Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Touch of Dead, Grave Sight - Charlaine Harris' urbanfantasymystery realm

In order to break up the year-long wait in between releases of the Sookie Stackhouse novels (the series of books by Charlaine Harris on which HBO's hit True Blood is based), I decided this fall to check out a couple of her other publications - one Sookie-related, the other not. And so in this post I'll be reviewing two different Harris books: A Touch of Dead, being an anthology of previously published short stories about the Sookie universe, and Grave Sight, the first in another of the authors' ongoing series. My thoughts below...

First off, A Touch of Dead. I knew that Harris had published a number of short stories from the Sookie-verse in various other anthologies, but the idea never really interested me enough to track them all down individually. Which is probably why A Touch of Dead is such a brilliant marketing ploy, especially since the series itself has become so popular among its genre. Someone like me, who's already a fan of the books, might not care about these peripheral side-stories enough to go out and buy five separate books in order to read them. Gathering them all together in a single Sookie collection, however, suddenly makes the deal a lot more tempting. Another thing that peaked my interest in this little publication was just the fact that I don't own a single one of the Sookie novels. Maybe I'm just a little OCD, but it seemed silly to buy a few of the books if I'm not going to invest in the complete series (and I'm not that hard-core of a Sookie fan). Thanks to libraries and friends, I had managed to avoid throwing down a single cent for my enjoyment of the Sookie series, and A Touch of Dead seemed like a nice little compromise. This way I could have some representation of the Sookie books in my personal collection without having to go all out or be totally random about it. Not to mention, I'd get to read all those short stories I'd been missing. So I bought the tiny, overpriced little book, and was pretty happy about it.

A Touch of Dead includes five separate stories that all feature Sookie herself in some capacity. (I believe there are other short stories that focus on other characters from the same universe, but which were not included in AToD.) In the first story, "Fairy Dust", the fairy twins Claudine and Claude recruit Sookie's telepathic abilities to help them discover who murdered their third sibling (they were actually triplets), Claudette. The funny thing is, Claudine doesn't exactly tell Sookie that's what they're up to when she invites her over. You can imagine poor Sookie's surprise when she show's up at their house and finds all the suspects bound and gagged in various nooks and crannies (one in the pantry, one in the cellar, etc). That's a lot for a girl to take, but considering all the times her fairy-god-mother friend has conveniently pooped up to save our telepath from near death situations I'd say its the least Sookie can do. This story sheds some dearly needed light on the personal lives of the twins (what does one call a pair of triplets exactly?), and so "Fairy Dust" was a welcome addition to the collection.

The second story, "One Word Answer", is significant in that it plugs up a gaping hole in the continuity of the main novels. When the Hadley storyline was rather abruptly introduced in the sixth book, Sookie already knew the whole story of her cousin's entanglement with Queen Sophie-Anne. Unfortunate readers like myself, however, were totally in the dark. "One Word Answer" is where Sookie, and dedicated readers, learn Hadley's history for the first time. In the third story, "Dracula Night", Eric invites Sookie to Fangtasia to take part in the annual celebration of the count's birth into darkness. This standalone story certainly brings the humor, as we find out that the usually cool, confident Eric suffers from a serious case of hero-worship when it comes to all thing Dracula. We also get to see a bit of the rest of the Fangtasia crew (including Pam), which is always a treat. In the fourth story, "Lucky", Sookie and the witchy roommate she picked up in New Orleans, Amelia Bradshaw, team up to figure out what supernatural forces have been plaguing the insurance industry in Bon Temps. This story was enjoyable (Amelia's always a hoot), but not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of things. The final story, "Gift Wrap" was my least favorite of the bunch. In it, Sookie rescues a wounded Were on Christmas eve from the woods surrounding her house. The two bond a little (physically as well as emotionally), before going their separate ways the next day. The reader then finds out that the whole thing was an elaborate set up by her great grandfather so she wouldn't be alone on Christmas. (Niall has the best of intentions, but as an ancient fairy he is a little out of touch with humanity). This story seemed a little gratuitous (Sookie shares an attraction with yet another hunky, but ultimately disposable, 'supe), but overall I was very pleased with the entire collection.

Shortly after finishing A Touch of Dead I decided to check out another one of Harris' series, seeing as how I've found the Sookie books to be so charming and engaging. So I ordered and read Grave Sight from the local library network. Grave Sight is the first in a series about Harper Connelly, a young woman who hunts down missing corpses for a living. Ever since she got struck by lighting in a freak accident as a child (yes, that's right, struck by lightning), Harper has had a powerful connection with the dead. She can locate corpses, and even relive the final moments of the deceased's life. Harper has decided to put her special skill to good use, hiring out her services to a skeptical but desperate clientele, traveling around the country to recover lost souls. Her companion and protector is her step-brother Tolliver Lang. Tolliver has always watched out for Harper since their abusive childhoods at the hands of their drug-addicted parents, and now he's sort of become her business partner and negotiator. The two share a powerful bond, but their relationship is kind of dysfunctional. On the one hand, they introduce live and introduce themselves as brother and sister, but care about each other more intensely than is usual or healthy in a sibling relationship. They're not actually related by blood, but they're not lovers either. I'd bet my bottom dollar that the development of this relationship is the focus of the series in terms of continuing character development. In the meantime they seem to get involved in various mysteries and human drama wherever their unique profession takes them.

Having only read the first book, I cannot really generalize about the series with any credibility, but I did find that it bears some resemblances to the Sookie novels. Both series feature twenty-something women coping with unusual supernatural gifts (telepathy in Sookie's case, a psychic connection with the dead in Harper's) who end up getting involved in small town mysteries. Yet the series differ greatly in that while Sookie lives in a world of vampires, witches, shape-shifters, and other supernatural beings, Harper only has to deal with regular humans in her universe. Now I'm not trying to say that the lack of 'supes makes Harper's world dull per se (humans can provide plenty of fascinating intrigue and drama on their own, no question.) But at the same time I can't deny that I felt something missing from Grave Sight. One of the most engaging aspects of the Sookie novels has been the whole mythology built up behind the series, which is so soundly grounded in the various supernatural communities of Bon Temps, and, by extension, of northern Louisiana. Whereas Sookie's story has this constantly expanding cast of recurring characters, the Harper Connelly series seems only to have the two central figures who travel nomadically from place to place. And after reading Grave Sight, I'm just not convinced that these two characters are interesting enough to carry us through an ongoing series of novels by themselves.

Overall, I didn't enjoy Grave Sight as much as I'd hoped or expected. It offered very little to balance out its melancholy and depressing tone, and its characters were uninspiring and unmemorable. If you enjoy a good mystery, however, you're likely to find that in any Harris book you pick up, the Harper Connelly series included. If you're looking for more character-driven plots, however, stick to Sookie Stackhouse.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fushigi Yuugi, Volume 3 VIZBIG Edition (containing volumes 7-9)

I really love the cover art they chose for the third VIZBIG (three-volumes-in-one) release of Fushigi Yuugi. It depicts Miaka and Tamahome in what appears to be Bei Jia ceremonial garb (Bei-Jia is the northernmost of the four kingdoms in the Universe of the Four Gods, modeled after Mongolia).

But anyways, down to brass tacks. And be forewarned that, like all my reviews, this post is very spoilerific. I would also warn readers that this installment of Fushigi Yuugi gets kind of intense at some points. Volumes 7-9 (entitled “Castaway”, “Friend”, and “Lover”, respectively) are a bit darker than earlier, more comedic volumes have been. Each of the three contains a very tragic and/or violent event with significant traumatic repercussions for our characters. In volume seven, it is the slaughtering of Tamahome’s family at the hands of Suboshi in reparation for the supposed murder of his twin, Amiboshi. In volume eight, it is the tragic death of a main character, Nuriko. In volume nine, it’s Nakago’s apparent rape of the innocent heroine, Miaka. And so although Fushigi Yuugi might technically be classified as shoujo (“young girls”) manga, it definitely earns its T+ (older teens) rating in these three volumes.

Yet in spite of all the tragedy and melodrama contained therein, Fushigi Yuugi is still not nearly as harrowing a read, emotionally speaking, as a more subdued, realistic series could be. For example, I’ve found the melancholy coming-of-age manga Sand Chronicles to be much more affecting, because it feels much more real and is therefore more poignant. With Fushigi Yuugi, its frequent and gratuitous forays into “over-the-top” territory prevent me from ever taking the series seriously, even when its main characters are suffering. That being said, I always enjoy FY, perhaps precisely because it does not need to be taken seriously. Yuu Watase is a talented artist and storyteller, and even if her works incorporate many elements of the ridiculous they are usually engaging and addictive and engrossing. Fushigi Yuugi in particular has a sort of timeless quality that rarely disappoints. I always get sucked into reading it, even though I already know the story from watching the anime, and I’m always excited to pick up each new release, and proud to add each one to my shelves.

Volume 7, “Castaway”, begins just after the botched summoning ceremony. Tai Yi-Jun tells Miaka and the warriors that their last hope for summoning Suzaku is to find the Shentso-Pao, a mystical artifact of the priestess of Genbu, who came to the universe of the four gods many years ago. Tai Yi-Jun also warns Miaka in private that although Tamahome has returned to them, she is to have absolutely no (physical) relations with him; in order to summon Suzaku the priestess must be pure, i.e. a virgin. Confused and conflicted, she begins by treating him coldly to push him away, but confesses everything to him soon enough. Although initially taken aback, Tamahome promises her that until Suzaku is summoned he will be content to serve her faithfully as a celestial warrior should. Once everything is over and peace is restored, however, he will “make her the happiest bride in the world”. Also in this volume, we learn more about Chichiri’s past, and he actually turns out to be a much more serious person than we might have thought. In a touching scene, he confesses his past transgressions to Miaka before removing his mask and showing her, for the first time, his true face. Later on, we also learn about Nuriko’s past, and why he first began to cross dress at a very young age. Nuriko was already one of my favorite characters because of his hilarious, straightforward personality, but this revelation of his more serious, tender side just made me love him all the more. I should have read the warning signs right then and there, but it was only later that I began to suspect the imminent killing-off of his character. Alas.

I’d also like to take a second to appreciate the fact that the summoning of Suzaku, as the driving force of conflict in the story, has come to represent so much more than a simple granting of Miaka’s wishes. When she first learned about her priestess-hood, all Miaka could think about was using her wishes for simple, selfish means like passing her high school entrance exams. At this point in the story, however, she and all the other Suzaku warriors have each become fully committed to the summoning for a higher purpose.

Volume 8, “Friend”, follows Miaka and the six warriors (Hotohori had to stay behind in Hong-Nan and do his emperor thing, poor guy) on their journey to Bei-Jia in search of the Shentso-Pao. I like it when the gang goes on the road, because it invariably provides for lots of humor involving the three most gregarious of the warriors (Tasuki, Tamahome, and Nuriko). After being shipwrecked in a storm, the crew washes ashore on a sinister island populated solely by female warriors who kill men on sight (or do worse to them), so of course the celestial warriors must all disguise themselves as women! Nuriko’s thrilled, Tasuki and Tamahome put up a fuss, and poor, sweet, burly Mitsukake fails miserably despite his honest efforts. They finally escape from the island, but not before some nasty encounters with Seiryu warriors. In order to summon Seiryu, they also need the power of the Shentso-Pao, but rather than seek it themselves, they’ve chosen to go about it indirectly by sabotaging the Suzaku warriors whenever possible. Our heroes do finally prevail and reach Bei-Jia in tact. Their triumph, however, is short-lived.

Both the Seiryu and Suzaku camps reach the capital of Bei-Jia separately, but it doesn’t take long for them to run into each other. Nakago learns that the spirit guardians of the Shentso-Pao will never relinquish it to a Seiryu warrior, so he decides to wait until the Suzaku group wins it fair and square and then steal it from them. Bastard. It’s at this point, when the Miaka & co. are on the verge of securing the Shentso-Pao, that Nuriko dies suddenly and tragically in combat. Although it really is quite devastating for such a lovable character to die so brutally, Nurko is pretty lucky in that he at least got to make peace with himself and his conflicted identity issues (resulting from his sister’s death) before he died. He also got to tell Miaka how important his role as her celestial warrior has been to him, and how much he’s grown as a result of it. Even if he had to do everything over again, he wouldn’t change anything. He’d still choose to die in her service. Heartbroken, Miaka is more determined than ever to summon Suzaku.

In Volume 9, “Lover”, Miaka and her remaining five companions venture into the cave containing the Shentso-Pao, guarded by the spirits of two of the Genbu celestial warriors. After a series of trials, in which Miaka surprises even her own warriors with her newfound strength and resolve, they succeed in receiving the treasure, which actually turns out to be an elaborate necklace worn by the priestess of Genbu during her (successful) summoning ceremony. The group’s happiness is cut short be the discovery that the Shentso-Pao alone is not sufficient to summon Suzaku; they must also secure an artifact from the remaining kingdom, the Western Xi-Lang. Poor Tamahome! His crestfallen “will I ever get married!?” expression is really quite hilarious. But as they emerge from the cave, I was strongly reminded of a line from one of my favorite plays ever, Into the Woods: “You may know what you need but to get what you want better see that you keep what you have.” Because the Shentso-Pao is of course immediately stolen by those gosh-darn Seiryu warriors.

This is almost too much for Miaka. After everything they’ve been through, after Nuriko’s sacrifice, to just lose the Shentso-Pao? Guilt-ridden and distraught, she’s willing to do anything to get it back. Knowing this, Nakago is ready to take advantage of her desperation. Using Seiryu’s power, he creates an illusion of Tai Yi-Jun that tells Miaka the only way to reclaim the S-P is to weaken Nakago’s chi. Because she’s no match for him in combat, her only chance, says the fake Tai Yi-Jun, is to seduce him. Miaka is appalled, naturally. “But I thought the priestess had to be a virgin in order to summon Suzaku?” Fake TYJ says that was just a lie she made up in order to keep her and Tamahome in line. This is especially sickening, because not only does Nakago not love Miaka, he doesn’t even desire her. His one and only motive is to violate Miaka and thereby prevent her from ever summoning Suzaku (because the virgin rule is actually valid). So why doesn’t he just kill her? Because as the priestess of Seiryu, Yui has some control over Nakago and she doesn’t want Miaka dead. She still hates Miaka (or thinks she does) and wants to destroy her chances of happiness, but she doesn’t want to kill her.

And so, crying bitterly, Miaka goes to him, but of course she cannot go through with it. Nakago’s much stronger, however, and easily overpowers her. She desperately tries to access her spiritual powers to fight him, but he’s still too strong, and the effort (plus all the emotional stress) really wipes her out. She faints, and we don’t actually see what happen next. The other Suzaku warriors, meanwhile, have been caught in an illusion of their own, while Tamahome, sensing that Miaka’s in danger, breaks free and follows her. He arrives at the Seiryu camp – just as Nakago is leaving. It’s not long before he puts the pieces together and figures out what must have happened. He’s there when Miaka wakes up (undressed and in pain) and quickly takes her away from the Seiryu camp. The next few scenes are pretty painful, but I love how Tamahome surpresses whatever he must be feeling on his own behalf (anger, hurt, etc) and concentrates solely on Miaka’s needs. He tells her how much he loves her, how much he’ll always love her. “You’re beautiful. You’re no different from before. No one and nothing could defile you. Even if we can’t summon Suzaku, it doesn’t matter. I promised I’d make you happy, remember?” But the pain she feels can’t be so easily mitigated; she still feels hurt and used and guilty. And so while Tamahome sleeps she slips quietly away and runs off on her own. End of volume 9.

Well that was a little more detailed of a summary than I intended, but these were pretty action-packed volumes. Fushigi Yuugi, Volume 4 VIZBIG Edition (containing volumes 10-12) will be available on December 15.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Northanger Abbey: finding humor in gothic melodrama. Seriously.

Thus concludes my quest to read all six of Austen’s novels, and boy am I glad I saved this one for last. It’s been so long since I read Emma, I’d almost forgotten that Austen novels could actually be fun. And considering the fact that the last two I read were a little on the solemn side, I was quite pleasantly surprised by how lighthearted and playful Northanger Abbey was. I liked it more than I expected, especially since I feel that it generally gets the least love from Austen fans, though I can’t imagine why. It’s still not my favorite of all six, but it’s definitely in the top three. But more on that later.

Northanger Abbey tells the story of a young girl who travels with family friends to Bath in order to experience fashionable society. She quickly makes a variety of new friends, including the seemingly kind and generous, but ultimately expedient and self-serving, Thorpes, as well as the more elegant and distinguished Tilneys. When the Tilneys invite her to stay at their home, the titular abbey, Catherine’s overactive imagination begins to run away with her. Finding herself housed in one of those old and forbidding structures featured in so many horror novels, she begins to imagine all sorts of dreadful, fantastical things about its inhabitants. Having unknowingly convinced herself that she’s the heroine of a story that doesn’t exist, she attempts to solve a mystery that isn’t really there. The results are amusing, but the consequences aren’t to be taken lightly as she winds up interfering in some rather serious matters along the way.

I was a little apprehensive in starting the novel, as I knew it contained a good deal of satire of gothic fiction. I happen to be a fan of the gothic novel (everything from Frankenstein to Jane Eyre – I eat it all up), and I was concerned I wouldn’t enjoy a book that basically made fun of another genre. Yet I needn’t have worried. Satire well and lovingly done can always be enjoyed, even by those who highly esteem its object. Northanger Abbey serves as much more than a stern lesson to na├»ve young girls about the inherent danger and foolishness of reading novels. Indeed, what a silly, hypocritical thing to write a novel about! On the contrary, Austen does not disparage fiction in this particular work of fiction. In fact, she spends the better part of an entire chapter defending the activity of reading novels against its harsher critics. And yet her tale does caution the over-zealous, indiscriminate reader against the unhappiness one can expect if one fails to distinguish properly between fiction and reality, something most readers can probably appreciate all too well. And all of this Austen accomplishes through a very entertaining and amusing story to boot.

The heroine of Northanger Abbey is Catherine Morland, a young girl from a large family who grew up in the countryside reading as many novels as she could get her hands on in diligent, if slightly misguided, preparation for the time she would enter fashionable society for the first time at the tender age of seventeen. Some readers might take issue with Catherine’s poor jugement and lack of perception throughout the novel, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The combination of her inexperience (she’s by far the youngest of Austen’s heroines) and her open, trusting nature (having grown up among good, honest people she naturally expects others to be good and honest as well) make her an easy target for those who would take advantage of her innocently unsuspicious character. It was really fun to get inside Catherine’s head, and to watch her grow up over the course of the novel.

I don't really have a whole lot else to say about this novel; although it was very enjoyable, it was pretty straightforward for the most part, which is why it doesn't trump the more complex Emma or Pride and Prejudice in my opinion. Heck, even the horrible Mansfeild Park was more discuss-able than this one.

That being said, Northanger Abbey was one of the most quotable of Austen’s novels, what with the heavy satire and all. Some memorable excerpts from the pages of Northanger Abbey

To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Ok, so now that I’ve finished all six completed Austen novels, I can finally rank them. (That was the whole point of reading them, right?) Drum roll, please…

1. Emma. Hands down. The funniest, the most entertaining heroine, the best cast of extended characters, plus a very satisfying romance.
2. Pride and Prejudice. The most romantic. Also, some pretty classic characters. The one with Mr. Collins.
3. Northanger Abbey. See above.
4. Persuasion. Was ok, but not the best.
5. Sense & Sensibility. Meh. Started out great, went downhill. Had lost patience with both sisters long before the end.
6. Mansfield Park. I’ve already said enough about my feelings for this one.

Dollhouse cancelled! Sad, but not terribly shocking...

The bad news, which the small yet devoted Dollhouse fanbase has been trying to stave off since the show's inauspicious premiere in February, has finally arrived. FOX officially announced this week that Joss Whedon's television allegory about identity and exploitation will be cancelled after the remaining nine episodes air. This was a huge disappointment for me (I've really enjoyed watching and writing about this show, and I feel like there's so much about the characters and story yet to be explored), but I cannot say that it was wholly unexpected. Whether due to it's undesirable Friday night timeslot, or to its overly complex and unwieldy plot structure, or to a combination of the two, the show never managed to build up a large enough live audience to keep it going. I was grateful and optimistic when Dollhouse was picked up for a second season last spring, but seeing as how the show remained in it's Friday night spot, continued to draw depressing ratings, and got swept out of the November sweeps, I wasn't terribly surprised to hear the news. Still, it's hard to face the finality of the cancellation after stubbornly holding out hope for the better part of the year that things would turn around, and that the show might yet have a bright future. It must suck even more for the actors and production team.

And speaking of those actors, let me just say how much I dearly hope Enver Gjokaj finds a new project soon. It's not just that I have such a crush on him. I also think he's an amazing actor, and really deserves more recognition. I also wouldn't mind seeing Dichen Lachmen again on either the big or small screen.

If there's a silver lining here, it's that the remaining nine episodes will air throughout December and January, and that advanced notice of the cancellation will at least allow Joss & co. to prepare for the end. What that means is that fans will most likely be given a degree of closure which wouldn't be possible if the show had been cancelled in a more brutal fashion (as in kind of like, oh I dunno, the last show Whedon created for this network. At least Dollhouse won't go the way of Firefly. Although, if it meant we'd get a feature film several years later it might be worth it.)

So there's nothing much for fans to do except reconcile themselves to the harsh reality, and to console themselves as best they can with the remaining nine episodes of season two. On the other hand, if finishing DH means Whedon can actually get to work on the Dr. Horrible sequel he's been promising for, like, ever - well, that wouldn't be a completely terrible thing either.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Memorable TV opening themes

Ok, this is kind of random, but I was just thinking today about how much I love the opening sequences of television shows. On the one hand, if it’s a show you really love, it doesn’t even matter how good the opening is, you still react to it like Pavlov’s dog to a bell; the very first notes of the theme song cue that instant rush of excitement and anticipation as you await the imminent commencement of another episode. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for opening sequences that are creative and exciting in and of themselves, even if the show itself doesn’t really do much for you. Yet if one of your favorite shows has a killer opener, one that is dynamic and interesting and perfectly captures the unique tone of a unique show – the effect is amazing. It’s an art form, really.

And so here are some of my favorite television opening sequences, in descending chronological order (i.e. in reverse order of when the shows premiered with their openers).

True Blood (2008). It’s gritty, it’s grotesque, it’s bizarre, it’s strangely fascinating. Just like the show itself, in fact. None of the main actors appear in this opening, but the images used perfectly convey the show’s tone and its stylized northern Louisiana setting. And the song is just perfect! I usually cannot stand country music at all, but I actually had Jace Everett’s “Bad Things” as my cell phone ring for like six months. I can’t really describe the effect of the True Blood opening; it speaks for itself.

Conspiracy in the Court (2007). Ok, this comes from a kdrama, not an American show. But I had to include it because I really thought it did a wonderful job of introducing this fusion sageuk political thriller drama. Conspiracy in the Court stands apart from other dramas in a lot of ways – it really sets out to achieve something different (hence the fusion aspect), and does so extremely well – and this opening really reflects that. When you consider also that most kdramas have pretty lame, generic openings if they have them at all, this sequence becomes all the more remarkable. Observe:

Dexter (2006). Honestly, I never really got into this show. I admire it, I think it’s very cool, I just never got hooked on it enough to make the time to watch it. But the opening is just so amazing. It was expertly shot and edited so as to make an ordinary, tame morning routine appear violent and savage. Thanks to this sequence, I will never look at breakfast in quite the same way again.

Veronica Mars (2006). I say 2006 even though the show premiered in 2004 because they revamped the opening sequence for the third (and, unfortunately, final) season. For the first two seasons the VM opening was pretty average. I liked the song (“We Used to Be Friends” by the Dandy Warhols), but other than that the sequence was pretty unremarkable. For the third season they reworked the song, making it more subdued and stylized, and set it to a series of sepia-toned stills. All in all, I think the new version was much more interesting, and a much better representation of the series. Veronica Mars was, at its core, a noir-influenced detective show set in southern California and featuring a petite blonde heroine. The new opening reflected that.

Cowboy Bebop (1998). I think I’ll just let this one speak for itself. You don’t need to know anything about the show in order to watch this opening and think its just plain awesome. The brass music, the bright solid colors, the animation…

The X-Files (1993). My parents were both diehard fans of this show in the 90s, and they let me watch with them on Sunday nights even though I was probably too young. Even to this day the eerie whistling music gives me the shivers. I remember waiting anxiously each week to see what message would appear at the very end, whether the typical “The truth is out there” or that once in a blue moon substitution. Exciting times indeed. (Sorry about the quality.)

Cheers (1982). Oh, this makes me miss Boston so much! This is just another example of an opening in which all the elements work. The lyrics of the song, combined with the slideshow of images, evoke a powerful nostalgia in me – for Boston, my former home, for the show and all its incomparable characters, for the time when I used to watch it with my family. This was a great show. So simple, so fantastic, so hilarious. It really does make me think about going home, and the theme song hits a very special place in my heart. And now I think I might cry. But it’s a good, happy kind of feeling. That’s how powerful a good tv opening, with strong personal associations, can be.

So although I’m sure there are many more great television openings out there, these were just a few of my favorites. A good opening sequence can be a very powerful thing. May this special art form continue to flourish for many years to come!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Predators and Prey (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, volume 6)

Gosh, it seems like forever since I wrote about volume 4 back in June. This most recent volume of Dark Horse’s comic continuation of the epic television series was released in September, but it’s taken me quite some time to catch up. First, Barnes and Noble postponed my order for about a month, and then when it finally did arrive one thing lead to another, and now here we are in November and I’m finally getting down to business.

All in all, this was a decent installment of Season 8, but the comic as a whole still fails to recapture the awesomeness that was the original television show. It has all of the same characters (well, most of them anyways), and I do like how it has boldly continued to develop the mythology of the story beyond the cataclysmic series finale. Yet much of the magic of the series has been lost in its translation into the comic medium. One of the main casualties of the switch is the show’s humor, which by and large has not carried over. The writers of Season 8 do sprinkle in the occasional witty one-liner here and there, but without the delivery of live actors the dialogue tends to fall rather flat on the page. The show should always find fresh, surprising ways of being laugh-out-loud hilarious. So far, Season 8 has yet to achieve that. Or maybe I’m just too picky, or too close to the original material to judge the comic objectively. I will say that, for what it is, Season 8 is usually a pretty solid, entertaining read. So long as one remembers that what it isn’t is as good as the original.

But anyways, on to a discussion of the particulars of volume 5, which contains issues #21-25, plus a few extras.

Issue #21, “Harmonic Divergence”, was pretty exciting in that it reintroduced one of my favorite recurring characters from the show, Harmony Kendall. Harmony was a vapid mean girl, characterized by pettiness, petulance, a week will, and an absurd love for tacky unicorn figures. Very little of her personality changed when she was made into a vampire at the end of season three (with hilarious results.) Her incorporation now into Season 8 is a really good illustration of why the comic both works and doesn’t work. Harmony’s foray into the world of reality television in this issue was a great storyline that stayed true to her original character and was very entertaining. And yet, at the same time, it just wasn’t’ the same as watching Mercedes McNab’s pitch-perfect performance. I’m not sure, but I also think the writers may have been taking a dig at (or at least playing off of) True Blood in this issue, what with their setting up Harmony as a kind of spokesperson for vampire rights, spearheading the integration of vampires into mainstream society. Of course the twist here is that the social justice movement modeled in True Blood (“vampires are people too!”) is made out to be shallow, manipulative PR designed to put a negative spin on the real heroes of society (i.e. the slayers).

Issue #22, “Swell”, featured two characters I don’t really love (Kennedy, who first appeared in season seven, and Satsu, an original creation of Season 8), but still managed to be pretty cool, regardless. Kennedy shows up in Japan to run a “standard op” evaluation of Satsu’s performance in her new role as cell leader. That’s the official reason anyways, but in truth Kennedy just wants to give Satsu a little pep talk to help her get over the whole still-in-love-with-Buffy thing. (Of course, this is Kennedy we’re talking about, so her heart-to-heart, while well intentioned, is a little bit on the abrasive side.) Nevertheless, I like the way this episode provided some closure to the whole Satsu/Buffy thing without writing off her character or making her too one-dimensional. Well done, Season 8 writers. Oh, and the Japan team also takes down an army of vampire teddy bears as well.

Issue #23, “Predators and Prey”, was kind of a confusing issue, plot-wise, that involved Andrew and Buffy tracking down a rogue slayer and her team of marauding thugettes in the Italian countryside. While the duo fails to bring Simone and her gang back over from the dark side, they do share some much needed bonding time. Ah, Andrew. Another one of my favorites from the show. If I could pick any television character to be my real-life best friend, it would be a toss up between Marshall from How I Met Your Mother or Andrew from Buffy. Sure, he’s annoying, slightly delusional, and not too long ago he was a weak-willed accomplice to murder. Yet he’s become the poster boy for second chances, and I really dig that. He’s walking proof that even geeky villain wannabees can find redemption. Plus, how much do I love the fact that, in this issue, Andrew makes the confession when confronted with certain death that he’s always been on team Spike? (I love Angel too, don’t bite my head off, I just have a special place in my heart for Spike.) So although I wasn’t too enthused about the story of this issue, I thought the character stuff was great, and at the end of the day that’s what really counts.

In issue #24, “Safe”, we return to Giles and Faith, who teamed up and kind of broke away from the slayer organization, at least temporarily, back in volume two. While I’m very glad to see these two back in action, it’s also very sad for me to be reminded of how distant Giles and Buffy have become. They barely keep in touch with each other anymore. Their relationship underwent a great deal of strain in season seven, and although there’s no real animosity between them they’ve kind of grown apart. It’s just sad considering how uber-close they were in the past, in spite of their differences. They shared a genuine father-daughter love for one another, but Buffy’s a hero, and Giles was always more willing to make the hard choices. I’d like to think their bond will never truly fade, but I guess only time will tell. Another question I had about this issue: didn’t the entire Watcher’s Council die in the bombing in season seven? Where did this survivor come from? I guess it’s not important, I just felt like that needed more explanation.

Issue #25, “Living Doll” was a little blah in the plot department as well, but it served a much greater purpose in the grand scheme of things: namely, turning Dawn back into her human form for good. This whole deal with Dawn and the tricewise’s curse dragged on long enough, and I was more than happy to see it finally explained and resolved. It seemed almost as if the writers didn’t really know what to do with her character in Season 8; this weird plotline has kind of marginalized her from the group for a while now. I hope now that she’s back to normal she will play a more integral role in slayer operations. I know Buffy wants to protect her, but Dawn’s practically grown up now, and has at least as much right to be included as Xander, who’s just as human and powerless as she. Oh! And how tickled was I when Dawn made that reference to Valley of the Dolls, which I recently finished reading?

After issue #25, volume five also contains a special short story featuring the misadventures of Harmony on her reality show, “Harmony Bites”, as well as some faux magazine inserts and advertisements from her publicity. Fun stuff, but I’m not sure how I feel about sweet, unaffected Clem (the loose-skinned demon who used to play kitten poker with Spike) being Harmony’s new “friend” (i.e. chauffeur/pawn/source-of-amusement-when-she’s-bored). I guess it makes sense, though, since Harmony uses people and Clem’s a total pushover. I just feel bad for the guy. I wonder if the two ever reminisce about their former mutual friend Spike?

Volume six of Season 8, entitled “Retreat”, will be released in March of 2010.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Shining Inheritance shines brightly within its genre

(Note: In this post, ESM = Evil Stepmother. I got really tired of typing that out over and over)


It’s been a while since I’ve been so thoroughly engrossed in a drama as I was in Shining Inheritance (aka Brilliant Legacy). I’m certainly not the only one to have gone ga ga over this summer’s smash hit weekend series from SBS, as evidenced by its impressive ratings, which climbed up to 47%. And yet at least in terms of plot and basic character types Shining Inheritance seems very similar to many other formulaic dramas you may have already seen. So why was this one so successful? Why did I, and so many others, enjoy it so very much? That’s what I’m going to try to explain in this post, but I think it boils down to the fact that while the character concepts and storylines may not be especially original, they are surprisingly well-acted and well-developed. Shining Inheritance is an example of a drama in which all the various elements come together in a really cohesive, satisfying way. Even if it is a mite predictable, it’s done well and addictive as shit. The romance, the family drama, the humor, the sadness, the heartwarming moments – it was just a really winning combination for me.


The story begins when a businessman on the brink of bankruptcy apparently dies in a freak accident, leaving behind his two biological children, as well as their stepmother and stepsister. The greedy and manipulative stepmother (ESM) manages to swindle the man’s children out of their share of the life insurance money, keeping it all for herself and her own daughter. The two unfortunate children, our heroine Eun-Sung and her autistic brother Eun-Woo, are forced to fend for themselves when the ESM cuts them off and casts them out. I know this is starting to sound kind of hackneyed and trite (pure, plucky, put-upon heroine triumphs against the odds and wins the love of prince-not-so-charming), but Shining Inheritance actually has a lot more to offer than plot contrivances and wild histrionics.


Han Hyo-Ju plays Go Eun-Sung, a quick-tempered but compassionate young woman whose life is forever changed the day her father dies. In spite of the suffering she endures after being so callously abandoned by the ESM, Eun-Sung manages to pull through with the help of some very good friends. Through a certain chain of events, she eventually wins the trust and respect of an aging CEO who decides to name Eun-Sung her sole heir and successor of her company. Throughout the drama, Eun-Sung struggles to balance her aspirations and fears as she slowly uncovers the convoluted web of deception that has caused all her misfortunes. That’s a lot for one girl to handle, but Eun-Sung’s skinny little frame belies her true inner strength and tenacity. Although I didn’t find Han Hyo-Ju particularly remarkable in the acting department, her character was written well enough that it didn’t really matter so much to me; I couldn’t help but like the warm, affectionate, irascible Eun-Sung.

Lee Seung-Gi, meanwhile, plays Hwan, the only grandson of the lady who promises all her assets to Eun-Sung when she dies. And just in case you want to feel sorry for the guy for having h
is considerable fortune bequeathed to someone else, don’t. Grandma’s not looking to pass her legacy on to a grandson who doesn’t deserve it, and he definitely doesn’t. In fact, Hwan’s such an irresponsible, inconsiderate, arrogant jerk in the beginning of the series, it’s hard to believe he’s actually the love interest of our honest, hardworking Eun-Sung (and indeed, their relationship doesn’t develop in that way for a long time). We learn some of the reasons why he got to be that way later in the story, but nothing excuses the despicable behavior he initially exhibits. One of the wonderful things about Shining Inheritance, however, is the complex and nuanced way it shows Hwan’s transformation into a conscientious, caring person of whom his family can be proud. One might be reminded of another 2009 drama in which the rich jerk is turned around by the right girl, but unlike Boys Before Flowers, Shining Inheritance is no simple story of beauty taming the beast. It’s the story of a man who is gradually humbled and brought to bear by his grandmother’s tough love and his own personal trials and experiences as much as by his relationship with the girl. And Lee Seung-Gi does a truly wonderful job portraying the subtleties of Hwan’s transformation. I defy anybody to watch this drama and not be won over by him. It just can’t be done.

Bae Su-Bin and Moon Chae-Won play the secondary leads and round out the love square. (Can you round out a square?) Yay! I love these two, both of whom also appeared in Painter of the Wind, one of the few dramas I watched last year. Bae Su-Bin plays Park Jun-Sae, a
restaurant owner who supports and cherishes Eun-Sung as a kind of older brother/would-be lover figure. Basically, he’s the perfect man. He has integrity and honesty. He’s quite and gentle, but can also be stern. He’s sensitive, but strong. He always thinks of others before himself, he can look totally manly while crying his eyes out. And yet his endless perfection doesn’t irritate me, perhaps because he never seems to get the things he so richly deserves. Plus, he never expresses that annoying sense of entitlement to the object of his affections that makes me dislike so many other kdrama characters frustrated in love. (Lee Jun-Ki in My Girl, for example? I wanted him to die.) Jun-Sae feels disappointment, pain, and heartbreak, but never resentment towards Eun-Sung and Hwan, both of whom he respects and values. Rarely has a kdrama’s romantic 3rd wheel elicited as much sympathy in me as did Jun-Sae. Of course, Bae Su-Bin’s gorgeous eyes didn’t hurt either. Those deep, expressive pools of emotion! I noticed them in Painter, of course, but we get to see a lot more of them in this drama.

Moon Chae-Won plays Eun-Sung’s former stepsister Seung-Mi, a second female lead whom one altern
atively pities and hates. While she does lie and manipulate and generally help the ESM weave a tangled web of deceit, Seung-Mi’s not the one-dimensional caricature of vicious jealousy we’ve seen in other trendy dramas (Chae-Rin from Delightful Girl Choon-Hyang comes to mind). From a lonely, neglected childhood Seung-Mi grows into a fragile, emotionally needy young woman. (Those needs are mostly tied up in Hwan, who’s known and looked out for her since their high school days.) Seung-Mi sheds real tears over the crimes instigated by her mother, but she always finds herself becoming an equal accomplice in them. Her actions, however inexcusable, are born from hopelessness and desperation rather than from ill will. Moon Chae-Won is very easy to watch in this role; she’s stunningly beautiful and cries very naturally (really, she could give Han Hyo-Ju lessons).

Kim Mi-Sook plays Baek Sung-Hee. Ah, the ESM is such a fascinating creature. Perhaps the evil Madame Choi from
Dae Jang Geum could match ESM in greed and depravity, but nobody can rival ESM’s skills in manipulation and deception. To be able to spin lie after lie so convincingly! To commit such atrocious deeds while maintaining the external appearance of innocence and sincerity! Poor unsuspecting Eun-Sung hardly stood a chance. (Actually, speaking of Madame Choi, the dynamic between ESM and Seung-Mi reminded me quite a bit of that between Madame Choi and her niece Geum-Young in Dae Jang Geum. The same evil apprenticeship imposed by the mother figure onto her initially unwilling but ultimately compliant charge.)

And finally, Ban Hyo-Jung as Hwan’s grandmother: I’d be remiss if, after rambling on about all these other characters, I failed to mention the one who, in many ways, holds the entire story together. This lady’s pride and integrity, her strong leadership of her family and of her company, and her love for Hwan and Eun-Sung lie at the very heart of this series, making Shining Inheritance so much more than your typical, melodramatic Cinderella drama.


Okay, moving on from the individual characters to the drama as a whole… Another thing that was really cool about Shining Inheritance was the way it incorporated into the story the theme of money: what it means or doesn’t mean to people, how it drives or affects them. Throughout the story, money plays significant yet drastically different roles in the lives of every single character. Eun-Sung takes it for granted before the loss of all her assets teaches her to fear and value it. To Hwan, his wealth represents an essential part of his precious identity, but he slowly learns to understand and appreciate money honestly earned. ESM, of course, values money for the sake of security and power; to her, it is the end that justifies any conceivable means. Eun-Sung’s father’s bankruptcy and Grandma’s enormous legacy are both key features of the overarching plot, the two catalysts that set the whole story in motion. Yet the theme of money and meaning is woven into the story in smaller ways as well, such as when Hwan takes a delivery order to an elderly couple living in poverty. As the man’s shaking hand reaches under a can to retrieve a few coins and crumpled bills with which to pay him, Hwan thinks instinctively back to a time when he carelessly threw a wad of cash at a man he’d assaulted, and feels deeply shaken and ashamed. This is just one example of why Shining Inheritance shines just a little brighter for me than many other ostensible similar dramas I’ve seen. The romance is swoon-worthy and everything, but these touching moments of deeper meaning make the drama that much more special.

Which brings me to my next point of how well paced and unified the drama is overall. Many longer series (and even some of the shorter ones) can have many ongoing side storylines that at best detract from the focus of the main story and at worse are downright irritating in and of themselves. This was not the case with Shining Inheritance. The series was evenly paced such that I didn’t need to watch the whole thing with my finger hovering over the fast forward button. Moreover, all the characters and story elements were both functional to the plot and engaging and entertaining in their own right. Hwan’s family members and Eun-Sung’s friends – I grew to love them all.

Yet along with all this praise, I do have one complaint to register with Shining Inheritance, if only to demonstrate that I do have a little discernment after all. I felt like it dragged a little bit in the final few episodes. Due to its popularity, the show, originally planned for 24 episodes, was extended mid-run to 28 episodes. (Ratings-based cuts and extensions are a growing trend for kdramas right now.) So while I say that Shining Inheritance was very well paced overall, I must admit it lagged a bit in the final stretch. But at least, for that brief period in which Hwan and Eun-Sung had worked themselves into a kind of emotional impasse, other elements of the story were progressing more steadily.

So, that’s pretty much all I have to say about this drama at this time. I friggin’ liked it, okay? I thought its complexity and thoughtfulness made it stand out among other more formulaic products of its genre. Plus, its characters really got to my heart. I lost lots of sleep staying up to watch huge chunks of it at a time. Whether Shining Inheritance was good or bad, it definitely got me. But I’m pretty sure it was good.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dollhouse 2.05, "Belonging"

Oh my dear sweet goodness gracious, it is such a shame that hardly anybody is watching this show anymore, because last week’s episode totally killed!!!. It was intense, the acting was amazing, the dialogue was sickeningly provocative, and (best of all) it was coherent! I feel like “Belonging” finally succeeded in what this show has been trying to do all along, and has only been dancing around achieving. As a sci-fi allegory, Dollhouse has set itself up as a show that explores issues of exploitation and consent. Yet on multiple occasions the show has fallen on just the wrong side of the fence, with its treatment of these ideas coming off as gimmicky rather than serious. This episode, however, hit the nail dead on the center of the head; I’m still reeling from how awesome it was.

This episode explores the details of how Sierra came to be in the Dollhouse, and it is not a pretty story. Unlike the other dolls, she did not volunteer for this "service." She was originally a free-spirited artist named Priya who became the obsession of a Rossum bigwig named Nolan. Nolan tries everything he could to win her over: money, luxury, gallery showings for her paintings, the works. When she makes it very clear she’s having none of it, the guy shows his true colors. We don’t actually see this next part, but we later learn that he kidnapped her and drugged into a state of paranoid schizophrenia, then used his Rossum connections to get her admitted into the Dollhouse. Once she’s become a doll not only can he have her, but he can have her in any way he wants. He can make her say she loves him and mean it. It’s the ultimate form of abusive fantasy-fullfilment, and it’s sick, sick, sick.

When the situation is finally brought to the attention of the DH staff (by an increasingly cognizant Echo, no less), Nolan and the other higher-ups exert pressure on Adelle to imprint Sierra and hand her over to him permanently. She caves, and tells Topher to do it. Feeling repulsed and guilt-ridden at the role he played in turning Sierra into a doll in the first place, Topher rebels and imprints Sierra with Priya, the original, and sicks her on an unsuspecting Nolan. What follows is a harrowing chain of events that has irrevocable consequences and far-reaching implications for Topher, Sierra, Adelle, and everyone in the Dollhouse.

This episode marked somewhat of a turning point for Adelle. Up till now she’s always staunchly defended the “purity” of the engagements, and of the Dollhouse’s mission, to the moral dissenters like Paul and Caroline. (Remember her words to Caroline in the pilot? “What we do here helps people.”) She’s always been able to rationalize and justify the work she does, to herself and to everyone else, but in this episode she just can’t, and it’s a real blow to her. This was satisfying for me because I’ve been bothered for a while by Adelle’s pseudo-morality. She’s shown an increasing level of genuine concern for her actives' welfare, and has come to see herself as their guardian and protector. Yet this conflicts with the very nature of what she’s doing with them. When she first learns what Nolan did to Sierra, she’s livid (I would no sooner allow you near one of our other Actives than I would a mad dog near a child… Given that you're a raping scumbag one tick shy of a murderer.) And yet, as her sinister, amoral boss points out to her, Nolan isn’t really behaving differently from their other clients. Boss-man’s words to her are chilling in their ugly truthfulness:

Adelle: If we do this, what does that make us?
Boss-man: [raising his eyebrows] What are we already? … If the feeling that you’re somehow decent and moral helps you get through your day, [shrugs] that’s your business. This house, however, is our business.

She can’t keep hedging any longer; confronted with the true implications of her work and feeling the pressure from above, Adelle makes the despicable choice... Which leads to another intense scene in which she tells Topher to carry out the order to imprint Sierra permanently for Nolan.

Topher: [dazed, unbelieving] How can you expect me to do this?
Adelle: [Quietly] You’ll do it because you must. The cold reality is that everyone here was chosen because their morals had been compromised in some way. Everyone [walking towards him] except you. You, Topher, were chosen [putting her hand to his face, gently] because you have no morals. You have always thought of people as your playthings. This is not a judgment. You always take good care of your toys. But you’re simply going to have to let this one go.
Ouch! Man, that hurts. Adelle’s recent disillusionment with her own identity has left her cold and brutal and bitter. But do you see what I mean about this episode’s dialogue? During both of these exchanges, as well as the rest of the episode, I was glued to the screen: fascinated, horrified, almost unbelieving.

In addition to Adelle and Topher, both Sierra and Victor really got to shine in this episode. I’ve already gushed enough about the incredible acting (and adorableness!) of Enver Gjokaj, but Dichen Lachman is also very good. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s got a beautiful, unique look. I love that no matter what situation these characters are in, no matter what personalities they’re imprinted with, these two people always find themselves inevitably drawn to one another. It may sound cheesy and trite, but it really isn’t. Their innocence and sweetness actually provides a brilliant contrast to the darker, grittier, more cynical and sinister elements of the Dollhouse world. With the odds so hopelessly stacked against them, and with so many forces constantly driving them apart (mentally as well as physically), they still manage to find tiny, yet momentous ways to connect with each other. It really is very touching.

In other news, Dollhouse is going on hiatus until December 4th, at which time Fox will air the next six episodes in three weeks. Although the network has officially committed to airing all thirteen produced episodes of season two, the future for the show beyond that point is looking grim indeed. Yet if the show can maintain the intensity, focus, and all-around awesomeness of “Belonging” for the rest of its run, however long that may be, I guess I can’t really ask for more.

Valley of the Dolls: anti-feminist romp, precursor of modern chick lit?

You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls

So begins the novel about fortune, fame, and substance abuse in the 1960s. And yes, the writing is just as heavy-handed as the very bad opening poem. But when has this campy classic ever arrogated the status of “great writing”?

A friend of mine lent me her copy of Valley of the Dolls last month, saying that I absolutely MUST read it, and that it was one of her favorite books of all time. Seeing as how the book (and the 1967 film) has become such an enduring cult classic I figured I’d give it a shot, even though it didn’t really seem like me cup of tea.

After reading it, if I had to describe the novel in two words I would say “fascinating” and “sickening”. It was like watching one of those exposes on the Discovery Channel that are so bizarre and grotesque you just can’t look away. You cover your eyes, but can’t resist peering through a gap in your fingers. Similarly, although my gut reaction to the novel’s content was dismay and disgust, whenever I picked up the book and started reading, I just couldn’t put it down. During the week it took me to read it in its entirety, the book was as strangely addictive as the prescription drugs for which it was named, and probably just about as good for me.

As I was thinking about this novel, I actually remembered something David Carradine said on the special features of Kill Bill: that the film wasn’t really about the action or the violence in and of itself, but rather about providing an “inside look at the mind and heart of violent people.” In a similar way, Valley of the Dolls can be said to provide a compelling look into the minds and hearts of pill-popping female celebrities of the 50s and 60s, while neither glorifying nor vilifying their self-destructive lifestyles.

The novel features three friends who each manage to rise to varying degrees of fame and success in the entertainment and beauty industries, and who subsequently sink to the depths of depression and substance abuse. The book’s author, Jacqueline Susann, was an actress and writer who supposedly modeled many of her characters on contemporary celebrities. Anne is a conservative girl with a beautiful face who moves to New York to escape the restriction of her stifling New England hometown. Elegant and classy, Anne can also come off as uptight and cold, yet she harbors a life-long passion for a single man (who is completely unworthy of her irrational idolization, by the way). Neely O’Hara is an uneducated, impetuous girl who makes it big first on Broadway and then in Hollywood. Yet as her success grows, so does her ego and her increasingly uncontrollable behavior. Jennifer is a quiet, mild-mannered girl who suffers no delusions about her “acting career.” (An international sex symbol, her body has been her ticket to success). Deep down she yearns for genuine love, but is finds herself constantly objectified at every turn.

Most of the book’s characters, especially Neely, Anne, and Lyon (the object of Anne’s obsession), are pretty unpalatable in their own ways (Jennifer was the only one I really liked.) Yet I did sympathize with the fact that in a society of which blatant sexism is an integral part, independent women had very few options and were subjected to an endless supply of unnatural pressures. Yet when you get right down to it, The Valley of the Dolls is just a book about how these trashy people got to be so trashy. I got through it pretty quickly, but the overall, lasting impression was not favorable.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dollhouse: season two opens with inauspicious ratings

But, hey, what else is new for this show, huh? It’s still hanging on, if only just by a thread; after its seemingly miraculous renewal in the face of dismal ratings last spring, Dollhouse has returned to the Friday-night-graveyard of primetime where its return has been heralded once again by down-right depressing numbers. This post will cover the first three episodes of season two in one go, partly because I’ve been backlogged and haven’t gotten around to them until now, and partly because episode three rocked just a little bit more than the first two. So, yeah, I’m still enjoying this show because it’s grappling with some very heavy, far-out material (albeit often in an awkward, rough and ready kind of way.)

2.01 “Vows” In this episode, former agent Ballard (I think I’ll just call him Paul from now on) tests out his new, shaky alliance with Adelle & co. by arranging for Echo to be imprinted as an undercover agent programmed to help solve a case he himself never resolved with the FBI. So she goes undercover and actually marries this international arms dealer. Things start out well but soon go south, of course, and Paul is forced to improvise, actually using Echo’s rather unique “personality disorder” to solve the case in a rather unorthodox way. At the end of the day, when the bad guy’s all arrested and everything, Paul gets to be made Echo’s official handler, at which point the un-imprinted Echo asks him if he’ll help her find Caroline. Meanwhile, Dr Saunders struggles with the recent discovery that she herself was once an active, and that her entire personality and life as Saunders are just a construction of Topher’s, the guy she already hates (by design, it would seem.) She responds at first by finding cruel and petty ways to torment and freak him out, which culminates in this great confrontational scene between the two of them. I found it really interesting that she doesn’t seem to want to reclaim her original identity; she’s too afraid of relinquishing the reality she knows isn’t really real. To her, that would be like dying, and it scares her. Perhaps even more interesting is what Topher finally tells her: that he programmed her to question him, yes, because he thought it was necessary and prudent, but he never programmed her to hate him. She chose to. As much as I like the usual, smarmy Topher, it was really great to see this unnerved, vulnerable side of him.

2.02 “Instinct” Echo gets imprinted as the mother of a baby whose real mother died giving birth. (The father, too grief-stricken to love the baby himself, had turned to the Dollhouse to provide the infant with someone who could give it everything he needed.) When the father gets cold feet and tries to call off the engagement, we everybody learns the hard way that maternal instinct isn’t so easy for Topher to wipe away. Side note: a lot of people think that Eliza Dushku’s the weak link in the cast, and that she doesn’t have the versatility to play Echo. Well, I don’t know about that, but I must admit that she did a great job portraying the panic and terror of a mother losing her child. It was really quite affecting, I thought. Meanwhile, Madeline (the former active known as November) pays a visit to the Dollhouse for her post-release check-up, which is really just a way for Adelle to keep tabs on her. In the process, she runs into Paul, whom she of course doesn’t recognize, and also witnesses one of Echo’s more, er, colorful treatments. She remains blissfully unaware of the painful history she once shared with both of them, a seeming testament to the success of Dollhouse technology. Overall, this wasn’t a particularly strong episode, but it definitely had its moments. Even in her new incarnation of Madeline, Miracle Laurie is still a joy to watch.

2.03 “Belle Chose” Now, I really liked this episode a lot. It featured two separate, seemingly unrelated engagements that ended up converging in a hideous and hilarious way. The first is your basic fantasy fulfillment engagement, with Echo being turned into a bimb-tastic sorority girl named Kiki at the request of a creepy old lit professor. The second one involves a Rossum bigwig calling in a favor with Adelle, and she imprints Victor with the guy’s serial-killer nephew in an effort to locate his victims. When Boyd pulls Paul off of Echo’s engagement to use his FBI profiling on serial-killer-Victor, his reaction is hilarious; completely unnerved by “Kiki”, he says in a dazed kind of voice, “A serial killer? Thank god!” Unfortunately, the real killer’s uncle springs the killer-imprinted Victor from the DH and inadvertently lets him loose on society. Desperate to control the situation, Adelle forces Topher to attempt a tricky remote wipe of Victor that ends up short-circuiting the entire active grid. In all the confusion, Echo’s and Victor’s imprints get crossed: she becomes the insane killer hell-bent on finishing what he started and poor Victor becomes the flighty party-girl, shaking his thang all over an LA club. The results are both frightening (in Echo’s case) and hilarious (in Victor’s). This episode really showcased Enver Gjokaj’s many talents as an actor. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but I really like this guy. I think he’s the best of all the dolls at really embodying each new character he’s given in a totally believable way, even when it’s something as ridiculous as Kiki, or intense as the serial killer. Plus, he’s totally adorable! I hope we get to see much more of him in the future.

Overall, I think this show’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it’s complex to the point of being unwieldy. It’ll never be mainstream or popular, because it’s really not for the casual viewer. Its greatest hope for survival is to garner enough of a fringe, cult following to buoy it up. Well, here’s hoping!
Oh, and I also thought I'd post the link to this video recap of season one, which is a little long but does an excellent job of bringing together the most compelling elements of the first season and setting us up for furutre developments.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Austen's Persuasion is passable

Back in February I made the somewhat belated new year’s resolution that by the time 2010 rolls around I will have finished reading all six of Austen’s novels. To be perfectly frank, this decision was prompted in large part by a delightfully adorable film called The Jane Austen Book Club, which convinced me, among other things, that having read all six of them was either an essential part of my female education or, at the very least, a worthwhile endeavor. It actually wasn’t that daunting of an undertaking, as I’d already read half of them and only had three more to go. Unfortunately the first of the remaining three that I read rather put me off the whole idea. Let’s just say that Mansfield Park won’t be making my top ten list. The arrival of fall, however, has reminded me of my resolution, and that I have only a few months in which to read the final two. And so I cranked through Persuasion last month, and was quite pleased to find it much more enjoyable than MP. If I had to describe the novel in as many words as its title is long, that one word would be “pleasant”. Definitely not as brilliant or hilarious as Emma, nor as dramatic or sweeping as Pride and Prejudice, but overall a very enjoyable story expressed with all the piercing clarity and wit that generally characterize Austen’s novels.

Persuasion features Anne Elliot, the daughter of a noble family who, despite her rank and wealth, has never married despite reaching the lofty age of twenty-seven. Her immediate family are a rather proud and foolish lot who don’t really know how to value Anne’s modesty and good sense. In fact, the only person who really estimates Anne’s true worth is her good friend Lady Russell, an acquaintance of her late mother. The story begins when Anne’s father, who has exceeded his rather generous income, deigns to rent out their estate to another family while her removes himself to Bath. Anne is quite shocked to learn that their new tenants are the relations of a certain individual with whom she was once very intimately acquainted. They were engaged to be married many years ago, but she had broken it off at the disapproval of her family and the advice of Lady Russell, who strongly disapproved. The man, a naval officer named Wentworth, felt wronged and betrayed and cut off all contact with Anne, seemingly forever. Now that circumstances have brought them together again after ten years’ separation, Anne must go through the painful exercise of facing a man who has risen to success and made his fortune while she herself has shrunk to the relative social obscurity of an unhappily unmarried woman, and of enduring the cold politeness of the resentful man she once rejected but never truly stopped loving.

A large part of my enjoyment of this novel stemmed the fact that Austen does an excellent job of building
the emotional suspense leading up to the reunion of Anne and Captain Wentworth, and of maintaining it all throughout their painfully awkward subsequent encounters. It’s all the more agonizing to think of them both suffering such strong feelings while maintaining the front (to themselves and to the general company, ignorant of their history) of indifference and disinterest. That two people who were once so silly-in-love should now be reunited only to be perpetually estranged! It’s all very dramatic and heart wrenching, of course. And of course there’s also a happy ending, as with all Austen’s novels, and Anne and Wentworth do finally come to understand one another once again, having both grown into somewhat wiser and more mature individuals than they were when they first knew each other. Yet stories like these usually hinge less on the destination of marital bliss than on the course of the journey that leades there, and Persuasion is no different.

What I liked about this book was that both of the main characters have healthy flaws to grapple with before they can achieve their happily-ever-after. Perhaps Anne is a little bit on the long-suffering side, but to nowhere near the ridiculous degree of the frustratingly saintly Fanny Price, for example. I like that by the end of the book both Anne and Wentworth come to realize that if they’d been a little less foolish (she more discerning and he more forgiving and understanding) then would probably have spared themselves years of unhappiness. My one complaint about the novel is that I think it was hampered by the lack of any real communication between the two main characters for almost the entire duration of the story. I guess I felt that their estrangement was drawn out too long and then resolved a tad too quickly. Still, I enjoyed this book. I rooted for its characters. I had fun reading it. It definitely wasn’t my favorite Austen novel (so far), but it was still pretty good. Serviceable.

Oh, and since I forgot to work a quote in there somewhere, I’ll just awkwardly tack one on to the end of this review, kay? So here’s Anne pondering the potential pitfalls of poetry (alliteration totally not intended):
It was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.
Whatever Austen may be writing, the gal certainly has a way with words, doesn’t she?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sand Chronicles, vol. 6: the emotional roller coaster continues

And so, four months after the release of
volume five, Viz finally publishes the sixth volume of this award-wining series, which is so dense and poignant for a shoujo title. And don’t let the cover image (which depicts a laughing, carefree, happy-go-lucky Ann and Fuji having the time of their life) fool you; as always, Hinako Ashihara manages to draw readers through the emotional wringer with all the angsty turmoil in volume six. Yet the conflict rarely feels overly manufactured or contrived for the sake of cheating readers into the emotions. The characters are genuine and complex, and while the overall feel of the story is very subdued and melancholic, it has some very thoughtful, sensitive, and truly touching moments.

Summer, Age 18: This volume is divided into two chapters that focus on the summer and winter of Ann’s eighteenth year, respectively. In the first part, Ann and Fuji take a trip to Izu with their Tokyo friends to get away from the city and do some studying (they’re preparing for their college entrance exams). Ann has finally decided to start dating Fuji, but they’re taking it very slowly. After everything that happened with Daigo she’s not quite ready to dive into another intense relationship, but she does want to move on and continue living her life. Unfortunately, when she hears the rumor from Shimane about Daigo dating Ayumu (remember that pushy trouble-maker from volume one?), all the pain comes rushing back to her and we see that despite her cheerful front, she hasn’t moved on at all. Meanwhile, her Tokyo friends are all convinced things are moving way too slowly with her and Fuji and decide to take matters into their own hands. And so, feeling hurt and raw and finding herself constantly thrown together with Fuji in Izu, she ends up sleeping with him for the first time. Afterwords, she realizes that as much as she likes Fuji, a part of her has just been using him to ease the pain of her separation from Daigo. For a girl who already has self-esteem issues, this is a pretty heavy realization. (I used the person it would hurt the most… But, I needed someone to rescue me so badly… When it comes to causing people pain, I’m the expert.)

I have to say, I was pretty disappointed in Ann at this point. I mean, the whole reason she broke up with Daigo was because she felt guilty about the emotional strain she was putting on him by needing to be “rescued” from her personal demons, and by depending on him to save her when she couldn’t really be saved. And now she’s doing the same thing with Fuji, whom she doesn’t even love in the same way. On the other hand, she does seem to recognize her own failings (indeed, nobody’s harder than her than she is on herself), and she genuinely wants to become a stronger person. Yet with the powerful negative example of her own mother’s suicide, and in light of her recent struggles, she’s finding it difficult to maintain hope that she will ever be able to change.

Winter, Age 18: This chapter takes place half a year later and focuses on more of the peripheral characters. Fuji convinces Shika to come clean with their mother about the secret that has driven the three of them apart for so long. This is a huge deal for Shika, and will probably go a long way towards her getting her life back in order, and yet she still hasn’t forgiven herself for the way she took her resentment out on Ann and Daigo the previous year. So she decides to escape her sheltered life in Shimane and spend some time studying abroad. She writes to Ann from Canada, and the two start to rekindle their erstwhile friendship. I think this is a good example of a certain strength and resilience of Shika’s that Ann lacks. They both have these really emotionally scarring experiences in their pasts, and they’ve both hurt people they care about in different ways as a result. They both want to mature into stronger individuals, but Shika’s the one with the chutzpah to actually do something about it. It must have taken a lot of courage for a sheltered girl like her to venture alone into a foreign country, but ultimately I think it will strengthen her.

Of course, Ann’s got a lot on her plate right now, and can’t exactly drop everything and move to Canada. In addition to her college entrance exams, she also discovers that her father and his “friend” Kaede are really more than just friends – and Kaede’s pregnant! I really liked this side story because we got a deeper look at Kaede’s character (she’s been around since volume two), and even a glimpse into her relationship with Miwako (Ann’s mother) and Ann’s father when they were younger. That’s what I like about this series: all the character’s are three-dimensional, not just the main ones. Ann’s relationship with Kaede is pretty good, so this is generally happy news for her, if a little surprising. She’s been so wrapped up in her own problems she hasn’t really noticed what’s been going on right in front of her. I also liked the part when Ann’s grandparents came to the city from Shimane to greet Kaede formally. The grandmother especially is great; if Ann’s looking for a strong female role model, she need look no further.

As for Daigo, we don’t really see much of him this volume. He’s been studying like crazy to try to bring his grades up and get into college, and Ayumu’s been helping him out nonstop. She’s really not as bad a person as we’d been lead to believe in volume one, and she’s grown up a lot since then. She still has a thing for Daigo, but of course he’s still hung up on Ann. Fuji, meanwhile, has come to understand that no matter how hard he tries he will never mean as much to Ann as Daigo did, and the two finally come clean to each other about their feelings in the last scene of the volume. She thanks him and apologizes for everything. He reminds her of how she helped him when nobody else could (by which I assume he means that time he ran away a few years previously). He hugs her and tells her that somewhere out there is a person who will make her happier than he or Daigo ever could. Ann thinks about how even among the millions of people in the world, nobody could possibly be as kind as Fuji or make her feel as special as Daigo. And I tear up just a little bit.

Ah, Sand Chronicles, you always get to me. In a world of manga where many series are hard to read because they’re contrived and shallow and gratuitous, this one is hard to read because it’s intense and painful and real.