Case Study 82: Mission: Impossible (1966), Episode 106–“Flip Side”

Original Airdate: September 26th, 1970 on CBS

Those of you born after the turn of the century may be surprised to learn that before it was a series of action movies starring a closeted Scientologist, Mission: Impossible was a long-running crime procedural. Much like La Femme Nikita, it deals with the activities of a vaguely defined governmental crime-fighting agency. Our heroes work for the “Impossible Missions Force.” Before you ask, yes, the International Monetary Fund did exist in the sixties, but I guess globalization wasn’t on the radar of the nice people at Desilu. No, the geopolitical crisis of the moment was the Cold War, and while many episodes of Mission immerse themselves in that milieu, tonight’s episode is a treatise on the scourge of illegal drugs.

Strengths

  • The best title sequence of the 1960s.  Sure, Green Acres may have land spreadin’ out so far and wide, but you can’t deny that the Mission theme song is quintessentially exciting and suspenseful. Even if you’ve never seen the show, Lalo Schifrin’s iconic opener sounds perfect for espionage adventures. There’s a reason he had such a long and successful career. The score in general is everything you’d want in TV music and makes the show feel very crisp and modern. It gets out of the way when it’s not needed and it subtly raises the emotional stakes when things start to heat up. This is a solid ground game and it makes the viewer feel like they’re in good hands.
  • Compelling concept. As the title suggests, every week the IMF has to handle a seemingly impossible mission. When the rest of law enforcement has thrown up their hands, Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) gets a self-destructing audio tape giving him some Herculean assignment. It’s up to him and his operatives to figure out how to solve the problem, and inevitably this involves going undercover, sneaking around and scheming. And I love a good scheme.
  • Complex. Something like NCIS pads out the hour with incoherent plot twists and innumerable narrative blind alleys. Mission sets itself apart by presenting us with a scenario that is satisfying complex while still being a unified whole. Here, the IMF are trying to take down not one scuzzy drug dealer but three. C.W. Cameron (Dana Elcar, MacGyver) is a titan of industry legally manufacturing delicious, intoxicating pills in St. Louis. He exports his pills across the Mexican border to Diego Maximilian (the decidedly non-Mexican Robert Alda, Imitation of Life). Maximilian turns around and smuggles the drugs back across the border to kingpin/record producer Mel Bracken (Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause.) Taking down all three of these jerks requires intricate, lovingly-designed skullduggery from our friends in the IMF. There’s plenty of room for a plot this byzantine to get weighed down by contrivance and bullshit, but miraculously it doesn’t happen.
  • Suspenseful. It’s always rewarding when a show pulls me out of my disinterested critical pose and gets me emotionally invested. I was genuinely fascinated by the question of whether or not the IMF could pull this off, even though I knew it was extremely unlikely that they’d totally fuck everything up and all the drug dealers would ride off into the sunset. That’s when you know you’re watching well-designed television. 99% of TV shows are deeply invested in maintaining their own status quo. For every Game of Thrones there’s 50 shows that definitely aren’t going to arbitrarily kill off main cast members. The genius happens when you know in the back of your mind that of course the Enterprise is going to get out of this one but you’re actually nervous anyway. Mission makes a hefty withdrawal from the Bank of Suspense by regularly using the time-honored classic of letting the viewer know there’s some big plan but not letting us hear the whispered plotting until it’s unfolding in front of us. It’s a cliche, but it’s naturally intriguing, and I was as surprised as anybody when Dana (Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria) faked an overdose. Of course, now you’ll be less surprised, but the statute of limitations on Mission: Impossible spoilers expired sometime around the Carter administration.

 
Weaknesses

  • Drug hysteria. We don’t need to look farther than America’s ever-widening Vicodin Belt to know that drugs can ruin lives, but we also don’t need primetime programming on CBS reinforcing tropes fresh out of Reefer Madness. The cold open is somewhat less than promising, as it features a drug-addled tricked out hippie girl overdosing on the floor of an overstated psychedelic dance club. Dana’s faux-verdose is intriguing from a narrative perspective but ridiculously over-the-top in the moment. And then there’s the oh-so-trenchant stinger at the end of the hour: it turns out the alter ego that Dana adopted in order to get into Cameron’s pants is an identity copped from some other lady that OD’d in a Summer-of-Love-induced revelry. You walk away with the distinct feeling that no one involved in the production of this program has ever taken anything stronger than a Benadryl. Even Leonard Nimoy won’t admit to it.
  • Lesley Ann Warren singing, for some reason. Yes, yes, she and Paris (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek, doy) pose as a Marnie & Desi-esque singer/songwriter duo in order to infiltrate various shadowy underbellies. So there was going to be some singing. I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Warren thanks to Clue and her acting is credible if not award-worthy, but her singing leaves something to be desired, especially because it sounds like she’s improvising intentionally terrible songs. Random sample: “So take this flower that’s growing here/and always keep it very near/as proof this magic place is really real…”  Look, the time period offered fertile fields for self-important doggerel coming out of the mouths of earnest folk singers, but this makes “At Seventeen” look like Sonnet 17. I realize the people who made this decision are probably dead, but next time, license something. Yeesh.

 
Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. With a few cosmetic upgrades and a quick rewrite, this could easily serve as an installment of a high-end crime procedural on CBS today. Maybe that doesn’t speak well of the level of innovation happening at CBS, but Mission is surprisingly rewarding despite having aged about as well as Reaganomics.

NEXT TIME: I review the blissfully Channing-Tatum-free 21 Jump Street. Although it does have a young Johnny Depp, so you can’t win them all.

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Case Study 82: Mission: Impossible (1966), Episode 106–“Flip Side”

Case Study 75: Kung Fu, Episode 54–“The Thief of Chendo”

Original Airdate: March 29th, 1975 on ABC

The 1970s were a golden age for movies about dudes beating up other dudes. Martial arts movies had been around for a little while, but by the early seventies the action movies pouring out of Hong Kong were getting darker and more serious. Hundreds of movies were dubbed into English and glutted the syndicated airwaves. Soon a superstar emerged—after a lukewarm reception as an actor in LA, the martial arts prodigy Bruce Lee started making movies like The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, breaking Hong Kong box office records one after another. Enter the Dragon, the iconic movie that would rocket him to international stardom, came out in 1973, but Lee wasn’t around to enjoy the dividends of fame: he died mysteriously a month before the movie premiered. If it wasn’t for Lee and the kinds of movies he was making, Kung Fu wouldn’t exist. Hong Kong action movies had proven themselves immensely marketable and a TV series would have been inevitable anyway, but there’s been a long-running debate about whether or not the entire concept for the show was stolen from Lee outright. We know that Lee had shopped around a suspiciously similar idea for a show back in his LA days. Lee was closely considered for the lead role, and according to his widow he certainly felt like his idea had been stolen. Of course, Wikipedia hosts seven paragraphs of claims from a white TV critic that all of the ideas and IP behind Kung Fu were 100% original creations of Ed Spielman and he deserves all the credit he’s been given over the years going back to his time as an earnest young gweilo seeking the “secret knowledge” of kung fu. For any Wikipedia editors out there, I’m pretty sure that whole apologia fails to meet your standards of admissibility, but if you’re defending the honor of white people against charges of racism, then by all means break your own turbonerd rules. WHATEVER. Let’s talk Kung Fu.

Strengths

  • Interesting narrative technique. The premise of Kung Fu is that Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) flees China after a crime of passion to get in touch with the American side of his ancestry. He finds himself in the Old West and the show is a hybrid of a western and a martial arts drama. I guess we need the western touches to make the people that would rather have been watching Gunsmoke more comfortable. But in tonight’s installment, we don’t spend a second in the American West—the whole thing is a flashback embedded within a flashback. The frame narrative shows young Caine (Radames Pera) wondering what his life will be like when he’s a practicing Shaolin priest. The sage Master Po (Keye Luke) offers a prediction of what that would look like, and this prediction gives us the bulk of the episode. So the story takes place before the main events of the series, but after the young Grasshopper’s apprenticeship, and it may not have even happened. It’s entirely plausible, given the framing, that the entire thing is a hypothetical imagined by Po. All this narrative infrastructure doesn’t really amount to anything, but it’s better than a perfunctory episode where present-day Caine walks into a strange new town, meets a bunch of people he’ll never see again and has an adventure he’ll allegedly never forget.
  • Intriguing plot. Instead, recent-past Caine walks into a strange new town, meets a bunch of people he’ll never see again and has an adventure he’ll allegedly never forget. The particulars are worthwhile, though. Caine is sent from his monastery to attend to a request from the Grand Duke, Shen Ming Tien (John Fujioka, Who Finds a Friend Finds a Treasure.) But oh snap! That Grand Duke is dead, and now there’s a new Grand Duke in town, his shady cousin Chun Yen (James Hong, Kung Fu Panda,) and what do you know—he’s kind of an asshole. But oh snap! Shen Ming Tien isn’t dead, just imprisoned! Caine has to restore the rightful ruler to the throne, armed with nothing more than his wits and his sickening hand-to-hand combat skills! You could do worse, as far as stories go, but the plot can only get you so far.

Weaknesses

  • Yellowface. Ain’t no gettin’ around this one! I can already hear certain people out there complaining that I’m applying today’s modern standards to something that’s more than forty years old, except that argument doesn’t work, because it’s not like we learned our damned lesson about respectful media portrayals of Asians in the first place. Carradine’s performance here doesn’t exactly give us a lot of opportunities to suspend our disbelief—he seems to be borrowing heavily from the old “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype, since his delivery is wooden and emotionless and I know he can do better, dammit.
  • Overall poor writing. Shen Ming Tien was a benevolent ruler, but Chun Yen is more of a robber baron. Is this shown to us? Of course not. It’s told to us. More precisely, it’s told to Caine by the lovable rogue Sing Tao (Harushi). Sing Tao comes bearing a special couriered briefcase full of contrivance. He disguises himself as a priest and fellow traveler of Caine’s to pass through town undetected, but they find themselves summoned to the throne, where they’re told that they’re both going to be imprisoned. Why? Shen Ming Tien’s daughter Mei Ming (Clare Nono, 48 Hrs) is getting forced into an arranged marriage for political reasons, and apparently Chun Yen wants her to have a wedding so extravagant it requires capturing and imprisoning two priests. Of course, the real reason he needs two priests is that the whole plot to take down the evil Duke is a two man job and the writers couldn’t come up with anything remotely more plausible. The improvised scheme continues to evolve in increasingly unlikely directions. Mei Ming’s betrothed is a child, but he’s accompanied by a burly wrestler (Peter Kalua, The Paradise Connection). Caine starts a fight with the wrestler so Sing Tao can steal the key to the jail cells from Chun Yen. He gets away with the key but gets outed as a thief nevertheless. Somehow Chun Yen doesn’t kill them on the spot, because that would be anticlimactic, I guess. Eventually Caine puts things to rights and Shen Ming Tien reassumes the throne, but not before an improbable body switch trick has Mei Ming’s maid Lutien (Jeanne Joe, First Blood) hidden behind a conveniently elaborate veil, and at this point we’ve left reality so far behind that we might as well be in Harry Potter and the Chinese Anachronism.
  • Love at first sight. You know what makes this whole thing even better? Sing Tao and Mei Ming fall deeply in love the first time they lock eyes, just like humans do all the time in the real world poorly scripted melodrama. Once again, this doesn’t pay off in any way except in the form of giving motivation to characters who are already waist deep in a profoundly ridiculous scheme.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. If watching crap like this doesn’t make me appreciate the Golden Age of Television in contrast, nothing ever will.

NEXT TIME: I’ll review a show that was cancelled not once, not twice, but thrice! Let’s find out exactly how ironic the title Unforgettable is, shall we? Also, I’ll do my best to get the next post up sometime before June!

Case Study 75: Kung Fu, Episode 54–“The Thief of Chendo”

Case Study 73: Pucca, Episode 26–“Soap Opera/The Choo-Choo Trouble/Pucca Goes Dutch”

Original Airdate: May 14th, 2007 on Toon Disney

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a huge corporation in possession of marketable intellectual property must be in want of a television cartoon. Pucca got her unlikely start in the year 2000 as a character from South Korean animated e-cards. Remember e-cards? Web culture from the turn of the century is so quaint. Much like Hello Kitty, her East Asian comrade in marketing excess, Pucca was a merchandising gimmick before narrative of any kind entered the picture. But great things can come from ignoble beginnings, and the Pucca cartoon is downright charming. It’s the product of an international collaboration between Korean creators, British producers, Canadian animators and American writers. Internationalism: first it brought you the Large Hadron Collider, and now it brings you Pucca. What’s not to love?

Strengths

  • Distinctive visual style. As we’ve seen time and again in this space, animators have a tough line to walk. Ideally they can create a cartoon whose aesthetic leaves a distinct impression. The goal is for someone to be able to take any random frame and identify the source based solely on the art. Of course, this can backfire horribly, because “distinctive” doesn’t automatically translate to “appealing.” But for Pucca, it mostly works! The characters are all about two feet high with oval heads and tiny little stubby arms with no fingers. Backgrounds are colorful and stylized without being too abstract. It’s very well done, and it has the desired effect of cheer and whimsy. Man, if Pucca is anything, it’s whimsical.
  • Original, if outlandish, stories. Cartoons are the perfect showcase for unbridled creativity. You aren’t confined to the limits of the human body and the tightly-budgeted set designer, and kids are generally more willing to accept nakedly ridiculous premises. Pucca takes full advantage of this. In the first segment, a dishwasher named Dada (Lee Tockar, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) discovers Mr. Dishy, a magic genie who lives inside a bottle of dish soap. Mr. Dishy has one very specific power: he can give Dada a makeover, complete with a stylish hairdo, a sharp suit and natty accessories. So what does he use this power for? Why, to impress a woman, of course—namely, snotty mean girl Ring Ring (Tabitha St. Germain, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.) The catch is that he loses his sleek new look the second he gets any kind of dirt, grime or stain on his duds—and there’s a limited number of uses before Mr. Dishy pops like the sentient soap bubble he is. The remaining segments are just as bizarre. In the second installment, ninja Garu (Brian Drummond, Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu) is tasked with transporting an ancient, magical urn across the country. While en route, he has to keep the urn from getting smashed by the sinister Tobe (Tockar.) The strangest story of all is the final segment. The Pucca characters are inexplicably transposed into the Netherlands, where they find themselves under attack from fiendish Belgians led by Tobe. The show doesn’t make a big deal about completely revising the setting, and I’ve gotta say, that fluidity is pretty attractive. It speaks to an inventive and flexible writer’s room. Stories this inspired can really reinvigorate tired narrative cliches—for instance, the “moral” of the dish soap segment is one we’ve heard a million times before: it’s not worth making superficial changes to impress someone who will never appreciate your true self—but everything’s better with a magical soap genie.
  • Unabashedly silly voice acting. The show earned a few belly laughs from me over the course of a half hour, but the overall feel of the cartoon’s sense of humor is greatly supported by its perennially game voice actors. Pucca (St. Germain) and Garu only speak in grunts and squeaks, but everyone else is firmly committed to deeply silly voices. Ring-Ring has a honking Brooklyn accent that rivals Harley Quinn, made all the more amusing by the fact that she’s also supposed to be some kind of Chinese wind goddess. Garu’s mentor Master Soo (Richard Newman, Beast Wars: Transformers) undercuts any whiff of Orientalism with a thick Jewish accent, complete with the occasional “Oy vey!” And you’d be surprised how much comedy St. Germain and Drummond wring out of those grunts and squeaks.
  • Humor. This helps keep the show vital just as much as the unique animation, stories and voice acting. It’s all about the little moments. Mr. Dishy describes Dada as a “sad little man with dishpan hands.” Being a soap genie, it’s only natural that Dishy would take careful note of who does and doesn’t have dishpan hands. The second segment features a couple of goofy references to Thomas the Tank Engine, including an appearance from Sir Topham Hatt* (French Tickner, Barbie in the Nutcracker.) When Hatt reprimands the engine about going too fast, it responds by discharging a cloud of hot locomotive steam right in his big ugly face. It’s Hatt’s “AUGH” that really sells it. And when those angry Belgians shoot cannons full of food at Pucca’s friends, it gives them an excuse to shout, “Look out! HERRING!” I mean, come on. Herring is a perfect comedy food.

Weaknesses

  • Sexual harassment comedy. This dates back to Pepe Le Pew and Kermit and Piggy on The Muppet Show, but it’s not cute. Pucca is forever trying to win the affections of Garu. She follows him around. She goes to great lengths to speed up the train so he can deliver the urn on time. She chases him. She tries to kiss him. You see, it’s funny because she wants to get physical with him but doesn’t have his consent. Haw haw! Do you really want your kids getting the message that doggedly pursuing someone and kissing them against their will is funny and charming? And this isn’t an incidental occurrence—it’s so central to the brand that if you do a Google search for Pucca, this is the first image you see. This is the image on the Pucca Wikia article about “Pucca and Garu’s Relationship.” Look, Pucca doesn’t talk, which is fine, but it means we have to figure out what her character is like based on the actions she takes. It’s hard to conclude that her main characteristic is anything other than “sex offender.”

*Let’s take a brief moment out of your day for a fun fact about Sir Topham Hatt. Even though his name is Sir Topham Hatt, the title of his Wikipedia page is “The Fat Controller,” a phrase that sounds like it was ripped straight out of some alarming fetish porn.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. Overall, this is pretty damn charming and I’d be happy to binge-watch Pucca with a small child any day of the week. Just couple that marathon with a stern lecture on consent and boundaries and you’ll be fine.

NEXT TIME: I’ll put aside the endless torrent of wacky cartoons in favor of a wacky alt-comedy parody of wacky kids’ programming: Wonder Showzen! As long as it’s wacky, dammit.

Case Study 73: Pucca, Episode 26–“Soap Opera/The Choo-Choo Trouble/Pucca Goes Dutch”

Case Study 72: Zoids: Chaotic Century, Episode 10–“The Mountain of Dreams”

Original Airdate: June 11th, 1999 on Tokyo Broadcasting System

It’s been almost a month! I took a break for the holidays, but I’ll tell you upfront that Zoids was terrible and the sooner I never have to think about it again the happier I’ll be. Nevertheless, I’ve been avoiding writing about it. You’ll soon understand why. The only fun thing about Zoids is saying the word “zoids.” I’ll now take a few questions from the audience.

Q: Wait, what? What is a zoid? Or zoids? I don’t even know whether or not I should be using the singular here.

A: Zoids got their start as model-kits that allow you to build plastic models of fearsome robots. They generally take the shape of quadruped animals.

Q: And this is a show of some kind?

A: Boy, is it ever! In fact, Chaotic Century is only the first installment. There are THREE OTHER SHOWS!

Q: So this is yet another media empire solely designed to give the appearance of depth to shiny toys, in the vein of Transformers, G.I. Joe, Lego Star Wars, or Max Steel?

A: Yes, but don’t hold that against Zoids, because there’s plenty of other reasons to hate it. Great things can come from questionable source material, and there’s at least one good movie based on a toy license.

Q: Didn’t you already talk about some show that had giant fighting robots?

A: Yes, but giant robots are all over the anime world, and they’re clearly not all created equal. They’re part of a genre known as “mecha,” and while sci-fi and manga about giant robots has been around basically forever, they made their first big impact on televised anime in the seventies on a show called Mazinger Z. Since then, it’s been a trope of anime in a deeply-rooted way that you don’t see much of in Western sci-fi.

Q: Why is this a thing, though?

A: This is something you might need an expert on Japanese culture to understand, because mecha-love isn’t exactly confined to the pulp margin, judging by the prevalence of giant robot statues as public art. And while thrilling robot-on-robot action in cartoons leaves me feeling pretty neutral, giant robot statues are awesome in the way only monumental architecture can be.

Q: Will you please pedantically acknowledge the distinction between robots and mecha?

A: Yeah, robots are autonomous machines but mecha have limbs and are controlled by human pilots from within. Can I start complaining now?

Strengths

You know, I was starting to think I’d never write a 0/10 review again, but we’re in luck today, folks.

Weaknesses

    • Bizarre, hideous Zoid animation. For the most part the animation here is bland and unremarkable, but whenever a Zoid does something—which happens kinda often—it calls attention to the fact that for some reason they made a decision to render them in this hideous quasi-3D style that has aged terribly and is more 90s than Smashmouth. See also: Steel, Max.
    • Terrible dubbing. Why do people do this!? It’s much easier to accept the character’s mouth movements not being in time with the dialogue than having to listen to terrible voice acting! I suppose I’m being charitable in assuming that dubbing is the problem here and that the actors are just rushing to fit the line in the three seconds that the characters’ mouths are open. It’s entirely possible they just hired wretched voice actors. See also: Mysterious Cities of Gold.
    • Not enough world-building, too much asinine, nakedly expository dialogue. There’s always a fine line to walk when it comes to making sure you’re on the same page as your audience. If people are disoriented because they don’t know what’s supposed to be happening, it means they can’t react in any kind of useful way. You can’t make a positive impression on a viewer if they can’t clear the entry barrier. You also don’t want to insult your viewer’s intelligence and ruin subtle moments by stating the obvious. No attempt is made to explain the nature of Zoids, or the fact that the show is set in a distant galaxy, or what happened in a recent war. The show isn’t particularly inclined to elaborate on its unusual setting, which is weird, because it’s doing all the work of establishing a new setting. The model-kits didn’t come with any kind of narrative, so it’s more or less a blank, mech-filled slate, and yet the setting makes zero impression because it gets no love from the writers. Instead we get moments like when our hero Van (Matthew Erickson, Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch) encounters a mad scientist named Dr. D (Dave Pettitt, Highway Thru Hell). D is frozen inside a giant person-sized ice crystal. Van announces, “He’s frozen!” Yep. He sure is. So glad we spent a line of dialogue establishing the infuriatingly obvious instead of doing or saying anything remotely interesting.
    • Missed opportunities for interesting action scenes. Presumably the only reason you’d watch this is because you want to watch exciting robot battles. For an action show about Zoids, this episode’s Zoid exposure level proves surprisingly scanty. The highlight is a set piece where Dr. D lures Van and charismatic bad boy Irvine (Mark Gatha, Mobile Fighter G Gundam) into a minefield full of a dormant scorpion army dedicated to protecting what was once a military supply post. This could be a great scene: our heroes are outnumbered and surrounded by medium-size enemies that could press their advantage by coming in fast and hard. Van and Irvine’s Zoids are powerful, but bulky and with no short-range protections. How would this fight go? We’ll never know, because it’s quickly set aside so we can hear more about the wacky old scientist. Normally I’d prefer prioritizing story over exciting robot battle action, but this is a particularly dumb story.
    • Forced sentimentality. Dr. D’s grand quest is to use mad science to make it snow in the otherwise warm climate where we lay our scene. He’s determined to recreate a treasured childhood memory. After some initial friction, everyone starts working together to help the weird old man control the weather. It looks like that’s impossible and kind of stupid, but WAIT! It snows after all! But here comes the surprise twist—D’s technology wasn’t responsible. The power of belief, or love, or community, or some other nonsense like that, is REALLY what made it snow. Sickeningly sweet and totally vacant. Zoids is absolutely brazen about the fact that this meaningless little interlude has nothing at all to do with the overarching plot—Van and Irvine think that D has information about the MacGuffin, but he only pretended to because he’s a manipulative dick. Hooray!
    • The premise of this show makes no sense. The emotional heart of the show is Van’s relationship with Zeke. Zeke is a very special kind of zoid called an “organoid.” Zeke looks like a person-sized T-Rex and acts more like a Pokemon than the other robots. Look, gluing giant robots to collectible monsters doesn’t actually constitute a new idea, much like duct-taping a dildo to a banana isn’t something you can patent. The most distinctive thing about the zoids is that they’re shaped like large mammals. Why? Who knows. Does this have any practical implications? Not really. So why watch Zoids instead of the millions of other mecha shows? Well…

Final Judgment: 0/10. What a colossal waste of time. If anything, it’s more evidence that animation tends to extremes: it encompasses some of the best shows on television and more than its fair share of the worst.

NEXT TIME: Another important lesson: I’ll never run out of weird cartoons. I review the cutesy South Korean animation hit Pucca!

Case Study 72: Zoids: Chaotic Century, Episode 10–“The Mountain of Dreams”

Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Original Airdate: February 7th, 2015 on Starz

First things first—I’m sorry it took me so long to get this review posted! Black Sails is exactly the kind of super-plotty serialized drama that’s the most difficult to cover in this space, although of course super-plotty serialized dramas are hotter than ever. Yes, I watched each and every minute of the first eleven episodes of Black Sails and I came out the other side with only a few cutlass wounds and a venereal disease to show for it. I also found that it wasn’t exactly the kind of show that lent itself to binging. If I’m going to watch eleven hours of nautical-terrorism-themed chess I’m certainly not going to make them consecutive hours. Anyway, Sails is an attempt by Starz to keep producing questionably relevant “historical” dramas after Spartacus: Blood and Sand went off the air in 2013. It’s also an attempt to get anyone to care about a Starz original series. It’s looking like it didn’t succeed: at the end of this season Sails is getting put in dry dock. For those of you wondering—no, this is not the pirate show with John Malkovich. That would be the hastily cancelled NBC vehicle Crossbones. One more fun fact before we get into the pros and cons: Sails is part of the Treasure Island Universe! Yes, everything has a universe now, even 19th century novels. What this means in practice is that three of the characters can be found in the novel. On the other hand, an equal number of characters are based on actual pirates with varying degrees of legitimacy in the historical record, so this all amounts to a definite sense that no one involved is taking either history or Robert Louis Stevenson too seriously.

Strengths

  • Intricate power struggles. This may be the main reason why people watch plot-heavy prestige dramas, and Sails certainly delivers. Everybody’s got an angle. The overarching plot of these episodes concerns the efforts of a crew of pirates led by one Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) to haul in the Score Of The Century. The big problem with that is that Flint is by turns secretive and murderous and is constantly finding himself in danger of mutiny or worse. It also means that people who aren’t on his crew have a hard time trusting him. Here, he butts heads with the bloodthirsty Charles Vane (Zach McGowan.) Vane has recently taken control over the fort protecting the pirate haven of New Providence Island, but for the moment he’s more preoccupied by a pissing contest with the even more bloodthirsty Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy, Alexander.) Why should Vane care about Low? Well, Low’s creating problems for the island’s chief fence of stolen treasure, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and Vane’s still carrying a torch for her. Speaking of old flames, Flint also has a semi-secret lover: seemingly respectable lady about town Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes.) She isn’t so interested in the Score Of The Century. Instead, she wants Flint to go straight and beg for acceptance back into polite society. Barlow also helped Guthrie’s well-connected father go into hiding, and here we see Eleanor negotiate with Barlow to try and salvage some of her father’s few remaining relationships. Then there’s the trio of Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz,) Anne Bonny (Clara Paget, Fast & Furious 6) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy.) They’re currently managing a whorehouse and personal romantic entanglements, but you know what they’d rather be doing? Finding the Score Of The Century. Vane extracts information about Low from Max in return for repairing Rackham’s reputation. It’s certainly fun to watch all the gears turn and there’s genuine suspense in wondering who’ll come out on top and how. The only downside is that all the Machiavellian machinations can take the place of actual substance. But if you want a complicated plot? They’ve got a complicated plot. It may be a little unfair to say the show elides substance entirely. You could make the case that all this is an extended lesson on how to fail or succeed at leadership. Flint has an instinct for tactics but struggles to manage his crew effectively. John Silver (Luke Arnold) Is charismatic and manages to ingratiate himself with a wide array of parties, but circumstance is frequently weighted against him. (Of course, we all know that Silver will eventually be a big success, so in some ways Sails is really all about his rise to power.) Eleanor is apparently supposed to be about 19, which is a big fucking stretch, but nevertheless, hers is a story about a young woman struggling to hold onto power in an old man’s world. And of course, Vane and Low rule by dint of force. However, this isn’t a theme explored in this episode explicitly but rather in the series as a whole, and more pointedly elsewhere at that.
  • Action! Michael Bay is an EP on Sails so it was easy to predict that it would feature thrills, chills and/or spills. In this episode they’re parcelled out sparingly but to great effect. Both moments involve Vane—when we first see him, he’s engaging in a swordfight with a crew member for practice and so we the viewer can enjoy a swordfight. This is just an appetizer, though. The big climax has him straight-up decapitating Low after some close-quarters combat. Anyone coming into a pirate drama is going to be expecting cutlasses and cannonballs, and while there’s more to be found elsewhere in the series, there’s also more to come: the cliffhanger has us poised for a violent confrontation between Flint’s men and Vane’s.

Weaknesses

  • Pointless, parsimonious flashbacks. This season has us spending part of our time watching Flint’s backstory in London slowly, slowly unfold. Once upon a time not long ago, Flint was a Royal Navy Lieutenant assigned to a special project with the goal of rooting out piracy in the West Indies. Instead, he ran off with his boss’s wife, aka Mrs. Barlow. This is all well and good, but I take exception to the structure. Each episode in season two, we’re treated to one or two scenes of his old life. This might be okay if they were thematically relevant, but there are no real themes here. Instead we’re getting a slow drip of something not all that interesting. If we must get the long version of Flint’s origin story, why not put it all in one episode, where we could actually get immersed instead of just getting jerked around between the exciting events of the present day and the tangentially relevant recent past?
  • Gratuitous girl on girl action. If there’s one thing pirate ships full of sweaty, lonely, drunken men are known for, it’s lesbian sex. Look, I’m always glad to see queer characters on television, but I don’t think the pairings between Eleanor and Max or Max and Anne are intended for queer audiences. Every episode of this show involves bare breasts. Many episodes feature the sight of a mons pubis. Sure, pirates aren’t famous for their decorum, but if there’s going to be a bacchanal, let’s make it equal opportunity, hm? We managed to go eleven episodes without any men having sex with men, but three out of the four female characters have gotten down with each other. Many scenes are set at the brothel run by Anne, Jack and Max, but the conspicuous naked women are never accompanying naked men. Apparently, later this season we learn that Flint fucked both Barlow and her husband. Good progress! Unfortunately, it’s still a demerit from this episode.
  • Solving problems with sex. Look, I understand the temptation. It ties up plot threads and we get to see boobs, because those are so hard to find pictures of in 2016. But it makes otherwise powerful characters like Eleanor seem flighty when she’ll throw down her convictions and best judgment to hop onto Vane’s dick just because he chopped off somebody’s head, and if Jack, Anne and Max are going to form a happy little triad, what was the point of setting up a love triangle between the two of them in the first place? All I’m trying to say here is if you’re going to take away time from sword-fights and manipulation, it had better be for either meaningful character development or thematic richness, not so I can watch every single woman on this show make orgasm faces.

Final Judgment: 7/10. Sure, it’s fun while it’s happening, but when you take a step back it’s pretty unfocused. Where is all this leading and why should I care? In the first few episodes of this show, it seemed like they wanted to develop a story about pirates on the margins of the world stage staking a claim to legitimate statehood. That really could be a fascinating story. Instead, it feels like we got caught up in an endless power struggle. It’s satisfying in some ways, but these are ultimately empty calories.

NEXT TIME: I return to the collected works of Norman Lear as I review One Day At A Time!

Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Case Study 67: Gotham, Episode 35–“A Dead Man Feels No Cold”

Original Airdate: March 7th, 2016 on FOX

Comic book superheroes have been filling airtime on your television since the 1960s, but the 21st century bore witness to an endless flurry of entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the concordant money blizzard meant that TV shows weren’t far behind. In Hollywood, there’s one thing that’s better than beating a dead horse, and that’s beating someone else’s dead horse, so Warner belatedly caught on and introduced us to their own “extended universe.” DC has been less vigilant about brand synergy, so Gotham kinda-sorta stands on its own, disregarding the fact that it’s soaked and dripping with Batman intellectual property jizz. Between 2012 and today, a whopping total of 10 MCU/DCEU properties have darkened our screens, and that’s not including shows based on comics from DC’s Vertigo imprint, like iZombie, Preacher, and Lucifer. Really, the impressive thing is that I went through 66 other shows before arriving at the groaning board of comic book grimdark that made action movies (temporarily) obsolete.

Strengths

  • Impressive special effects. It’s nice to live in an era where the special effects necessary for a vaguely supernatural action-adventure crime procedural don’t reduce the viewer to Manimal-grade fits of hysterics. The nice people behind Gotham are quickly digging through their supply of famous Batman villains, which I’m sure will lead to an excellent confrontation with Calendar Man in season 7. Tonight’s offering, along with its immediate predecessor, tells us the sad tale of the rise and fall of Mr. Freeze, aka Victor Fries (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards.) And where would Mr. Freeze be without blasts of icy death? Gotham’s finest stumble upon a victim who was shooting his gun mid-freeze, and the bullet is captured mid-air like an icicle emerging from the gun. At one point Fries throws an ice grenade into the For-All-Intents-And-Purposes East River, and the instantaneous appearance of giant icy spikes is very satisfying. The show doesn’t waste all its industrial light & magic on Freeze, either—Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) is briefly subjected to questionable mad-science based therapy and some fun color filters and deft camera-work does a lot of heavy lifting on behalf of the audience’s atrophied imagination.
  • Strong ensemble cast. Taylor’s Penguin is the real discovery here, and his range is fantastic—mincing, brooding, menacing, sycophantic and downright maniacal—but the cast is almost exclusively (see below) excellent. I can never get enough Donal Logue (Ghost Rider) and he inhabits the role of the Bad Cop nicely. B.D. Wong (Jurassic World) is delightful as the cartoonishly fiendish Hugo Strange. Erin Richards does well as Barbara Kean in what could have been a very dull role, although in this episode she’s in a coma, so it’s not going to show up on the sizzle reel. You may also have heard about how Jada Pinkett Smith made an enormous splash as Fish Mooney in season one, so, yeah, the casting directors know what they’re doing. For the most part.
  • Atmospheric. At least 50% of any given Batman narrative is nailing the feel of Gotham City and environs. It’s a caricature of the most forbidding parts of New York in particular and the urban experience in general. It’s outrageous wealth and intimidating architecture. You get the sense that the show understands this even in its stock transition shots, which swoop across the forbidding skyline. Arkham Asylum is an experience unto itself, a total institution straight out of the nineteenth century and packed to the gills with colorful sociopaths. Once again, Gotham gets it right—the sets, the lighting, the classic jailbird outfits. The bat cave is also everything you’d want in a bat cave—stalactites, mysterious water source, late Victorian lighting fixtures and all the trimmings of a research laboratory perfect for a weirdo who hangs out in a cave under his mansion.  
  • Making the best out of a tired Mr. Freeze story. The way the show handles Freeze is something of a disappointment. Every other villain you’d care to name gets a unique origin story—Penguin, The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), Poison Ivy (Clare Foley, Sinister). What does Mr. Freeze get? Dying wife, same as in town. Why reinvent the canon everywhere but here? Tip: If for some reason you’re trying to bring Mr. Freeze back into the public consciousness of people who don’t read comic books, the last thing you want is to remind anyone of Batman & Robin. At least they managed to resist ice-related puns. This episode has a fun twist, though—Victor’s long-suffering wife Nora (Kristen Hager, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) decides she’s had enough of her husband’s crime spree and her own terminal illness and kills herself with Victor’s own defective cryogenic solution. I’m choosing to interpret this as a political victory for the death with dignity movement.

Weaknesses

  • Bruce Wayne. Here’s another tip. Thinking about using child actors? Think again, motherfucker. It’s not really actor David Mazouz’s fault—the least interesting thing about any Batman story is Batman himself, and I assume Bruce’s flat affect and critical lack of a personality is as written. The thing is, this story is about the world of Batman before Batman is a major player on the scene. I would be thrilled if Bruce was featured only occasionally and when absolutely necessary. He is not necessary here.
  • Gordon. And while we’re at it, there’s a major exception to the praise I’ve doled out for the casting on this show. Ben McKenzie’s Gordon has the charisma of a deck of beige paint samples, which would be okay if he were a minor character. Instead, he’s the main event. This isn’t the first network drama to have a painfully bland white man holding down the top billing—I see you, Lost—and God knows it won’t be the last. It does take the wind out of the sails for many of the storylines, though. I know I’m supposed to care about Gordon’s slow descent into the dark side. I understand how Gordon and his lover, Leslie (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) are meant to form a thematic pair with the Frieses. I remain unmoved.
  • Contrivance. The big set piece in this episode entails Freeze taking Arkham by storm to rescue Nora. Why is Nora there? Oh, because the cops decided that they couldn’t secure a room in a regular hospital or at the police station, so clearly the best thing to do was to take her to a prison for the criminally insane. This yields dividends—seeds are planted for the ongoing relationship between Strange and Freeze, Gordon is forced to come face to face with Penguin after letting Penguin take the fall for a murder they were both involved in—but it feels pretty cheap since the whole reason all the characters came to Arkham in the first place was complete fucking nonsense.

Final Judgment: 6/10. The media landscape is saturated with superheroes right now, and DC is as usual behind the eight ball, but based on what I’ve seen of the rest of their TV shows, Gotham might be the best of a bad lot. Team Marvel for the win.

NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been a little over a year since I reviewed The Wrong Mans, so in honor of that I’ll review another British buddy comedy: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere.

Case Study 67: Gotham, Episode 35–“A Dead Man Feels No Cold”

Case Study 65: Pokemon–“The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon”

Original Airdate: April 29th, 2006 on The WB

This special was made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the staggeringly popular Pokemon franchise, which means that this year was the 20th anniversary of Pokemon and that I am therefore as old as the stars and the seas. If you don’t know what Pokemon is, I’m guessing there are no children with you underneath your rock, because Pikachu and company have been delighting kids across a smorgasbord of media platforms for two decades now. It all started with a handheld video game that’s gone on to enjoy six direct sequels. There’s also the TV show. Did you know you can watch 930 episodes of the TV show? It’s been running continuously since 1997 and Ash is still going through puberty. There are also 19 movies, and I’m talking feature films, not the “very special episode” crap we have the misfortune of examining tonight. The trading card game you might remember from elementary school? Still totally a thing. There’s enough tie-in merchandise to make a robust and healthy garbage island. And if you’ve been watching your hysterical and reactionary local news, you’ve probably heard about how a certain mobile game is leading us all to fiery doom at the hands of pedophiles and vandals. Most adults are probably exclusively familiar with the video game and haven’t watched the TV show since 5th grade. How has it held up? Well…

Strengths

  • Great concept. There’s a reason the Pokemon franchise is such a big hit. It’s intrinsically interesting to imagine a world crawling with hundreds of unique semi-intelligent life forms with magical fighting powers. Sure, here in the real world we just found out that there are four species of giraffe that we hadn’t realized existed, and that’s legitimately thrilling, but what if there was a giraffe that had a separate brain in its ass, complete with a mouth full of teeth ready to bite your damn hand off? And what if you could capture that giraffe and make it fight your enemies with searing blasts of psychic energy? Personally, I love it when fantasy is closely wedded to the real world, and while the world of Pokemon seems to have armies of clone nurses and a robust and nonsensical economy, the world inhabited by trainer Ash Ketchum (Kayzie Rogers) and his retinue of hangers-on is modern, technologically sophisticated and ostensibly realistic, allowing fantasies and projection to take root faster than a hungry Tangela.
  • Strong choice of medium. And really, in some ways, Pokemon makes a lot more sense on TV than in a video game. The fundamentally magical premise becomes hidebound by stats, type effectiveness, movesets and endless grinding when it takes the form of a game, but the creators of the show cheerfully fly in the face of established rules about type or how strong/useful any given move is when it makes for good spectacle. This might infuriate the turbonerds out there, but this kind of poetic license can go a long way in making a fight that would otherwise be a foregone conclusion fascinating.
  • Cute. They might keep you in your seat with flights of fancy about riding a flaming horse into the sunset, but chances are they lured you in with a button-eyed talking mouse, or a kitty, or a puppy, or a…balloon, I guess? Hell, these people even managed to make a literal pile of toxic sludge cute. Also, a bag of garbage. Those people at Nintendo know what they’re doing when it comes to luring you in with candy-coated adorability.
  • Sci-fi horror premise. Okay, now that we’ve gotten generalities out of the way, let’s stick those brass tacks into our eyes. At first it seems like we might be in for something cool: Ash and all his friends are lured to the compound of one Dr. Yung (Bill Timoney, Mission to Mars,) who has used only the most cutting-edge developments in pokemon mad science to create “mirage” pokemon, which he replicates instead of catching in the wild. They’re strong against things that would normally knock them out and eventually he harnesses the power to let them use any move they want. They’re super-powerful and they can’t be stopped. Professor Oak (Jimmy Zoppi) is quickly captured and everyone else is left to fend for themselves. The show does take on themes of science vs. nature with all the subtlety of Joe Eszterhas and Misty (Michele Knotz) nearly plummets to her death, but all of the cool pulpy things they could do with this premise quickly fall by the wayside as we descend into the worst episode of Pokemon I’ve had the displeasure of seeing, and it’s not like it was Masterpiece Theatre to begin with.

Weaknesses

  • Jarring change in voice actors. This special is most infamous for the fact that the production company somehow decided they weren’t making enough money on this hugely popular series and sacked all the principal voice actors. Which is a shame, because the original cast was very strong. Comedic stylings centered around Team Rocket’s high school drama club antics and Brock (Bill Rogers) being a pussy hound have always been weak sauce, but at least the original cast could sell it. The backlash against the voice acting was so intense that the dialogue was re-recorded for the DVD release and Kayzie Rogers was straight-up replaced, which makes sense, because while Ash was always voiced by a middle-aged woman impersonating a gravelly voiced preteen boy, Kayzie Rogers’ voice is slightly higher-pitched, which makes it seem like Ash has Benjamin Button disease. It probably didn’t help that Rogers is also the voice of Max, an eight-year-old.
  • Team Rocket. Speaking of Team Rocket, why the fuck are they even here? It’s great evidence of the show’s tendency to cling to its formula even when it doesn’t make any sense. Plenty of previous episodes that didn’t need a conflict with dastardly villains had Team Rocket inserted sideways on the theory that an antagonist is always essential, but there’s already a clear and obvious antagonist here: the mad scientist with the super-powerful, weaponized monsters. The Rockets ultimately end up just bearing witness to the proceedings while offering witlessly snide commentary and the occasional interjection from Wobbuffet. Don’t worry, Wobbuffet’s voice actor didn’t change. (It had always been Kayzie Rogers.)
  • Filling time. Here we have another case study in a 22-minute children’s program airing a “special” where proceedings are dragged out to an hour. With a plot this cliched, the last thing the writers need is more run-time to fill, but still we endure an interlude where Yung captures Ash’s Pikachu and tortures it in order to get information. Aghast, Professor Oak agrees to reveal the information peacefully. Why not just skip a step and torture Professor Oak? Oh, that’s too far? But it’s okay to torture animals in a cartoon for kids? I mean, they’re essentially cockfighting in the first place, so I guess we’ve already lost our innocence in that regard.
  • Predictable. Believe it or not, they go through this whole pretense where Dr. Yung has also been kidnapped by the nefarious Mirage Master, but it turns out he was REALLY DR. YUNG ALL ALONG! Of course he was. What would be the point of having two mirage experts, one of which only exists to wear a turtleneck badly and get captured? How else would he have been able to master the complicated mirage technology instantly? Why else would the compound have been equipped with mirage generating missiles, allowing the mirage pokemon to pursue our heroes outside of the compound? God, I can feel myself getting less cool with each word I write. But this whole charade also reveals a critical plot hole: after the dramatic revelation of the Mirage Master’s double identity, Oak blusters that it all makes perfect sense, given the fact that Yung was pushed out of the Pokemon Institute for unethical research practices. Oh, you didn’t think to mention that fun fact back when he invited you and a bunch of children to his mysterious lab facility?
  • Maudlin & hamfisted. The worst thing of all about this episode is that the thing that finally defeats Yung’s mirage pokemon is an intervention from floating cat fetus Mew, whose power is hastily explained as coming from the fact that he represents a merger between data and a “true soul.” You see, he didn’t meet Yung’s exacting requirements as a research subject and was left to dejectedly hang around the facility and suffer the occasional torrent of verbal abuse. Of course, the true-hearted Professor Oak recognized Mew’s inherent worth, and Ash nobly forced himself through a barrier of pure energy to save it from imprisonment, and the initially helpless and pathetic-seeming pokemon was really a big hero in the end. The exertion of fighting Yung’s powerful Mewtwo caused Mew to disintegrate, but we’ll “see him again someday.” None of this makes any goddamned sense at all, but it appeals to that same part of your brain that made you coo over Pikachu in the first place, assuming that cat fetuses are your thing.

Final Judgment: 1/10. Look, despite how it may seem, I don’t hate the Pokemon TV series. This was just an unusually bad episode, but it’s not really surprising that after ten years, everything starts to look a little threadbare, considering that the show was never high art to begin with. 

NEXT TIME: I was going to review The Bachelor, but I thought I’d go for something a bit more intellectually stimulating, so Scooby-Doo it is.

Case Study 65: Pokemon–“The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon”