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Category: TV

Story Building, the Promise Paradox, and The Man In The High Castle

After a pair of sick days in the past week, I was able to get through the entirety of Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle.  While I haven’t read the Philip K. Dick novel that the show is based on, I was captivated by it’s alternative history premise and the promise that can come from exploring a familiar, yet vastly different, world.

The show takes place in an alternative 1962, fifteen years after the United States has been defeated by the Axis Powers.  With the country having been divided into two (the west coast Japanese Pacific States, and the Greater Nazi Reich on the east coast/midwest).  In between, there is the Neutral Zone, though the show never makes it clear whether it is simply a buffer between the two “colonies” or if it is considered “uncontrollable” by distant empires due to the terrain.  Essentially, this Neutral Zone has reverted back to “wild west” policies with little governance.

While there’s a lot of historical “gap filling” taking place, most of the story revolves around the “films” and a handful of  key characters:

  • Juliana Crane – A San Franciscan who has embraced the Japanese culture, but whose sister is gunned down by Japanese police while trying to protect one of the films and gets sucked into the resistance by trying to complete her sister’s work.
  • Frank Frink – Juliana’s boyfriend, who is also part-Jewish, who helped Juliana rehabilitate from an accident, works at a gun factory, but would rather design jewelry, though it is considered feckless by the ruling Japanese.
  • Joe Blake – Undercover Nazi agent working to infiltrate the resistance…or is he?  There’s a lot of question marks surrounding Joe, including why he does what he does and where his loyalties lie.
  • Nobusuke Tagomi – Trade Minister for the Japanese Pacific States who is very concerned about the stability of the current political arrangements, and possibly much more.
  • John Smith – Obergruppenführer (“senior group leader”) for the Nazi SS in New York, who is American born and risen in the German ranks, calculating and ruthless…and Joe Blake’s commanding officer.
  • Inspector Kido – Head of the Kempeitai (Japanese police/intelligence) in San Francisco, who is almost Vulcan in nature.
  • Rudolph Wegener – A high-ranking Nazi official, posing as a Danish businessman while in San Francisco, trying to pass German secrets on to the Japanese.

Most of the time in the show, there are 3-4 different story lines weaving together at any point in time, and sometimes coupling and then separating once again.  It’s not necessarily a complex web, but there are definitely some questions to be answered.

For a show called “The Man in the High Castle”, he’s vaguely referenced more than he’s discussed.  Rather, the focus is on the films and their importance.  The thing is, the videos depict how things may have turned out if things had gone differently, but The Man in the High Castle is collecting them, not producing them as propaganda.  So, what exactly is The Man trying to do?

After 10 episodes, that’s still a question that none of the key characters can answer.  Juliana, like others in the resistance, believe that getting him the films can make a difference, yet have no idea how that will happen.  Even John Smith, who’s main goal is obtaining these films for Führer Hitlerisn’t told why they are of importance.

So, while a web is being woven in the first season, it still comes across as “setup” for something bigger coming down the path.  I’m not necessarily criticizing that approach, but it’s a dangerous one to walk.  One one end, you have LOST, who built up around characters and developed a frenzied following (though, we still won’t talk about that ending…).  On the other, you have Flash Forward, who built up around (literally) unbelievable pseudo-science and conspiracies, and lost viewers faster than a bottomless bucket (though, honestly, at the very end, after it was already cancelled, is when it finally got interesting).

The Man In The High Castle falls somewhere in between.  The characters are built up just enough to start getting invested in them, there’s a lingering sense that this is all much bigger than any of them, and there’s something hinkey going on with the films.

Which brings us to the “Promise Paradox”.  The Man In The High Castle delivers a lot of promise in it’s setup…yet it also has the potential for spectacular failure.  One one hand, there could be a fantastic build up to the overthrowing of an entrenched oppressive power to reclaim the United States (and, hopefully, a better future).  On the other, we could get:

ALIENS-guy

 

That said, I’m definitely looking forward to more.  If nothing else, the aesthetics of the show and the subtleties of cultural shifts in all three former Unites States territories is engaging.  So, for me, there’s enough there for forge ahead and hope for the best.

“House of Cards” a New Guilty Pleasure

HouseOfCards
Spacey as US Congressman Frank Underwood

I’ll admit it…real politics both bore and frustrate me.  In general, it’s a whole lot of talking, a bunch of petty fighting, and not much progress being made.  So, political dramas have never really been my thing (unless you count “24”…which I wouldn’t, since there aren’t that many terrorist attacks and shootouts in your average day of politics).  I never had much interest in “The West Wing”, despite it’s reputation, the pace and characters just never worked for me.

But, I am a Kevin Spacey fan, and had read good reviews from the initial watchers of the Netflix original “House of Cards”, so I decided to give it a shot.  And after two episodes I was sold.

Spacey plays Congressman Frank Underwood of South Carolina, a 20+ year veteran of the hill and majority whip, immediately following the election of a new democrat president.  Frank is a power player who makes the system work for him, and “House of Cards” quickly dives down the rabbit hole of corruption, abuse of power, and egomania that is probably far more accurate than any of us would like to believe. Every move that Frank makes is one that moves him closer to his goal of more power.

Along the way, the lines of media and humanitarianism are blurred as well as Frank uses all the tools at his disposal to get what he wants: his staff, his wife, an eager young reporter, a former staffer turned lobbyist and many other pawns along the way.

The first season was very well executed and entertaining, with a number of pieces in motion at any given time.  Plus, it’s meant to be the dark side of Washington, and the indulgence of watching Frank play his hand, inside or outside the rules, is immensely enjoyable.

If you have Netflix and have the time to watch this, I would definitely recommend it, and I look forward to future seasons.

It won’t hurt if you have a less than stellar view of Washington politics to begin with either…

Glad To Have You Back, TV!

Look, I'm not normally that big of a couch potato, but this past week has had me glued to the TV. It's been like a family reunion of all our favorite shows…
First, Jack Bauer came back after two long years and got off to a fast start as always on 24. Already there have been some good twists, and we're not even a quarter of the way done!

Then Fringe came back after a month-plus hiatus and was a little anti-climactic. I thought they'd string out Olivia's kidnapping a little bit, but it seems like they were more interested in advancing the overarching story than the fringe science in this episode. I just hope they do it more gracefully in the coming weeks or they may start losing my interest.

LOST then got back to business after almost nine months and began dealing with the after-effects of moving the island. It's definitely taken the jump to where they're walking the line between scientific hypotheticals and pure fiction, but they seem to be doing it carefully so far. It's pretty amazing that they had most of this in mind when they started writing the show.

Finally, our one non-broadcast crush, Burn Notice on USA, came back last night. If you've never seen Burn Notice, I'd definitely recommend it. It's another show about spies, but manages to be funny without being goofy. The lead character, Michael, just manages to ooze cool no matter what is thrown at him.

Alas, we're still waiting on one latecomer to join the party, but Chuck, probably my favorite show currently on television, won't be back until after the Super Bowl. However, I'm sure that extra wait will be worth it!

Anyway, welcome back TV! It's been a while since there was so much that was actually worth watching…

Are terrorists really bad people?

This 24 viewer doesn't seem to think so:

It's true.  We really need to get some more of those warm and fuzzy, people building their communities and helping others terrorists on the show….

Akmed, come and give me a hug!

Jeff Dunham – Akmed the Dead Terrorist

Wipeout And Have A Few Good Laughs

My wife and I caught the premier of ABC’s Wipeout tonight, which is basically a takeoff of the Japanese Viking obstacle course type show, and we were very amused.  Even though the production efforts clearly weren’t there (with some pretty awful green screen work going on behind hosts John Henson [former Talk Soup host] and John Anderson [former SportsCenter anchor]), the show is hilarious for just watching regular people try and make it through these difficult obstacle courses and challenges only to take a spill in the water or mud.

Ya know, kinda like craning your neck at a car wreck or following the careers of a pop starlet, but it’s much funnier and nobody gets seriously hurt or emotionally scarred.

It’s not the kind of thing you’ll watch religiously, but if you’ve got a Tuesday evening this summer where you need a few laughs, then just turn on Wipeout and you’ll get your fill.

The Andromeda Strain-ed

I enjoy the work of Michael Crichton. I've read most of what he's published, and I think his combination of science and imagination is fascinating.

The Andromeda Strain is one of his most understated works of suspense, as he puts a team of scientists in a high-security lab as they try to figure out what exactly killed off an entire small town in a matter of minutes and how to stop it before it kills more. It's an interesting mix of science, humanity and nature all put together in a solid novel.

Now, the book did get a movie treatment back in the day. I've seen it, and it sticks pretty closely to the book, but it's kinda hard to watch any more because the look of it is just so dated.

Well, recently A&E and Ridley Scott decided to try and turn it into a two-part, four hour TV movie with all the fixins. They even got a solid bunch of actors (Benjamin Bratt, Daniel Dae Kim and several others who have made a career of being on various TV shows). Even the special effects weren't bad for a made-for-a-cable-TV-channel movie.

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure the screenplay writer lost his copy of the book…

Maybe a quarter of what went on in this movie comes from anything found in the the original work. Instead of being a story about science, the unknown, and immense pressure, they turned the whole thing into a government conspiracy pseudo-science piece of crap. They even made the leap to wormholes and time travel (probably from Chrichton's Sphere) and nanoparticle communication in neural networks (probably from Crichton's Prey) and even stole the deep sea drilling protests from the Cloverfield backstory. It all turned into a hodge-podge of pure, unfettered crap.

If you've never read the book, this movie might even seem excusable. However, the story was so mutated and corrupted that it just ruined my night.

So, if you see this on TV, make sure to keep on passing by. You'll thank me later…




Amazing Race 12 – 11/25/2007

Well, with the holidays, I got a little behind on the race.  Fortunately, my wife and I got the time to get caught up on things tonight.

Last week, we were treated to both the mental collapse of Lorena, who decided to repeatedly scream around a startled camel as she tried to milk it, and Shana & Jennifer who acted like the spoiled idiots they seem to be by complaining that Africa was too dirty and gross.  Unfortunately though, it was the sisters Marianna & Julia who fell just behind the pack and wound up being eliminated.

This week, we watched teams spend another full leg in Burkina Faso (which I'm sure the blondes loved), and were introduced to this season's twist: the U-turn.  This season, instead of the traditional timed yield, the U-turn will force a team to go back and complete the other detour after already completing one.  I like the new twist, and I think it is more fair.  Quality teams will be able to complete the other task in a more timely manner, making it less of a penalty.

On this leg, the blondes decided to force Lorena & Jason, already behind the rest of the pack, to complete the U-turn.  Unfortunately, that pretty much ended the drama for the episode, as the pair was ultimately eliminated.  However, the front of the pack got more interesting as Azaria & Hendekea and Jennifer & Nathan ended up making a mad-dash for first, with Azaria & Hendekea grabbing the number one spot for the third time already.  I did find it funny that the result did end up with Jennifer pouting because they were beaten once again.

At this time, I'm actually starting to pick favorites.  Right now, I'm definitely in favor of Azaria & Hendekea, as they just seam like good people who have what it takes physically and mentally to compete the whole way.  As for those in the middle of the pack, my sentimental favorite is the team of Nicholas & Donald who seam like a team that shouldn't last long, but they manage to stick around.

As for the “wish you weren't here” list, I've still got three on the list:

  • Jennifer & Nathan – They try to have that “winning” attitude, but they really get on my nerves because they act like they deserve to win.
  • Shana & Jennifer – Because they're spoiled and ungrateful to be doing what they are doing.  Need I say more?
  • Kynt & Vyxsin – Because when I think neon pink and black, I still think 80's rock…not goth.  That, and Kynt has proven to be pretty much useless.

Now things are starting to get interesting though.  I'm looking forward to when we will see the non-elimination legs…and get back to some longer travel portions.

This Post Brought To You By The Letter “S”

And that ‘S’ would stand for ‘stupid’, as in the recent ‘Adults-Only’ rating given to Volumes 1 and 2 of Sesame Street, recently released on DVD.  That’s right, the loveable, timeless creations of Jim Henson that aired on PBS for 38 seasons, starting in 1969, has been deemed inappropriate for children.

Shame on them for trying to help kids learn and teach them values.  Though times have changed, the lessons found in Sesame Street have not:

  • Don’t be mean to others (try being nice instead of simply taking more prozac).
  • Learning can be fun (yes, as fun as your PSP).
  • Sharing is important (even if you love what you share…right Cookie Monster?)

Look, if you sit a kid down and they come away thinking that smoking while reading (followed by eating the pipe, as Cookie Monster did in the Monsterpiece Theatre segments) is a good idea, maybe you need to spend more time teaching the kid about reality and humor.  Otherwise, Sesame Street is still a great series for children.

Chuck – My Favorite Show Of The Fall Season

When the fall TV season started, I didn’t think I had much to look forward to.  Both LOST and 24 weren’t going to be on again until the new year started, House is in the middle of reinventing itself, The Amazing Race was a few months away, and all the new shows looked like crap.  I’ve never gotten into Heroes, so I didn’t have that to look forward to either.

Well, after missing the premier, I ended up catching the encore of the premier episode of Chuck on a quiet Saturday evening.  For once, I was actually impressed.  The show was interesting, smart, and really funny.  When there were a million different ways they could have gotten “super nerd becomes international spy by accident” wrong, they actually found one that worked.

Now, if you haven’t seen it yet, beware that the show doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Some of the spy stuff is a bit over the top and highly improbable, and the fight scenes are old Batman-esque, but it doesn’t seem to hurt the show because it isn’t the crux of the show.  Like the name implies, the show isn’t about all the spy escapades, but about Chuck and his life.

Both my wife and I are now caught up in the show and find ourselves making the occasional “Captain Awsome” references.  It’s simply a fun and charming show that most anyone will like.  If you haven’t seen it already, now is the time!