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Spoilers for The Wire, Season 2

Inception, a pretty obscure film by director Christopher Nolan (Insomnia), was a watershed event for science-fiction in film. Suddenly there was, in this new decade, what there was in the nineties — sleek, sexy, thinking man’s sci-fi in cinema. Movies like Source Code, In Time, and The Adjustment Bureau could see the light of day and get the anticipatory respect of major movies in other genres, even if not all of these turned out critically successful. At least people are going for it now. Sure, there continues to be drivel from the drivel store like Resident Evil: Underworld Awakening of the Afterlife and the flashy big budget stuff like John Carter (but I actually want to see that movie), but this new trend of smart, confident sci-fi in Hollywood brings a smile to face like the recent Drive does — all my life I’ve been complaining that we haven’t had these movies, in Drive‘s case a violent, R-rated American action movie, and then… well, shit. We get it. Bitch, and you shall receive. (Not really though, please don’t subscribe to that philosophy).

I like to think that it was this minor renaissance in film that helped NBC’s new drama Awake find its way onto TV screens everywhere, this new attitude that maybe science-fiction isn’t for jerks, and not the recent trinity of serious sci-fi on TV: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes. Those three can be viewed as stepping stones to the genre, because Lord knows that many BSG watchers would be dumbfounded by Stargate Atlantis — these people who are real, not fanboys. While those shows did a lot to popularize the genre and give way to further serious fare like Fringe and Falling Skies, they all fizzled out at the end. Now, I didn’t see any of these save for the first season of Lost and the BSG miniseries, but reports from the field seem to indicate that Heroes went to hell fast, BSG had a WTF ending, and Lost made a lot of missteps through its long stumble to an equally WTF ending.

It’s the medium, it’s television that’s both a blessing and a curse for storytelling. On the positive side, we get something we don’t in movies, not even in a lot of long-running franchises — optimal character development. After roughly 20 hours of watching The Wire, Prez punches Major Valchek and my eyes go wide. This is a character who started out a total asshole — he’s a rookie and goes a little overboard on the streets, roughing somebody up and consequently getting stuck on desk duty. Here, he does a total 180. This guy’s got a real talent for this job, and as we discover, he’s a really good guy. At the start of season two we’re totally on the same page. Towards the end of the season he’s being yelled at by this guy Valchek, who assembled the detail, and is now ending it. Prez doesn’t like this, also doesn’t like being called a shitbird, and punches him.

I was shocked. I was totally invested in this character and couldn’t believe he did something so dangerous to himself. Lieutenant Daniels says, in his always cool but firm manner, “Detective. My office. Now,” and he turns in his gun, walks off screen. It was an amazing moment, and this is the guy who I hated, and enjoyed hating just last season. Of course, that’s twenty hours of content ago. TV is like a book — you can put it down and come back to it later (unless it’s Dexter, in which case that shit gets watched basically all at once), but such is not the case with movies. There are memorable characters in movies, but we don’t get to spend a lot of time with them. Even characters who we do, like James Bond, don’t take out ‘episodes’ to delve into character studies. In TV, we can have these episodes and moment to moment characterizations, so this is the positive aspect.

The negative aspect applies doubly so to science-fiction television: it’s got to last. It’s restrained to so many things, episodic structure, content (for network television), and length. The perfect SF series are those like The X-Files, or Star Trek, where they can open a new case or travel to a new planet every episode, and the self-contained plot works like a short story adapted to the universe. Usually these series aren’t high concept like movies are. Obviously they’re brilliant ideas, and their premises are suited for TV because they allow for many stories in the future.

Awake, on the other hand, is extremely high-concept, and a brilliant idea (which as I realize now, is actually fantasy, but in this context, it’s all the same). Briefly, detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) finds himself in two worlds after a car accident left his wife and son dead. In one world, his wife is alive, and the son is gone. In the other, the son is alive, the wife a memory. He switches between these worlds involuntarily, closing his eyes at night and waking to the other, and of course — nobody believes him. As the two cases he’s investigating begin to bleed over, his two shrinks (B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones) intensify their sessions, which become increasingly distressing. Dr. Lee takes the aggressive route, asserting that he must shake this other reality, while Dr. Evans attempts to solidify their reality as true.

The future of this series is of such concern because the pilot was astonishing. Yes, good for a network TV show, but also effective drama. Jason Isaacs, who’s always awesome but rarely the lead, heads up a cast of talented TV regulars, and the script touches on intriguing areas without delving too deeply into obfuscating philosophical or psychological territory. This is one of the rarest things I’ve ever seen — and network TV’s track record for shows I like or even express interest in (Firefly, Drive, Terminator, anything with Nathan Fillion or Summer Glau, it seems) makes me think that we haven’t got much time.

The main problem is sustainability, and this is something I find myself repeating from the first and only review of the show I read, on IGN.com. Will the continuing adventures of Michael Britten be episodically structured, or is this going to feel like a 350 minute movie? What will future stories look like, how will this premise continue to hold our attention — and with this level of urgency? This is probably why speculative fiction is often rare on television, but since we have it here and now, we’ll wait and see.

350 minutes was a rough estimate for one season of TV, but either way, the show is going to be multiple hours long, and the story will have to conform to that structure. At this moment, the premise and where we are now with the story don’t seem to match up with that idea. This feels like a miniseries, if anything, or the first act in a three act movie. Of course, this is nothing to complain about, only fret. This is the only show I’ve wanted to seek out and keep up with (we don’t get Showtime), so I’m pretty excited, I’ve never had that feeling of “can’t wait for next week.” What’s coming next week will give a better indication to the future of Awake, whether we’ll see something as artistically successful as its opening, or wake up from this beautiful dream, wake to the grey realm of reality TV and sitcoms with laugh tracks and — oh, I turned the TV off.

The next episode of “Awake” premieres March 8, 10pm Eastern.

Return to the Awake Episode Guide

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Before I talk about the number 1 on this list, which I’m not sure I even want to talk about, I figured to take a quick stop at the Worst Things of the Year, things that you must avoid. In no particular order, because I just cannot decide… (I left one thing off this list because it happens to be one of my friend’s favorite movies, and I’d feel bad trashing on it… let’s say it’s a particular Tony Scott movie with a particular actress from a particular pirate movie…)

The Takashi Miike Catalogue

Well I still have yet to finish Sukiyaki Western Django, and when I do expect to see a review; I’m torn so far. I have however seen — let’s see… two halves, one third, and one whole of his movies. None were good. He had probably the weakest segment on Three… Extremes, and everything else — 13 Assassins, Ichi the Killer, and Shinjuku Triad Society, were all terrible.

There’s no filmmaker I’ve wanted to like more than Miike but simply could not — he turns me in the opposite direction every time. I look at his filmography and see titles and recognize a few of them, but they all seem to be about ultraviolent guys busting each others’ brains out. Oh right, extreme Asian cinema — I love that stuff. Chan Wook Park n shit? No.

Park may have had some violence against women in… every movie so far, I suppose, but never rape. I don’t know rape is really where I draw the line on cinema violence. Irreversible sucks (but for more reasons than that). Cinema violence for me is very important. It’s escapism if it’s gratuitous, and it can be artful if it serves a purpose. People getting shot in Paul Verhoeven movies, people getting bludgeoned in Park movies, people getting mutilated in The Thing, which I just talked about here. I love it all, but when I have to watch for even one minute a girl screaming and being chased around by some dude — even a villain — I freaking hate that shit.

It’s not fun, and is that not what the exploitation mentality is all about? I suppose I’ve never really watched any women-in-prison movies or anything like that, but even those are supposed to be arousing. Entertainment, by some degree. This is just stupid.

So while the violence is good, the other shit is always bad.

It sucks because Sukiyaki Western Django tells me definitively, and for many reasons, that Miike is the Asian Tarantino. Not only because Tarantino’s making a Django movie, or because he’s in this movie, but Sukiyaki is totally grindhouse post-modern. I’ll talk about that later, but in premise it’s a pretty good idea.

The Office: Season 8

Before we begin, let’s do a quick recap of the fall of this TV show…
Season 5: The last time The Office was genuinely good. Once Idris Elba leaves and the Michael Scott Paper Company arc is over (which seemed troubling at the time), stop watching the show.
Season 6: Super over-the-top, some funny moments. Kind of uncomfortable to watch.
Season 7: Very worrisome. No laughs, any episode. Embarassing to watch.

For a time The Office was one of my favorite shows. But they just kept making bad decisions, and the characters got really, really terrible. I never realized but Jim was an incredibly interesting character, because his sense of superiority that the sitcom straight man usually carries (acknowledged by Lindsay on Arrested Development), must be very well balanced. Jim was always kind of an asshole, but nowadays, when that assholicism isn’t balanced by wit or realism or sympathy, he’s just a plan dick.

Dwight is annoying. He’s no longer the naïve ass-kisser — he’s an aggressive weirdo. Pam is one-dimensional, she only talks about the baby, which is… less than exciting. Robert California adds nothing, Gabe is still here for some reason. Andy is the boss and he isn’t what he used to be, Erin is strange, and their relationship is the least compelling of the five or so that’ve been on this show.

The supporting characters have become caricatures of their past selves. They jockey for the camera and act out — shout, dance — one could never possibly mistake this office for a workplace. Old Office worked so well because the comedy was not only well written, but organic. The writers applied comedy to the workplace environment, and the writers now seem to do the opposite, force the workplace into your typical bad sitcom.

The decline has been steady. Each season has gotten worse, and though there are a few glimmers of hope, like the John Krasinski-directed episode which wasn’t totally terrible, and Craig Robinson and the new warehouse. But I’m rarely optimistic. Once a show goes south, it rarely gets back.

Honorable Mentions (For Good Stuff)

Well I totally forgot about Letters from Iwo Jima, so there you have it. Also good was Hobo with a Shotgun, which you should definitely check out. Better than Machete, maybe a little less awesome than Grindhouse.

It will be difficult for me to get across in words just how much I appreciate the Ghost in the Shell series, how much it means to me as a fan of science-fiction and… things that are good. I suppose that’ll make the next post somewhat ironic, but beyond that it’s all uphill, or downhill–good stuff anyhow, all good stuff. Ghost in the Shell appeals to me on almost every level as someone who’s watched a fair to nearly good amount of science-fiction movies and shows and never really ‘fallen in love’ with anything beyond the nostalgia movies of childhood.

They take a premise, which is that in the future we’ve blurred the line between metal and flesh, man and machine, such that our brains are computers and can be manipulated. But what of humanity?, and they don’t just make it about a detective or some dude, they make it about a paramilitary organization within the Japanese government–and they run into some crazy stuff. Of course, Ghost in the Shell 2 is more about detectives, but you still get the same dose of robot suits, cyber-terrorists, gadgets, gross bodily harm, artificial intelligence, and existential musings the series is known for.

It’s cyberpunk, or post-cyberpunk if you must, with a heavy philosophical bent. An obvious influence on the Deus Ex series in this regard (though it’s probably more successful), and something that took a few notes itself from the likes of Gibson and Blade Runner. The world it creates is much more frightening than 2019 Los Angeles, or the Sprawl, however, as the future tech has become so advanced it’s invisible. You can have a shotgun in your arm and walk around town fully loaded while none would be the wiser. That’s not really the scary part, but it’s kind of a fun idea. What’s scary is the ability to be hacked…

We don’t really feel for computers when they cluck up–we feel for ourselves and our wallets. But what if we could be compromised mentally by the will of some motherfucker with good hacking skills? What if an artificial life form created on the Net wanted no more than to exist, but first needed you to believe you have a family when you don’t? One minute you’re some poor dude and the next you’re a terrorist. Or, one minute you’re a terrorist and the next you’re a meat puppet killing all your friends and waiting for somebody to cap you–depends on who’s team you’re on.

Ghost in the Shell is much more concerned with cyborgs and virtual reality than megacorporations or cyber-drugs or androids; there’s a prevailing preoccupation with the man-machine interface and the loss of humanity. The Major can’t quite be sure of herself, as her body was patched together before our very eyes in a lab, and there exist fake memories, like Blade Runner. Might she just be a collection of false lives inside a robot shell? At least she’s got her personality… but we’ll get into that.

This choice of cyberpunk tropes is what I like most and least about the series, but we’ll get there too…

Before we begin, I suppose I should note something. I’ve never watched a single volume of Ghost in the Shell with the original language track, so… see ya.

If you’ve decided to stick around to see what I have to say–thank you, that’s very courteous. The truth is: the dub is excellent. Which dub? All. With the exception I suppose of the first movie, all the voice talent is consistently good. There are those weird pauses and awkward intonations that you’d expect from any translated work, but these are few and far between, and perhaps appropriate, given the inhuman nature of the cast.

Ghost in the Shell is one of my very favorite things in the realm of science-fiction, so I’ll try to do it justice here. It’s all worth seeing, so if you haven’t yet, I recommend you get your ass to Amazon right quick, and here to help is a Ghost in the Shell Buyer’s Guide, because it can get kind of confusing:

(These are things that I’ve bought–they’re all good. I won’t speculate on anything)

1. Ghost in the Shell DVD, released by Manga Entertainment: $10 on Amazon. Light on special features, from what I recall, but it’s probably the most essential to own for any cinema buff. If you prefer high-def, you’ll have to settle for Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which is nearly the same movie, but with awkward CG rendered scenes in the beginning.

2. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Blu-Ray, released by Bandai Entertainment. There was a big curfuffle surrounding the original US release of Innocence. The DVD by DreamWorks Video has apparently a terrible subtitle job, which is basically just closed-captioned. If you want to know that a helicopter is making noise or that footsteps are happening, check this one out (Netflix ships this one), but if you want a real version or the English dub, look no further than the excellent Blu-Ray disc. Along with the Stand Alone Complex cast dub, it’s also got some Oshii-esque special features: a trip to Cannes and a look at how some scenes were animated. It’s $149.99 New on Amazon, which is shocking because it definitely was not that when I picked it up. Sorry. The DVD version, with its weird naked girl cover is equally absurd, at $49.99. The poop CC version will have to do, it’s a more modest $11. Honestly, the CC isn’t that terrible…

3. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – I have yet to buy this one, because I watched it all on Netflix streaming, which it is currently on right as we speak. At the time, 2nd Gig wasn’t, so…

4. Ghost in the Shell: Anime Legends 2nd Gig, released by Bandai Entertainment. If I remember correctly, this is the same deal as the Cowboy Bebop I have–something like a Franchise Collection line, I don’t really know. It’s the cheaper version of the real thing, so you get all the discs but it’s bare bone–no special features. Being the whole second season I suppose $20 on Amazon isn’t bad, especially compared to the current cost of a new ‘real’ version, which may have better cover art, but’ll run you in the ballpark of $299.99. Used is only $24.95 at this moment, so if that doesn’t bother you it’s probably worth it. Like the first Gig, this is on Netflix streaming, so there’s an instant alternative if you have the subscription.

4. Ghost in the Shell SAC: Solid State Society Limited Edition Steelbook, released by Manga. Yikes this one is also expensive, running at $37.98 Amazon price. I paid maybe $20 for it so maybe the tides will turn in time. As it stands though it’s not a terrible deal. Three discs, including the soundtrack, which is pretty good–From the Roof Top by Ilaria Graziano is awesome–but not the series’ best. Considering the Blu-Ray is ten dollars cheaper I’d probably go for that one. The Limited Edition Blu-Ray is so expensive that it isn’t even available. (laughs)

5. Ghost in the Shell, PS2 game. Yeah I bought this for some unreasonable amount of money for the PS3, a system that refuses to play it. I think it was like $3, which wouldn’t be so bad but I also bought one of the PS2 classics–Zone of the Enders 2–the same day, and it wouldn’t play either. Thanks, Sony. You’re a pal.

So that’s the list. Pretty expensive. But worth it. I guess there were also two books, but… damn it. I’ll get to those later.

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