Apocalypto now, redux


Maybe it’s the low grade fever I’m feeling, but it seems like now would be a great time to rebroadcast my love for the BBC’s Survivors, since every day Mexico City feels more and more like a location shoot for 28 months laterApparently season two begins filming in Birmingham next month, too, which is timely.  For those who missed it in December, season one is set to air on BBC America at some undisclosed point later this year.

So, Survivors is another remake of a post-apocalyptic drama originally hailing from the 1970s.  The trend, I think, prompts some questions: is there something in the current global political climate that has anglophones reshuffling old Cold War apocalypse fantasies?  What about science fiction as a genre makes it so ripe for geopolitical allegory?  Is the new Star trek movie going to be a lionization the Bush family or what?  Is David Simon the only homeboy out there with the chops to tell a political story sans allegory?

My general anglophilia aside, the British series is much more restrained (not to mention more satisfying) than its bombastic American cousin. Whereas Americans tend to disguise our fears as genocidal robots and rocket them off into deep space, Survivors orbits a bit closer to home, suggesting deadly viruses and greedy transnational corporations as more proximate harbingers of the apocalypse.  Although the first season makes explicit reference to a vaguely Abramsian (and hopefully not Prison-breakian) conspiracy responsible for the outbreak of the virus, the science fiction element of the British series (at least in its 2008 incarnation) seems to have been confined to that first episode.  And, as I mentioned, even that particular plot point isn’t so far-fetched.

"Por culpa de este pinche esqüincle!"
"Por culpa de este pinche esqüincle!"

The main appeal of the series for me — and I felt the same way about the first season of Lost — is its escapist fantasy of re-building society ex nihilo.  By way of comparison, there were admittedly some rocky moments for the post-Caprican military dictatorship on BSG, even a failed revolution or two, but never any good faith consideration of, say, a socialist model of rule, or even a proper democracy.  I haven’t seen any of Adrian Hodges’s earlier projects, but I have to assume — especially given the Samantha Willis subplot — that Survivors will lean more toward the dystopia of Lord of the flies than the triumphant militarism of BSG.

– J.C. Freñán


‘City as might have been’: Sitcoms and the 80s

We ain't going to the town / We're going to the city

If sitcom title sequences in the 70s marked an era of urban verisimilitude, then the 80s ushered in the age of the suburban fantasy. Think about it: Family Ties was set in a Columbus suburb; Growing Pains in Long Island; even Who’s the Boss exiled Tony Danza and onscreen daughter Alyssa Milano from Brooklyn to waspier pastures in Connecticut (a premise replicated in the straight-to-syndication series Charles in Charge). But even the few shows that were set in the city were inflected by a suburban consciousness: no longer were there any neighborhoods, or project housing, or public transportation, or, you know, people of color on the small screen; just downtown thoroughfares, skyscrapers, and landmarks. The sitcom city in the 80s was fit to be printed on a postcard, which, come to think of it, seems to reflect the larger role that urban life played in the imagination of upwardly-mobile (post-white flight) America at the time. It was a trip down to the financial district for work, or the baseball stadium for a Saturday outing, not a place where anyone actually seemed to live (even if the characters of these shows apparently did).*

1. Manhattan – Head of the Class (1986-91)

Head of the Class actually had one of the better title sequences of the era. Its theme was a ballsy, cinematic instrumental and came out ‘classical’ before it ‘rocked you’ with some harmonized keytars. Set in Monroe High School in Manhattan, and starring WKRP in Cincinnatti star Howard Hesseman, the Head of the Class opening was a sharp contrast to Welcome Back, Kotter‘s poetic scenes of Brooklyn. Instead, we open with New York’s familiar icons: the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, the Statue of Liberty, the famous yellow cabs, and sexy pedestrians. It’s Hollywood’s version of NYC, not the ‘hood life of, say, All in the Family. Still, to its credit, the show did reflect the shifting racial dynamics of the city since the Kotter days; braniac Indian, Jawaharlal Chodhury and the late addition of Jasper Kwong all signaled a New York transforming after the post-65 migrations from the Third World. Not that you could tell from the lily-white streets teach walked through.

2. Chicago – Perfect Strangers (1986-93)

The Chicago of Perfect Strangers has to be the antithesis of the Chicago of Good Times; the latter’s theme of survival, its ironic lyrical inversions, its gritty shots of the Cabrini-Green projects, give way to the former’s Reaganite fantasies of upward class mobility. Lines of communal inclusion (“Ain’t we lucky we got ’em”) are now replaced with individual exception (“It’s my life and my dream / and nothing’s gonna stop me now”), and the gospel choir is replaced with what sounds like Naked Eyes’ drum machine. There’s a lot going on in this sequence – first, the narrative of travel from small town to big city is twinned with the immigrant narrative of Old world to Western metropole (Cousin Larry’s drive from Wisconsin to Chicago / Balki “Borat” Bartokamous’s transcontinental schlep from “Meypos” to the US by steamer). Perfect Strangers is also the second show on this list that features the emblematic Statue of Liberty; no surprise, then, that creator Dale McRaven says he was inspired to write the show during the renewed patriotism after the ’84 olympics. And no surprise either, that Balki and Larry’s American dreams involved bagging one blonde wife, a piece, by the series’ end. That sort of luck calls for a dance of joy.

3. San Francisco – Full House (1987-95)

As the AIDS epidemic destroyed the lives of tens of thousands in San Francisco alone, and Reagan turned a homophobic eye, Jeff Franklin decided to celebrate non-traditional structures of the home by creating what is, probably, the most saccharine show that ever aired on television. There was nothing remotely regional about Full House, aside from the opening credits, and the reference to Bob Saget’s news job at ‘Wake Up, San Francisco.’ We have John Stamos at least partially to thank for this theme song. (Was I the only one who felt borderline queasy every time Stamos said, ‘have mercy’? Or when Coulier ‘cut.it.out.’?)

4. Boston – Cheers (1982-93)

Was Cheers’ opening sequence the greatest of the 80s? It’s certainly up there. An exterior shot of the Bull & Finch pub in Beacon Hill, Boston transforms into a sepia-toned montage of lithographs from a century of hard drinking. Gary Portnoy’s theme was, and still is, the perfect jingle for alcoholism I’ve ever heard: “Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.” The shot at 0:49 (“We Win!”) remains deeply ambiguous – Did the Allies just win? Did the Sox beat the Yanks? Did Bostonians just vote on the Big Dig? – whatever it was, it seems like it was worth a toast. Nevertheless, aside from that opening shot, Boston has no real presence in this theme.

I can draw contrasts all day between the opening credits of 70s and 80s sitcoms, and fault the latter for its unreal representations of urban life, but that’s not really my point. The 80s ushered in a deeply suburban sensibility to the sitcom, and the cities of these shows were represented from the vantage point of those suburbs – they were white, picturesque, sanitized, and totally unbelievable. They represented neoliberal desires of urban spaces, never once venturing over into the Southside or the Boroughs, where the world didn’t look so perfect, and a whole lot of shit needed rearranging.

Next week: the 90s and the invasion of the yuppies.

*The Cosby Show was firmly rooted in a Brooklyn brownstone, and the show constantly referenced its setting, but the yearly changes to the opening credits sort of threw it out of contention for this list.

– Thumbu Sammy

This Week’s Music on Television

Snow sat so Em could walk.  Em walked so Asher could run...

So Asher Roth’s debut LP, Asleep in the Bread Isle, dropped last week to a whole lot of unwarranted buzz and a whole lot of frustration (read Fuzzylogic dissect the meanings of Asher Roth here). In any case, Jimmy Kimmel will unveil suburban white America’s answer to hip hop on Tuesday night, for those who are brave enough to witness. Otherwise, another bland week on TWMOT. Surprise, surprise.

Monday: Swingers house band, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, brings a whole lot of nostalgia to Leno, while Franz Ferdinand do Kimmel.
Tuesday: Asher Roth‘s quest for hip hop domination commences on Kimmel.
Wednesday: Georgian indie rockers, Manchester Orchestra, play Letterman.
Thursday: Starsailor, the Coldplay that never was, play Leno; and Santigold (and special guests Spank Rock) perform “Shove it” on a Fallon rerun.
Friday: Natasha Khan brings the Bats for Lashes show onto Letterman, and the Cold War Kids close out the week on Fallon.

TubaTV’s Thursday Night Highlights

Last night’s Parks & Recreation stole a page out of the mid-80s Jamie Lee Curtis-John Travolta aerobics classic, Perfect, and reminded us never ever to sleep with a reporter who’s writing a story on you. But if you must, make sure you say “off the record” before you whisper your sweet nasties. Never seen Perfect, you say? That’s what TubaTV is here for.

I don’t know if it’s possible – or even necessary – to go on after that, but here’s an attempt anyway.

So, after what feels like a year of cameos (a month of Idris Elba on The Office, and several months of Salma Hayek on 30 Rock), the guest stars have finally left the building, and NBC sitcoms can now return to whiter pastures. I’m still a little peeved about the wasted use of Idris; Charles’ dismissal from Dunder Mifflin-Scranton was colder than Stringer’s dismissal from Barksdale-Baltimore, and the writers didn’t even have the courtesy of equipping the man with one memorable parting shot. (That’s an average of zero jokes out of the past six episodes, for those of you counting). On the other hand, 30 Rock‘s Salma Hayek, aka La Viuda Negra, got a brilliant exit despite her consistently awkward performance as Donaghy’s querida. Gracious writers that they are, Fey and company gave Hayek the best line of the night:

Lemon, isn’t there a slanket somewhere that you should be filling up with your farts?

No wonder everyone’s signing up for guest roles on 30 Rock (The Chicago Tribune reports that Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, and a whole bunch of musical guests, including Elvis Costello, are set to appear in the next couple weeks). Stay tuned.

– Thumbu Sammy

Redemption revisited: In space!

Broadening TubaTV’s recent focus on themes of redemption, I’ll go ahead and muse publicly that Caprica may indeed offer Ronald D. Moore the opportunity to live up to the hype that surrounded his version of Battlestar Galactica.  My expectations are actually higher than one might think, given my unfavorable review of the BSG finale.  I have the sense that Moore didn’t really have a clear idea of what he was doing when he went about dragging BSG through four muddy seasons, but I’d hope he’s learned a thing or two from the experience.  Either that, or we’ll have Remi Aubuchon to thank for upping the Sci-Fi channel’s game.

The straight-to-DVD pilot shows some marked improvements in production value.  I watched it on my laptop, but (what looked to me like) the blue-heavy color palette suited the somberness of the story well enough.  The acting, too, struck me as much subtler than its predecessor’s.  (I’ve never been terribly convinced by Olmos the elder, chicano politics aside.  Olmos the younger was wise to have focused on improving his physical appeal for the final season of BSG, because nepotism can only get you so far.)  Eric Stoltz puts in a solid performance as a far more palatable preincarnation of Gaius Baltar, and this despite a truly unfortunate ginger-flavored soul patch.  Polly Walker may have ripened a bit since her stint as the ur-MILF Atia of the Julii on Rome, but her character seems infinitely more promising than Laura Roslin’s facile, conflicted-woman-in-power schtick, or Starbuck’s drunken tomboy antics.  And Deadwood‘s least attractive lady of the night, Trixie, finds a much more subdued character here.  (An improvement over her brief run on Lost, I might also add.)  Even the teens weren’t entirely unwatchable.  That Zöe’s gonna be a firecracker.

Polly Walker, through the ages.
Polly Walker, through the ages.

BSG‘s familiar themes find themselves more grounded this time around, since we’re no longer floating aimlessly through space.  The abstract poly- v. monotheism conflict has been planted firmly in a universe populated by distinct planetary cultures (ie, the body art and subtitled language of the ethnicized Taurons) and fundamentalist terrorism.  Most satisfying, however, is the show’s introduction of “holoband” technology (ie, the Internet) as the metaphorical terrain on which to explore the human/non-human conflict that made Boomer’s character so obliquely interesting for the first couple of seasons of BSG.

For my money, the sci-fi of BSG was too heavily reliant on bland, overcooked fantasies about technological progress: its allegorical conflicts only have traction in an imaginary future when artificial intelligence frighteningly palpates the limits of human subjectivity.  Caprica (so far) seems invested in relatively more mundane questions about the radical distinction between physis and techne, for instance, or about what constitutes human subjectivity, or the limits of the corporeal, perception, presence.  It also offers some fresh, accessible reflection on the re/production and fragmentation of identity in the age of digital reproduction.  Its fantasy of digitization carried to its limit — ie, the perfect reproducibility of bio-electric processes — poses some provocative questions about the structures of human subjectivity and affect.  (I’m thinking of the scenes between Stoltz and Zöe in the second half of the pilot.  The scene when Stoltz is testing the downloaded MCP doesn’t make much sense in this regard, though: digital transfer as we know it is never strictly transfer, but a process of copying.  If bro had been using a Mac, he wouldn’t have had any problems.)

So far my complaints are relatively few.  The refrain that “there is truth in the world, there is a right and there is a wrong” will get tiresome very quickly, and the Adama reveal didn’t feel especially necessary.  Otherwise, though, I think the Caprica pilot is very, very successful: the stale imagination that animated the human-robot conflict in BSG has been recontextualized and made much more relevant.  It strikes me that the pseudo-etymological link between Caprica and Capricorn offers us an organizing metaphor for the show: in its half-goat, half-fish version, Capricorn posits a fantastical hybrid in the evolutionary transition from water to land.  (Mythologically, I gather, it went the other way around.  Whatever.)  I hope the series doesn’t get lost in its more operatic elements, but continues developing the bridge between the technological movement of late capitalism and its potential for apocalypse.

– J.C. Freñán

‘Kings’ is dead, long live ‘Southland’?

Saturday's highlight reel
Neither Macaulay Culkin’s return to the screen nor Sarita Choudhury’s sexy back was enough to save Kings from its Saturday night ratings plunge. According to the Futon critic and Raked, the modern retelling of the tale of Saul and David is now officially on hiatus ’til June. Thanks, NBC, for blueballing us again. Seriously, thanks. I’ve been meaning to finish up a dissertation, and this frees up some time.

Luckily, this week’s episode (which posted an abysmal 0.6 rating), didn’t exactly leave its dwindling audience hanging. The political uprisings of last week were seemingly all forgotten with the pageantry of “Judgment Day,” David’s martyr-happy brother has lived to annoy us another day, and everyone still loves Silas. Well, almost everyone. The king’s icy judgment over Dr. Nayar’s (Ajay Naidu) case and stone-walling of his illegitimate son’s mother (Choudhury) should come back to haunt him, in the end. A few questions go unanswered: for one, why was Macaulay Culkin banished at all? ‘Cause of a latent shoe fetish? For tea-bagging the crown (like his old man would)? My bet is it was something much more nefarious; Culkin’s brief appearance was creepy enough to make Jack look like the good son.

A thing you'd as soon not see ruined or in cinders.Still, despite the show’s flaws, Kings’ hiatus-slash-cancellation is a tough blow not only for the few of us who tuned in week after week, but for network dramas, period. If NBC is willing to put its chips down on a derivative cop procedural like Southland, but not have the sand to give Kings a decent weekday slot, then expect a whole lot more of the same-old on network television. Honestly, if America can’t appreciate a Swearengen-Langrishe reunion, then I don’t know what to tell them.

– Thumbu Sammy

TV pet peeve #3: Overthickening the plot

One could be pardoned for forgetting that once upon a time, Prison break was actually pretty entertaining.  The original premise — loosing the bonds of incarceration via the bonds of fraternal love — strikes a weird chord with me, and if we can forgive the predictable Fox-isms, that first season did fulfill its narrative promise rather satisfactorily.  Insofar as the first part of the second season attempted to deal with the consequences of the first, it wasn’t too far off the mark, either (although the Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell character did wear out his welcome well before that).

I think everyone can agree that the unapologetically racist third season — Prison break: Pandemonium in Panamá! — was an unmitigated failure.  (Not even the finale’s ill-advised inclusion of Rebekah del Rio’s Vini Reilly-less version of “Crying” could do much to redeem it.)  It’s been downhill for the brothers Scofield and their merry band of felons ever since, and there’s a very simple reason why: the conspiracy’s just too goddamn thick.  I’m not complaining about the show’s lack of verisimilitude so much as its writers’ total disregard for compulsively recurring to the same improbable emplotments: living relatives keep finding themselves held as collateral, while estranged and/or presumed dead relatives keep coming back to life; enemies keep becoming grudging allies, and steadfast allies either defect from the cause or become embittered enemies.  Whenever the flip-flopping gets too confusing to follow, the writers just add a greater, previously unimagined threat to the mix.  After season one, the antagonist function is tossed lazily around like a lukewarm, unappetizing potato: Brad Bellick, Alex Mahone, Paul Kellerman, Gretchen Morgan, General Krantz, Donald Self… Who cares, really?  By now we know to expect each villain’s badassery to be trumped as we move up (or laterally across) the conspiratorial ladder of The Company.

Things didn’t have to turn out this way — narratively, I mean.  Granted, the fugitive angle was inevitably going to get tedious, but there are always going to be metaphorical prisons these characters would have had to confront, right?  But because Prison break is on Fox, such musings are pretty worthless.  (Wentworth-less, even!)  Instead we’re left with a sticky mess of half-baked characters and their competing interests.  Not even the tepid Scofield-Tancredi romance manages to sweeten the pot (impassioned fan art notwithstanding).

Not exactly llorando, is he?
I preferred his ink sleeves.

And because we’re talking about Obama-era Fox here, we’ve also got to contend with the suddenly formidable figure of Michael and Lincoln’s mother, of all people.  Not unlike Renee Walker on 24, I’ll venture that her being a very well-produced Woman With Boobs is meant to defer criticism of the show’s politics.  Not that I can make out a coherent political message from Prison break, other than maybe a vague, delusional libertarian anti-government posture.

Since I’m growing increasingly skeptical of Miami-based series, I’ll go ahead and point out that we can now add Prison break to the tally.  Maybe Dexter can help Michael and Linc get Scylla?

– J.C. Freñán