Television


I finally got around to Netflix bingeing on the first season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — which I had been less than interested in seeing when it premiered 1) because i don’t have cable and making time for a show isn’t my speed, anymore, and 2) I thought the premise a bit lackluster, and 3) I wasn’t hearing great things from the fanbase. So, what did I see?

The allegedly weak first half of the season wasn’t. I’m a big fan of spy-fi, and this was a generally good example of the genre for TV. I think the fans were expected the superhero/supervillain of the week sort of thing, so this would be an understandable let down. The supposed better back half wasn’t that much better, but finally pulled all the disparate elements together, at a better pace (until the last episode or two, where it bogged down, in my opinion…but that’s the hazards of the 22 episode seasons that US broadcast television seems unable to break out of.)

The acting is good. It’s obviously Clark Gregg’s show — Agent Coulson is the glue to the piece and they managed to make it work. They don’t run to long on the “secret” of his survival, but give you just enough by episode eight or so to be satisfied, then build on it a bit toward the end of the season. The characters around him are a big cliched — the geeky, combat weak scientists (Probably the strongest performers of the cast, and at least they got a real Scot for the Scotsman.); the girl hacker fighting the system with a dark secret; the tough chick that supports the captain Coulson; and the bad ass turned traitor. It’s a pretty standard Joss Whedon set of characters so better than about 75% of broadcast TV.) We get some great guest players, as well — Saffron Burroughs as a quasi-foil senior SHIELD officer, Bill Paxton (playing Bill Paxton…but here it works) as the hard-charging leader of another team, Samuel L Jackson (with nary a “motherfucker” for the ear but he does get to shoot guns), Cobie Smulders (in a less likable version of the Hill character), and Jaimie Alexander (not great) reprising their roles, and the always good Patton Oswalt. (Whom you need to see in Justified‘s fourth season — seriously!)

The plots are generally good, but the Whedon-y slow burn through the season gets a bit long in the tooth by the end of the 22 episodes. We learn Coulson’s secret, we deal with the collapse of SHIELD following the events of Captain America 2, but are left until second season to explain the hacker, Skye’s, big reveal. The season’s bad guy, the Clairvoyant, is revealed well, and actually was a surprise to me. Character development is solid, and the characters remain consistent, and some of the half-develop stereotypes — May, for instance — finally get some decent fleshing out. The hacker, though, still the weakest of the bunch. The release of the supervillain prisoners from “the Fridge” gives us the chance to expand the show from a spy show with some superscience into a spy show with super-powered bad guys.

Overall, I think the quality of the show was more consistent than others have opined, and that it’s a good counterpoint to the movies, which are increasingly more superheroic as they go on. I’m looking forward to seeing season 2.

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Glen A Larson died at UCLA Medical Center of esophageal cancer this weekend. Without this producer, we wouldn’t have had the Star Wars knockoff that would be the inspiration for one of the best science fiction shows in TV history.

Since that reimagined show, and the RPG tied to it, is a (if not, the) major draw of visitors to this site, I thought it would be appropriate to mention him.

I stumbled onto the series Hannibal — based on the characters of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris — on the NBC app on my iPad a few weeks ago, and as of last night, finished the first season. Right to the point: I was surprised, especially as I had thought the idea of another series killer catching killers -type show was unnecessary, at how good it was.

The great: Mad Mikkelsen is superb in the role. He’s far better than Anthomy Hopkins was; there’s none of the sloberng, creepy pervert quality that dominated his Lector in Silence of the Lambs. He’s better than Brian Cox, who was very good in the role in the original Manhunter. This Lector is precisely what I see when I read the book years ago: erudite, pleasant, an aesthete who protects himself from the world around him through a wall of beauty. Even his killings are directed at creating beauteous meals. He comes off as sympathetic, caring, and if very restrained. Until you see him in action. Mikkelsen plays him extremely low key, almost mask-like. Almost everything is done through the use of microexpressions.

The look and sound of the show is much more tight and atmospheric than is usual for broadcast television (this is airing on NBC!?!) Ambient noises are used in lieu of music in many scenes to create tension. They’ve also cut the number of episodes from the ludicrous 22/season of usual broadcast TV to the more reasonable 13 of an extended series on British television, or American cable shows like those on F/X. There’s almost no chaff in the wheat.

The good: The rest of the cast is solid, with Hugh Dancy doing a very nice rendition of Will Graham. His version is much more unstable and twitchy than the previous portrayals. Rather than just having the ability to empathize with the people he’s hunting, his imagination and empathy are so overpowering, that they make the character increasingly unstable. That and a healthy dose of encephalitis he has contracted sometime in the show. An honorable mentions to Raul Esparza as Dr. Chilton. He manages to capture all of the sleazy ick-factor Anthony Heald brought to the man in the movies, but he does much better at giving us the defensive, not so smart as he thinks quality. It’s a great performance. Another for Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall fame. I haven’t seen him in much since his early comedic work, but he’s good as the acerbic pathologist.

And then there’s Freddie Lounds. The annoying reporter who I think was perfectly played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is replaced with redheaded and very fetching Canadian actress Lara Jean Chorostecki. To be fair — she’s great in the role, and the character is supremely manipulative, smart, and a great foil. But I hate that this character hasn’t been brutally murdered…which is a testament to Chorostecki’s acting that I want her character dead so much.

The bad: The weak link is Lawrence Fishburn’s Jack Crawford, who is presented with much less humanity than he has had in previous iterations. This has been a trend I’ve noticed in the actor’s work toward…well, gigantic douchebags that present their authority by being manipulative, aggressive, and unsympathetic. As the character that is the stand-in for moral authority, he’s badly outgunned by Mikkelsen’s amoral intellectual for your affections. (But his real life wife, Gina Torres (Zoe from Firefly), makes a great couple of cameos as his wife, dying of cancer. It’s the only time the character is sympathetic at all.)

The (possibly) bad: For some, the level of graphic violence might be a touch much…especially on network TV. Often you see the gory aftermath, occasionally relived through Graham’s reconstructions of the crime scenes. It’s necessary to the plots and to the nature of the material, but I found some of the scenes very intense, and I’m usually pretty tough on seeing stuff like this.

The rest: The show wanders off of the history established in Red Dragon (the only book Will Graham specifically shows up in.) The basics are there on his character, but some of the things he does in the book are transposed onto other characters. Another agent realizes Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper when she sees the drawing that tips Graham off in the book (and is killed.) The Minnesota Shrike is happening concurrently with the Ripper murders. Hannibal becomes an unofficial psychiatrist to Graham because Crawford wants to keep the increasingly unstable agent in the field. I won’t spoil the season end, but it takes us way off the path of the book and gives the show its own mythos and the freedom to pursue it.

Style: 5 out of 5. Substance: 5 out of 5. It’s a definite “buy” if you like the character of Lector, or this sort of suspense/horror/drama.

Here’s the complete closing credits theme from F/X’s Archer:

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