Posts in: June 2008

More Lost Than Ever

Lost (ABC)—Lost managed quite an amazing feat by leaving me, after their two-hour season finale, with no speculation on what’s to come. I let this season wash over me, without geeking out as much as usual, allowing the answers to satisfy me rather than asking endless, rabid questions…

The writers have done a fantastic job in this season of giving us answers—and not always the kind of answers that raise more questions. Sure, there was a lot of mindbending nonsense, especially in the finale (the mysterious rewinding tape—nice trick, guys), but when they said they’d give us answers, they meant it, and the answers have been pretty satisfying so far.

I’m left with three major questions, only one of which has to do with anything that happened this season:

  1. What’s the deal with “Adam and Eve,” the 60-year-old skeletons found in the “rape caves,” who had the pouch of black and white stones? This question goes all the way back to the first season, but with the introduction of a confirmed time-travel element, maybe they’ll give us a twisted, Twilight Zone kind of answer.
  2. Libby and Hurley? Do I even need to phrase that as a real question? This season, we got one tiny appearance from Cynthia Watros, as a ghost-vision in Michael’s big flashback episode, and I’m sure she’ll be back. The writers are on record saying they will see that story to completion—but come on, she’s been dead for two seasons! Hurry up!
  3. Why does Jacob appear to manifest as Christian Shephard? I grudgingly admit I was way off when I theorized that the healing island brought him back to life—regular, flesh-and-blood humans can’t magically appear inside freighters to give semi-cryptic messages to barely-redeemed characters. So why choose Shephard? Is that an indication that the real island king is Jack, not Locke? I don’t really care so long as it means more screen time for Claire and more appearances from John Terry, but it’s definitely an odd choice from both the writers and “Jacob.”

I have to give the writers credit for keeping the story moving without losing artistic integrity. They did this all season, but it was more evident in the finale, as they shuffled a million subplots, flash-forwards, and clues/answers. The plodding pace had been a consistent complaint since the start, and I know I’ve said it before, but it really feels like the “constraint” of setting the end date has liberated the writers. They can quicken the pace without losing essential elements of the story, but they no longer burden episodes with unnecessary and/or aimless subplots and flashbacks, because they know exactly how much story needs to be told and how long they have to tell it.

They’ve also ramped up the action, which I guess is a consistent complaint, but it’s kind of a stupid one. Nobody wants to be bored, but do people who have watched Lost from the beginning really feel like epic jungle shootouts and freighter explosions are what the show’s about? Don’t get me wrong—I love an explosion as much as the next guy, and the shootout with Keamy and his men kicked ass, and the writers integrated this aspect into the show better than I could have expected. Just seems like an odd complaint.

Speaking of Keamy, why do I get the feeling we’re never going to get resolution on his character? He had a downright Shakespearean death (in the sense that he took forever to die, monologuing the whole time), but I’ve held the belief that he has some kind of personal issues with Ben and/or the island. If he did, he neglected to mention them before dying. Just think about it: you have to either be a sociopath or a man with a wicked vengeance streak to load a freighter full of explosives because you think it’ll save your own ass, or to slit doctors’ throats for no reason, etc., etc.

Glad to see most of the freighter folk will be back, though. I know Lost is known for taking “risks” by killing off major characters, but I sure hope Faraday will return next season (same thing with Jin; I would have liked to see more of Michael, but it seemed pretty clear that he’s a goner). He was instantly the most compelling of the boat people, and although they’ve made some interesting decisions with the others—Miles staying around for an unclear reason that may have to do with the island ghosts, Charlotte staying because maybe she was born on the island?!—it’d be sad to lose both him and the “Desmond will be my constant” storyline.

Oh, and I assume we won’t lose Desmond, either. He’s another great character whose story feels far from over, yet he had his wonderful, tearful reunion with Penelope Widmore, and Ben didn’t make any mention that Desmond had to go back. From the sounds of it and the people he gathered, it seemed like only the Oceanic Six had to go back. The only speculation I’ll make—and it’s more blind hope than speculation—is that they’ll end up needing Desmond, too.

As far as confirmed non-casualties, I’m glad Claire’s still alive and kicking, even if she’s taken to hanging in Jacob’s cabin with her fake dad. Now that Jack knows the truth, too, they’ll have an interesting reunion if/when the Six get back to the island. I had unintentionally read a spoiler that assumed Claire would die in the finale (for real-world contract-related reasons, I guess), but the past few episodes have set the stage for Claire to take center stage in a big way. This is great news in general, but in particular because Emilie de Ravin is awesome and has needed a bigger role on this show since day one. (I know she had big moments in the first two seasons, but most of them had to do with her getting kidnapped, which meant she wasn’t on screen; when she was around, everything seemed to be more about Charlie than her.) Even weirder, I’m not sure if this was just a coincidence or if it was intentional, but I watched the finale twice, and in Kate’s dream, Claire sounded like she was sporting an American accent. No clue why that might be—I assume this is an island-related psychic dream and not just a normal weird dream, where one might say it’s a weird subconscious thing because Aaron, the Australian lad, will be raised as an American.

On a pure character note, I love Jack’s transformation from a self-described “man of science” (or was it Locke who described him as that?) into a “man of faith.” We learned a few weeks ago that Locke was once a “man of science” himself (as a teenager); the shift in Jack feels natural, considering the weirdness and trauma the island has caused, but perhaps the finale’s biggest surprise was when he begins to argue that if they have faith, they’ll get off the island safely. (This, of course, leads to the irony that the faith in getting off the island is misplaced, since it royally fucks him up and he has to assemble the Six to return.)

One more tiny bit of speculation: I do think Ben is manipulating Jack and the rest of the Six into going back to the island. What I won’t speculate on is why; I have no idea, other than the obvious “he wants his leadership position back” explanation.

Lastly, I wouldn’t be doing my analytical duty if I ignored The Man in the Coffin. Frankly, I’m a little bitter about the solution to this season-long puzzle. Last year, Internet nerds came up with a reasonably airtight explanation for Michael as the corpse. I liked it—Kate’s clear dislike led me to believe, perhaps, that he’d done something even worse upon returning to the island, which would make Michael an even more fascinating character. This entire theory was based on an extreme, high-definition close-up of the incomplete, misspelled obituary. (The exact “name” was “Jo… …antham,” very different from “Jeremy Bentham.” The theory floated was that Michael swiped the name of an influential African architect bearing a name that would fit the missing letters; I can’t recall the actual name, and Google searches for my best guesses come up short.)

So, okay, it’s Locke. This leads to my only nitpick of an otherwise excellent finale. Maybe the mysterious circumstances of Locke’s death and the “bad things” that are Jack’s fault will make for interesting television next season, but here’s the problem: you have a guy they knew for 120-odd days as “John Locke,” a man who undoubtedly made a lasting impression on all of them as John Locke, yet he comes to them once, out of the blue, calling himself Jeremy Bentham, and suddenly they accept that as his name? Even the clever-but-still-annoying “don’t say his name, dude” between Hurley and Walt didn’t make up for the fact that, as people, they’d be running around calling him Locke. It’s just human nature. Maybe if he’d hung around them off-island for five years insisting everyone call him Jeremy Bentham—maybe.

So what does it mean that he left the island, spread some blame around, and dropped dead? We’ll have to wait until “early 2009.” See you then!

Robin Hood (BBC America)—Oh, I see what’s going on now. Because they spent all of last season having members of Robin’s band of not-so-merry-men get nabbed by the Sheriff, leading to daring sieges upon the castle, the writers realized the well has dried and are now allowing random, never-before-seen associates of Robin get nabbed, leading to daring sieges upon the castle.

The show’s sticking to a pretty basic format, and I don’t have much of a problem with it as long as they keep it interesting and as varied as they can within their constraints. The crazy, old-timey biological warfare from two weeks ago did a nice job. This week, Robin realized he has a traitor in his midst, and that basically redeemed the episode for a not-so-great A story (the one-time addition of Whose Line Is It Anyway? regular Josie Lawrence as Robin’s medicine-woman friend helped to redeem that A story, as well, but she didn’t do it alone).

We finally got some good scenes of Robin’s band without Robin being around and without them existing solely in the service of Robin. As he leaves them behind and they attempt to root out the spy themselves, leading a bunch of “J’accuse!” moments and increasing paranoia from Much, we got to learn more about each of them than we ever have before. Well done. The merry men tend to suffer from a “Poochie the Rockin’ Dog” syndrome, in that they exist solely to please Robin; when Robin’s not there, they ask, “Where’s Robin?” Then they stage a daring siege on the castle.

Speaking of poor character development, most episodes this season have allowed Gisborne to spread his wings a bit, no longer the easily duped romantic foil; this week, the writers forced him to backslide into his old habits. As it stands, we get the impression there are only three actual people living in Nottingham Castle—Marian, the Sheriff, and Gisborne. Maybe they could put some faces and names to the endless, Storm Trooper-like rabble of anonymous guards. Flesh out the castle populous and maybe give Marian some new allies. I guess it’s a moot point since the entire second series has already aired in the U.K., but I’m sure there’ll be a third.

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How to Make Grand Theft Auto IV Not Suck

I have talked almost nonstop about my distaste for Grand Theft Auto IV. You can watch the marked progression from “good but problematic” to “ass factory.” So with a couple weeks’ distance between finishing the game, I’m just going to come right out and say it: it’s an awful, awful game.

If you ignore the rampant bugs, the hilariously inept implementation of a cover system, and the legendary pop-in glitches and poor frame rate (all of which—including, if you want to get technical, the poor implementation of new features—are hallmarks of Rockstar game design), it’s impressive from a technical standpoint. But not that impressive—not so impressive that I can ignore the myriad flaws in gameplay, story, and just…well, I always hear about how this amazing Euphoria technology. You know, the thing that takes cold and sterile Lieutenant Commander Data and fills him with vibrance and emotion unlike anything seen in a machine.

Euphoria is supposed to randomize things like reactions from passersby, even reactions from Niko and other characters. Which is fine, except for how unamazing it is. You’re in a game where the prime reaction to Niko running—something he has to do at all times because walking is totally fucking useless—is a horrified gasp, arms raised in the air, an O of shock on the pedestrian’s face. Niko doesn’t have a gun out, isn’t charging into people, isn’t starting fights—he’s just running. You might find it hard to believe, but I have run around in large cities. Like, Niko-style running. This is not “put on the jogging shorts and the silly headband and go jogging.” This is “I have a 10-minute break and need a fucking cup of coffee, stat!“-style running—just a normal guy in street clothes, running a couple of blocks to a coffee shop, then running back.

Here’s approximately what happens: maybe one or two people will give you a second glance, but otherwise nobody gives a shit. Nobody’s shocked or horrified. Nobody’s diving to the ground for fear that you’ll hit them. Nobody’s shouting a limited range of prescripted responses. I swear to God, if I hear somebody yell what sounds like “cheesy vagina!” one more time…well, fuck, it’s a moot point since I’m done with story mode and have listed it to sell on Amazon. I’m done with this piece of shit.

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The CT Scan

So because my recent endoscopy/colonoscopy didn’t turn up much, my doctor recommended getting a CT scan of my abdomen and pelvis. I know this doesn’t sound like much fun, but believe me when I say, “Well, it wasn’t as bad as liquid-shitting.”

The plus side is that the hospital makes you pick up this barium goop to drink before the test, which allowed me to get the rough location of where I needed to be. See, the genius who decided our local hospital apparently felt like it’d be a really good, non-confusing idea to make it a giant circle. It strikes me as kind of odd, since most of the people frequent this particular hospital seem to be in their mid- to late-hundreds, that they’d go with a layout that can confuse a person who has reasonable mental faculties (sort of).

So I got the barium stuff, which is labeled “Berry Smoothie.” I dunno, I guess that’s a good name, but if you’re going to give somebody this chalky crud with a slight tinge of berry flavor, isn’t “Berry-Yum” the obvious choice?

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Free Work’s for Suckers

For nearly two years now, I’ve been “working” for a semi-legitimate film-criticism website that has, so far, earned me a broken computer that I can’t fix (which was supposed to be a bribe that I could either use myself or sell on eBay—hard to do either when I can’t make it work). In my defense, I don’t do that much work for it, and when I do it’s pretty much self-satisfying. In the beginning, the guy who runs it would send me the shit cluttering his desk, which nobody else wanted, and I’d happily review it. I haven’t done that in a year; he still sends me the clutter, but I don’t review it.

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Battle of the Sexist

As a longtime purveyor of filthy music, I guess it didn’t seem all that offensive when I came up with my latest idea, part of a personal project I’ve been working on for too long. The genesis is pretty simple: a few nights ago, I ran into an ex-girlfriend, who had ballooned up in weight to a staggering degree. Now, I’m not one to talk, but I couldn’t help inflating with as much glee as she had donuts. Part of it was schadenfreude—it made me happy to see that she no longer possessed the physical attributes she once held so dear. But I won’t deny that most of it was pure egotism: I wanted to believe that I was the cause, that her dumping me had as much of an impact on her as it did on me, that it so devastated her that she started binge-eating, which is actually what I do when I’m depressed.

I’m certain this isn’t the case, although I can’t exactly figure out a better cause. When we dated, she was always body-conscious and fitness-obsessed, and I was usually the frightening, doughy albatross who made it seem like she was “dating down”). At any rate, I started to think about this as the subject for a song.

It’s kind of rare that I think of songs in serious, vaguely literal terms. I know song lyrics are poetry (really shitty poetry, in my case), and poetry is mainly about imagery and symbolism, but I almost never write what you’d call a “personal” song in a literal sense. They’re always under the guise of a third-person character (or a first-person character who is not me), so while deep down they’re rooted in something very personal, they don’t appear to be. This is also how I approach straight fiction and screenwriting—I’m a big believer in “write what you know,” but it’s also not terribly hard to merge what you know with shit you’re just making up. I know what it’s like to feel trapped and isolated; I don’t know what it’s like to have every person I’ve ever known killed, or what it’s like to be on the run from the government, but I can imagine.

So before I even got the chance to gussy this up with metaphor or obscenity-laced sexual-inadequacy diatribes, a chorus popped into my head while I was trying to fall asleep last night—fully formed and annoyingly catchy. So catchy I thought I ripped it off from another song, but I’ve spent days thinking about it and can’t come up with one. (Ironically, when I fleshed it out with a verse, I discovered that section was completely ripping off “The Ascent of Stan” by Ben Folds.) I leaped to my guitar plunked out the melody, figured out the chords and the various fills and harmonies I kept hearing, wrote it all down, and went to bed.

Once I got the chorus, I started thinking about the real meat of the songs—the true thrust of my emotions. It’s mean-spirited and bitter, obviously, but at the heart of it, the idea of the song is first about how people handle breakups in different ways. It’s also about misplaced hostility, the aforementioned egotism and schadenfreude, really portraying the first-person narrator (i.e., me) as much, much worse than the ex, whose only crime (other than breaking up with “him”) is plumping up—to the extreme!

So when I talked to Lucy and she asked what I was up to, I mentioned the song and the whole idea behind it, and she said, “That’s sexist.”

Which is 100% true. Not that it’d ever get airplay because (a) I’m nobody and (b) the chorus contains liberal use of the word “fuck,” but if it did, I’d imagine a significant chunk of the female demographic would tune out as soon as they realize the chorus also contains liberal allusions to such large, balloon-like objects as the Goodyear blimp and the Hindenburg. Beyond the general sexism, it reenforces body-image dilemmas among chicks, as they like to be called. I don’t like doing that. I wouldn’t want some chick who looks into my sunken, crooked eyes and falls in love to listen to my shitty song and say, “Huh, time to develop bulimia. Where are the empty mason jars?” Which, again, is more egotism on my part. On so many hilarious levels.

So what do I do? I could say, “Fuck political correctness,” because I know I’m doing my damnedest to portray the narrator as the bad guy. I could say, “The underlying point of the song is the sexism, and the fact that this person feels—because of their own personal quirks—that her getting fat, when fatness (or at least extreme sloth) may have contributed to her pulling the plug on the relationship, is a minor victory in his eyes.” It’s not about right or wrong; it’s about the emotion of the moment, and the reflection on the moment and realizing that, even though he knows he’s a total dick, he still feels awesome that she’s a gargantuan lardass.

And then it makes me wonder crazy shit, like, “What if Springsteen’s ‘Used Cars’ was originally about running into a fat ex-girlfriend, but he rewrote and rewrote and rewrote until it became a bittersweet, semi-nostalgic snapshot of working-class life, with the fat ex turning into a used car but both of them representing something once desired and currently rejected?” Which leads me to the obvious conclusion:

I’m overthinking it. I should just write. Let the amateur-night crowd at that hippie coffee shop separate the wheat from the chaff.

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And Then There Was One…

So Lost is done, and so is everything else. I planned this column as a 52-week bonanza of televisual analysis and excitement, but the writers’ strike has finally put a crimp in my master plan. A few summer shows have started, but nothing I intend to watch. Swingtown, a show touting itself as The Ice Storm: The Series (But Sexier)? It piqued my interest for about five minutes when I learned it takes place in suburban Chicago, where I too learned how to swing, but then I dug deeper and discovered this is a shelved cast-off that not even the writers’ strike could get on the air before summer burn-off season.

It exists to air when nobody’s watching, never to be renewed. Does that mean it’s a bad show? Not at all. In fact, considering CBS is the one burning it off, it’s probably a terrific show, well worth watching, challenging and intelligent and the polar opposite of all other CBS programming. But I got similarly burned with last summer’s Traveler (ABC), the best serialized thriller to hit television in a decade (sorry, 24; if you were more consistent, you’d still have my heart).

So what is on the agenda for this summer? I might check out Cleaner, the new Benjamin Bratt vehicle that A&E is calling their first original series. I’m pretty sure they’re forgetting their forgettable series 100 Centre Street, but either way, “might” is the key word of the previous sentence. CBS’s Flashpoint immediately hit my “must-watch” list. What’s that, you say? I’m agreeing to watch a CBS summer burn-off one paragraph after saying I wouldn’t be burned again (and I just now noticed the pun there and apologize)? Flashpoint is different: in an astounding move prompted by the writers’ strike, real networks are testing the water by picking up Canadian programs and airing them; that’s right, even if CBS doesn’t want to keep it around, there’s a good chance that CTV will continue producing it…that is, if all 67 of Canada’s ardent television fans watch it.

I’ll also be covering the returns of old favorites: Mad Men, Burn Notice, Monk, Psych, The Dead Zone… Oh wait, scratch that last one. USA Network, under a sinister shroud of darkness, unceremoniously canceled both The Dead Zone and The 4400 sometime last fall. It’s hard to argue with the decision after The Dead Zone‘s marked decline in quality over the past few years, but it had finally started to get good again, it ended on a cliffhanger and…whoops!

Speaking of which, a couple of summer favorites are hovering between life and death in the netherworld known as IFC’s atrocious website. The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman and The Business may or may not come back this summer. The closest thing I could find to news is a random post on IMDb’s always reliable* forums, suggesting the former was a “casualty” of the strike. I don’t know; maybe both shows were delayed because of the strike, but nothing about cancellations or casualties have appeared anywhere else.

I can’t say it’d kill me if The Business was canceled; it’s funny enough, but frequently reaches heights of crassness that get a little tiresome. Also, it faltered a bit in a second season that consisted of little more than genre spoofs inspired by the producers hearing pitches from various writers. Still kinda funny, but very uneven. The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman, on the other hand, got even better in its second season (and it was pretty damn good in its first).

Lastly, a couple of cable’s most popular shows, TNT’s The Closer and Saving Grace, return this summer, and I…won’t be watching. I gave a vague, ill-informed assessment of both shows last winter, and I stick by my lack of interest.

At any rate, there will be more thrilling “Idiot Boxing” coverage. It just won’t happen until mid-July, when the shows I like return.

Robin Hood (BBC America)—Allan, the ousted merry man, might just be more interesting on the outs with the gang than he ever was within them. I suppose it makes sense; he’s probably the least familiar of the “merry men” characters, and even at that, they rob him of his defining characteristic (he’s a minstrel, a skill that would have come in handy in this episode). He has neither Little John’s brute strength nor Will Scarlet’s youth; he doesn’t have Much’s neuroses or Djaq’s foreignness. He’s just kinda there, so this is an improvement. I don’t know if it’ll happen or not, but I’d like to see him start informing on the Sheriff now that he’s Gisborne’s #1 crony (apparently).

In the meantime, the A story finds Robin foolishly accepting the word of an old man, a supposed friend of Marian’s father, who turns around and betrays them. On the plus side, it shows that when pushed, Robin will have the balls to take everyone down—in theory, anyway, he killed all the Black Knights. If they hadn’t already known of his ruse, he would have accomplished the task. It was a nice emotional journey, marred only by the treacly subplot involving Marian. I know, I know, but I’m just not into their romance. I can’t help it.

One of the better elements of the episode showed Will’s ingenuity and craftsman competence, as he built a bundle of weapons disguised as musical instruments and got the merry men hired as the musical entertainment in the castle. The clever ploy didn’t amount to as much as it should have, but one hopes we’ll either see this particular ruse reused or get a little more of Will acting as Q to Robin’s James Bond.

* Sarcasm

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So I got a professionally printed brochure from my alma mater…

…begging me to donate money.

Hey, here’s an idea! Maybe, when begging for money, you could try showing that you aren’t wasting money on full-color brochures by just sending me a sheet of standard white paper with a form letter? I still won’t donate money, but at least I’d feel a little guilty.

(And let’s not even get into the fact that I’m unemployed—I don’t blame the college for that, but their “job-placement program” isn’t exactly coming through with any hot leads.)

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“You’re Better Than This…”

I have this friend, whom we’ll call Amelia. We go back a few years; in fact, believe it or not, she’s the infamous “coworker” mentioned here, but we remain friends in spite of that. But, you know, you can sort of glean from her behavior in that post that she’s both blunt and considered more with commercial aspects of a movie than anything else. Admittedly, she has pretty good tastes in movies, and she’s sort of like me in that she wants better movies, but she’ll work within the system she’s stuck with until she has the power to make better movies.

That said, I sent her a copy of Dying Proof a few weeks ago. She expressed some interest in reading it after I told her I had a producer interested, although “I had a producer willing to read it to make me go away” is probably more accurate.

She finally read it, and her analysis was spot-on in some areas, foolish in others, but hostile overall. One statement in particular jabbed me like a warm butter knife (which are more painful because they are not meant for stabby-stabby): “Stan, I’ve read your stuff, and you’re better than this.”


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Write What You Have

Now, look, I know I’m pretty hard on Stupid Blogger, because, well…I think it’s pretty clear. Maybe I’ve only devoted one officially sanctioned Stan Has Issues™ post to her, but I still read her blog daily and mock her to pretty much anyone who will listen. I won’t start some kind of blog jihad because that’d make me look publicly crazy. I’m really only prepared to look crazy in private, where my friends can assemble behind my book and discuss how worried they are about me and my obsession with people I find intellectually inferior.

But she wrote something recently that, while comically moronic, gives me a good subject to broach from a screenwriting standpoint.

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Miniseries Mania!

This week, on top of Robin Hood, I checked out a couple of epic summer-miniseries events. I’m a big fan of so-called “event television” and, over the past decade or so, have grown more and more disappointed by the dying media of the miniseries and movie-of-the-week. In the ever-changing television landscape, I can understand the reasoning behind not putting a massive (for network TV) budget and time commitment behind something so questionable—with 500 channels to choose from, would anyone choose you?

Instead, we get smaller-scale “events,” more often from cable channels than any of the networks. TNT, AMC and even Spike TV have had some level of success debuting miniseries and “limited series” (like Spike’s The Kill Point and TNT’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes). A&E has decided they want a piece of the pie, while Lifetime has decided to reclaim their rightful status as the master (or mistress) of gut-wrenching, ultra-depressing tearjerkers.

The Andromeda Strain (A&E)—Like everything written on Idiot Boxing, I’m going into this assuming everyone’s seen it. This is an analysis, not a straight-up review, so if you’re looking for spoiler-free reviews, click these.

I read this book many years ago, but I don’t think I ever saw the original film version. I can’t stack this miniseries against either, which probably works in its favor. At the very least, I’ll say that everything I remember from the book is covered within the first 10 minutes; after that, it’s a free-for-all of pseudo-science and ridiculousness. It’s entertaining ridiculousness, more akin to something light and fun like the National Treasure movies than something ultra-pretentious, deadly serious, but ultimately ridiculous (like The Da Vinci Code).

A&E has assembled a terrific cast that includes Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order), Andre Braugher (legendary for his portrayal of Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street; he also starred in the underrated FX limited-series Thief), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), Viola Davis (last summer’s underrated Traveler), Eric McCormack (Will & Grace), Christa Miller (The Drew Carey Show) and Rick Schroeder (most recently seen on 24, but I’ll always remember Little Ricky from Silver Spoons). With the exception of McCormack, each actor lends a bit of gravitas and reality to the over-the-top goofiness of the plot. Again, with the exception of McCormack, the characters have assembled in a secret military lab/bunker to cure a crazy, lethal virus.

Here’s what they’re up against: a space virus, brought to Earth in a crashed satellite, that is deadly, airborne and highly adaptable. For instance, the virus has no effect on birds, until it “realizes” they can travel farther faster and spread the disease like wildfire. That’s right: the virus is sentient and able to communicate with its own rapidly spreading cells via (if I understood the details correctly) some kind of crazy mirror-crystal-vibration thing. Does that make too much sense? How about this: the virus traveled through time in a satellite, along with some goop that’s encoded with a message from the future that, when all is said and done, tells them how to cure it.

How, exactly, does the virus work? Doesn’t matter. The details are sparse and unconvincing, but it kills instantly or, in more absurd cases, causes its victims to kill everyone in the immediate vicinity.

In a movie like this, the virus turns into a MacGuffin, and the real benefit is in watching the characters interact, savoring the obstacles that prevent them from stopping the spread of the virus. This miniseries isn’t exactly rich with character nuance, but it does include a nice subplot that finds Davis forced to steal the virus when a shady government agent has her family kidnapped. Even that qualifies more as an obstacle, of which The Andromeda Strain has no shortage, than character development, but it’s well-acted by all involved.

The biggest problem is the inclusion of McCormack’s subplot. Ironically, he gets the meatiest character, and it’s not that he plays the role badly—it’s just that his whole subplot feels pointless. I’m not sure what the writers intended—was this supposed to be the “Everyman” experience? If so, why choose a drug-addicted tabloid-TV “journalist” as your Everyman? Aside from leaking classified information at the start, his character has very little to do with anything else that’s going on. At the end, I guess we’re supposed to think he’s learned the errors of his maverick ways, but that change doesn’t come across at all.

The changes—none of them massive—in the other characters come across a little better. It feels like half the team of scientists end up sacrificing themselves in their attempts to stop the virus. You’d think, at some point, having the doctor nobly die like Spock at the end of Wrath of Khan would feel like a cheap, manipulative device. It’s a testament to the acting quality that it never comes across this way.

The ending contains a sort of mind-blowing, Rod Serling-style twist: that sample Davis stole? It gets out, so the movie ends with an astronaut storing the sample—with a numerical marker that the team earlier received, in code, in the black goop sent back through time. They never find out what it means, but we do. It gets all circular: if they hadn’t sent the virus back in time for present-day scientists to find a cure, the virus wouldn’t be plaguing humanity in the first place. It’s like Escape from the Planet of the Apes, only instead of an ape baby, it’s a virus, and instead of an ape uprising (as dramatized in Battle for the Planet of the Apes), it’s a humanity-destroying plague.

Still, it’s fun, light entertainment. Don’t go into it expecting anything as grim as the novel, and you’ll have a good time. Even the twist ending has a “gotcha!” feel that makes it feel all fluffy and inconsequential, not as dark and cynical as it sounds. It looks like A&E blew a boatload on it, so I’m sure they’ll be rerunning it all summer.

The Capture of the Green River Killer (Lifetime)—I can’t say what I expected from this. I had no real interest in the story of the Green River Killer, and I had my suspicions (which proved correct, albeit snobby) that this would involve some kind of weepy teen-angst melodrama. I watched for two reasons: Tom Cavanagh and James Marsters. I guess I just hoped it wouldn’t completely suck. The good news: it didn’t. The big surprise: I was unexpectedly blown away by Amy Davidson, former star of 8 Simple Rules… I hope it doesn’t sound mean to say that I didn’t see that coming.

I’ll plead ignorance to knowing anything about the Green River Killer other than the vague, press-manufactured name. I knew nothing of his M.O., the length of time it took to catch him, the number of women he killed—nothing. In that sense, Capture did a nice job of building an effective mystery out of a story that, theoretically, most people already know. I watched the miniseries with somebody who knew much more about the case than I did, yet it has moments that make a person with familiarity with the case question whether or not they’re remembering correctly.

So it’s effective as a mystery. It’s also effective as a Lifetime-style movie. The network has often been mocked for melodramatic, women-as-victims movies. I can’t confess to ever having seen a Lifetime movie before, but this one did a very nice job of showing us a composite character, Helen (Davidson), whose shoddy upbringing and propensity for trouble-making lead her down the path to the Green River Killer’s arms. The first part of the miniseries focuses primarily on Helen’s story; it cuts back and forth between Dave Reichert’s (Cavanagh) efforts to solve the case, but by the end of the first part, Helen is dead.

We learn everything we need to in that time: raised by a poor single mother (Sharon Lawrence) and raped by one of her mother’s endless string of boyfriends (which prompts little more than jealousy from the mother), Helen eventually runs away from home. She meets a cokehead (ironically, he “rescues” her from what she feared was a run-in with the Green River Killer) who convinces her to start sleeping with dealers to score cocaine; after awhile, this leads to full-time hooking, which ultimately leads to her death. Counterpointing this is Helen’s friend, Wendy (Jenna Ullenboom), who starts on a similarly troubled path but ends up happily married (and, sadly, the only person who cares about Helen after her death).

Helen is a fictitious composite created by the writers. I don’t know how that makes me feel. It feels inauthentic because she isn’t based on a real, individual victim; on the other hand, the inevitable compromises the writers would have to make to appease both the known facts and the living family members (for instance, the negative portrayal of the mother) would cheapen the story. Davidson gives a terrific performance—the least convincing aspect is believing she’s supposed to be in the 16-20 range when she’s clearly 10 years older.

Meanwhile, Cavanagh gives a revelatory performance as Dave Reichert. I’ve loved Cavanagh since Ed, but I’ll be frank: I’ve really only seen him play the “Ed” character. On Scrubs and the short-lived Love Monkey, he played similar charming, affable motor-mouths. These shows had their share of dramatic moments, but seeing him stay in a distinctive character so dissimilar from what I’ve seen before shows me that he should be a much bigger star than he has become. He does a great job as he grapples with faith, his own competence, and his family; he even does a great job “aging” over the 20-year hunt for justice—not just with makeup and hairstyles but in movement and speech. The scene where he finally confronts Ridgway, unleashing a torrent of pent-up emotion, is harrowing—really great work.

The idea of Helen reappearing as a “ghost” is sometimes hokey—like when she talks to the camera in a The Real World: Purgatory-style confessional—but it quickly becomes effective when she starts appearing to Reichert. It’s a great tool to show Reichert’s internal struggle, the impact that these victims had on him and the toll the investigation takes—I think I can attribute the effectiveness more to the actors than the writing (because even describing now, it sounds goofy).

Finally, there’s James Marsters as Ted Bundy. Well, sort of. I loved him on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and tolerated him on Angel) and was practically salivating to see what he’d do with such a complex character. The answer is hard to gauge considering he appeared in one scene (and later, in a very brief flashback). It’s little more than a cameo—in fact, I don’t even think he’s listed in the “main cast” credits at the beginning. So any Marsters fans looking for a fix in the Smallville off-season, you’ll have better luck with your Buffy DVDs. He does a fine job, but it’s a letdown to hear the miniseries described as “A detective (Tom Cavanagh) seeks help from Ted Bundy (James Marsters) in tracking a serial killer.” That sounds like it’s the entire plot of the movie. I know you can’t trust often-misleading synopses, but that’s extreme.

Nonetheless, it’s a fine miniseries. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but purely on a movie level, it works.

Robin Hood (BBC America)—I know this aired months ago, but I’m always happy when writers anticipate my complaints. Just after complaining that Robin Hood needs to add a larger, more nuanced population to Nottingham Castle, they introduce a random, lovesick knight looking to pay his lover’s debt to the Sheriff. When it turns out the Sheriff has already sold her into marriage, he joins up with Robin (who’s looking for the Great Pact). Unfortunately, all turns out well, which means this knight will likely never be seen again, in or out of the castle.

On the plus side, they continue to layer depth onto Allan. He’s willing to help the Sheriff plug his castle-related leaks to save his own hide, but he’d never sell out Marian—an interesting, tricky-gray-area moral code. The downside? Marian’s father, Edward, escapes (also to steal the Pact) and is killed. So, you know, no need to hold back from selling her out. She’s escaped to the forest with Robin.

I feel like the death of Edward should have been a bigger deal. Though it came toward the end of the episode, it felt like they rushed past it and on to the happy “the knight marries his bride” ending. I assume they’ll delve into the grief more later, but it didn’t really fit together as well as it could have.

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