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

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Conscious’ (3×09)

Conscious operates in quite a formative space, not just for Alias but many of the works from J. J. Abrams production house that would overlap and follow it.

After the grim but effective exploration in Breaking Point of Alias’s position externally as a post-9/11 series rocked by the traumatic mass hysteria of terrorism on American soil, Conscious moves inward. It contextualises many of the thematic ideas not just of the third season but of Alias as a whole, specifically the inherent duality behind the concept. Sydney Bristow spends her life being two different people, herself and whatever ‘alias’ she adopts week by week on mission. When the narrative structure disappeared after Phase One that enabled this, Season Two brought in the Helix doubling technology and established, particularly by The Telling, two sides of a psychological join in Allison/Francie – the darkness and the light. Season Three brought that inherent duality into Syd’s character herself through her missing time and Julia Thorne, apparently an externalisation of the darkest impulses that the show has worried about since the beginning.

It’s worth noting in many ways that Alias has always been a little bit obsessed with the idea of the virtuous American mother/wife/girlfriend being not what they seem, and in Syd’s case it also extends to the idea of the hero being corrupted. The revelations about Laura Bristow, the lionised, dead before her time image of the perfect American wife, shatter that visage with the reality of the duplicitous, enigmatic Irina Derevko. Allison Doren murders the innocent, unaware Francie and works to corrupt the CIA’s operation from within through assassination and brainwashing, prepping Will Tippin as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in the making (fitting given the character was built on cinematic conspiracy templates). Julia Thorne is the ultimate expression of the fear about Sydney, that she might be an Irina in the making, or a programmed assassin, or a 500 year old prophesied bringer of mass destruction. Conscious is Alias’s psychological method of coming to terms with this anxiety, especially after Breaking Point.

What Syd finds as she enters the recesses of her subconscious manages to both forward the key narrative arc of the third season while making explicit the core thematic idea of the entire show: the greater enemy is within, not without.

Continue reading “TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Conscious’ (3×09)”

Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘Conscious’ (3×09 – 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…

Conscious operates in quite a formative space, not just for Alias but many of the works from J. J. Abrams production house that would overlap and follow it.

After the grim but effective exploration in Breaking Point of Alias’s position externally as a post-9/11 series rocked by the traumatic mass hysteria of terrorism on American soil, Conscious moves inward. It contextualises many of the thematic ideas not just of the third season but of Alias as a whole, specifically the inherent duality behind the concept. Sydney Bristow spends her life being two different people, herself and whatever ‘alias’ she adopts week by week on mission. When the narrative structure disappeared after Phase One that enabled this, Season Two brought in the Helix doubling technology and established, particularly by The Telling, two sides of a psychological join in Allison/Francie – the darkness and the light. Season Three brought that inherent duality into Syd’s character herself through her missing time and Julia Thorne, apparently an externalisation of the darkest impulses that the show has worried about since the beginning.

It’s worth noting in many ways that Alias has always been a little bit obsessed with the idea of the virtuous American mother/wife/girlfriend being not what they seem, and in Syd’s case it also extends to the idea of the hero being corrupted. The revelations about Laura Bristow, the lionised, dead before her time image of the perfect American wife, shatter that visage with the reality of the duplicitous, enigmatic Irina Derevko. Allison Doren murders the innocent, unaware Francie and works to corrupt the CIA’s operation from within through assassination and brainwashing, prepping Will Tippin as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in the making (fitting given the character was built on cinematic conspiracy templates). Julia Thorne is the ultimate expression of the fear about Sydney, that she might be an Irina in the making, or a programmed assassin, or a 500 year old prophesied bringer of mass destruction. Conscious is Alias’s psychological method of coming to terms with this anxiety, especially after Breaking Point.

What Syd finds as she enters the recesses of her subconscious manages to both forward the key narrative arc of the third season while making explicit the core thematic idea of the entire show: the greater enemy is within, not without.

Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘Conscious’ (3×09 – Review)”

TV, Writing

Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN

We are all chameleons. We are never just one mood, one variation, one fixed point in time and space. This is the lesson Mad Men seeks to impart to the viewer.

It has been five years since the final seven episode run of Mad Men concluded it’s seventh and final season on AMC, and there is an argument to be made that Matthew Weiner’s series stands as one of the final assortment of critically acclaimed series to air on cable television before the age of streaming, a capstone on the Golden Age of Television ushered in during the 1990s and truly crystallised by The Sopranos. Weiner served as a staff writer on David Chase’s seminal, psychological deconstruction of the modern American family, the immigrant experience and the organised crime world, and Mad Men began just as The Sopranos came to an end. They make for a remarkable companion piece; different in setting, style and tone yet tethered in how they tragically expose the fragility of the American Dream.

Donald Draper, played with true majesty by Jon Hamm, serves as a historical forerunner of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Both are complicated, traumatised men, haunted by maternal rejection, toxic in their approach to sex and femininity, and struggling to reconcile their personal demons with their professional (or in Tony’s case criminal) lives around them. The difference with Don, existing at the beginning of the 1960s through to the arrival of the 1970s, is in how he presents. Tony almost revels in his gauche, open handed viciousness and virulence, even as he works in therapy to try and understand or temper it, where as Don is the picture of masculine restraint, refusing to acknowledge his own internal pain and even his true identity as Dick Whitman, an orphaned boy born into poverty who escaped the midwest and reinvented him as the picture of American success on the East Coast.

Mad Men, amongst many things, is about Don’s own reckoning with identity as he traverses a fast-changing social and cultural landscape, his journey toward change, and indeed whether change is even possible. If The Sopranos externalises the corruption of 20th century America, Mad Men internalises the foundation of it. Don is the dream and the nightmare in one beautiful, opaque package.
Continue reading “Try to Be Open to This: Experiencing MAD MEN”

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)”

TV, Writing

The American Nightmare: Experiencing THE SOPRANOS

Following a first watch of the show, A. J. Black discusses his impressions after experiencing David Chase’s seminal Mob drama, The Sopranos

To me, The Sopranos is about the American Nightmare, as opposed to the American Dream.

The final episode of David Chase’s magnum opus about the New Jersey Mob which ran from 1999 through to 2007 on HBO is called Made in America, as if to underline how the larger than life central figure of Anthony ‘Tony’ Soprano, despite his Italian heritage and Mob family history, could only exist in the framework of American society. Even with a fairly sprawling cast of regular fixtures, within the Soprano family and without, it was Tony who encapsulated the broken promise of America in one deeply flawed, psychologically scarred, selfish and sociopathic individual. The series pivoted around the balance between being head of the New Jersey Mafia while trying to exist as the patriarch of a prototypical American nuclear family, and how these elements would come to often almost violent blows.

Chase’s series is constructed upon the idea that Tony, while representing ostensibly the quite cliched, Mario Puzo-definition of an Italian gangster—masculine, hard drinking, loves food, charms women etc…—was also intensely damaged as a human being to the point he reaches out and accesses therapy as a way of grappling with his own life and psyche, traditionally the kind of omertà-breaking move that would consign him to Mafia oblivion. The Sopranos only works so well because Tony needs to talk, to find an outlet for the filthy, ugly, morally vacuous existence he leads within a world of zero substance posing as important machismo. If Tony represents how America lost its way, became corrupted by cynical values of self-deception and mercurial self-interest, then it’s the American Dream week in week out in the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi as much as it is a fairly low-rent Jersey gangster.

Having just turned two decades old, experiencing The Sopranos for the first time throws all of this into sharp relief, suggesting Tony Soprano was less an actualisation of America’s decay but more of a harbinger of what was to come.
Continue reading “The American Nightmare: Experiencing THE SOPRANOS”

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones – (Series Overview + Reviews)

Game of Thrones changed television. Not many TV shows can say that but Game of Thrones, unequivocally, can. There had never been a show quite like it in terms of scope, grandeur, ambition and ultimately international commercial and critical success. It broke the mould.

George R. R. Martin first began writing his long-form, magnum opus of novels, known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire, over twenty years ago before the publication of his first, A Game of Thrones, in 1996. Set in a fictional fantasy world, primarily on a continent known as Westeros, Martin’s prose was at times pulpy and ripe but his reach was astonishing; taking more than a cue from Tolkien, Robert Jordan and Frank Herbert among others, Martin swiftly created a vibrant fantasy world with an incredible amount of detail and depth lurking behind a complicated, exciting and layered narrative.

Despite the roughly five year gap between publication of Martin’s tomes (seriously, the lighter A Song of Ice and Fire novels clocks in at around 800 pages), production companies soon came sniffing around Martin looking to adapt his books into a feature film. Quite understandably, Martin soon made the point that doing A Song of Ice and Fire as a movie would be nigh on impossible, explaining how just one of his books is longer than The Lord of the Rings, which itself was adapted into three enormous movies by Peter Jackson. The scope was just too large. It belonged on TV.

Continue reading “Game of Thrones – (Series Overview + Reviews)”