Running for the border, in reverse

It’s the height of foolishness to get excited about a new Fox series, but can you really blame me this time?  Christopher McQuarrie — best known for writing The usual suspects — has co-created Persons unknown, and is currently executive producing a 13-episode run, which I expect to begin airing this fall. Truth be told, McQuarrie’s involvement alone would have been enough to get me to watch: if he can manage to give Ryan Philippe a certain dirty, macho appeal, I’m willing to give any McQuarrie project a fair shot, even if it’s going to be relegated to the network with the worst track history in TubaTV’s collective memory.

Sweetening the deal, though, is the curious fact that Persons unknown has been filming less than an hour away from TubaTV’s Latin American office, in the Ajusco Mountain region south of Mexico City.  I’m not thrilled that the show is being co-produced with Televisa — the Mexican analog of Fox, only ickier, if you can imagine — but in all honesty the partnership can only help the otherwise desolate Mexican airwaves.  [I recently spoke with the main stylist on Mexico’s other notable (read:failed) attempt at moving beyond the telenovela format, and she confirmed my suspicions: the second season of Capadocia is going to be much, much shoddier than the first.  Apparently — and understandably — the series’s budget has been slashed, and to make matters worse, its writers have abandoned the entire groundwork they laid in the first season, offering us instead a weak, watery prequel: the life and times of Bambi, prior to her incarceration.  Do they not realize that by the end of the first season, the show’s appeal was resting entirely on Dolores Paradis’s impressive underage décolletage?]

So, viva NAFTA?

In related news, burnout Fox alum Paul Sheuring might be competing with McQuarrie on the big screen, as both appear to be working on remakes of the German film Das experiment.  Personally, I’d favor a McQuarrie effort by a mile, since Sheuring spent a good two and a half seasons beating his own Prison break horse after it had expired.

— J.C. Freñán

Advertisements

Apocalypto now, redux

Survivalypto

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

Mexico and the televisual war on drugs

This month’s triumphant return of Breaking bad — hands down the smartest, funniest, most poignant show on television at the moment — has me wondering whether we aren’t currently experiencing a sort of hangover from the media’s intoxication with all things Latin in the 90s. To wit: when the Botwins trade Agrestic for Ren Mar in the fourth season of Weeds, the previously unproblematic Mexican origin of Nancy’s product suddenly becomes an abiding concern. What troubles Nancy isn’t so much the product itself as the other kinds of commodities being smuggled into the States along with it: namely, underage Central American sex workers. Likewise, the successful production of crystal meth in Breaking bad is represented as being potentially dangerous, but ultimately a matter of how well one understands chemistry. The problem with meth, then, is not on the supply-side: the source of Walt White’s woes is the infrastructure involved in distributing an illegal drug in New Mexico.  Latino gangs, that is.

(A quick aside: for all its brilliance, The wire only really alluded to the port of Baltimore as a choice position within a larger, international system of contraband circulation during its second season.  The geographical — not to mention material — origin of West Baltimore’s drugs was left un-interrogated. Again, it was the confluence of human trafficking and drug trafficking that prompted the Baltimore PD’s scrutiny of the docks.)

So what Jenji Kohan and Vince Gilligan discover when they unveil their respective commodity-fetishes is not a system of social relations structured around the rational exploitation of productive forces, so much as a series of unproductive corpses. Behind these, a different kind of fetish: the well-worn stereotype of the Mexican bandido.  When Weeds begins asking itself where Nancy’s grass comes from, Guillermo transforms from wise-cracking machista to sociopath in under half a season.  Similarly, when Walt wants to start wholesaling his meth, he has to deal with Breaking bad‘s resident vato loco, Tuco.

Qué camisa, ¿no?
¿Memo Herdez el grande?

What’s so interesting about this stereotype, though, is that it’s not the exclusive prerogative of xenophobes north of the border. Here’s just one particularly uncanny quote from Ignacio Altamirano’s late 19th century novel El Zarco, which remains a classic of high school curricula in Mexico to this day: “The lowland bandits were cruel, above all. Horrible and superfluous though a cruelty might be, they would commit it, out of instinct, out of brutality, out of the sheer desire to augment the people’s terror and delight in it… [Their] character was extraordinary and exceptional, an explosion of vice, cruelty and infamy the likes of which had never before been seen in Mexico.”

This comparison, restricted though it may be to the level of homology, suggests that the figure of the narco/bandido poses something more than a strictly racial threat, something more than a threat to the national (b)order.  I suspect this threat, when coupled to the ego-reducing effects of illegal intoxicants, is rather that of irrationality, in both economic and psychological senses: that is, the unproductive (intoxicated or assassinated) body.

I’ll close these preliminary observations with a challenge: I think it’s time — high time, even — that American television unequivocally cross the US-Mexico border.  Rather than being transfixed by the grotesque figure of a Pablo Escobar (as in Vincent Chase’s dismally over-acted vision of “Medellín,”), rather than seeking morbid titillation in the flayed corpse of an American FBI agent (a la Weeds), I think the (liberal, educated, premium-cable watching) American public is ready for a more thoughtful analysis of the political economy that actually sustains international drug trafficking.  If you’re reading, HBO, TubaTV has a teleplay for you.

– J.C. Freñán