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This show was canceled due to poor ratings. While it started strong, it lost many viewers immediately, and never quite made them up across its thirteen week run. As much as I thought the show didn’t fully live up to its pilot episode, it’s still unfortunate that we won’t have any more. It’s a good thing then, that it ended so strongly.

By the end, Awake worked and didn’t work. It did round out its series premise pretty well, creating a whole narrative that is satisfying as science-fiction drama, but in the moment was clunky and awkward. The show didn’t need to be thirteen hours long, and would’ve worked better as a movie, as the best moments were those pertinent to the over-arching story — those in the first episode and the last two or three.

These moments, especially those in the series finale, are pretty intense and actually unpredictable. It’s good to see Michael Britten take risks and do things we don’t agree with, or put himself into dangerous situations — and lose at times. In this episode, he’s getting closer to the truth we already know, which puts his red reality in jeopardy.

*Spoilers to follow*

The big question throughout the series is ‘which reality is the real reality,’ and I did have a feeling that neither were, but with a title like Awake, I should’ve realized it was all a dream. So by the end the show becomes an interesting meditation on grief; it’s the story of a man grappling with the loss of loved ones and the journey toward acceptance. Accepting that one of his family members is dead runs parallel to accepting one reality, and in the show’s final scene we see that he’s finally awake, and his family is alive.

To reach this happy ending he must do as he always does, investigate, and it’s a great test to a seasoned detective. It’s a good story and when the ending revealed what was what the whole time, my first reaction was “lame,” but then the full weight of the situation caught up to it and the scene became a touching, satisfying moment that left me feeling pretty good about the series.

But then I thought back to those episodes in the middle, and on the whole, Awake was not a great show. It’s a narrative tugged back and forth by the realities of the television industry, which makes it a miracle that the story ended with an ending. There remain some loose threads, but it’s all good. Because when it’s over, we had in fact spent a whole lot of time following Jason Isaacs go around and solve cases by using parallel worlds, and that was pretty good.

And when time came to uncover the truth behind those worlds, we see the truth behind the series, that it was about a man struggling to overcome a fractured mind after a traumatic incident,who could know grief and accept it before everything returned to normal. Now that the show is over, sitcoms continue on, and we’ll wait for the next good, thought-provoking scifi show — just as it always is.

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Looks like they’re headed for a season ender, a nice three episode arc. General consenus is that this is the best episode since the pilot, and that’s true, without a doubt. It kind of reminds me of Dexter — if Dexter was a network TV show. It’d still have that ramp-up at the end that hooks you, but since Awake is a little watered down in terms of drama and most things, the hook doesn’t penetrate that deeply. I’ll hope for a second season, unless the conclusion is something real dumb, but this didn’t become the major science-fiction show I hoped it might.

Still, it is entertaining, and the areas it does explore offer some interesting dialogues. In this episode Michael’s fallen out of one of his reality, and must finally grieve the loss of his son. He’s also haunted by hallucinations, and this leads him on a spiraling journey of seeming self-destruction that ends with a discovery — the accident that created two worlds was no accident.

Now he’s thinking the Lord of the Rings fan from Clerks II is responsible, and we’ll see where that goes. I really liked that guy (Mr. Blonde, according to Wikipedia), he did a good job acting out Michael’s self-talk.

What starts out as intriguing, reopening the question of which world is true, and pushing BD Wong to affirm his theory with more aggression, follows through with healthy human drama. At the center is a man grappling with the confusing loss of a loved one — the dream worlds shattering becomes an interesting expression of his loneliness and frustration. It’s a good episode, and a good show.

Return to the Awake Episode Guide

David Simon recently apologized for some comments he made about the current state of Wire fandom, where he criticized the general attitude of current viewers. Note that The Wire‘s been off the air for four years now, but DVD sales have been better than ever. This is my general experience — I bought the first season a while back and watched the first few episodes before taking a long break. In college I finished it, somewhat reluctant to return to something with too many characters to keep track off and a headaching mix of street talk and police jargon, but I was so moved by the ending, and one scene in particular, that I had to watch the rest as fast as possible. So I can’t help but feel like I fall under this umbrella of those who “[walked] sideways into the thing and act like they were there all along,” and that a future endeavor to offer what so many have already, a fan’s analytical perspective, would be “picking it apart now like it’s a deck of cards or like [I’ve been] there the whole time or … understood it the whole time.”

Well, I’m no stranger to coming into series sideways. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dexter, and Breaking Bad are my only favorite shows on right now, but I don’t get Showtime up in this dorm, and I only watch It’s Always Sunny when it’s on, not when it’s new. They’re rare — I found Firefly, Arrested Development, and Party Down after they’d been cancel, and I felt that guilt of ‘I should have been there to ‘support’ it,’ because they all ended before their time. Mitchell Hurwitz doesn’t harbor any resentment (publicly) that nobody saw Arrested Development despite all those Emmys, but I think Simon’s got more reason for his statements (which he’s seen apologized for).

Arrested Development may be extremely funny, but The Wire, especially from a creator’s statement, is important on a social level. David Simon was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun before making it on TV through his books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, and experienced the collapse of relevance in his beloved medium — the Internet was running papers out of town, but didn’t itself maintain the same journalistic integrity. He moved to fiction with The Wire, where a message or two could be brought across in a powerful medium, that of popular entertainment.

It got across to many, but not that many. The Wire was at the time and now widely hailed by critics, some of which considered it to be among the greatest shows ever made, but it got no Emmy attention, and consistently pulled poor ratings. It seems a pattern was showing, and for a man with a lot to say, this is frustrating.

Flash-forward to 2012, and like all cult hits, The Wire‘s popular. On every Breaking Bad video I’ve seen on YouTube the top comments are typically “breaking Bad > The Wire” or “Breaking Bad and the wire are best shows evar” — it’s unsettling the difference four years can make, but for whatever reason there’s a better audience now than there was back then, but how can one know that?

I suppose The Wire didn’t have a high concept story premise, or a lauded lead performance (I mean Christ, Dominic West wasn’t even around for Season 4 — that doesn’t happen), and like Arrested Development, actually required watching, so it was perhaps doomed from the start. But now people can go back and pick up all the DVDs and appreciate it as I’ve done, but that’s obviously not the way it should be. We should’ve been there from the start, but we weren’t. The team struggled through five seasons — it’s a miracle they even got that far.

So after David Simon’s acknowledged this reality, it’s become a little uncomfortable to be a fan, even after rationalizing his issue. Everyone needs to bitch after a while, and Simon’s got a reason.

But it’s hard to watch The Wire and not want to talk about it. Because it’s not a show I can easily recommend to people (another problem with ratings I’d imagine), whether because it’s not as fun as Dexter (my roommate), or it’s too grim and violent (my mom), or it’s too police procedural and not straight gangsta shoot em up (my buddy), I’ll use this site to examine it in a range of ‘fannish fan’ to ‘aspirationally literary,’ which isn’t too far off the subject matter of Dreck Fiction. This may be a predominantly science-fiction-related site, it’s also discussed movies like Menace II Society and Baby Boy, because universal themes and ideas exist there, and in the case of The Wire it’s taught me a lot about effective longform storytelling, which will be the overarching theme of this Dreck Feature.

But in the Prelude segments, I figure I’ll try to exorcise all the fannish impulses first…

Awake would benefit from fleshing out its secondary characters. This show in particular is at a disadvantage because it’s science-fiction, or science-fictiony-feeling fantasy, so there’s an obligation to world-building that when neglected leaves viewers in the lurch, but all shows create worlds, and therefore all must populate them reasonably. Some shows that’s sort of the premise, like with The Wire. Every minor character has depth, even this hardcore killer Chris — it’s all in the eyes, and the dramatic looks — is more than an archetype, and the show’s lead can take pretty much an entire season off. I think Dexter is a better example because, well that show’s called Dexter, it’s about this guy Dexter. And yet it’s filled with memorable characters who are all given their due.

But Dexter is nearly an hour long, ten to fifteen minutes longer than Awake, and without worrying about commercial breaks and content. But it’s similarly high-premise, and both shows are good. So why aren’t Britten’s wife or various detective partners as interesting as Mesuka, Angel, and even LaGuerta? Awake is also similarly plot-heavy, and it doesn’t have the time to breathe.

I guess it’s all about structure. And… networks. I give credit to a station like AMC, who evidently (well, clearly) has more balls than something like TNT: We Know Drama. Vince Gilligan’ll tell you that he had a great pitch with the folks at TNT for Breaking Bad, and the execs loved it, but knew they’d be fired if they greenlit this show about a man’s spiral into the drug trade. It’s not the direction the network’s going, and as long as there are other networks around, it’s not a big deal.

But NBC? They gotta keep moving, because all eyes are watching.

Return to the Awake Episode Guide

This episode carefully balances a stand-alone premise, ongoing character and plot issues, and newly developing threads that tie into the themes of sanity and the mind. A hostage situation strikes a little too close to home for Detective Britten, as its being run by a schizophrenic who sees things and has, perhaps like Britten, created an elaborate narrative delusion. What we do know about our hero is that he’s having hallucinations and is beginning to lose track of his worlds, mixing up a phone bill and a permission slip in the same where his son hides a girlfriend in plain sight. It becomes up to him to diffuse this situation, all the while learning more about himself and these new problems.

What’s interesting about this episode is the concentrated focus, and BD Wong’s character interacting with Britten outside of therapy. We start to get more out of their relationship, and it was an interesting twist, though not nearly as shocking as the one at the very end of the episode.

Awake manages to maximize its medium, that of network drama and episodic narrative. It’s limited because dramatic beats must be measured to line up with commercial breaks, and you’ll never hear an organic ‘fuck’ or two in a tense situation, but by building on the situation and character, does well with the long running-time, the episode to episode structure. There is mystery and revelation, and the promise of more mystery and revelation next week.

The next episode airs 10pm Eastern Standard Time on Thursday, NBC

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Just as I was starting to lose faith that the show was going anywhere, a good episode like this happens. They address what I just mentioned in the last post, that sooner or later somebody’s going to catch on to the fact that he always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

So far the strongest element of Awake, aside from its premise, are the premises from episode to episode. There are strong stories here told well, but there’s little time for character growth. Michael Britten’s been pretty much the same throughout, despite his situation, which worsens and changes constantly. That aspect offers compelling television, but Awake feels unconventional in that there are no jaw-dropping character moments. Unfortunately because of this Awake seems to fall short of a genuinely great TV show, but this is only the fifth episode, and as these reviews get shorter and less timely, the episodes get better.

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Another fine episode. It’s hard for any other TV show to really get me going right now, because I’m making my way through what might just be my favorite drama, an older show, and that’s difficult. But Awake is pretty good, it just isn’t eye-opening, ass-knocking-on-to. I like the formula, like the character, like that it deals in death and grief, something pretty rare in modern pop culture.

Britten runs into a familiar face, his son Rex’s old babysitter Kate. Only, he runs into her in both worlds, and she isn’t the same across the two. In the ‘red’ world, Kate is doing quite well for herself, and in the ‘blue’ one, she isn’t so much. It’s interesting and sad, and the things they’re doing with this dynamic seem novel each episode. The science-fiction elements may not add up to a show that really provokes thought like The X-Files, or TNG (as I hear) or even The Twilight Zone (to name three, unconnected scifi shows), but we’re still at the Lost-influenced mystery stage. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts, but genuinely hope that in the second half of the season they get deeper into mythology and uncover more tools to play around with.

In this episode I also got a greater feeling that eventually Britten’s going to be investigated by his rookie partner, because in one episode it will be suspicious that he knew that thing, and that rookie seems to second-guess everything Britten does.

El next episode airs same time, same place. Be there, be not square

Return to the Awake Episode Guide

There’s a more clearly defined structure here, and for the moment, a formula: Michael Britten uses his power (in a more cliche script he’d probably note that it’s not a power, it’s a curse) to solve the case — and in this case, the life of his son is at stake. I don’t watch Law and Order, or better yet, don’t know anything about the justice system, so it’s hard for me to say if the detective’s investigatory skills are evident or applied in a compelling way. It seemed to be pretty light on the whole figuring stuff out aspect, but there’s a lot going on in this show that the writers need to juggle, and there are plenty of cop dramas out there, many of which under the Law and Order brand.

It’s a good premise for an episode, having a guy living in one ‘dream’ and dead in the ‘other,’ and having Britten talking his way around those who don’t, obviously, believe he’s living in two realities. If the rest of the show follows this formula for stand-alone episodes, it’ll be pretty good, but I have the feeling an arc is about to rear its head, which will demystify things for better or worse. The future of the series, and this is such a dumb thing to say, depends on how much the creators thought the series through. I would highly and hugely hope that they know how the show ends, or at least, how the season ends. But I’ve said that before.

An interesting family drama moment happens here, where Michael’s son confesses to the tennis coach that he’s having trouble with his father — Michael keeps trying to reach out, and the son can’t have it. What he’s feeling is guilt: he’d rather his mother survived. Try as he may to may to make things up with his son, it won’t be enough, as he’s making up for lost time. Problem with being a police, though it sure comes in handy later on.

The next episode of Awake airs next Thursday, March 15 at 10:00pm…

Return to the Awake Episode Guide

I don’t have too much to say about this episode of Awake, particularly because I managed to see it live, and haven’t had the time to write about it since. In this episode, a new case opens and we get tension between his newly promoted partner in one universe, and more focus on his son in the other. I feel like the structure they’re beginning to get is that mix of episodic and series arc — the stand alone complex, as the Ghost in the Shell series had dubbed it, where ‘stand alone’ episodes are these cases, and the ‘complex’ episodes are the narrative reason we come back every week. In Awake, they’re both in the same episode, so we get Britten investigating between two worlds, dealing with skepticism at every turn, and learning how to cope with his family, an ongoing process.

The latter area is also an exploration of the world, which got a little bigger with the introduction of the chief character, who knows about Britten’s issue, and whose existence implies a greater mystery. Awake is the kind of show that may disappoint with its reveal, much like Lost, but I’m hoping that unlike that show, the guys behind Awake know how the series ends. In fact, I don’t know how one could start airing a show without having mapped out the story beforehand, but that’s the medium. There’s a business end of television that stands in the way a lot of the time.

I didn’t get a good read on this episode. I enjoyed it, but it felt like a continuation of the pilot in less than a good way. The jumpy style remains, which makes it feel hip, but I wonder how this show would’ve held up were I to watch it as I do all other shows, three at a time and on DVD. Luckily now I won’t have to wait long for the next episode, and hopefully I’ll have this review up sooner.

I also wanted to talk about the NBC show I sat through right before this, called Up All Night, which when paired with a show called Awake, makes me think that they’re sending me a subliminal message to stay up for the NBC late night news. So Up All Night, with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, is a sitcom without a laugh track, so that’s one point in its favor. I don’t know what the deal is with these new shows like The Big Bang Theory and Whitney that have laugh tracks, but whatever. Aside from Will Arnett and the occasional appearance by Jason Lee, of Kevin Smith and My Name is Earl fame, that’s the only point in its favor.

This episode in particular was dreadful, talking about both feminism in the work place, and homosexuality. While the feminism part was embarassing, it’s the homosexuality part that really didn’t jibe with me. To their credit, they didn’t telegraph that they wanted to make a social statement, unlike other shows like The Simpsons, which in its 2007ish era seemed to rip topics from the local paper and say, “This week we’re gonna talk about evolution vs. creationism in schools… Go…” However, it isn’t any less flawed.

Their conceit is simple: gay people are hip. We know this, they’re so trendy because that’s just how gay people are. Setting aside that that’s in itself a dangerous stereotype (because all stereotypes by nature are dangerous), the biggest crime they perpetrate here is skipping point B in an A to C road to ‘how America sees gay people.’ Right now, we don’t see them very well. Especially in lesser TV shows, gay people have been depicted as either flamboyant and sassy males, or butchy or supermodel fantasy females. In this show, they aren’t being depicted at all, due to writing in a constrained, 22-minute format, but we’re being literall told that they’re cool.

You can’t tell us that these gay people are cool, and that gay people are now cool. That’s not gonna work on anyone. Good intentions, but you’re doing it wrong. It’s very nearly condescending, in fact — thinking that by saying “Man those gay people are cool,” I’m gonna start thinking it without thinking about anything, or letting my own personal feelings influence me. This is especially egregious for me after having started The Wire, a nearly decade old TV show whose character Omar, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, was one of its claim to fames.

Omar is a ‘stick-up boy,’ so he goes around robbing drugdealers, and he gets wrapped up in The Wire’s story by hitting the stash of the show’s main criminal group, the Barksdale organization. He carries around a shotgun and has a big old scar running down his face (Williams’s scar, in actuality), and is pretty much the most badass character on the show. Barack Obama even said so. As we discover midway in season one, Omar is gay. There you have it. McNulty didn’t say, “Man, Omar is such a badass. He makes me really think about gay people, how they aren’t just flamboyant and sassy.” He shows, doesn’t tell. His sexuality isn’t even a huge element of the show. He gets called a faggot or made fun of every now and then, but note that it’s always in a courtroom or when he’s not around.

When he is around, people start running and shouting “Omar’s coming, yo!” I’m not saying that Will Arnett needs to carry around a shotgun for Up All Night to be a smarter show, but it needs to go in one direction or the other: commit to saying something real and do it right, or do nothing and focus on the comedy you’re attempting. I don’t 100% hate you, as you don’t have a laugh track telling me when to laugh, but I do 98% hate you, as you do this poorly conceived grab at a social statement that tells me what to think. I might agree with you (not that all gay people are hip, but that they aren’t all America-hating weasels), but a lot of people don’t, and you might be doing damage.

The next episode of Awake airs at 10:00 PM Eastern, March 15…
Up All Night right before then

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“The hunt is on, and you’re the prey.”

Apparently it’s hip, I suppose edgy, to claim that The Godfather Part II is better than the original, and I feel like the same can be said of Menace II Society and its closest analog, Boyz N the Hood. John Singleton’s debut is hailed as an American classic, praised for its direction, acting, writing, and emotional depth. It was one of the first times such subject matter crossed Hollywood screens, and it sparked years of troubled black poor gangster movies, many taking place in South Central, LA, including at least two more Singleton pictures. The Hughes Brothers’ debut, Menace II Society, seems to be one of these movies, observing the life and dangers of these troubled youth in a world of drugs, guns, and violence. I’m sure I first heard of this movie through Boyz N the Hood, and some people feel that it’s more successful in achieving what Boyz did.

I will say Menace II Society is a good movie. It’s heartfelt and intense, gritty in its portrayal of life and completely unforgiving. Characters are not black-and-white, and there’s the presence of death at every angle. There are also a few familiar faces here, including Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Duke, and Charles Dutton, who I thought was the best part of the movie. However, there are a few few huge problems I had while watching it, even though in the end I did think it was solid. Right off the bat there’s voiceover, and the subject matter made me think of City of God — you know, the whole Goodfellas deal. City of God was more successful, as voiceover is a very, very delicate thing, and it was also more successful at structure.

Both movies have disjointed and ugly plot structures. They’re coming of age stories, but so is Boyz N the Hood, which is paced and scripted incredibly well. Menace II seems to jump around from moment to moment, never focusing on any of the many secondary characters, not even O-Dog, long enough to get a good feel for them, or get invested in. The story is that there is no story, it’s just a slice of life, which is fine, but in this case had massive bearing on where the characters ended up at the credits, and what I felt about it.

The thing is that it’s more of an unfocused narrative — the writer attempted to fit an entire world into 97 minutes, and 97 minutes just isn’t enough. Throughout the whole thing Caine, our main acharacter, seemed aloof as he drifted on; at one point his grandfather asks him if he wants to live or die, in reference to his constant risking of life on the streets. Caine answers, “I don’t know,” and while that’s a pretty heavy moment that carries weight throughout, it also characterizes him the most. He lives fast and does what he wants, while being pulled away by Jada Pinkett’s character and his grandparents, who he lives with (his parents had died).

What’s going on here is the approach the writer and the Hughes Brothers took, to observe Caine and the rest of the cast without judging them conclusively (Caine is a good guy, but he does rob at gunpoint and hang up on a girl he got pregnant). In the opening, Caine watches in horror as O-Dog murders the innocent albeit racist Korean grocers, and can’t stand to see the surveillance footage that the killer proudly totes around. But he’s forced to accept it — this is the life, and there’s no escaping. Indeed, the two characters with an eye to move out are killed by the end, as if some higher power knew, and couldn’t let it happen.

So it’s a movie that’s heavier on theme than it is on the dramatic aspect — we see familiar but compelling things, like “Hey man you have a life to lose, you gotta get out of here” and all that, but because the characters are designed this way, it doesn’t hit as hard as the before mentioned Boyz N the Hood, which balanced theme with emotion to a great end. Tre might just be in every scene; it’s very nearly a third person limited narrative, and yet we have a good idea of who Doughboy, Ricky, and Furious are, so that when their characters are measured in the film’s most heated moments toward the end, it’s overwhelming but organic and logical. Nothing comes as a surprise that shouldn’t, and we care about everything that happens every step of the way.

In the end, it’s a matter of expectations. Go into Menace II Society expecting a gritty look at life on the streets with touches of poigniancy every now and again. Don’t expect, like I did, another Boyz N the Hood, though the two share many elements. And if you can get over the voiceover, which as we discover is more in line with Sunset Boulevard‘s, there’s not much else to complain about, other than the spotty and sometimes over-the-top acting. Charles Dutton’s scene is great though, and the violence was completely unexpected. The Hughes Brothers are really channeling Paul Verhoeven here, but when a gangster gets shot to pieces here, nobody’s laughing.

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