Essays, TV

We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS

“The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art”. So said Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, and while she isn’t referencing Twin Peaks, her medication on perception is key to the experience of watching this unique, mind-bending series.

Many people I know have a long association with Twin Peaks to a degree I never have. They watched it either in subsequent decades since it premiered in 1990 or even perhaps at the time on ABC latterly BBC2 in the U.K., where it ran as a two season cult hit that though failing to be renewed, latched onto the public and cultural consciousness and never quite let go. I was just seven years old when David Lynch & Mark Frost’s series arrived, too young to step into the Black Lodge as a viewer but old enough to feel its existence somehow.

During the 1990s, Twin Peaks became an American import that was discussed in hushed tones as a modern classic, something dark, horrific and deeply strange, almost akin to the boom in schlock horror of the period where VHS tapes were king and satellite broadcasts were just penetrating the mainstream. It was not long afterward, around 1995, that I discovered The X-Files—still a lifelong passion—without truly understanding as a teenager the pervasive effect FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the death of teenager Laura Palmer had on the show I rapidly fell in love with.

Years went by. Decades. I watched so many series recognised as American classics, beyond my penchant for science-fiction. Breaking Bad. The Sopranos. Mad Men. The list went on. Twin Peaks lurked, however, at the back of my mind, continuing to latch on. References abounded, references I didn’t get. And when the series came back in 2017 for The Return, a long gestated third season, I missed the boat. Was I afraid of it? Was it just too legendary, too impenetrable? Was I terrified it wouldn’t match the expectations?

Last year, the time came, during the second Covid-19 lockdown. It was time to walk with fire. It was time to order some cherry pie. It was time to let the past dictate the future.

Continue reading “We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS”
TV, Writing

Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

Reality has been tough lately. The world feels like a powder keg of polarisation, violence and economic spiral, certainly if you poke your head over the parapet and engage with the day to day.

Can we therefore be surprised that we have seen, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of what we might describe as ‘feel good’ TV? Ted Lasso, Sex Education, Grace & Frankie, Trying, the list goes on – modern series which present to audiences worlds that exist on the fringes of the reality we all experience. Worlds in which we might see favoured characters undergo emotional and spiritual changes, many of them painful and difficult, but through which we are reasonably confident these people we have come to admire and show genuine affection for will be okay in the end.

Whether these series have been devised specifically for this purpose is an open question. My instinct is that the answer is both yes and no. It is hard to imagine any creative, from Jason Sudeikis to Marta Kaufman to Laurie Nunn, truly writing and developing their show specifically for the ‘feel good’ designation. These things tend to happen organically and by osmosis, even if—as in the case of Ted Lasso—your entire series is deep rooted in ideas of kindness, teamwork and hope. The question that interests me is this: do we need these shows right now because we need to escape reality? Are they the television equivalent of taking the blue pill offered by Morpheus?

Maybe the rabbit hole, right now, is just too existentially grim to face. Maybe we need to feel good in these fictions because they are, for many, our only escape.

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Film, Writing

Film Review: DUNE – Part One (2021)

Fear that Dune might not meet expectations was, for a long time, the mind killer. Thankfully, that slow death has not come to pass.

Much has been written, on an anxious level, suggesting that the much-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel should not have been divided into two-parts, a la the recent take on Stephen King’s It, for fear that Dune’s first half might underperform and thereby leave this magisterial tale unfinished. Regardless of box office, one wonders as to the logic of this thought process. Dune has quite clearly been devised, soup to nuts, as a two-part project, and Denis Villeneuve here takes the time he needs to both construct the world around the desert planet Arrakis and the central story of young Paul Atredies with two films in mind. This is not the complete Dune. This is, to quote Zendaya’s Chani, “only the beginning”.

In that sense, we have to approach Dune as such, and judge Part One on the merits of being an incomplete story. Perhaps the greatest strength of this first half is that it contains a beginning, middle and end that satisfies, even while concluding with everything but a ‘to be continued’ legend. Villeneuve successfully manages to introduce Herbert’s vast, complicated futuristic universe, and establish the broader narrative concepts and themes, while providing a rounded cinematic experience. For the first of a two-part story, this is no mean feat, and his achievement lies as deeply in a visual and auditory as it does a structural sense. Dune is a frequently breathtaking, often arresting feast for the eyes which warrants the format it was designed to embrace – IMAX.

It is rare to find filmmaking so assured, so cohesive and so faithful to deeply beloved and classical source material while at the same time providing such a cinematic experience. Dune is a stunning piece of work in that context, one that could well be for the ages.

Continue reading “Film Review: DUNE – Part One (2021)”

Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘Crossings’ (3×12 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

How do you follow an episode like Full Disclosure? It is hard to envy Crossings, an hour of Alias that, to some degree, is a necessary change down in gear.

Being aware that Full Disclosure was, in part, meant to span the length of the third season, Crossings could in an alternative universe ended up an early outing in a fourth season exploring the consequences of the Julia Thorne arc, yet it is forced to find a space in the wake of some monumental revelations on a personal level for Sydney, seismic Rambaldi secrets laid bare, and a major twist for one of the series’ lead characters. Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec’s second script as writers on the show chooses to focus on the easiest of the three, and indeed by and large Alias never really gets into the fallout of the bigger two aspects of the previous episodes. Crossings is a sign of the times to come for the show.

After the events of Full Disclosure, one might suggest that Crossings refers to Sydney’s emotional state as she moves from the missing two years, and the seismic personal changes that wrought, into a new space. “I’m moving on” she tries to reassure Vaughn as they grapple with the terms and conditions of their relationship, but it’s as convincing as the idea of Alias itself truly moving on into a new space. Crossings is no metaphysical piece, no sequel to Passage on a thematic level and any kind of rite for Sydney. Crossings is rather Alias moving into a safe space, a comfort zone, and almost immediately a far less intriguing, complicated and nebulous arena. It’s not even a step back, as such. It’s a step sideways.

Season Three will get back there in much less elegant fashion than in the first half of the year, but perhaps appropriately for an episode set primarily in North Korea, Crossings is Alias walking into a dramatic no man’s land.

Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘Crossings’ (3×12 – Review)”

TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Crossings’ (3×12)

How do you follow an episode like Full Disclosure? It is hard to envy Crossings, an hour of Alias that, to some degree, is a necessary change down in gear.

Being aware that Full Disclosure was, in part, meant to span the length of the third season, Crossings could in an alternative universe ended up an early outing in a fourth season exploring the consequences of the Julia Thorne arc, yet it is forced to find a space in the wake of some monumental revelations on a personal level for Sydney, seismic Rambaldi secrets laid bare, and a major twist for one of the series’ lead characters. Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec’s second script as writers on the show chooses to focus on the easiest of the three, and indeed by and large Alias never really gets into the fallout of the bigger two aspects of the previous episodes. Crossings is a sign of the times to come for the show.

After the events of Full Disclosure, one might suggest that Crossings refers to Sydney’s emotional state as she moves from the missing two years, and the seismic personal changes that wrought, into a new space. “I’m moving on” she tries to reassure Vaughn as they grapple with the terms and conditions of their relationship, but it’s as convincing as the idea of Alias itself truly moving on into a new space. Crossings is no metaphysical piece, no sequel to Passage on a thematic level and any kind of rite for Sydney. Crossings is rather Alias moving into a safe space, a comfort zone, and almost immediately a far less intriguing, complicated and nebulous arena. It’s not even a step back, as such. It’s a step sideways.

Season Three will get back there in much less elegant fashion than in the first half of the year, but perhaps appropriately for an episode set primarily in North Korea, Crossings is Alias walking into a dramatic no man’s land.

Continue reading “TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Crossings’ (3×12)”

Star Trek: Discovery, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)

Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is both a step forward and, in many ways, a step back for the new era of the Star Trek franchise.

Buoyed by the ending of a second season that sent the crew of the Discovery far past the point of any canonical Star Trek story to date, the possibilities were endless. It could throw off the shackles of nostalgia, of existing trapped within the fan fiction canon of the 1960s, and truly emerge into something new. Incoming showrunner Michelle Paradise, under the stewardship of our modern day Rick Berman, Alex Kurtzman, chooses to throw the U.S.S. Discovery into a world of uncertainty: a post-cataclysmic, disordered galaxy with the reduced United Federation of Planets, an imperious crime syndicate in heavy control, and a central mystery for the crew to solve. Discovery builds on Star Trek: Picard’s notion of a shattered world order, a universe of futuristic certainties rent asunder by cosmic events, poor governance, and the rise of conspiratorial and sinister entities. Like much Star Trek before it, the seeming fall of the Federation as we knew it tracks with the steady collapse of the United States as the bedrock of post-war geopolitical order in the 21st century.

This allows Paradise and her team of writers to present Discovery as the kind of anachronism Star Trek itself, to some degree, now is. Michael Burnham leads her crew into this unknown future where she is greeted in almost hallowed terms by the first Starfleet officer she meets, who suggests the “hope” of a unified Federation, separated through travel and communications by the mysterious ‘Burn’ event a century ago, is her (and her crew, but more specifically her). It is as close to prophecy without venturing down the awkward road Picard trod on those lines, but Discovery the ship ends up serving as an avatar of righteousness and goodness from the distant past, from the “golden age of science” as a future character at one point puts it. In a world filled with Federation officers used to reactive, insular actions, Burnham and the Discovery arrive with a hopeful joie de vivre about the universe which, surprise surprise, challenges the status quo in a way no other crew had done in a hundred years. Discovery serves as Star Trek’s own attempt to provide light amidst ominous darkness.

The problem ends up lying with a mixture of repetitive elements, unoriginal storylines, at points poor writing and a chronic over-reliance on a main character who is lionised, even almost canonised, to the point of a climactic moment that is not just unearned, but also truly, when you think about it, absurd. Continue reading “TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)”

Star Wars, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE MANDALORIAN (Season 2)

In so many ways, two seasons in, The Mandalorian is such a contradiction.

On the one hand, it represents precisely the kind of fan service that I have railed against the Star Trek franchise for wallowing in. On the other, it retains a sense of identity within the broader Star Wars framework, taking a strong cue from the Japanese samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, not to mention American westerns of the overlapping period – some of which, such as The Magnificent Seven, took a cue from the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and such; indeed Seven Samurai heavily inspired George Lucas’ original 1977 space fantasy, to the point he even stole the stylistic scene swipe we still find Jon Favreau employing in The Mandalorian today.

Favreau’s show should not be as good as it is, quite frankly.

In one respect, it represents everything we should as a culture be railing against; the monocultural homogenisation of the franchise, in which every last drop is wrung out of a successful IP (something I wrote about fairly recently). In another, it has a confidence, durability, consistency and quality that raises it up beyond the kind of fan pleasing fiction the second season in particular stoops to. Because while the first season, set as it is in the shadow of the Galactic Empire’s fall at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, plays with familiar elements and ideas from Star Wars, it primarily doubles down on the spaghetti western trappings of the galactic underworld the titular Mandalorian exists within. It works, as much as possible, to stand apart and craft a pocket universe within the broader recognisable framework of Star Wars.

Season Two does the exact opposite. It runs heart and soul toward both the Original and Prequel Star Wars trilogies and does a remarkable job in working to stitch together and unify them as never before.
Continue reading “TV Review: THE MANDALORIAN (Season 2)”

Film, Star Wars, TV, Writing

Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…

Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.

In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.

It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.

Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.

Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.
Continue reading “Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond”

TV, Writing

Roy-al Dysfunction: SUCCESSION and the Self-Destructive Dynasty

Amongst the many trends available in television and cinema these days, the self-destructive family dynamic remains among the most potent and popular, except the targets are successively growing bigger in stature.
I have recently caught up on HBO’s Succession which, if you haven’t managed to catch it, truly is one of the finest pieces of drama anywhere today. With a third season on the way either this year or likely next—delayed, as much else, by Covid-19–Jesse Armstrong’s series has rocketed into the public consciousness following two incredibly strong opening seasons which focus on the Roy dynasty, a New York-based family in control of Waystar Royco, a multi-billion global news and entertainment multinational company, a family faced with challenges within and without as they strive to navigate an ever-shifting media landscape. Armstrong’s series is rich in Shakespearean plotting, razor-sharp writing, complex characterisation and laugh out loud black comedy which underscores a series which, ultimately, is about the self-destructive nature of exorbitant wealth on not just family, but humanity itself – both figuratively and literally. If Game of Thrones saw families physically stab each other in the back, Succession’s pain is psychological.

In watching the show, which Armstrong has worked hard to stress should not be interpreted as one particular family or another (but it isn’t hard to get a strong whiff of the Murdoch, or even Trump dynasties here), I’m left to wonder if part of Succession’s appeal is in watching people who have everything reduced to a personal, psychological nothing. The series is nominally concerned with the titular question of the successor to patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox, on brilliantly snarling form), with his grown up children variously positioning themselves to take over his sprawling, vastly lucrative empire, but the meat of the drama is in how Logan’s cruel, amoral lens on a world he is sucking dry belittles, damages and threatens to destroy his children along the way. As Logan’s brother Euan puts it in one episode, “In terms of the lives that will be lost by his whoring for the climate change deniers, there’s a very persuasive argument to be made… that he’s worse than Hitler.”. There is much current, real world relevance in what Succession deals with, but the heart of the drama, so finely balanced as it is with gallows humour that often resembles The Thick of It (which Armstrong also worked on), lies in how the rule of an empire is enough to destroy an entire family.
This feels like a tale that keeps being told. Succession follows Game of Thrones, or The Crown, even Ozark, in depicting the super-powerful lose their souls, or at the very least their happiness. I wonder… are we perversely enjoying their pain?
Continue reading “Roy-al Dysfunction: SUCCESSION and the Self-Destructive Dynasty”

Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘The Telling’ (2×22 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The title of the Season Two finale of Alias is something of a coy misdirect. The Telling promises much in the way of answers to a series filled with questions and, ultimately, simply piles more questions on top of the pile.

This is, however, as it should be. Alias was built on mystery box storytelling. J.J. Abrams, who returns to write and direct this episode, the first time in that double role since the series pilot Truth Be Told (and his last as show runner of the series), constructed Alias atop a house of cards in terms of narrative enigma and steadily unfurling character dynamics which, particularly in the second half of this season, have begun to fall to pieces as the series contracted and morphed into something new. The Telling serves as the conclusion of that transitory process and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Abrams’ script and story are extremely confident in not just picking up from where Second Double left off, as all of the character and story threads across the season begin coming together, but delivering a series of conclusive beats which are incredibly rewarding as a viewer. The tantalising mystery of Sloane’s Rambaldi device and the arcane mythology behind Syd’s ultimate confrontation with Irina; the climactic revelation and supremely cathartic fight between Syd and Evil Francie as the most personal truth of the season is revealed, and finally what has to rank as one of the most stunning and brazen cliffhangers, and one of the best examples of mystery box storytelling, that genre television has ever delivered.

The Telling might not quite live up to the tease of its title. It might not lay bare all of the secrets Alias has to offer. But it does reward the audience as the capstone to a remarkably successful twenty two episodes of storytelling, given how different the show looks from where we began in The Enemy Walks In.

Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘The Telling’ (2×22 – Review)”