Thursday, 5 May 2011

Aborted Reviews: 'Being Human': S1-3, 'Caprica': 1.14 - "Blowback", 'Dexter': S4 & 'Dollhouse': S2

Thursday, 5 May 2011

I write a lot of stuff I never actually post here, usually because I proof-read and don't think it's good enough. It's true! I keep all my writing on a Word document that's currently 113 pages long, mostly consisting of hazy ideas for polls, talking points, random media-related articles, some research, etc.

Sometimes there are reviews (often of TV box-sets) that I struggle to find time to write from start to finish, so end up tinkering with them over a period of weeks, sometimes months -- mostly on afternoons when there are no reviews to write for shows I watched the evening before. Unfortunately, this means that these reviews can reach a moment in time where their "moment" has passed. Or, simply, I've become bored working on them, and they remain forever unfinished. Recently I've become frustrated with this fact, and increasingly aware that such reviews are destined to sit on my laptop forever, slowly turning into relics of my own mind. So, to hell with it, why not just publish what I have, in whatever state they're in?

And that's what we have here. A handful of TV reviews (mostly aborted or unfinished box-set appraisals) of Being Human, Dexter and Dollhouse, with a latter episode of Caprica thrown in for good measure. Obviously, these aren't finished (some are just "set up" really), but I think they're of sufficient quality to be posted. I hope. I don't think I'll ever find the time and proclivity to finish them, so hope you enjoy reading what I did manage to cobble together. Maybe this will embarrass me to finish what I started more often, or not start to begin with!

But that Firefly box-set review really IS coming. Honestly. Note its absence here. Trust me...

DVD Review: BEING HUMAN – Complete Series 1-3; kitchen sink supernaturalism

It's a peculiar premise that shouldn't work as well as it does: a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost share a house together. It's the kind of concept that could be taken in different directions, tonally, but Being Human goes for character-based drama with a gentle sitcom undertone, punctuated by moments of startling horror. It's a sweet confection that should delight most people drawn to Being Human, although the show's let down by several problems underpinning its mythology.

Mitchell (Aidan Turner) is a 115-year-old vampire who led a hedonistic lifestyle with his diminutive "recruiter" Herrick (Jason Watkins) over the 20th-century, before deciding to abstain from human blood, get an inconspicuous job as a hospital porter, and live with his werewolf friend George (Russell Tovey.) The two pals move into a pink semi-detached house in Bristol, later becoming aware they're sharing it with Annie (Lenora Crichlow), their landlord's dead fiancée, and a unique support group is formed as the trio attempt to "be human" without arousing suspicion from friends and neighbours.

The premise is actually quite flawed, as the idea of overcoming your nature to fit in with mankind only works in the case of a vampire going through withdrawal symptoms -- which act as a drug addiction allegory, natch. After all, George is perfectly human for 353 days of the year, while Annie has little choice but to accept she can't be seen by normal people to achieve "social acceptance". But still, the interaction of the three characters living under one roof is the focus of the series, and fortunately the actors have an engaging rapport. Mitchell is the mandatory brooder who struggles to turn his back on his debauched past, particularly with Herrick on every corner trying to coax him back into the fold; George is the intellectual, emotional, socially-awkward guy who's tormented by his werewolf curse; and Annie's the insecure, ditzy, and impulsive one trying to understand her situation as a spirit.

Series 1 deals with storylines that are most pertinent to the show's themes and intent, as each one neatly highlights the major issues and concerns the lead characters have. Mitchell exists in a state of constant temptation from the vampires beyond the sanctuary of his new abode; George starts having a relationship with a headstrong nurse called Nina (Sinead Keenan), while trying to keep her ignorant of his hairy affliction; and Annie starts to piece together the circumstances of her death and, after realizing her fiancé murderer her, decides to exact justice from beyond the grave so she can "move on" to the next life. Each storyline cuts to the core concerns of the characters and their struggles with their very natures, and it's a synergy that Being Human never quite manages to top in later years.

By Series 2, there's more confidence in Being Human's ability to deliver compelling drama and horror, so some of the humour takes a backseat. Instead, the mythology of the show widens to encompass the presence of an organization headed up by a Dr Jaggatt and a former-priest called Kemp (Donald Sumpter) who are aware "supernaturals" exist and intend to eradicate them. Added to that, Mitchell turns preacher in trying to get the city's vampires to join him in blood abstinence; George and Nina's relationship disintegrates in the wake of George passing on his lycanthropy to her (a thin AIDS allegory), which thus pushes George into a hasty rebound with a single mother; and Annie tries to find a purpose now that she's chosen to remain earthbound.

It's a strong series, but perhaps one that alienated fans who were attracted to Being Human because of its lead character's interactions and veins of comedy. The trio tend to get lost in their own situations too much, while there's a clear sense of desperation about how to deal with Annie (who's even given a corporeal body for awhile, almost out of desperation over the constraints of a character most people can't see.) But there's enough imagination and self-belief to keep you watching, together with some genuinely gripping sequences – like the moment when George loses track of time and starts to transform into a werewolf in the middle of a primary school. A genuinely tense and visually superb sequence of mounting horror and uncertainty.

Finally, Series 3 offers minor reinvention. Mitchell, George and Nina move to Barry Island in South Wales to escape the previous year's events and, after renting a former B&B called Honolulu Heights, Mitchell manages to rescue Annie from the purgatory she was banished to the year before. From there the show takes a more inward-looking approach to its drama -- as secrets, lies and lost memories play a part in tearing the four friends apart. Guest stars play a more active role than ever, often headlining largely standalone episodes that are scheduled to break up the year's deeper story. We meet a middle-aged vampire trapped in a teenager's body, a party girl turned into a zombie, George's milquetoast father, and new semi-regulars are introduced in haggard werewolf McNair (Robson Green) and his sheltered son Tom (Michael Socha), before the return of an amnesiac Herrick lends the whole series an unpredictable edge when he becomes their lodger in the attic.

DVD Review: DEXTER: Complete Series 4 (2009)

After the misfiring third season, Dexter needed to deliver a convincing comeback in its fourth year, and found the answer to its prayers in esteemed actor John Lithgow. The series went back to its roots of having Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) contend with another serial-killer on his patch; namely The Trinity Killer (Lithgow), a fiend who's escaped detection for three decades, but has returned to Miami to end his clandestine killing spree.

Retired FBI Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine) has become a self-made Inspector Abberline to his very own Jack The Ripper, determined to catch Trinity while colleagues/friends treat his theories as bunkum. Meanwhile, new father Dexter struggles to find balance between his parental responsibilities and entrenched need to slaughter criminals. The twist to this particular tale is that Dexter comes to realize he has much to learn from Trinity; a wiser, more experienced killer, having apparently perfected the art of hiding in plain sight...

The common weakness of Dexter is that most subplots unrelated to its eponymous anti-hero play like dispensable off cuts from a formulaic cop show, and that continued to be the case here. Fortunately, season 4 finds a compelling way to involve Dexter in Trinity's life for an extensive period of time, and does a great job slowly unraveling the psychosis at the heart of season 4's villain. It has the backbone of an unraveling mystery, which takes the sting out of the more tedious subplots.

Lithgow uses his pallid features and piercing blue eyes to unnerving effect, acting a portent of what Dexter's life could become, yet he's still able to evoke sympathy when the root of his problem is eventually revealed. It's a performance that buoys the entire season, even when various leaks burst through the hull, bagging Lithgow a deserved Emmy award. More importantly, he provides Hall with someone of comparable skill to bounce off, and the season takes full advantage of these two heavyweights. A visual tableau at the tail-end of "Hello, Dexter Morgan" paints the two actors as boxers squaring up to each other in the ring. To continue the allegory: season 4 may have its weak rounds, but it ends with a chilling knockout punch.

TV Review: 'CAPRICA' 1.14 – "Blowback"

"Blowback" kicked off the final five episodes in glorious style, delivering panache and forward momentum with the key stories: Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) discovered the Guatrau have been smuggling some of his Cylons off-world to fight in the Tauron civil war, so persuaded its leader to stop this illegality with the promise of quicker results with his life-changing resurrection program "Grace"; Lacey (Magda Apanowicz) was sent to Gemenon aboard an STO vessel with other young recruits, only to find herself embroiled in a violent hijacking by a group of polytheists; police Captain Duram (Brian Markinson) was pressured by his boss Gara Singh (Peter Wingfield) into revealing who his informant is working undercover at Sister Clarice's (Polly Walker) abode; and Clarice herself finally got her hands on Zoe's infinity broach, which contains a backup of the martyr's avatar software, which she hopes will form the basis of an STO "afterlife".

For once, there wasn't a single storyline that bored me here, which was a huge relief after a mid-season run of duds, which felt responsible for Syfy yanking the show off-air and deciding to cancel it. Maybe they should have waited a few weeks? Everything was very neatly handled and very entertaining, with Lacey's storyline being particularly gripping as the poor girl was forced to fight for her life before the hijackers executed her fellow "heathens" and ejected their bodies out of an airlock. The twist that the entire situation was a staged test of loyalty managed to fool me, despite being a common trick, and I enjoyed the final moments when Lacey realized those who failed the test were blithely executed by an armed Cylon. The penny seemed to drop for Lacey that she's joined a religious cult that are actually as crazy as the fake polytheists.

Blu-ray Review: DOLLHOUSE - The Complete Second Season (2009)

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse was given a last-minute reprieve by Fox after its low-rated debut season in 2008, but after being transferred to the "graveyard slot" of Friday nights, the network announced its cancellation barely four episodes into its sophomore run. Fortunately, the axe fell early enough for Whedon's team to condense their potential five-year plan into the remaining half-dozen episodes. This resulted in a rip-roaring season that, while unsurprisingly hectic and devil may care in attitude, birthed so many interesting ideas and surprises that the loyal fan-base were given a satisfactory conclusion and several of the year's most exciting hours of sci-fi drama last year...

To recap the premise, Dollhouse concerns a secret organization that has pioneered mind-altering technology, enabling them to erase and implant memories into human brains. They currently use this technology to create "dolls"; willing volunteers who sign away periods of their life for financial recompense, allowing their bodies to become the shell for various personalities that a client demands. The dolls can become the world's greatest midwife, hiking companion, prostitute, soldier, secretary, pop star, or any other occupation desired. More controversially, dolls can be given the personality and memories of actual people, living or dead (provided they've had their minds copied and stored for future use). The very idea throws up an abundance of existential questions and ideas, most of which Dollhouse explores throughout its two seasons: from "sleepers" who don't even know they're dolls, sent out into the real world to keep tabs on people trying to expose the Dollhouse, to questions of mortality if one could continually inherit a host body and transfer your consciousness to a new one when age or health becomes an issue.

"Echo" (Eliza Dushku) is our heroine, a feisty volunteer for the program's Los Angeles facility, run by the authoritarian Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), who has the unique ability to retain her memories of past experiences and personalities after the obligatory "treatment" (mind erasure) that followers every assignment. In season 2, Echo's ability will prove instrumental if they're to destroy the Dollhouse from the inside-out, with the help of Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), a former FBI Agent who attempted to rescue Echo in season 1, but is now a double-agent working for the enemy, and Echo's former "handler" Boyd (Harry Lennix), a fatherly figure who's questioned the morality of the Dollhouse from the very start.