The Pacing Dead

As ravenous as some sort of humanoid corpse beast that feeds on the flesh of the living, I recently marathoned the second season of AMC’s The Walking Dead and thereby decreased the number of shows I gave up on last year by one.

My history with the property: I’ve never read the comic, though I’ve been interested. It’s just that there are over a hundred issues and it shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. Quite an investment. I watched the first season as it aired, because why wouldn’t I? A cable series following a group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse? Yes, please.

But while the pilot was solid, the rest of the (very short) season left a lot to be desired. The characters were at times embarrassingly stereotypical and the story didn’t really go anywhere until the CDC stuff at the end.

So when the second season started, though I wanted to keep going if only because zombies are cool, it certainly wasn’t must watch television, and before long I was a few episodes behind and that was that.

Or at least it was until I learned that the end of the second season really ramped up the quality, while confirming that the third would introduce the most celebrated characters and storylines from the books. I resolved to catch up with the show so I could enjoy the third season as it airs, and lo and behold here I am.

Season two impressions? The quickest way I can sum up the series is to give them a 7/10 for the human elements, but a 10/10 where the undead are concerned. The characters still aren’t great. Only Daryl attains true likability, and really makes us root for him, while everyone else is more or less okay. Rick is too much of a good guy to be really interesting yet. The more he has to compromise any sense of morality to survive, the better. Shane, notably, was a useful source of conflict (and Joe Bernthal was excellent in the role) but it was pretty obvious that he was not long for this world.

The plot wasn’t exactly inspired. A little girl gets lost. They find a farm. They stay there. At least they had the bravery end the search for Sophia with brutal tragedy, but a lot of the season felt like needless wheel spinning that barely filled its thirteen episodes. The encounter with the guys in the bar was probably a highlight, which bodes well for the show’s future. In a post apocalyptic world, it’s the living—not the dead—that you really need to worry about.

Yet the zombie stuff, like I said, is always spectacular. Every creature looks distinct, and there are a ton of wonderful little moments that are more inventive than the majority of the character beats (the walker cutting its face open on the car window to get to Lori, a pinned Rick shooting through a slain walker’s head to kill the one behind it). Whenever I’m watching an episode and thinking it really isn’t that great and there are better things I could be doing, a zombie or fifty show up and all is forgiven.

On a more valuable level, I like to think it excels at putting us in the characters’ place and asking what we would do. Everyone has at least a vague zombie survival plan, so clearly the genre lends itself well to viewers who think they’re smarter than the characters. If that was us, would we stay on the farm? Keep looking for Sophia? Kill Randall? Kill Shane?

It can be as involving as we make it. And while it’s not quite brilliant, the incredible production design and third season promises of both Michonne and the Governor make it worth watching, at least for the year to come. At the very least, there’s no denying that this show is crazy popular. It’s not hard to understand why, and always useful to step back and realize that there’s a violent, somber series on TV about a zombie apocalypse. Despite its shortcomings, its very existence is reassuring.

How Not to Respond to a Shooting

I really didn’t want to talk about this. Not at all. If I’m being perfectly honest, I woke up Friday to hear the news of the shooting and I didn’t feel much of anything.

It was a terrible tragedy, yes, but our world is so full of violence, suffering, and injustice that if you think our biggest problem is that every few years a psychopath goes on a shooting spree and murders some “average Americans,” then frankly you lack perspective.

I wanted to stay out of the gun control conversations, the inevitable politicization of the events, and ignore any moralizing idiots who blame Batman or Chris Nolan or the ghost of Heath Ledger or whoever the hell they’d like to blame for poisoning our culture and damaging the psyches of  impressionable murderers.

That it happened in a movie theater did not strike this deep, horrible chord within me. Yes, I go to movies. Yes, I saw The Dark Knight Rises at midnight. Yes, it would have been the worst thing imaginable if someone had walked into the theater and opened fire on myself, my girlfriend, the close friends we were there with, and the other several hundred wonderful nerds in attendance. But it would have been exactly as fucking awful had it happened anywhere else, and while I firmly believe that the movie-going experience is an incredible thing and a crucial part of my life, I do not for a second consider what happened in Aurora an attack on that experience.

It was a random act of violence by some fucker. Whether it was a movie theater or a school or a mall doesn’t really matter to me, personally. There’s nowhere that isn’t horrible for a bunch of innocent people to be shot, and whatever reasons said fucker had for choosing the location of his rampage is pretty much irrelevant because, once again, he’s a deranged fucker.

The movies are just as magical as they’ve always been.

That’s why I didn’t think I was going to write about the shooting at all, and especially not here. This is a place for talking about the fictional, about media, about story. I didn’t consider the shooting especially pertinent to this blog.

And then, well…just watch this trailer:

Looks like a damned good movie, right? Now let’s say you’re Warner Bros., and your biggest entertainment release of the year was just marred by an in-theater massacre. And in a few months you were going to release the above movie. Can you guess what part of that trailer might make you feel uncomfortable?

If you guessed “the part where a theater full of people is mowed down by gangsters with automatic weapons,” then well done.

So what do you do? Pull the trailer from theaters? Sure, edit a different one. That’s only respectful. Maybe delay the release of the movie a bit, until the shooting isn’t so fresh in people’s minds? It might cost some money, but maybe it’s the best move, all things considered.

But they didn’t stopped there. If you haven’t already heard, Warner Bros. will cut that sequence from the film entirely, and do some reshoots to compensate.

And that’s where I draw a mile-wide line in the sand, as should all thinking people. Has altering a work of art so as not to offend the public ever been an enlightened decision? I consider it a cowardly, idiotic, wrongheaded move by the studio for just about every reason imaginable. Would they lose money by keeping the movie as it is? Going by the “controversy=revenue” rule, no. Would they seriously offend anybody? If so, fuck those people. This film was made long before the shooting. The two are entirely unrelated. Anyone who wouldn’t realize that isn’t worth considering. This is a ridiculous insult to everyone who made Gangster Squad and everyone mature enough not to lose their shit from viewing content vaguely reminiscent of a terrible thing that happened.

But that’s not even the worst of it. I’ve also heard talk of some theaters not allowing costumes, since the shooter was apparently dressed like the Joker or something (I’m really quite determined to learn as little about this fucker as I can) and I really think this all ties together sickeningly. There is something so distinctly American about a man walking into a movie theater in a costume and mowing down innocent people, and the response being “That’s fucking awful. Let’s ban costumes and censor movies.” While of course, those are usually the same people who will say the Founders would have wanted everyone in this country to have access to automatic weaponry, but I digress.

Yet it gets even more frustrating. Around 110 people just died in terrorist attacks in Iraq. That just happened. Over nine times as many fatalities as the Aurora shooting. Is anyone going to act, for a fucking second, a fraction as upset by this news? Is any movie studio going to edit a film out of sensitivity to that, I wonder? Of course not. And of course they shouldn’t. But what I’m trying to say here is that really bad shit happens all the time, much worse than this shooting, and to act so much more affected by this one act of violence than the rest doesn’t come off as respectful to the tragedy, but instead feels like reinforcing the notion that if it happens to Americans (well, not all Americans, there are minorities and the poor to consider) it’s so much worse and we all have to tread super carefully lest we shock everyone’s delicate sensibilities.

And that’s just so untrue. People can handle shit. Really. The world is fucked up. That’s never a reason to censor anything. When Heath Ledger died, there was talk of removing the scene with the Joker in the body bag from The Dark Knight. They made the right decision then, it’s not too late to make it now.

And Warner Bros. has done so much right. They’ve donated money to the victims and their families, they neglected to boast at all about their box office take, but in one spectacularly misguided move they’ve gone from respectful to dangerously overprotective, and they’re not helping anyone.

Why Breaking Bad is the Best Show on TV (And Maybe Ever)

As anyone who’s seen a banner ad in the last two weeks can tell you, Breaking Bad is finally returning for the premiere of the first half of its fifth and final season. And holy hell, is everyone freaking out. Yes, it’s been a long time coming, but it seems Walter White’s saga has finally gone mainstream. You just never know how long it’s going to take, do you? After just one season (one daring, big budget, anyone-can-die-no-really season) Game of Thrones became must watch television, but it’s really only now, after about five years of build-up, that it feels like the return of Breaking Bad to the airways is a cultural event—everyone knows it’s coming, the legion of newcomers are scrambling to catch up, and the already dedicated fans can barely talk about anything else (my conversation break down at the moment is about 65% Heisenberg, 35% Batman).

Finally I get the sense that, as a Breaking Bad fan, I’m not privy to this great secret, this glorious hidden gem that I have to pass on to the largely unaware masses. Sure, a lot of this vindication is because several close friends are, at long last, drinking the Kool-Aid (hitting the blue sky?), but objectively speaking, the buzz about the premiere has been inescapable, from advertisements on every site worth a damn to a full fledged Comic Con panel. And although I believe it’s still not nearly as popular as the vastly inferior (although I haven’t seen the second season and the third looks promising) Walking Dead, it still feels like an acceptable amount of people acknowledge what a steadily growing viewership has been saying for years: There is nothing on TV like Breaking Bad, and it belongs at the very top of everyone’s “Things I should be Watching” list.

In anticipation of the premiere (more anticipation, that is. Most of my day is already going to be spent coordinating the viewing party at my place and catching up straggling friends) I’m going to discuss exactly what makes it so good, so compelling, so impossibly addictive.

Not many shows have as clear a thesis for what they’re trying to do as this one. From the beginning Vince Gilligan has been crystal clear: Take Walter White from Mr. Chips to Scarface. It’s almost amusing to see how appalled viewers are when he sinks ever deeper, considering that his descent is basically the idea that you’re signing on for. Obviously Walt is the show. Everything is anchored on his actions, his choices, how far he’s willing to go. The answer, of course, is all the way.

If you’re paying attention, you know everything you ever need to about Walt by episode four or five. Whichever one where he turns down his ex-partner Elliot’s charity. The show could have ended right there, except for the suicidal pride of the main character. Yes, he has cancer, no money, a disabled son, and a baby on the way. He’s got our sympathy. But every moral justification for cooking meth goes out the window when he’s handed a way out. If he was cooking meth for his family, he sure as hell would have been able to swallow his pride for them. But no. Though he’d never admit it, maybe never even become fully aware of it, he’s cooking meth for Walter White. And that’s so impossibly fascinating.

It’s been written a few other places that what sets Breaking Bad apart is its central morality. The majority of the other most acclaimed shows all have layered shades of gray that force characters to behave in certain ways because of the world in which they live. But on Breaking Bad there’s always a “right” thing to do. The characters just tend to choose differently, and we can’t stop watching them.

And why would we want to, when they’re written so well and brought to life even more vividly? We’re facing a situation where Bryan Cranston could conceivably get an Emmy for every single season of the show (three down, two to go), and doesn’t that just say it all? That for all the typical awards show politics, everyone still throws up their hands and recognizes that Walter White is far and away the best character on television. And the supporting cast, while small, has more standout performances than all but perhaps the massive ensemble on Game of Thrones.

The writers know how to construct brilliant characters (Walt, Jesse, Gus, Saul, and Mike are probably the most celebrated) and more importantly they know what to do with them. Everything that happens comes from character choice, and all of those choices have consequences. Walt cooks meth in the pilot, then spends the next few episodes cleaning up the insane aftermath.

In Breaking Bad, everything ripples, everything comes back. There aren’t loose ends. The sheer economy of the storytelling on display is staggering. Every scene has purpose either moving things forward or adding real depth. The show will never introduce a new character or plot line if it can get more mileage out of a player or an idea that’s already been established.

That guiding simplicity allows Breaking Bad to tell its story effectively no matter what arises. The original plan was to kill Jesse in the first season, but Aaron Paul and Cranston had such a great dynamic that they kept him for the entire series. Then season two was planned meticulously, with every episode subtly building to the audacious plane crash, while the third season was much more freewheeling, with the original antagonists getting replaced by Gus for the more structured fourth season, which built to its finale by weaving in Gus’s backstory through effective flashbacks that seamlessly blended with the history of the show.

Whether working as architects or improvisors, the writers are masterful. They’ve created a story that’s engrossing, rivetingly suspenseful, gruesomely violent, deeply (but never obnoxiously) symbolic, and darkly comic without ever missing a beat.

It’s a viewing experience as pure and addictive as the meth Walt cooks. And we’re all long overdue for a relapse.

Wherever there’s a Hang-up…

I was excited to hate Amazing Spider-Man for the last eight or nine months. It’s not that I felt heavily attached to the Raimi films—the first one’s good, the second great, the third pretty bad—it’s just, I mean, have you seen this summer line-up? Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises? The two most ambitious, most heavily anticipated superhero movies released so far, both the culminations of everything invested in their respective franchises. And sandwiched in between them there’s this little premature reboot of the Spider-Man movies. It’s embarrassing.

By now there’s such a rote formula to the onscreen superhero origin story that getting a new one, for a character for whom it’s already been done, when Whedon and Nolan are pushing the boundaries of blockbuster filmmaking in such ambitious ways just comes off as a completely unnecessary decision motivated entirely by the need to make a quick buck off the Spider-Man license.

It was all the more annoying because the marketing campaign was pushing this “Untold Story” of Peter Parker’s beginnings as if it was something we’re all desperately interested in, when in fact the idea does nothing to grab me. And while the Lizard was easily my favorite Spider-Man villain when I was eight, he didn’t strike me as the sort of antagonist who’d be able to sustain an entire movie.

I finally saw the thing earlier this week, and I wasn’t surprised. Andrew Garfield is a good Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Emma Stone is a fantastic Gwen Stacy, and there was certainly a lot of energy on display. The movie has personality. The humor is solid, and all in all it was a fun enough time, bar a few horribly stupid moments (“Property of Peter Parker.” Really, now?), but on the whole it didn’t outdo 2002’s Spider-Man at simply telling the origin story, so it all felt a bit pointless.

My most nitpick-y issue was that the Lizard just looked awful. He’s supposed to have a snout, which they abandoned in favor of keeping him human. That might have been alright, but a better strategy would have been just keeping him in his labcoat, which was shed almost immediately every time he transformed. The contrast of this savage, reptilian beast wearing something that we associate with educated authority figures is exactly what makes the character so visually appealing, and that wasn’t utilized at all. Disappointing.

The larger concern was that apparently that whole secret history of Peter Parker’s parents was excised from the film after a bunch of Sony higher-ups saw a test screening a few months ago. There are still so many traces of it, though, that while I didn’t really like the idea in the first place, they should have just left it in for the sake of cohesiveness. Remove the new conceit they were going for and it’s just a lighter take on Spidey’s origin than we saw ten years ago.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that the sequel has a ton of potential. Redo the Green Goblin and kill Gwen Stacy. That’s a story that actually deserves to be told. For now, though, I’m just thankful there’s less than a week until Nolan blows everyone away.