Category Archives: Television

Postponing Mr. Robot

I’m tired of television networks doing this:

Citing similarities between the show’s finale and today’s tragic shooting at a Virginia TV station, USA Network says it will postpone tonight’s finale of Mr. Robot.

“The previously filmed season finale of Mr. Robot contains a graphic scene similar in nature to today’s tragic events in Virginia,” the network said in a statement. “Out of respect to the victims, their families and colleagues, and our viewers, we are postponing tonight’s episode.”

The episode will now air on Sept. 2. The network didn’t elaborate on how the scene from the finale is similar to the events today, in which a person shot and killed a cameraman and reporter during a live televised interview.

I don’t understand how this is about respect for the victims. No matter what happens on Mr. Robot, it’s not about the victims and has nothing to do with them.

I can sort of understand the desire to respect the feelings of the victims’ families and friends, but I have trouble believing that tonight’s episode of Mr. Robot makes any difference to them. Given that someone they love has just died, I don’t think they care what’s on television.

I admit that when my mother and father died a few months apart (from natural causes), I couldn’t watch new episodes of House for a few months. Unsurprisingly, watching people suffer from major health problems in hospital settings had lost its entertainment value for me.

But it didn’t bother me that House was on the air or that other people were watching it, and I don’t believe that today’s victims’ families and friends would be bothered by Mr Robot being on either. The most that might be needed from USA Network is a warning notice before the show so people who might be upset could avoid or postpone watching that episode.

Speaking of my dead parents, why didn’t House postpone any episodes when they died, out of respect for my feelings? For that matter, people are murdered pretty much every day in this country, so why don’t networks postpone shows all the time? Surely the family and friends of those victims would be just as upset by similar violence on television as the family and friends of the people shot in Virginia today. Why doesn’t USA Network postpone episodes for them?

Of course the big difference between today’s shooting and all those other murders (or my parents’ natural deaths) is the vast amount of news coverage. Everybody has heard about the Virginia shooting. What this tells me is that postponing tonight’s episode of Mr. Robot isn’t really about the victims or their families or their friends. It’s about all of us.

My initial thought was that USA Network was concerned the episode’s similarity to today’s tragic real-life events would make it harder for us viewers to enjoy the show, which is bad for the USA Network, because they need us viewers to make money. Even just putting up a warning notice could reduce viewership, although I suspect most fans would catch the episode later.

On the other hand, speaking as a fan, not only was there a depressing event in the news today, but now it turns out I won’t get to see a show I’ve been looking forward to all day. USA Network isn’t really helping me out here, and I’m guessing most other fans feel the same way. (Or maybe these coincidences just don’t bother me as much.)

That leads me to believe that postponing the episode is mostly about the desire by USA Network executives to avoid the appearance of insensitivity. They’re concerned that if they show the episode, someone or some group with an agenda will get outraged and make a big stink about USA Network’s neglect of victims’ feelings and “glorification” of violence.

But saying that in the press release would have been insensitive. So instead they say it’s about respect for the victims and their families and friends. That’s not to say that the people at USA Network aren’t genuinely sympathetic toward the victims and their families and friends. I just don’t think that’s why they’re postponing Mr. Robot.

Game of Thrones – Season 4

The fourth season of Game of Thrones begins today, and I have a few predictions. I realize this is a fool’s game, since people who’ve been reading the books already know what happens next, but those of us who’ve skipped the reading might as well speculate. The story is too large for me to address all of it, but here are a few things I expect to see, in no particular order:

Jon Snow

Jon Snow is a skilled warrior with a sense of justice and compassion, yet as the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark, he’s got plenty of motivation to prove himself, and he’s headed for a confrontation with the supernatural White Walkers and their army of the undead. In every way, he’s a classic fantasy hero. In the first season, he succeeded in reaching the Night’s Watch fort at the Wall and completing his training. In the second season, he gets separated from his patrol company and wanders around in the frozen wasteland. In the third season he wanders around in the frozen wasteland some more until he is badly wounded by his girlfriend, after which he returns to the fortress he was at in the first season. Now in this fourth season, I predict the action will continue apace, and we will get to watch as Jon Snow slowly recovers from his wounds until — during the traditional 9th-episode action climax — he visits the Castle Black kitchen and makes himself a sandwich.

Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion was introduced as one of the most amusing characters in the series — a bawdy, profane, and care-free party animal with a rapier wit. His world gets more serious and less fun every season, and the beginning of season four finds him separated from his love Shae, saddled with a wife who does not love him, and still a member of the dreadful Lannister family. I predict the death of fun will continue.

Brienne of Tarth

Brienne is a highly skilled warrior with strong principles and unbending loyalty. She can be trusted to keep her promises, no matter how difficult that turns out to be. She’s one of the most admirable characters on the show. Her fate is clear. In fact, I’m amazed she’s lasted this long. It’s probably because they didn’t introduce her until the second season. I assume she’s already dead in the books.

Daenerys Targaryen

I predict that Daenerys will continue her struggle to build an army to re-conquor Westeros in the name of the Targaryen line. By the end of the season, she will have taken important steps towards that goal and her dragons will have grown, just like in season three. And season two. And season one.

Arya Stark

Like Daenerys, this is a character whose destiny was clear from the beginning — from the moment her eyes lit up when Jon Snow gave her that sword. And like Daenerys, she will take a few more steps on that journey, in the 8% or so of screen time allotted to her story.

Sansa Stark

Will continue to have a very, very bad time, although I think she’s about out of family members for the Lannisters to kill.

Joffrey

Will remain an insufferable prick.

Hodor

Hodor.

Why Helix Kinda Sucks

(Spoiler Alert for potentially all 8 Helix episodes to date.)

I loved the Andromeda Strain, both the book and the movie, and so I’m always willing to give a good plague story a try, which is why I really wanted to like Helix, the new series on SyFy, about a CDC team sent to investigate a mysterious situation at a biological research complex somewhere in the Arctic.

Unfortunately, Helix has turned out to be one of those shows that I only keep watching because I hope it will eventually get better. Mostly it just irritates me, and I feel like ranting about all the ways it kinda sucks:

  • Helix starts so promisingly, with Doctor Alan Farragut (played by Billy Campbell) at the Centers for Disease Control holding up a pump handle and talking about Dr. John Snow’s famous investigation of the Soho cholera outbreak in 1854. That’s a terrific real-life story about solving a public health crisis with science and ingenuity. Too bad the plot of Helix is nothing like that.
  • Helix is a zombie show that doesn’t want to admit it’s a zombie show. People infected with the mysterious virus become deranged and go wandering around the complex attacking other people, who then become infected themselves. They may be a little smarter and faster than the walkers on Walking Dead, but call them whatever you like (Helix uses the epidemiological term “vectors”), they’re still zombies.
  • Ducts. A great deal of the plot depends on the fact that the zombies can move around the entire high-security complex in spacious, well-lit ventilation ducts that have no internal supports or grates or anything else to get in their way. This is such a hackneyed plot device that I’m surprised anyone would still use it seriously outside of video games.
  • They killed off my favorite character, Doctor Doreen Boyle (played by Catherine Lemieux), a veterinary pathologist, who was the only person on the show with any detectable personality. She seemed like she’d be fun to talk to at a party, and she brought some badly-needed levity to the situation. And so the writers killer her.
  • Every other character seems earnestly serious and deadly dull. Except when the plot needs them to be stupid.
  • One of the key story elements is that the complex is completely cut off from the outside world because of an unstable satellite connection that stops working altogether when someone blows up the big dish outside the complex. This makes no sense in a world where Iridium satellite phones are small enough to fit in a jacket pocket and work all over the planet. Also, has nobody at Arctic Biosystems (or the writers’ room) heard of shortwave radio, which ships at sea and Arctic explorers have been using for years? Wouldn’t you think a CDC team would want to have good communications?
  • Thin depth-of-field. That’s where the image on the screen is focused tightly at something a certain distance from the camera and everything in front or behind thrown out of focus. With modern cameras and lighting, there’s no reason for the depth of focus to be as thin as it is in Helix, except as an artistic choice because it looks dramatic. And the drama wears thin when you do it in every single scene.
  • Speaking of annoying artistic choices, I realize the bland elevator music on the soundtrack is supposed to create some kind of ironic contrast with the story, but that trick gets old fast.
  • The exterior of the Arctic complex is monumentally boring and unimpressive. I don’t know how much CGI goes into creating it, but the lack of detail or any sense of scale always makes it look like a cheap model. (The artificially thin depth of field contributes to this, since a thin depth of field is an optical cue for something close to your eye.)
  • The interior of the research complex is no better, looking alternately like an office building or the basement of an office building. There’s no sense of how the parts of the complex are related physically to each other — which rooms are adjacent, and which are far apart — and there’s no sense of where any of these locations are in relation to the exterior shots.
  • At one point, Dr. Farragut needs to break into another part of the complex and he mixes up a batch of thermite which he uses to burn through a grated floor. Thermite could certainly burn through a metal floor, but it’s a powder, so most of it would fall through the grate, and it’s hard to see how the combustion reaction could spread between the little piles that remain on the grate. Also thermite has a really high ignition point and there’s no way he could ignite it with an ordinary flame. There’s a whole science to igniting thermite. It’s a small thing, but it makes me think the biology and medical science are probably just as bad.
  • There is already a B-movie subgenre of we’re-all-trapped-in-an-underground-facility-with-monsters-and-scientists-and-military-types-who-all-have-secret-agendas. It’s a popular story with straight-to-cable releases because you can film the entire thing in an abandoned factory and all the conspiracy dialogue (a) makes for easy-to-write plot twists and (b) kills time between the more expensive action shots. Helix differs only in style.
  • Despite being set in the Arctic, the show never gives me that sense of oppressive, dangerous cold. I don’t know why that is.
  • The writers have decided to build the story around an ever-deepening layer of conspiracies. Every character seems to have at least one secret agenda. The base director, Doctor Hiroshi Hatake (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), is very secretive about the base’s mission and he also seems to have an equally mysterious personal agenda. Then we meet his superior, Constance Sutton of Ilaria Corporation (played by Jeri Ryan), and she seems to have an even more mysterious mission. (And even though she’s clearly evil, she’s also the only other interesting character, which is probably why the writers killed her too.) And then there’s a reference to her even more mysterious “masters” who have a mission so mysterious that…well, it’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma stuffed into a vague promise that it will all make sense someday. Which brings me to my next bullet point…
  • There was no Cylon plan. Ronald Moore is one of the chief creators of this show. At the beginning of his Battlestar Galactica reboot series, every episode started with an intro sequence that explained the premise: “The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They look and feel human. Some are programmed to think they are human. There are many copies. And they have a plan.” Do any of you fans remember what that plan was? Anyone? No. Of course not. Because there was no Cylon plan. The writers were a bunch of lying liars who had no idea what the Cylons were up to, so they just made stuff up as they went along and never pulled it into a complete story. It’s probably wishful thinking to assume we’ll get anything better from Helix.
  • Doctor Alan Farragut is on the CDC team because his brother Peter works in the Arctic Biosystems complex and is one of the infected patients. He’s also brought along his colleague Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) who happens to be his ex-wife, who once had an affair with Peter. And to square the triangle, Farragut is assisted by young Doctor Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), who is secretly in love with him. I can only assume the show’s writers added a relationship drama because they thought that deadly viruses, maniacal zombies, corporate psychopaths, military conspiracies, and Arctic adventure might not provide enough story to hold our attention.

Oh well. Maybe episode #9 will be better…

Chicago PD, “Stepping Stone” — Not Loving Voight

When I saw that NBC was preparing to launch a weekly scripted drama called Chicago PD, I figured I’d have to blog about it. Aside from taking place in my home city, it also seemed from the advertising to be yet another show about a cop-who-breaks-all-the-rules-to-get-justice, and as a civil libertarian who agrees with pretty much everything Radley Balko has to say about the Warrior Cop problem, I’ve kind of soured on that character, so I figured it would give me something to talk about.

Chicago PD does have that character in the form of Sergeant Hank Voight, who robs and beats a guy in the opening scene and tortures him to get information about someone who’s selling a bad batch of drugs that’s killed a few people. I gather that Voight’s character was established in the Chicago Fire series as the worst kind of cop: Brutal, corrupt, and well-connected downtown, all of which might explain how, despite his crimes, he’s now in charge of a police intelligence unit working out of the 21st District station.

(Real-life Chicago has 22 police districts, numbered 1 through 25, skipping the 13th, 21st, and 23rd districts.)

In some ways, putting a corrupt thuggish cop in an intelligence unit is a great story idea. Intelligence units don’t do normal police work, so their activities aren’t easily tracked by CompStat (or whatever management tools the department uses), and they often work in secret, all of which means they have little oversight. (The LAPD Organized Crime Intelligence Division famously crashed and burned when Detective Mike Rothmiller wrote a book exposing mismanagement and shady activities.) Chicago cops are always complaining about connected guys who get away with all kinds of crap — often in special teams that are hard to monitor — so a connected douchebag in charge of an intelligence unit seems like a plausible villain.

Except I’m pretty sure the show’s producers don’t want us to think of him as a villain. I think he’s supposed to be “complicated.” He’s a tough guy doing a tough job the only way it can be done. He may torture a guy for information to save lives, but he’s a solid cop who will always have the back of the cops in his unit.

In real life, assholes like this aren’t that selective. They tend to be assholes to everybody. They are nightmares to work for because they know they control your paycheck and career, so they can treat you like crap. If Voight is beating drug informants for information now, then he was probably beating 15-year-old black kids for mouthing off when he was working patrol. (Also, Voight torturing informants has a certain sick resonance here in Chicago where Detective Jon Burge used to torture people in custody.) They only time guys like this are nice to people is when they need something, at which point they become your best friend in the world. That’s how guys like Voight get connections downtown.

The fictional version of this character usually isn’t as terrible as the real thing, and that tends to work well dramatically. Andy Sipowicz was one of the most beloved characters on television despite his rage, and it gets easier as the shows get less realistic: Bullies like Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS come across as stern teachers, torturers like Jack Bauer on 24 are heroes because they’re doing it for God and country, and a pair of efficient assassins like Nikita Mears and Michael Bishop on Nikita evoke admiration and even sympathy. And wouldn’t you like to have a murderous vigilante billionaire like Oliver Queen from Arrow as your friend?

Anyway…

Once I get past the Voight character, Chicago PD is an OK show. Some of the clichés are a little thick — Voight turns out to have a softer side, his boss is a black guy who’s angry at him, a cop takes off his badge and gun before challenging a jerk to a fight, and there’s a car chase at the end — but it’s also full of action and a few surprises.

It’s also nice to see a bit of Chicago on the screen. They don’t show much of the famous stuff, but the houses look like Chicago houses and the alleys look like Chicago alleys — you wouldn’t think you could tell, but it feels a lot different than it would if they shot in Vancouver.

I’ll give it another shot.

I Still Want Walter White to Win

Years ago, I had an idea for a novel. It was way before I started blogging — maybe the mid 1990’s — and I was feeling a little out-of-sorts with respect to my life and career, so I had this idea of writing a novel about a geeky guy like me who gets down on his luck (lost job, wife left, dog died, etc.) and in desperation decides to use his job skills making money doing something illegal. Soon he gets caught up in a life of crime, in which he meets bad people and does bad things…and he learns that he likes it.

Although I’m a software engineer, I thought that criminal hacking would be kind of boring — and less likely to bring him into contact with the organized crime figures I wanted in the story — so I decided instead to make him a chemist, and have him make drugs.

That’s right. I had the idea for Breaking Bad before Breaking Bad.

Okay, I was going to have him make designer drugs instead of of crystal meth. And he was going to have conflicted feelings about what he had become. And it wasn’t anywhere near as complex as Breaking Bad. And I didn’t have any other real characters. And my version wasn’t really very original. And of course I never did any of the hard work of actually writing the damned thing…which is why real professional writers make fun of people like me who “have an idea” and think that gets us somewhere.

Naturally, when I first saw ads for Breaking Bad, I knew I had to watch it. The first few episodes were kind of frustrating, because I kept filling in the blanks with pieces from my own concept, which didn’t work at all, but once I settled into the actual story that Breaking Bad was telling, it became one of my favorite shows.

I’m sorry to see it end, but I understand the dramatic reasons why it has to. Creator Vince Gilligan has made good on his original premise, and the story has to end. Walter White has transformed from Mr. Chips to Scarface. Actually, he was only Mr. Chips for maybe half of the first episode, after which he cooks meth and kills a guy. That seemed like a pretty quick transition to me, but little did I know. He would go on to do so many worse things.

And yet, with the final episode of the series just around the corner…I still want Walter White to win.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Walt’s a good guy. He’s a terrible human being whose hubris and sense of entitlement have led him to do terrible things. I wouldn’t want him to succeed in real life. But dramatically, in a television series, I’ll feel very let down if he doesn’t somehow come out a winner on his own terms.

It’s a truism of good storytelling that the audience always identifies with the protagonist, no matter how terrible he or she turns out to be. I imagine it’s related to psychological transference — when you spend enough time with the character, the protagonist’s friends start to feel like your friends, his family starts to feel like your family, his enemies start to feel like your enemies. So even knowing the protagonist is a terrible person, we find our mood rising and falling with his fortunes. Tony Soprano was a good example of this — a violent, petty, lying thug. But when we saw the world through his eyes for an hour, we could feel his pain.

(Shows like Game of Thrones depend on this idea. The show plays out on such a large scale and supports so many story lines that it actually has several protagonists, which makes it all the more involving when they try to kill each other, and all the more painful when they succeed.)

I’m not even sure what it would mean for Walt to win.

(Spoiler alert for potentially every episode before the last one.)

Living happily ever after isn’t possible. None of Walt’s tricks can cure cancer. His time is running out. Of course, since survival is off the table, he’s got nothing to lose, which only makes him more dangerous. But whatever he aims to do, it can’t just be dying. He’s going to want to see his victory before he goes. But what does victory look like?

From the very beginning, Walt has always been motivated by the desire to make sure his family is well taken care of after he’s gone. Other than his Chrysler 300C SRT8, Walter hasn’t spent his money on anything extravagant for himself. (The only other luxury I can think of is a tankless water heater, and that was really for the house.) But leaving something for his family, that’s his obsession. His single-minded pursuit of this goal has actually cost him his family, but he can’t see that. His ego still tells him he’s doing something good for Skyler and Walt Jr…if only they’d see it his way.

However, it hasn’t worked out well, even by Walt’s standards. With his secret out and the feds after him, he has no way of getting any money to his family. It sounds like the feds have seized the car wash, and his wife Skyler has taken a taxi dispatch job to make ends meet. She’s also facing federal indictments for her involvement in Walt’s crimes.

If Walt thought about things like this like a normal person, he’d follow his lawyer’s advice and make a deal. Here’s what he has to offer: He knows what happened to DEA agents Schrader and Gomez. He can lead the feds to their bodies, and he can name the people who killed them (although he’ll die of cancer before he can testify). Depending on what Walt knows, and what the feds can discover from there, he might also be able to lead them to the Aryan Brotherhood’s meth operation and to the $70 million in cash they stole from him, which the feds will be eager to seize. In the process, they will discover a captive Jesse Pinkman, an actual eyewitness to the murders, ready and willing to testify against the bastards who have made his life a living hell.

Best of all, Walt is asking so very little in return. He’s dying anyway, so he doesn’t need anything for himself. He could plead guilty to all his crimes. All he’d want is a promise that they’d leave his family alone. I’m no expert (and those of you who are can correct me), but that sounds like a pretty good deal for the government.

Walt won’t do any of that, of course. We’ve already seen the flash-forwards to Walt driving around with an M60 machine gun in the trunk, and we saw him recover his ricin poison. He’s going to do something terrible. The most common suggestion I’ve heard is that he’s going to use the M60 to kill the Nazi gang, and then he’s going to use the ricin to kill himself.

I don’t buy it. Neither of those things sounds likely.

First of all, ricin poisoning is not a good way to go. It’s not quick and painless. And depending on how it enters the body, it could take hours or days to kill him. Since Walt was smart enough to make the ricin, he’s probably smart enough to know that. So, I assume, are the show’s writers.

Second, an M60 machine gun is a formidable weapon, but it’s not an “I win” button. No matter how badass Walt is in Heisenberg mode, even with the M60, he’s still just one man. The M60 weighs over 20 pounds (not counting ammunition) and it’s intended to be crew-served, so for Walt to use one effectively by himself, he’d have to be Rambo. And he is so not Rambo, especially now that he’s sick. The Aryan Brotherhood guys have fully automatic weapons too, don’t forget, and unlike Walt, they know how to use them. (Alright, they don’t know how to use them very well, judging by the shootout at To’hajiilee, but they’re probably still better than Walt.)

I suppose he could be planning to hose down the entire compound with the M60 from a distance, killing everyone with a rain of bullets, but an M60 really doesn’t really have the sustained fire capability for that. It would jam up within a few hundred rounds. He might be able to pull it off if he used a minigun, but even that thing can’t kill someone hiding behind good cover, such as a mound of dirt or that pit where they cook the meth.

Actually, I think I’ve just talked myself into this one. Although killing all the Nazis with the M60 wouldn’t work in real life, it might work in TV, where machine guns can fire thousands of rounds without jamming, so maybe that’s the plan after all. It would fit in well with the other thing I think is going to happen, which is that Jesse is going to kill Walt.

They’ve certainly given Jesse plenty of motivation. Walt told Jesse he let Jane die, he turned Jesse over to the Aryan Brotherhood to be tortured and enslaved, and that led to the murder of Andrea.

Now if Walt comes looking for his money and shoots up the place, Jesse should survive it down there in the pit. Since Walt’s secrets are out, Jesse going to the cops is no longer a threat, so Walt might be feeling warm and fuzzy about him again and decide to free him. And that’s when Jesse can kill him. Heck, maybe getting Jesse to kill him is part of Walt’s plan. He’d probably prefer it to dying alone in the cabin.

But then I have no idea what Walt’s going to do with the ricin. To kill someone with ricin, you have to get close to them. They have to trust you. And who’s left that trusts Walt? The only people who might meet up with him are the Aryan Brotherhood. Ricin may not be fast, but it’s lethal in small doses, so he’s got more than enough doses to kill all of those guys if he can get them to ingest or inhale it somehow.

Or…while writing this, I just watched “Granite State” again. At the end, Walt is sitting in that bar in New Hampshire when he catches his old friends Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz being interviewed on television. They downplay his involvement in founding the the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical manufacturer Gray Matter Technologies, and then in response to a question about whether Walter White is still out there, Gretchen says that the friendly, happy Walter White they knew has been gone for a long time. Right after that, Walt decides not to wait for the police. He’s clearly setting off to do whatever he’s going to do with the M60 and the ricin.

I’ve been assuming that Walt was angry at Elliott and Gretchen for downplaying his involvement in the firm, or even for talking about how nice he used to be, when clearly Walt hates his old self. I thought maybe they would be the targets of his anger. But in re-watching that segment, I realized that Gretchen was answering a question in which the interviewer mentioned that Heisenberg’s trademark blue meth was still showing up all over the southwest and even in eastern Europe.

Since Walt has lost pretty much everything else in the world, maybe his meth is all he’s got left. He’s insanely proud of his meth cooking skill. So maybe it really pisses him off that someone else is now trying to pass off their inferior product as his own chemical  masterpiece. Maybe he’s going to make sure that no one else ever sells blue meth again.

Which makes me think that maybe he’s going to try to get the ricin into the next batch of meth to ship out of the Aryan Brotherhood camp, or maybe he’ll slip it into a shipment as it passes through Lydia’s hands. Inhaled, as a meth user might receive it, a lethal dose of ricin is pretty small (and meth addicts are pretty fragile), so if Walt can get the dosage right, he could kill hundreds of meth users. Once the authorities figure out the meth was poisoned, no one else would ever be able to sell blue meth again.

So maybe that’s it. Maybe Walt is about to become one of the worst mass murderers in history.

Or maybe he’ll just do what a lot of narcissistic assholes do when they realize they’re going to lose everything: Kill his family and then himself.

Sigh.

Okay, for the record, here’s my prediction. Walt will

  • Visit Gretchen (and maybe Elliott) Schwartz, scare the crap out of her, and then extract a promise that she and Elliott will take care of his family.
  • Use the M60 to kill the Aryan Brotherhood guys.
  • Get into their meth lab and poison the meth, and then somehow get it shipped out.
  • Die by Jesse’s hand.

Crap. Sunday night can’t come soon enough.

Update: My score: 50%

(Spoilers for the final episode.)

I got the Gretchen and Elliott thing right, and (as everyone did) the M60 v.s. Nazis. I was wrong about the ricin and about Jesse killing Walt, although Walt went there.

Last Resort – Review

Last Resort is the new military-themed dramatic series by Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield and The Chicago Code. It premiers this Thursday, September 27, at 7 pm central time on ABC, and it looks intriguing enough to have a future. And don’t worry, it’s not as bad as the publicity materials make it look.

(There are spoilers here, but not much more than you’d get from visiting the show’s website.)

The pilot episode is filled with activity and plot developments, beginning when the USS Colorado, a nuclear missile submarine operating in the Indian Ocean, picks up a SEAL team returning from an unknown mission during which something appears to have gone wrong.

In short order, we are introduced to Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) and his Executive Officer, Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman), who is considering a transfer to a stateside desk job so he can see more of his wife. We also meet Lieutenant Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts), who is the daughter of an Admiral and therefore suspected of incompetance by a couple of crew and maybe by Master Chief Joseph Prosser (Robert Patrick, looking appropriately gruff).

Almost immediately, the Colorado receives a coded order to launch four nuclear missiles into Pakistan. There’s something strange about the message, so Captain Chaplain reaches out to the chain of command for confirmation. That doesn’t go well, and it leads to a tense situation on board, which is interrupted by a missile attack on the Colorado, apparently launched from another U.S. Navy vessel. The situation has all the signs of some kind of fake incident to start a war.

We are also given glimpses of the situation in the outside world, where we meet the XO’s wife, Christine Kendal (Jesse Schram), as she receives word of the attack on her husband’s sub, and defense contractor Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Reeser), who manages to deliver some incredibly awkward exposition about the Colorado during a sex scene.

Some of this naval activity is being tracked by Sophie Girard (Camille De Pazzis), a scientist working at a NATO radar facility on the tropical island of Sainte Marina, where we also meet a local organized crime boss named Julian Serrat (Sahr Ngaujah) and, for some reason, bar owner Tani Tumrenjak (Dichen Lachman, apparently playing an ordinary human for once).

David Feige tells me that a pilot episode’s job is to wind up a clock that will unwind over the rest of the season, and this episode certainly winds it tight. Before the hour is over, Captain Chaplain will sail the Colorado into the bay at Sainte Marina and basically conquer the island, using the threat of the sub’s nuclear arsenal to fend off a U.S. counterattack. This will buy the crew some time to try to find out what’s happening, clear their names, and work through all the plot threads and conflicts setup in this episode, until they can finally return home to their loved ones.

Works of fiction are traditionally allowed to ask the audience to accept one crazy idea, and as crazy ideas go, this one isn’t too bad. However, the execution is a little shaky. One of the attractions of military thrillers is that they show the audience something interesting — how fighter jets evade missiles, or how Delta Force assaults an enemy compound — but Last Resort doesn’t feel like it has that level of authenticity.

Some of the suspect details can be excused by the shortcuts of television storytelling, such as fake radar screens that show events on the other side of the world, or the simplified procedures for launching missiles. On the other hand, the whole premise of anchoring the Colorado in the middle of the bay kind of defeats the purpose of having a submarine.

There’s something wrong, as well, with some of the characters. Daisy Betts seems to have a flirty smirk that will not go away no matter how angry or upset the script wants her to be. It’s not just a case of bad acting, however, because Autumn Reeser can’t seem to find the right way to say her lines either, and she’s got some acting depth. Maybe it’s because in real life there’s no such thing as a sex-kitten defense contractor?

I’m just saying, parts of the script are kind of hinky. Daniel Lissing plays Navy SEAL James King, who’s feeling worried and guilty about something yet to be revealed, but he can’t convince me his character actually knows what he’s so upset about. I don’t think the scriptwriters have told him yet.

Not that there isn’t some talent on the screen. Andre Braugher nails the role of Captain Chaplin, bringing just the right amount of gravitas, thoughtfulness, and decisiveness to the character, with just a little bit of mystery. And he doesn’t succumb to the TV drama shortcut of demonstrating leadership by yelling. Robert Patrick also turns in a good performance, disappearing into his role as the Chief of the Boat. Between them, they carry the episode.

Despite some of the problems, I still like the basic concept of the show, and I’m willing to believe that it could improve over the regular season, when there’s more time to develop the characters and conflicts. I’m going to keep an eye on Last Resort for at least a few more episodes.

(In case you’re wondering, there is no vessel named Colorado currently commissioned in the U.S. Navy, but a fast attack submarine with that name is under construction at Electric Boat.)

The Chicago Code – Episode 3: Gillis, Chase and Baby Face

Now that Steve Graham has given me a nice shout-out in mentioning that I’ve been blogging about The Chicago Code, I feel obligated to say something about last night’s episode. Actually, I’ll start with my wife’s review: “That one didn’t suck.”

Yeah, this was a pretty good episode. It made better use of the modern television trick of mingling two separate stories. About half of this episode was the mythology, the ongoing story of the cops who are taking on the crooked politicians, and the rest was a separate story about the pursuit of a violent bank robber.

The bank robbery allowed the episode to start with a chase scene which was pretty good. It was great to see cops driving and running around some typical Chicago scenery, including some classic train stations. And unlike the chase that began the pilot, this one seemed more likely to be within the department’s chase policy since the offender was armed and dangerous. The bank robbery also involved something resembling policework, or at least the kind of policework I’m used to seeing on television cop shows.

The other half of the story was Delroy Lindo’s chance to show off why he was cast as Alderman Ronin Gibbons, and it establishes just how sneaky and ruthless he can be, and why he’s going to be hard to catch.

This episode also finally shows us that the Chicago Police Department does not exist above all the corruption. A few people in the department are dirty too. It’s good to see that the show’s producers aren’t going to whitewash over that historic fact just because they have police cooperation in making their show.

Corruption in the department is also necessary to explain–both in the show and in real life–why the police haven’t been very effective in fighting corruption in the rest of the city. It’s hard to do good police work when not everyone is on the same side. It’s not just a matter of a few street cops tipping off the bad guys, either. One well-placed commander with organized crime connections can derail dozens of investigations.

It doesn’t even have to be police officers who are compromised. Some years ago, someone in the Chicago Police Department’s Human Resources office was found to be feeding officers’ home addresses and duty schedules to a gang. The officers would return from work to discover their homes had been broken into and their personal firearms had been stolen.

On a lighter note, it’s amusing to hear the street addresses used in the show. Filmmakers and television producers like to avoid using addresses where there might be real people or real businesses. For example, in 1987’s The Untouchables, Malone’s home is said to be at 1634 Racine, which doesn’t exist because that’s where Racine crosses the Chicago River.

In this episode of Chicago Code, I heard 1650 West Harlem (the real Harlem Avenue runs north and south) and 1260 East Chestnut, which would be about a mile out into Lake Michigan.

The Chicago Code – Episode 2: Hog Butcher

I finally got around to watching the second episode of The Chicago Code last night. The opening titles and music were different, which confirms that the first episode was a true pilot, created long before the next episode. Otherwise, my impression is about the same: It’s not great, but I could get used to it, and they do a great job of filming my home town.

The story is still shaping up to be Superintendent Colvin’s fight to clean up Chicago and especially to expose Alderman Ronin Gibbons’ ties to the largely mythical Chicago Irish mob. They’re going to have to introduce us to a lot more of those guys if they want to make it believable, because right now they’re making it look like Gibbons is a big shot in the mob, and that’s just silly. We’ve had Alderman connected to the mob, but they’re not actually part of it. They just do favors and get favors (and bags full of cash) in return.

Once again, there’s some good acting in this episode, but not from Jennifer Beals. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s wrong, but I have a theory. I think Beals is just the least talented at covering up for the awkward dialog.

That’s not the only problem with the writing. Let me give you a few examples (minor spoilers coming):

The cops are trying to catch the cop killer from last week. He shot at Colvin, killing her police bodyguard instead, and then jumped into a waiting getaway car. Colvin shot at the car as it sped away. Thanks to a citizen’s tip, they’ve found the getaway car abandoned in an alley, with blood all over the driver’s seat, indicating that Colvin hit him.

Caleb Evers, the less experienced cop, suggests calling out the crime lab to sample the blood and run it for DNA. The show’s supercop, Derek Wysocki, has a different plan. He gives a misleading statement to the press in which he gives an incorrect description of the getaway car, which he hopes will make the offenders feel safe enough to come out and move it. Sure enough, a little while later a young woman comes to get the car. It turns out she’s the car’s owner, and she’s come to pick it up after lending it to her boyfriend. In other words, the cops have just used guile and trickery to discover something that they could have gotten hours earlier by running the car’s license plate.

Then there’s the whole business with the bulletproof vest. You see, Colvin’s bodyguard was a young officer who had known her for years. On the night of the shooting, after she received a threat, he insisted that she wear his vest for protection. Then he got shot and died.

I don’t pretend to know much about Chicago cops, but I’m pretty sure about this: A lot of street cops do not trust the people in command to do the right thing by them. From their point of view, it would look like the Superintendent took a vest off an officer to protect herself, and it got him killed. End of story. It doesn’t matter how close Colvin was to her bodyguard or how strongly he insisted she wear the vest. She was in command. It was her decision that got him killed. Street cops would be grumbling about this incident for the rest of her career.

Finally, there’s the scene near the end where the dead officer’s mother tells Colvin she’s filed a lawsuit. Colvin responds by lecturing her: “I understand that you are upset, but this is not the way to handle this. You understand me? This is not the way to handle this.”

That might be correct–involving lawyers tends to gum things up–but that line makes Colvin sound like a self-important tone-deaf bitch, and I don’t think that’s what the producers have in mind for the character.

Still, I love seeing the city, and there are bits and pieces of the show that work for me. I think they either need to pay a little more attention to the details, write the Colvin character’s dialog to better fit Beals’s acting style, and move the main plot mythology forward a little more in each episode. It could still be a pretty good show. I’m gonna give it a few more episodes.

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