Saturday, January 23, 2010

Caprica and Human Target: In the Shadow of BSG

Two new shows reflect the influence of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica in different ways. One is great, the other merely good, but both are surprisingly watchable.  Let's start with the great: Caprica airs on SyFy and is expressly intended as a prequel to Battlestar Galactica.  The action takes place 58 years before the 12 Colonies are nuked.  We see the Cylons' creation and rise through the eyes of two families, the Graystones and the Adamas (yes, those Adamas) who meet under tragic circumstances. 

A terrorist bombing claims the daughter of Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) and the wife and daughter of Joseph Adama (Esai Morales).  The two men bond through their grief initially, then over love for the game Pyramid, which is the international pastime of Caprica.  But this budding friendship gets nipped when Graystone, the inventor of the Cylons, finds a way to recreate their daughters using the downloading technology the Cylons will eventually use to resurrect themselves. 

At first, Adama is tempted by Graystone's plan and allows a virtual avatar of his daughter to be created.  But he turns against the project upon meeting her in a disturbing scene that's strong sauce thanks to Morales's acting.  His daughter is somehow incomplete -- far less fully realized than Zoe Graystone's avatar (Alessandra Torresani) who was designed by the teen Graystone herself before dying.  It turns out she was an even better programmer than her father, unbeknownst to her folks.

The Graystone's are also shocked to discover that Zoe had ties to the Soldiers of the One, the monotheistic religious cult that mounted the terrorist attack.  I had mixed feelings about the scenes of religious fanaticism by Zoe and her friends.  They struck me as a little over the top, but I suppose that was the point -- teens have a tendency to take things to the extreme.  The revelation of their apparent cell leader was a nice twist, one I saw coming but enjoyed nevertheless. 

The sectarian tension between the monotheistic cultists and the polytheistic Colonials serves as a backdrop for two of creator Ronald D. Moore's favorite things: social commentary and messianic intrigue.  The technologically enhanced decadence of Caprica presents a much wider lens through which to examine our own moral and political conflicts than Battlestar Galactica did.  And I'm fascinated by hints that the monotheists have a plan for Zoe's avatar, who I suspect will emerge as a messiah figure like in Carnivale, another Moore series about avatars.

But Caprica is at its best when confronting the ethical dilemmas raised by Daniel's experiments in resurrection and artificial intelligence.  Questions of mortality have consumed me since I was a child, and the possibility of extending life by downloading one's consciousness preoccupies me as an adult.  I'm also intrigued that Caprica seems to have  taken a page from Robert Sawyer (author of Mindscan, which touches upon similar themes) and linked the development of "strong" artificial intelligence to the copying of human consciousness into electronic form.

All of this adds up to a much different and deeper show than I'd expected.  The previews made Caprica look like a prime time soap opera about warring family dynasties.  (It's the Graystones versus the Adamas, two households both alike in dignity!)  I'm sure the conflict between Daniel and Joseph will undoubtedly be central -- all the moreso when Adama discovers Zoe's terrorist ties.  But at least its source isn't some romantic cliche about star-crossed lovers, like I'd feared.  Let's just hope subsequent episodes live up to the undeniable promise of the Pilot.

Another show that exceeded my expectations, albeit by far less, is Human Target on FOX.  Here again we see the fingerprints of Battestar Galactica, though in the casting rather than the plot.  In the first two episodes, the guest stars have included Tricia Helfer and Alessandro Juliani, both of whom were regulars on Battlestar Galactica.  But that's really where the comparison between the two series end.  Human Target has no philosophical ambitions or pretenses -- it's cartoon action from start to finish.

The protagonist is Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) who offers protection for those whose lives have been threatened.  He invents personae that keep him close to his clients, becoming their human shield until he can neutralize the threat.  In the original DC comic (and short-lived '90s adaptation starring Rick Springfield) Chance actually used makeup to impersonate his clients, raising questions about existence and identity.  The 2010 version understandably dispenses with this cumbersome plot device, but sacrifices intellectual depth in the bargain.

The strength of this Human Target is clearly Chance's "Scooby gang," which includes Winston (Chi McBride) and Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley).  I've been a fan of McBride since Boston Public.  He has one note -- exasperated -- but it's a good one.  Haley's range as an actor is the real surprise.  He plays a far more nebbishy (but no less dangerous) character than he did as Rorschach in Watchmen.  Both men have nice chemistry with each other and with Valley, who himself exudes a calm, assertive charisma in the role of Chance.

The action sequences are a little over the top, though no moreso than a Bond film.  But they do underscore one potential source of concern: the formulaic character of the show.  The first two episodes featured action sequences on a train and plane, respectively.  If a third climaxes in some showdown aboard an automobile -- e.g., a speeding bus -- we'll know we're in trouble.  Until then, however, I'll be watching.  Sometimes, even bigmouths need a little mindless fun.

As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Jay Leno Show: Leno Gets PWNED

In case you missed it, here's the hilarious and riveting clip of Jimmy Kimmel unloading repeatedly on Jay Leno during the "10 at 10" segment of Leno's own show.

Kimmel is relentless -- and understandably so.  I'm not sure what Jay was thinking having him as a guest.  Jimmy is a close friend of Howard Stern, who has never forgiven Leno for going behind his back to poach Stuttering John Melendez from the Stern Show. 

Speaking of Howard, his powers of prognostication have again been vindicated.  When NBC announced that Conan O'Brien would be taking over the Tonight Show, Stern said it was a bad idea and advised O'Brien to stay at 12:30.  When the Jay Leno show premiered, Howard warned it would fail and NBC would be forced to give the Tonight Show back to Jay. Both predictions have now come to pass. 

This all comes on the heels of Stern's eerily accurate estimate that the new Star Trek film would gross $79 million during its opening weekend.  Howard's moniker "King of All Media" is meant to be humorously self-deprecating.  But the man sure seems to be Nostradamus where radio, television, and film are concerned.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fringe: What Were They Thinking?

Over the past year, Fringe has become one of my favorite shows on television.  I was really looking forward to welcoming it back after a month-long hiatus.  My hopes were particularly high because Grey Matters, the last episode before the break, was such a perfect blend of character development and mythological advancement.   Other viewers apparently shared my sense of anticipation.  Airing on Monday night, instead of in its usual Thursday time slot, Fringe decimated Heroes in the ratings.

All I can think after watching, however, is what a tremendous opportunity they wasted.

Instead of building on the promise of Grey Matters, we got a bland standalone offering.  Even more bizarre, the dearly departed Agent Charlie Francis reappeared without any explanation at all.  Fans will recall that Charlie was murdered earlier this season by a shapeshifter from the mirror universe, who assumed his identity.  Olivia eventually discovered the ruse and killed the shapeshifter, ending actor Kirk Acevedo's run on the show.  Or so I presumed until Charlie's mysterious return.

I couldn't believe the show would resurrect a character with no explanation.  So, was this Charlie the real deal but from the mirror universe like Peter?  Did he cross over as some sort of liason in an episode I missed?  Perplexed, I logged on after watching and learned that Agent Francis was not, in fact, a mirror twin.  According to Ain't It Cool News, the episode was actually filmed back in Season 1, but remained unaired until now for reasons that remain unclear. 

So why not promote it explicitly as "one from the vault"?  And why end the hiatus on such a confusing note?

I'm confident I wasn't the only one with such questions.  Clearly, FOX miscalculated, which doesn't bode well for the show.  There's always network pressure to do more standalone episodes -- procedurals like the monsters of the week on the X-Files -- which appeal to casual viewers.  I prefer longer story arcs myself.  But I can see a place for standalones, particularly after a break, as long as they're well written and observe continuity.  This episode did neither. 

The flagrant disregard for continuity is what really concerns me.  It suggests the network may be winning some internal battle with the creators to make this a even more of a procedural.  Let's hope the high ratings and backlash at this blunder will serve as a wake-up call for FOX.

As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!