  The Battle of the Bulge is one of the most famous battles of World War II, so the choice to show it from the perspective of Easy Company medic Eugene "Doc" Roe was a risky, but ultimately successful one.  "Bastogne" gives an excellent insight into the difficulty of being a military medic.  Roe may not be a soldier, but he's right there running through the frontlines along with them, putting himself in harm's way to try and keep everyone alive.  But throughout the hour, the losses build (visually displayed by the pile of bodies that gets higher every time Roe returns to a nearby post), and it's clear how futile the effort to save everyone is.  It's an unrelentingly bleak job that gets a spotlight in this unrelentingly bleak episode.

"Bastogne" may be a grim affair, but most of Band of Brothers is rimmed with a golden glow, despite the body count.  That's where Spielberg's influence really shines through, in its depiction of World War II as the Great War we're always told that it is.  You can see it in the reverent introductory segments at the beginning of each episode, which feature interviews with the real life versions of the members of Easy Company who were still alive at the time.  Characters are given brief moments of unlikability, but the series ultimately underlines how heroic they were for fighting in the first place.  The war may have been perilous and terrifying, but it was also just and necessary.

If Band of Brothers was about why we fight, then 2010's The Pacific -- Hanks and Spielberg's spiritual successor to Band of Brothers, depicting the Pacific Theater of World War II -- is about why we shouldn't fight.  Fitting with the real history of the battles in the East, the depiction of war in The Pacific is far more brutal than in Band of Brothers.  At times, it feels more like a horror show than a war drama.  The malicious jungle, the endless rain, the torrents of blood, the piles of mutilated corpses, the small prospect of a victory -- every episode feels like 60 minutes of pure nightmare fuel.  It's so unrelenting and pummeling that it's hard to even believe that these events took place around the same time frame as the those portrayed in Brothers.

Narratively speaking, the series takes a different approach as well.  Where Band of Brothers told a story about a massive ensemble, The Pacific focuses on three main characters: Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and John Basilone (Jon Seda).  The former may contain the more endearing characters, but the latter was able to tap into the psychology of its leads with far greater success.  Over the course of 10 episodes, the series digs into the poetic tortured soul of Leckie, the green timidity of Sledge, and the action hero valor of Basilone.  And they all have wholly satisfying arcs, particularly Sledge, who becomes the closest thing the miniseries has to a true protagonist, as he transforms from a fearful rookie to a hardened Marine who has seen too much.

The rhythm of the story is much wavier than the relatively straightforward Band of Brothers too.  Since Leckie, Sledge, and Basilone were all in different regiments in the 1st Marine Division, even entering the war at different times, they're rarely ever in the same location.  Episodes ebb and flow, shifting the proportion of time each character gets, or sometimes devoting an entire hour to just one character and his regiment.  While it may take time to get accustomed to The Pacific's bobbing cadence, it builds nicely, concluding with one of the most powerful episodes of television I've even seen.  It's a post-war denouement, showing how the weight of the previous nine episodes has affected these characters, and it's quietly moving in a way that television rarely is.

Different in intensity and trajectory though they may be, The Pacific still feels like it's of a piece with Band of Brothers.  It's got the same high production values (another record breaking budget of $250 million), the same talking head segments that lead in to each episode, the same sense of Spielbergian prestige.  The Pacific is like Band of Brothers' darker, more soulful brother.

On the other hand, 2008's Generation Kill feels like an entirely different entity than Brothers and The Pacific, partially because it's not a production from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.  This miniseries comes from David Simon, hot off the end of his towering masterpiece The Wire, and he brings his journalistic sense of hyper-realism to the story of the U.S. Marine Corps' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the first phase of the Iraq War.  He even uses a Rolling Stone writer, Evan Wright (whose real-life counterpart wrote the book on which the miniseries is based), as his POV character.

Simon bring his worldview along as well.  If The Pacific questioned whether what the Marines were doing was worth it, Generation Kill is an interrogation looking to know if what these Marines had to do was even right.  Unlike World War II, the war in Iraq wasn't a just war, and David Simon uses that to his advantage, burying the series in the moral grayness he's so comfortable with exploring.  The enemy isn't just men in uniforms -- now there's the prospect of civilians pointing guns at the Marines as well.  Danger is at a higher level, which only widens the capacity for these men to do amoral or foolish things to score a "win."

With Generation Kill, David Simon took his pet themes about institutions and power structures and translated them to the Iraq War.  This is a world where there's a huge disparity between the people who make decisions and those who are ultimately effected by those decisions.  Leaders only care about numbers that will make them "look good," subordinates care about lives and making the smart move.  "Can you believe that retard is in charge of people?," one character says about his higher-up after a poor decision, and it's a major question that implicitly pops up throughout the miniseries.  Most of the people in a position of power in the 1st Battalion are hypocritical, clueless, and blind to the point where it seems impossible that they got anywhere in life.  But really, that could be extrapolated to be about the American government at-large at the time.  Simon's hatred of the Bush Administration is palpable in Generation Kill.  As a writer, he has a habit of becoming a little didactic, but here he smartly puts his opinions in the mouth of Ray (brilliantly played by James Ransone), the doofus to whom nobody lends much of an ear.  It's an effective, entertaining way for Simon to get his point across without being preachy.

Instead of the brave, affable heroes we meet in Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Generation Kill presents many of the Marines as a bunch of meathead jocks.  They joke about shooting dogs for no reason, spout racist invective, and have very few qualms about the idea of killing innocent Iraqi citizens.  In another context, these would not be good people.  With a big gun and an American flag stitched on their uniforms, they're the protectors of our nation.

But the series is also notable for the subtle things it has to say about warfare.  Where The Pacific throws the war in Europe in stark relief by showing the nightmare of the Pacific Theater, Generation Kill draws constant comparisons between the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some of the characters even served in Afghanistan, and their time there never comes up without there also being a mention of how much smoother things ran there.  By comparison, the Iraq War is an absolute trainwreck.   When viewed in close proximity to the twin Hanks and Spielberg WWII series, it's easy to see how much war has changed over the decades.  The technology has advanced and the weapons have become so powerful that it's easy to kill an enemy without even knowing what they look like.  (It's ironic, then, that there aren't any deaths of any main or secondary characters in Generation Kill.  Lots of Iraqis sure do die though.)

With these three miniseries, HBO was able to make their own approximation of blockbuster action films, complete with expansive casts and expensive action sequences.  We've seen all of the themes they explore before, but Band of Brothers ("war is fought by heroes!"), The Pacific ("war is hell..."), and Generation Kill ("why are we even here?") had the liberty of being seven to 10 episodes, allowing them to stretch out and dig in to those themes.  You just can't get that on the big screen.