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”
Alias, TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Facade’ (3×15)

When ABC laid down the edict midway through Alias’ second season that the series needed to become less impenetrable to audiences, Facade in many respects feels the closest the series has yet come to providing the show the network perhaps wanted it to be.

Facade, barring one or two continuing narrative aspects, character beats and story ideas, is perhaps the most truly stand-alone episode of Alias yet. It is also, in many ways, certainly one of the best episodes of the third season, if not the entire series. It links to Season Three’s arch villains the Covenant, and ties directly back to a small dangling thread from Full Disclosure, but Facade is the first experiment with crafting a contained, focused narrative that could be watched independently of understanding the myriad amount of complex mythology and character stories Alias is built upon. In narrative construction, it also owes the biggest debt to date to one of the series’ primary influences: the 1960s iconic spy series Mission: Impossible.

Why now? Why create an episode like this as the show enters the last third of a season?

Though the primary reason is to build an episode around the special guest star of the week, Ricky Gervais, there is also a strange logic to Facade’s placement at this stage in Alias. It would have worked in the fourth season, a year which embraces stand-alone storytelling intentionally in the first half of the season, but Facade also exists within the strange nether-space of Alias between two distinct stages of the series’ mythology: the Prophecy and the Passenger. After Six and Blowback certainly advanced the duality inherent in the dynamics of Syd/Vaughn, Sark/Lauren, but from a narrative perspective they advance nothing of importance. Lauren doesn’t even feature in this episode at all. Alias is in a holding pattern that only starts to shift from Taken, next time, onwards.

In the third season, there is no better place for Facade. It exists almost independently of many of the plot lines and character stories around it. Maybe, in the strangest of ways, that’s a major reason why it works so well.

Continue reading “TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Facade’ (3×15)”

TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘After Six’ (3×13)

In many ways, After Six can be considered indicative of the kind of fan-baiting series Alias became in Season Three after the daring apogee of Full Disclosure, a sign of what it runs arms-opened toward in the latter half of the season.

Crossings established that Syd & Vaughn were not going to remain apart as per the new, Julia Thorne-era paradigm, and that the writers were determined to find a way to untie the difficult knots of storytelling that had replaced the UST of the early seasons with a trauma-driven, grief-stricken change in circumstance preventing them being together. Work would need to be done in order to return them to a romantic state, work that takes the rest of the season in all honesty, but Alias would be intent on giving the fans what they wanted: the SVR (Syd-Vaughn Romance). Season Three, as a result, begins in After Six to deliberately angle the series away from Syd & Jack’s relationship as the dramatic focal point, as it is when Alias operates at its best, toward what becomes a knotty quadrangle.

Having Lauren turn out to be a Covenant agent is not a bad twist in and of itself, indeed it makes a modicum of sense on several thematic levels for Alias as will become apparent in what happens to Vaughn’s character at the back end of the season. However, it very deliberately is a convenient way to lessen the problematic moral realities of Syd & Vaughn becoming romantically involved when one of them is married. After Six begins to explore this but everything is offset by how immediately pantomime Lauren becomes as she partners, both literally and sexually, with Sark across this episode. She wears dark eye shadow. She tries out revealing lingerie. She seduces Covenant bosses and savagely murders them. In perhaps one of Alias’ most chilling moments, Lauren watches Sark strangle a man to death while having a casual, loving phone check in with her husband, talking about making them some supper.

After Six, therefore, begins the recalibration of Alias into a more simplistic series driven by sex, betrayal and more traditional forms of spy plotting. It is sporadically entertaining but, at this stage, that’s about all.

Continue reading “TV Review: ALIAS – ‘After Six’ (3×13)”

Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘After Six’ (3×13 – 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…

In many ways, After Six can be considered indicative of the kind of fan-baiting series Alias became in Season Three after the daring apogee of Full Disclosure, a sign of what it runs arms-opened toward in the latter half of the season.

Crossings established that Syd & Vaughn were not going to remain apart as per the new, Julia Thorne-era paradigm, and that the writers were determined to find a way to untie the difficult knots of storytelling that had replaced the UST of the early seasons with a trauma-driven, grief-stricken change in circumstance preventing them being together. Work would need to be done in order to return them to a romantic state, work that takes the rest of the season in all honesty, but Alias would be intent on giving the fans what they wanted: the SVR (Syd-Vaughn Romance). Season Three, as a result, begins in After Six to deliberately angle the series away from Syd & Jack’s relationship as the dramatic focal point, as it is when Alias operates at its best, toward what becomes a knotty quadrangle.

Having Lauren turn out to be a Covenant agent is not a bad twist in and of itself, indeed it makes a modicum of sense on several thematic levels for Alias as will become apparent in what happens to Vaughn’s character at the back end of the season. However, it very deliberately is a convenient way to lessen the problematic moral realities of Syd & Vaughn becoming romantically involved when one of them is married. After Six begins to explore this but everything is offset by how immediately pantomime Lauren becomes as she partners, both literally and sexually, with Sark across this episode. She wears dark eye shadow. She tries out revealing lingerie. She seduces Covenant bosses and savagely murders them. In perhaps one of Alias’ most chilling moments, Lauren watches Sark strangle a man to death while having a casual, loving phone check in with her husband, talking about making them some supper.

After Six, therefore, begins the recalibration of Alias into a more simplistic series driven by sex, betrayal and more traditional forms of spy plotting. It is sporadically entertaining but, at this stage, that’s about all.

Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘After Six’ (3×13 – Review)”

Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘Breaking Point’ (3×08 – 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…

Though moving away from anything that could be described as an Alias episodic ‘formula’, Breaking Point is not just one of the best episodes of Season Three but, perhaps, of the entire series.

A natural culmination of the third season’s story arcs to date, Breaking Point is where Alias has arguably been heading for almost two seasons. Breen Frazier’s script, as the arrested Sydney is carted away as a suspected terrorist to the menacing, isolated Camp Williams, renditioned and tortured by US military forces for intelligence, is the natural extension of the first season’s episode Q&A, in which Syd was detained by the FBI (supposedly) after she was directly linked to apocalyptic quatrains in the Rambaldi manuscript. Jack said at the time that they could “conceivably hold her without trial for the rest of her life” and the same applies here. Camp Williams is not presented as the kind of detention facility people leave, or certainly leave as who they were before.

There are plenty of connections back to The Prophecy arc in the first season over the conclusion to Syd’s missing two years storyline, but one of the most interesting is how Alias approaches terrorism in this context. After spending several years operating as a post-Cold War series as America’s unipolar might is challenged by domestic insurgents and glamorous external villains, Breaking Point finishes the work began in Q&A—and continued in episodes such as Fire Bomb in the second season—in transforming Alias, born in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Towers, into a post-9/11 series. Breaking Point could be an episode of 24 or Homeland. It debuted at the height of 24’s popularity, as The Sopranos was coming to terms with the New York tragedy, as Star Trek: Enterprise was exploring the reactionary cost of American imperialism in its fictional future. Though a series built on retro, cod-1960s escapism, Alias boldly crosses a threshold in Breaking Point as it explores the reality of American political extremism in reaction to the existential fear of terrorism.

It makes for one hell of a powerful, dark and disturbing hour of Alias. This might be as grim as the series gets.

Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘Breaking Point’ (3×08 – Review)”

TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Breaking Point’ (3×08)

Though moving away from anything that could be described as an Alias episodic ‘formula’, Breaking Point is not just one of the best episodes of Season Three but, perhaps, of the entire series.

A natural culmination of the third season’s story arcs to date, Breaking Point is where Alias has arguably been heading for almost two seasons. Breen Frazier’s script, as the arrested Sydney is carted away as a suspected terrorist to the menacing, isolated Camp Williams, renditioned and tortured by US military forces for intelligence, is the natural extension of the first season’s episode Q&A, in which Syd was detained by the FBI (supposedly) after she was directly linked to apocalyptic quatrains in the Rambaldi manuscript. Jack said at the time that they could “conceivably hold her without trial for the rest of her life” and the same applies here. Camp Williams is not presented as the kind of detention facility people leave, or certainly leave as who they were before.

There are plenty of connections back to The Prophecy arc in the first season over the conclusion to Syd’s missing two years storyline, but one of the most interesting is how Alias approaches terrorism in this context. After spending several years operating as a post-Cold War series as America’s unipolar might is challenged by domestic insurgents and glamorous external villains, Breaking Point finishes the work began in Q&A—and continued in episodes such as Fire Bomb in the second season—in transforming Alias, born in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Towers, into a post-9/11 series. Breaking Point could be an episode of 24 or Homeland. It debuted at the height of 24’s popularity, as The Sopranos was coming to terms with the New York tragedy, as Star Trek: Enterprise was exploring the reactionary cost of American imperialism in its fictional future. Though a series built on retro, cod-1960s escapism, Alias boldly crosses a threshold in Breaking Point as it explores the reality of American political extremism in reaction to the existential fear of terrorism.

It makes for one hell of a powerful, dark and disturbing hour of Alias. This might be as grim as the series gets.

Continue reading “TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Breaking Point’ (3×08)”

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”

Alias, TV, Writing

ALIAS – ‘The Nemesis’ (3×06 – 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…

The Nemesis reminded me of Double Agent, from Alias’ second season. Partly for picking up on threads established in that episode, but also in how it straddles serialisation and stand-alone storytelling.

While in some respects, The Nemesis diverges from the ongoing character arc for Sydney and the mythology around her missing time, in other ways it is central to everything we’ve experienced in the previous five episodes. Repercussions suggested Sydney needed to face the consequences of the two years we skipped, and the climactic beat of The Telling, after A Missing Link placed significant moral compromise in our mind about what Syd might have become, or had to become, in those missing years. The Nemesis contextualises this by framing an episode almost entirely around the lingering elements of Season Two. Crystal Nix Hines’ script is almost a sequel to both The Telling and the relentless final third of the second season as a whole, pulling us back into that paradigm after Season Three launched into a new direction. Even the final scenes of the episode contain the same music and tempo as the end of the previous year.

Yet simultaneously, it takes broader steps to what is now an inevitable confrontation between Sydney and the NSC, with Lauren’s investigation into the Lazarey murder taking significant strides in the sub-plot of this episode. Strip that away and The Nemesis could have been, for all intents and purposes, a relatively stand-alone episode that simply works at those Season Two threads, but Nix Hines does an admirable job of tying the stylistics of these two different seasons together across this hour, even if the constituent parts of Syd’s reunion with the villainous Allison Doren struggle to live up to their promise. The Nemesis is designed to serve as, essentially, the concluding beat of the season’s first act before Prelude sends us thundering into the next one.

It’s a strange balance, overall, and one that is only partially successful.

Continue reading “ALIAS – ‘The Nemesis’ (3×06 – Review)”