Thursday, July 28, 2011

The New Doctor Who Trailer Is Here!

Filming for the episode "Let's Kill Hitler" featuring Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and, unsurprisingly, a Nazi soldier. Photo courtesy of

San Diego Comic-Con is just the gift that keeps on giving. At the convention the BBC premiered a trailer for the remainder of the sixth series, which comes back August 27 with an episode titled "Let's Kill Hitler." Let's take a look, shall we? (And yes, if you've been following this, I will address the very uncontroversial controversy that has accompanied the clip.)

The "controversy" here stems from the moment when the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are thanked by Hitler for saving his life. However, producer Piers Wenger was quick to debunk the rumor that the doctor would save Hitler to the Television Critics Association this morning, telling the assembled reporters, "we're not going to save Hitler," according to Of course, you probably already figured that out, given that Rory can be seen punching the Fuhrer at the 0:36 mark, and, of course, the fact that the episode is called "Let's Kill Hitler."

Now that we're done with that, let's talk about the rest of the trailer. The minute-long clip indicates that the main arc of the series' second half will revolve around the Doctor's death, as seen in the first episode, as well as dealing with the remifications of River Song's newly discovered identity. One thing I like about this season is the way that Steven Moffat has really foregrounded the overarching story. Too often during the Russell T. Davies years (and, to an extent, during Moffat's first season as showrunner), the bigger story that was concluded during the finale was seemingly ignored until the final three episodes, only to be retconned into the preceding season via the inclusion of some seemingly insignificant details. This was especially the case with the Torchwood storyline during series two and the Master storyline during series three. However, the current season has, to all appearances, solved this problem by making the mystery of the Doctor's death and Amy and Rory's daughter a major factor in well over half the episodes (the mediocre "Curse of the Black Spot" and phenomenal "The Doctor's Wife" notwithstanding). This could also explain why this season has been much less uneven than Doctor Who normally is.

There were some great visuals in the trailer as well. Spooky images are something at which Doctor Who has always excelled, and it appears that the second half of series six will be no exception. I'm extremely excited for the return of the terrifying Weeping Angels and the equally frightening, if much newer, Silence. I'm less enthusiastic about the return of the Cybermen, golden-age Doctor Who villains who are second only to the Daleks as a holdover from a different era. (On that note, however, I was very pleased to learn that Moffat is retiring the Daleks, at least for a little while. They never really worked for me as villains, and I'm glad to know that others agree with me.) The creepily aware dolls that make an appearance around 0:30 are also scary, and yet more proof that ventriloquist dummies are never cute. They are terrifying.

The trailer also includes some lovely non-spooky visuals. I'm particularly fond of the shot of Amy walking into some sort of Wonderland-looking topiary garden at 0:21. I can't wait to find out the context of that otherworldy image. I'm also intrigued by the shots (at 0:37 and 0:39) that show Amy and Rory battling their way through an all-white setting that brings to mind I, Robot (the movie, not the book), not least because I like it when they fight side-by-side, a couple against the universe.

The two most promising developments, however, are the return of James Corden's Craig (who first appeared in "The Lodger") and that shot of River Song (Alex Kingston) wearing an eyepatch. The crazy eyepatch lady's eyepatch, to be exact! (Yes, I realize her name is Madame Kovarian, but she will always be Crazy Eyepatch Lady to me.) I quite enjoyed Corden's character, even though I felt that "The Lodger" was a very tonally strange episode of Doctor Who, and I'm quite excited to see how he fits into the larger story of the season. Plus, their kissing joke at 0:18 is funny, despite the potential to be totally lame, largely because of the odd-couple chemistry between Corden and Smith.

The second promising development, however, is the one that I'm sure people will be talking about. Why is River wearing that eyepatch? Is she in league with Kovarian? Has she grown up warped and twisted because she was taken from her parents? Is there some sort of bizarre time-loop thing going on, where she can't be born unless her older self meets the Doctor, and therefore she must be kidnapped in order to preserve her own existence? Are we going to find out why she's in prison? I personally love River, and I can't wait to have all these questions answered.

Stray Thoughts:
  • That shot of a much older-looking Amy at 0:15, combined with the voiceover saying "something has happened to time," has to be significant. I just don't know how.
  • While the shots of the Silence and the Weeping Angels are genuinely creepy, the moving skulls are trying just a little too hard to be scary. Hopefully they'll be better in the context of an episode.
  • I've mentioned it before, but I really like when the show goes dark, and the Doctor's worries about his own death are definitely dark.
  • Rory on a motorcycle!
  • The Doctor in a top hat and tails!
  • I'm excited for the appearance of Atonement's Daniel Mays, playing a character named Alex. Which is the best name.
  • Less excited for the return of Ian McNeice's Winston Churchill, largely because he reminds me of "Victory of the Daleks," and I really prefer to pretend that episode doesn't exist.
  • Nice shout-out to the filming location of Monument Valley, UT, in the shot of information about the Doctor's death.
  • Who do you think the astronaut is?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Torchwood: Why "Miracle Day" Is No "Children of Earth"

Gareth David-Lloyd, Kai Owen and Eve Myles in Torchwood: Children of Earth. Photo courtesy of

We're only three episodes into the new, Americanized season of Torchwood, but it's becoming clear that Miracle Day is in no way the equal of the tense, emotional third season, Children of Earth. After two episodes that, although rocky, contained at least two or three very tense sequences per hour, the third episode showed a marked drop in quality. There are several underlying reasons that I think are causing this drop in quality: the nature of the "miracle," the move to America, and the loss of so much of the original cast. (Major SPOILERS ahead for those who haven't seen Children of Earth or the first three episodes of Miracle Day.)

One of the best things about Children of Earth was the way that the five-episode miniseries managed to streamline the usually chaotic Torchwood. By focusing every plot thread and character arc around the problem of the 456 and their demand that they be given ten percent of the planet's children, the show ensured that the urgency would never flag, even during the quieter moments that were focused more on character development than action. Miracle Day is much more diffuse, given the nature of the mysterious phenomenon that lies at the heart of the series. In trying to show the effects of the "miracle," the writers have been forced to include many, seemingly unrelated plot threads: Oswald Danes' (Bill Pullman) media ascent, Dr. Juarez's (Arlene Tur) attempts to keep her hospital abreast of the injuries and illnesses pouring in, and the unexplained agenda of Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose) all pull focus from the Torchwood team's efforts to uncover the cause of the "miracle."

In contrast to the many plot threads of Miracle Day, Children of Earth focused almost exclusively on two interrelated stories: the Torchwood team trying to out-think the 456 while on the run from the British government, and the personal trials of John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi), a low-level government official drawn into a problem with no solution. Even though Miracle Day and Children of Earth are based around a similar conceit - a mysterious problem with no solution - Miracle day is diffuse where Children of Earth was streamlined, a problem that has resulted in a general lack of tension and a sense of chaos that is the opposite of Children of Earth's focus and heart-pounding suspense.

The second problem currently plaguing Harkness and Co. is the American setting. Because creator Russell T. Davies is British, the series always felt extremely organic to its setting (at least to this American girl). The current incarnation, however, feels less like an actual American show than... well, a British show transplanted to the U.S. The images of a country populated by people like Pullman's child molester, Mekhi Phifer's gun-happy CIA agent and Ambrose's motormouth publicist, a country easily swayed by the voices of the mass media, tends toward caricature rather than realism.

Another advantage that a British setting gave Children of Earth was the (stereotypically) British idea of the "stiff upper lip." The government scenes in Children of Earth were, by and large, conducted in calm, measured tones rather than yells. The calm that pervaded meetings in which officials planned out the details of turning innocent children over to the aliens added a sense of drama and disgust that no amount of yelling could have provided, and watching Capaldi's John Frobisher slowly break down was much more horrifying, given that it was masterfully conveyed by Capaldi using merely whispers and his increasingly red-rimmed eyes. This kind of quiet madness was a perfect counterpoint to Jack (John Barrowman), Gwen (Eve Myles) and Ianto's (Gareth David-Lloyd) guns a-blazin' approach to problem solving. The American version of Torchwood generally lacks this kind of necessary quiet, with the exception of Oswald Danes. Pullman's performance is easily the most compelling on the show (despite the fact that the writing is not backing it up), and I suspect it's because the actor has turned down the volume, allowing the audience to fill in the character's madness.

The third reason that Miracle Day fails where Children of Earth succeeds is the loss of so much of the original cast. (And yes, I realize that most of them are gone because they died, but still.) I was never someone who was upset with Davies for the death of Ianto; I thought it was a beautifully played emotional moment, and contributed some desperately needed character development for Jack. However, had I known what the fourth season was going to look like without Ianto, I would have protested with everyone else. Miracle Day is missing a Ianto-sized heart, a counterpoint to Jack and Gwen's hardened action-hero facades. The absence of Kai Owen's Rhys is making this absence stand out even more, as Jack and Gwen no longer have anyone left to fight for.

Of course, I could be wrong, and Miracle Day could pull it together and end up just as good as Children of Earth. I sincerely hope it does, and I'll be watching, whatever happens. However, as of right now, the outlook is a little bleak. Maybe the tie-in "motion comic" Torchwood: Web of Lies will reveal some information that will tie together the story. Now, if only I had an iPhone...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

And Now I Can Kill Zombies...

My fantastic new Ka-bar ZK-Acheron Skeleton knife, designed to kill zombies, courtesy of my uncle.

Today has just been a zombie-riffic day at Pencils Down, Pass the Remote. First the trailer for the second season of AMC's The Walking Dead came out, and then I came home to find a package containing the zombie-killing weapon seen above waiting for me.

A while back I mentioned the existence of Ka-bar's ZK (that stands for "zombie killer") series of knives designed specifically for dispatching the undead. My uncle, a man who is prepared for pretty much any type of apocalypse, felt that the preparedness should be shared and responded by sending me this lovely little piece of weaponry. It's the smallest of the ZK knives, which means that it can fit handily in a purse or pocket (or an ankle holster, for when I want to feel badass, and because I don't need to waste time fishing around in my bag for a weapon when the zombies are coming), but it's tough and I feel could handily dispatch a zombie.

The best part about the knife, however, is the logo at the base of the blade, which resembles a biohazard symbol:

I apologize for the blurriness of the picture. You can see a sharper image here.

You know, in case you finish gutting a zombie with this thing, and then think maybe licking the blade might be a good idea (?), in which case the handy biohazard warning would stop you from ingesting the zombie virus.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Trailer For Season 2 of The Walking Dead is Here!

Photo courtesy of

The trailer for the second season of AMC's The Walking Dead premiered today at Comic-Con, and holy shit is it awesome! I, like most people, had my problems with the first season of the show - after starting out with the best TV pilot I have ever seen, it rapidly devolved into many, many scenes that inexplicably involved no zombies whatsoever, instead focusing on internal drama courtesy of the insufferable Shane and the incredibly boring Andrea. But then the finale ending with the CDC blowing up, which was fantastic, and the group again on the run from a horde of the undead, and I got excited again.

The trailer that debuted today has only increased my excitement for the show's October return. Check out the trailer below, and then read on for comments and concerns over the content.

The trailer starts with Shane (Jon Bernthal). I initially disapproved of this, because I really dislike Shane. However, we then cut to a shot of Shane running from a whole lot of zombies, which I love, partly because this show needs more zombies, but mostly because I really hope one of those zombies bites Shane. He would be a much more interesting character as a zombie than he is as a human.

To me, the most promising part of the trailer is the news that Shane and Andrea (Laurie Holden) are planning to leave the group and strike out on their own. I really hope this means that their characters are going to disappear from the show (although it probably doesn't), since they were the worst parts of the first season. Nothing against the actors, because this is really the result of the writing, but Shane is a quick-tempered jerk who tends to just make things worse, and Andrea is... boring. Astoundingly boring. After all, she was one-half (with her sister, Amy) of the single dullest scene that appeared on this show last season. You know, the one where they sat in a boat on a lake and talked about their family for what seemed like half an hour. The one that featured absolutely no zombies. Note to the writers for this season: this is a zombie show, not a sitting-in-a-boat, talking-about-feelings show. More undead corpses, please.

The second most promising part of the trailer happens three minutes in, as Rick (Andrew Lincoln), who is about to shoot some zombies in the head, looks through the scope of his rifle and sees not one, not two, but a whole lot of zombies approaching through a maze of stopped cars. Rick then instructs everyone to hide under the cars, and we are treated to a series of shots of the cast hiding under the cars, trying to keep silent as the undead shuffle past them. This is an amazing premise for a scene, and the show can certainly do edge-of-your-seat suspense like no other - remember that scene from the pilot, where Rick lights his way down a pitch-black staircase with a box of matches - so I'm hoping for excellent suspense and pee-your-pants terror.

Another excellent feature of the trailer is that it is Full. Of. Zombies. Last season often suffered from a lack of walking corpses, but based on this trailer that is going to turn around this season. More zombies are always a good thing, and these do not disappoint. Especially if they dismember Shane and Andrea, which becomes more likely the longer they stay away from the group and strike out on their own.

We also see some new faces at the end of the trailer, in the forms of Lauren Cohan (Rose of The Vampire Diaries!) and Scott Wilson. According to this article, Wilson will be playing Hershel Greene, a farm owner, and Cohan will be playing his daughter Maggie, who is a possible love interest for my favorite character, Glenn (Steven Yuen). I'm really pleased about this for three reasons: I absolutely loved Cohan on TVD, it promises more of a storyline for the amazing Yuen, and the fact that there has to be a reason that Hershel and Maggie survived by themselves for this long. Hopefully a twisted, disturbing, wonderful reason. (If you've read Justin Cronin's fantastic post-apocalyptic novel The Passage, I'm thinking of the Haven. If you haven't read The Passage, go out and buy it right this second.)

While the trailer is extremely promising, it does one worrisome element. One of those is the marked absence of Norman Reedus' Daryl, my second favorite character after Glenn. For the four-minute duration of a trailer, all that Daryl does is state that hoping and praying is a waste of time (which is probably true) and ride a motorcycle through a post-apocalyptic wasteland like a badass. Let's hope that the season is heavier on Daryl than the trailer is, and decidedly lighter on Shane and Andrea.

Stray Thoughts:
  • Rick saying "To hell with the noise" and pulling out his gun is just fabulous.
  • There's not much Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) in the trailer either. Let's hope it stays that way.
  • The trailer is framed by Rick talking into a walkie-talkie. Let's hope this means that the return of Morgan (Lennie James) is imminent.
  • I don't know what the zombie at 3:59 is eating, but it is disgusting.
  • One reason Daryl is a thousand times more badass than either Rick or Shane is his weapon of choice - a crossbow.
  • It appears that one of the kids is injured, which is why Rick is running for the farmhouse. If that kid was bitten by a zombie, there could be a really great, Night of the Living Dead storyline happening. (If you haven't seen Romero's film, why are you reading this? Go watch it, now.)
  • I really want to have a party for the Walking Dead premiere at which I serve this cake.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Give These Actors a Job!

While I'm very excited about the beloved actors who will be reappearing on my TV come fall pilot season - Will Arnett! Michael Emerson! Jorge Garcia! Jack Davenport! Jason O'Mara! - there are still many talented actors who are currently out of a job. Here, I identify some actors who are sorely in need of a new role, and make some casting suggestions. Take heed showrunners, because these ideas are solid gold!

Photo courtesy of
Mary McDonnell
Known For: Battlestar Galactica
Perfect For: Castle

Mary McDonnell is known largely for the subtlety and emotion she brought to the role of Laura Roslin on BSG. Now that Castle is out a Captain, McDonnell could step in as both a sparring partner for Beckett and a new obsession for Castle. Plus, it would be nice to see the actress show off the sense of humor that she only rarely got to showcase on BSG.

Photo courtesy of
Edward James Olmos
Known For: Battlestar Galactica
Perfect For: Community

Olmos already has a gig lined up - as a guest star on the upcoming season of Dexter - but given the way the bodies tend to pile up on that show, it can be assumed he won't last too long. Since Olmos is best known as the inspirational calculus teacher in Stand and Deliver (sorry BSG fans, but it's true), put him back in front of the blackboard in Community, but this time make him a military vet whose "History of War" class quickly devolves into a full-on WWII reenactment. That way we get our Admiral Adama, and the show gets a war-movie parody to go nuts with. Alternately, just set the whole thing up as a BSG episode with Olmos reprising his character from that show, Jeff as Apollo, Britta as Starbuck, Annie as Laura Roslin, and Slater as Caprica Six.

Photo courtesy of
Jay Harrington
Known For: Better Off Ted
Perfect For: The Office

Harrington knows workplace comedy, having starred in one the sharpest, funniest workplace comedy in recent memory. Since James Spader's Robert California will be joining The Office as CEO rather than replacing Steve Carell's Michael Scott, Harrington could come in as Scott's replacement. His work ethic and professionalism could cause him to butt heads with the staff (especially Jim), while Dwight will buddy up to Harrington in an attempt to learn the new boss' secrets and ultimately replace him. Plus, Ted Crisp's sharp suits could encourage the normally schlubby Office workers to rethink their wardrobes, which would be better for everyone.

Photo courtesy of
Judy Reyes
Known For: Scrubs
Perfect For: 30 Rock

Reyes was always the underappreciated member of the Scrubs cast, generally playing the straight woman to everyone from J.D. to Dr. Cox to the Janitor. Let the woman indulge her funny side as a new Girlie Show cast member, brought on by Jack in an attempt to appeal to Latino viewers. Reyes' character would seem as sweet and caring as Carla at first until, encouraged by Tracy's antics and Jenna's hatred, she goes full-blown crazy, therefore destroying Liz's hopes of finally having a manageable cast member on the show. (Danny doesn't count, as his character all but disappeared from the show in the last season.)

Photo courtesy of
Elizabeth Mitchell
Known For: Lost, V
Perfect For: The Vampire Diaries

Now that Lost has ended and V was cancelled and therefore kept from wasting her talents, Mitchell is back on the market. Since Jeremy and Elena have now lost anyone who could legally serve as their guardian, Alaric is going to need to step up. Being a full-time vampire hunter, however, does not prepare you for raising children, no matter how cool of a career path it may be. Have Mitchell appear as a love interest for the history teacher, one who helps him with Jeremy and Elena and eases his pain over Jenna's death. Of course, this being The Vampire Diaries, she is more than she appears, and the secrets start to come out...

Photo courtesy of
Sean Bean
Known For: Game of Thrones
Perfect For: Fringe

Yes, Bean was just cast as the Huntsman in one of the eight hundred Snow White adaptations on the horizon - luckily, not the one featuring Kristen Stewart - but he needs something to do before that movie goes into production. Now that there's a Peter-sized hole at the center of Fringe, Walter is going to need a minder and Olivia is going to need a partner. Enter Bean as a contractor hired by the Defense Department tasked with investigating the Fringe division and finding out why the universe is ripping apart around us. This casting would come with two major benefits - an opportunity for Bean to act opposite Noble, his Lord of the Rings father and, given the generally gruesome nature of this show, a truly disgusting death scene to add to this amazing video.

Photo courtesy of
Jamie Bamber
Known For: Battlestar Galactica
Perfect For: Grey's Anatomy

I realize that the man already has a job as one of the stars of Law & Order: UK, but come one. The man played Lee Adama, a perfect physical specimen who was constantly angsty, worried about his father's approval, and completely incompetent at relationships. You don't even need to change the character's name, just change his job from pilot to doctor, put him in some scrubs and send him over to Seattle Grace. And if his character ever gets boring, there's always the potential for fat Lee Adama to return!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Do we really need fewer "strong female characters" on TV?

The strong women of Battlestar Galactica: from left, Lucy Lawless, Grace Park, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer. Photo courtesy of

Those of you who are more in-tune with the cultural zeitgeist than I am have probably already heard about Carina Chocano's NYT Magazine article, "A Plague of Strong Female Characters." In her piece, Chocano complains about the prevalence of the "strong female character" cropping up in various films, describing the "strong female character" as "one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic cliches." The author then goes on to list the different cliches this archetype supposedly encompasses, which ranges from "alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons" to "gloomy ninjas with commitment issues." It appears that, to Chocano, every single female character who appears in a film these days is a stereotyped "strong female character," with the possible exception of a few manic pixie dream girls.

Chocano admits at one point in the article that it isn't the idea of the "strong female character" that bothers her, it's the set of characteristics that has come to be associated with the term; in her words, "tough, cold, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone." This sort of archetype is one that has become irritatingly prevalent on TV and in film (Chocano talks mainly about film, but since this blog is about TV the small screen is where I'll be focusing my attentions), particularly in recent years. The Kyra Sedgewick vehicle The Closer kick-started the trend of stereotypical "strong female characters" on television, and was quickly followed by a number of copycat shows such as In Plain Sight and Saving Grace. Each of these shows feature a tough-talking, no-nonsense female crime fighter of some variety, one who is unwilling to form close emotional bonds and who spurns love, but who is given some sort of weakness in order to humanize them.

I'm certainly not defending these shows, as I personally find their portrayal of women who actually have the potential to be interesting (and are played by talented actresses) depressingly one-note and obviously written by men. However, I think that, by including so many different types of characters in her umbrella description of "strong female characters" and refusing to acknowledge the exceptions - the women who resemble her descriptions, but who are actually fascinatingly complex, fully-drawn creatures - Chocano undermines her own argument. Lumping Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from Alien in with Katherine Heigl's character from The Ugly Truth (or, really, any Katherine Heigl character) is an example of generalization gone awry; in her irritation at strong female characters, she throws the baby out with the bathwater.

There are many, many exceptions to Chocano's archetype. She claims that these types of "strong female characters" are impossible to relate to as a woman, because they are too unlike us. Chocano uses Kristen Wiig's character in Bridesmaids as an example, saying that women "don't relate to her despite the fact she is weak, we relate to her because she is weak." This may be true - after all, most women are flawed, are occasionally neurotic, and sometimes lose control of their lives. I know I do. However, that doesn't mean that I, as a woman, want to relate to this type of character. Seeing my own flaws on-screen, blown up for comedic effect, isn't necessarily an uplifting experience. I watch 30 Rock because it is funny and smart, not because I identify (all that often, anyway) with Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, who is so fixated on motherhood that she steals a baby, and so unorganized that she occasionally wears a Duane Reade bag as underwear.

In my opinion, some of the most interesting characters in television are the women of Battlestar Galactica. These women - in particular Tricia Helfer's Caprica Six, Grace Park's Sharon Agathon, Katee Sackhoff's Kara "Starbuck" Thrace and Mary McDonnell's Laura Roslin - are all fully drawn characters, women are strong but also flawed (realistically flawed, not given some arbitrary flaw in order to make them relatable), women who can kick ass one minute and break down the next in a completely realistic way.

I find Starbuck to be the single most fascinating woman on a show full of strong women (no disrespect meant to McDonnell, Park and Helfer fans, because they're fantastic too). I've only watched two seasons and one episode of the show, since I finally decided to start watching a month ago and I have to work, and in the time Starbuck's character has evolved from a spitfire viper pilot with a messy personal life to a woman - not a girl, a fully realized woman - who will fight tooth and nail for her family, her friends and her people. At the beginning of the series Starbuck was a fighter, but she fought because she couldn't think of anything else. By the midpoint of season two, however, she has found love with Anders, fighting the cylons on Caprica, and her new, less rash and impulsive persona is summed up by Helo when he tells her, "now you have something to live for."

Starbuck also has wonderful, joyful moments that contrast deeply with Chocano's description of a strong female character who is "tough, cold, terse, taciturn." Starbuck's face grows joyful both in the cockpit of her viper and when she's sparring, verbally and physically, with Anders on Caprica, and her joy is infectious. Starbuck may be a natural fighter, but she isn't a constantly serious one, and her fighting instincts go beyond her job, causing her to fight for those she cares about. Her character is certainly identifiable - her tendency to hop into bed in search of some sort of connection while still resisting commitment, her quick temper, her occasional reliance on alcohol to keep going in the worst of circumstances - but her strength is that she gets past these flaws. Starbuck is both identifiable and aspirational; unlike the neurotic messes that Chocano identifies with because they resemble the way she is now, Starbuck starts out the way many of us are now, and then shows us that we can transcend those flaws and better ourselves.

Starbuck is far from the only complex, strong woman on television - as I pointed out before, she makes up only a small contingent of the strong women on Battlestar Galactica. Regular readers of this blog will know that two of my favorite characters in all of television are Game of Thrones' Daenerys Targaryen and The Vampire Diaries' Elena Gilbert. Neither of these women really fit into Chocano's definition of "strong female characters," but to me they are two of the strongest women on television. I find Daenerys fascinating because of her transformation from frightened chattel to powerful, fireproof Dragon. I also like the way that the writers keep her from seeming too perfect by having the character walk a fine line between brave and ruthless. Her execution of the witch who she blames for Drogo and her son's deaths in the finale was sad and more than a little chilling; watching the normally kind-hearted Dany calmly tell the women that she would scream as the flames engulfed her caused the viewer to pause momentarily and question their support of the character. Only for a moment though, because when she emerged, naked and powerful and with three dragons, from the ashes of her husband's funeral pyre, it was impossible not to stand in awe of the Khaleesi.

Elena Gilbert is a very different type of strong woman from both Starbuck and Daenerys. Her strength lies in the fact that she is a normal teenage girl who has managed to stay herself and stay grounded through both her romance with Stefan and a string of tragedies that would have brought most people to their knees. One of my favorite moments in the second season was a quiet one, in which Elena contemplated the possibility of becoming a vampire after Damon had fed her his blood to "save" her. After several scenes of conversation between Elena and Stefan she finally, tearfully but with fearsome inner strength, told Stefan that she didn't want to become a vampire. Compare Elena to Twilight's Bella Swan, who begs to become a vampire because she can't stand the thought of growing old while Edward remains young forever. Elena, secure in herself and her identity, is willing - is determined - to put aside something that could let her be with Stefan forever in order to stay true to who she is.

Both Elena and Daenerys are strong female characters who don't follow Chocano's archetype, and Starbuck is a tough woman who follows the archetype while transcending it. These women are all identifiable, but not as our current selves (or at least as my current self; you could very well be a stronger, more stable, more courageous person than I am). Instead, their identifiable qualities make their strength all the more impressive, while also making their courage, stability and strength seem reachable. If I wanted to watch a show about women like me - and plenty of people seem to want that - I could watch Grey's Anatomy and see myself in the whiny, bed-hopping basket cases that populate that show. I don't want that. I want to see myself as the badass viper pilot, or the center that holds together a group of supernatural beings. I want to see myself as the Dragon.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Five Most Egregious Emmy Snubs

John Noble as Walter Bishop in Fringe. Photo courtesy of

Emmy season, the single most frustrating time of year for an avid television viewer, has rolled around again. While this year was less frustrating that most - after all, Game of Thrones received 13 nominations, as did 30 Rock, while Modern Family walked away with a whopping 17 - there was still plenty to be angry about. Following are my picks for the five most egregious snubs of 2011. You can check out a full list of nominees here.

5. Emilia Clarke

While I'm absolutely thrilled that Game of Thrones was nominated for Best Drama Series, and even happier to see that the always excellent Peter Dinklage got a Best Supporting Actor in a Drama nod, I think it's criminal that Emilia Clarke was snubbed. Her portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen was wonderfully nuanced, and she did an excellent job of conveying Dany's transformation from frightened girl to powerful Dragon. A performance like this would have been impressive from any actor; coming from Clarke, who was unknown before she was cast as Daenerys, it is phenomenal.

On a side note, I would have also loved to see a nod for Sean Bean. Portraying an irrefutably good and noble character is often more of a challenge than playing a baddie, but Bean kept the audience invested in the character without resorting to any tricks. If getting beheaded on television doesn't get you an Emmy nod these days, what does?

4. Archer

I know that Archer is a cult favorite animated show on FX, and as such has about as much chance of a nomination as Jersey Shore. Archer, however, is consistently funny, sharply written, and features the best voice cast on television (no disrespect to The Simpsons, but they don't have Jessica Walters). The snub wouldn't hurt so much if the seriously sub-par second season of Glee hadn't scooped up a mass of nominations. Maybe if Sterling and Lana broke out into song more often their show would stand a better chance of recognition.

3. Nina Dobrev

The reason that I've singled out Dobrev, rather than the entire cast and writing staff of The Vampire Diaries, is the knowledge that this excellent series is a teen vampire show on the CW, and as such is even farther from a nomination than Archer. Out of all the extremely deserving cast members, Dobrev is the standout (trailed closely by Ian Somerhalder). She imbues both her characters with a realness that is rare on any show, let alone a supernatural teen drama - her Elena is a strong, independent woman who struggles with the role foisted upon her without letting her problems get the best of her, while her Katharine grew this season, starting as an all-out wicked villain and slowly letting her fear of Elijah and Klaus take control of her actions. Dobrev's work was so subtle that I forgot for much of the time that Elena and Katharine were played by the same actress. For playing two different characters and making it look easy, Dobrev deserves at least a nomination. Maybe she'll finally get one next year, when she adds yet another character (the original Petrova doppelganger) to the mix.

2. Community

To my mind, Community is not only the best comedy on television right now; it ranks with the all-time great sitcoms like Arrested Development and Seinfeld. The writing is clever and sharp, packed with details that you have to watch a second, third or fourth time to pick up, and the acting is uniformly excellent. The fact that one of the best ensembles on television did not scrape a single acting nod between them, while six (!) of the members of the Modern Family ensemble received nominations. As in the case of Archer, the multiple nominations for Glee make this one even more infuriating.

1. Fringe

I don't even know what to say about this one. Fringe is absolutely one of the best drama series on television, right up there with Game of Thrones. I realize that it's a science fiction show, and that Thrones probably took up the genre slot that could have been Fringe's, but that doesn't make it any better. The season was creatively and emotionally rich, and the performances by the central cast were beautifully realized and resonant. Lance Reddick deserves a nomination based purely on the moment when Agent Broyles came face-to-face with his own burned and mutilated corpse, and John Noble is the best actor working in television today, bar none. The fact that Anna Torv's portrayal of not one, not two, but three different characters - Ourlivia, Fauxlivia and William Bell - went unnoticed is an absolute travesty. I take back what I said before about Nina Dobrev. Apparently, if you're in a genre show, not even playing three different, fully realized characters can get you an Emmy nod.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

True Blood: Is Bill Compton the new Eric Northman?

Alexander Skarsgard's Eric taking orders from Stephen Moyer's Bill, now the King of Louisiana. Photo courtesy of

After watching the most recent episode of True Blood, "If you love me, why am I dyin'?" I started to rethink my previous appraisal of the show. I didn't drastically rethink it - I still think that the many plots are probably never going to converge, and I still intensely dislike anything having to do with fairies - but I think that there is definitely some interesting character development going on, particularly as pertains to Alexander Skarsgard's Eric Northman and Stephen Moyer's Bill Compton.

Eric has always been my favorite True Blood character, and not just because he is a flawless slab of Nordic beauty (although that certainly helps). The character's appeal always stemmed, at least to me, from his supreme confidence, sharp wit, and the sense of danger that was always palpable in his presence. While I'm not hating amnesiac Eric as much as I thought - "I know I'm a vampire Snooki" was one of the funniest lines I've heard in a while, delivered with the kind of superb inflection only Skarsgard can muster - I suspect that stripping the show's most appealing character of his personality is going to get really old, really fast.

Bill's transformation, however, has brought nothing but good things to the character. The power with which he commands his subordinates is thrilling, as is his new playboy persona. In the last episode, when telling Portia Bellefleur that he could never love her, he veered dangerously close to old, mopey Bill, but he more than made up for that in the scene when he coldly and calmly ordered the execution of a vampire who had the misfortune to be caught feeding on camera. Bill's unruffled exterior when passing this judgement, and the icy detachment with which he proclaimed himself the Authority, was fantastic. It lent his character a dangerous edge that carried through to the next scene, when he sweetly advised Jessica to tell Hoyt about her infidelity.

The character arcs here are interesting, because Bill has essentially become Eric and vice versa. Bill now has the sauve exterior (although let's be real here, there's no comparison), the dangerous side just waiting to be unleashed, and a sweet maker-progeny relationship with Jessica, similar to the one Eric has with Pam (with the caveat that, as much as I love Jessica, she will never be as awesome as Pam). Eric, meanwhile, has all the sweet guilelessness and honesty that (Sookie thought) Bill had when he first arrived on the scene, as well as a willingness to do anything, including turn on a fellow vampire, to protect Sookie even as his very presence puts her in danger. Now all he needs to really embrace the role is a bad haircut, a generally mopey demeanor, and a bizarre pronunciation of "Sookie." (It should also be noted here that, while Bill is certainly not as attractive as Eric, his hair is drastically better this season.)

I'm interested to hear what you think. Do you agree with my observations, or do you think I'm completely misinterpreting the character arcs? Can Bill ever be as awesome as Eric? (He can't, in case you were wondering.) And how many episodes can this innocent-Eric thing last before it stopbs being cute and becomes incredibly irritating?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Zombies on TV: White Walkers and Walking Dead

A White Walker from the first episode of Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of

Recently, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about zombies. That's not to suggest that I don't always spend a lot of time thinking about zombies, as I am the sort of crazy person who puts together contingency plans for the zombie apocalypse in my spare time and really want to own these real (!) Kabar zombie knives in case of a worldwide catastrophe. (I'm only sort of kidding about that.) I've been reading Simon Pegg's excellent memoir Nerd-do-well, and musings on his obsession with the films of George A. Romero (reflected in his own Shaun of the Dead), and the way Pegg uses his critical film background to pick apart the zombies in these films inspired me to do some picking of my own.

To my mind, the interesting thing about zombies is the fact that they are pretty much the only completely inhuman, unsympathetic horror trope left in our culture. Vampires, werewolves, witches and serial killers have all been humanized to the point where we feel bad about killing them; even robots and aliens (as seen, respectively, in Battlestar Galactica and District 9) are thinking, reasoning beings who deserve a fair trial at the very least. Zombies, however, are nothing more than an unfeeling, bloodthirsty mass. You can't reason with a zombie in the same way you can't reason with a blizzard, the only difference being that a blizzard isn't actively trying to eat you.

The sheer inhumanity of zombies is one reason, I think, that they don't appear on television all that often. Movies can be largely driven by visual spectacle, while a TV series requires at least some sort of interesting character interaction in order to keep a viewing audience from week to week. Thus, the two TV shows that do include zombies - The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones - do it by, respectively, adding drama through conflict amongst the survivors and making the creatures a vague threat rather than a pressing issue.

The Walking Dead is a fairly straight-up zombie story, along the lines of Romero's excellent Dead trilogy or more recent offerings like 28 Days Later. As such, it isn't particularly interesting to analyze according to the Romero Zombie Framework (or, as I will be calling it from here on out, the RZF), because the parallels are all there on the surface. However, the White Walkers in Game of Thrones present a much less obvious, but equally fascinating point of RZF analysis. This analysis will, hopefully, shed some light on the role of the White Walkers in the symbolic framework of Game of Thrones, as well as convince any doubters out there that they can, in fact, be classified as zombies (as if the above picture couldn't do that for you).

Critics have read many different things into Romero's films over the years, particularly Night of the Living Dead and the masterful Dawn of the Dead. The most common view is that the zombies in Night represent some combination of Russian communism and anxiety over Vietnam, while the creatures in the shopping mall-set Dawn are representative of the dangers of mindless consumerism. In Pegg's Shaun of the Dead the zombies are satirical, notable for how closely they resemble their non-zombified counterparts in modern Britain. A major question, then, is what the zombified White Walkers symbolize in the world of the Seven Kingdoms. I'll get back to that question later, as the answer relies on another issue that often comes up in the existing zombie literature and the RZF: the question of infighting amongst the non-zombie contingent.

Despite what I said before about zombie films often being driven by visual spectacle, a fraught relationship between a group of survivors is a mainstay of zombie media. In Night of the Living Dead the conflict falls out along racial lines, as the bigoted white characters object to the fact that Ben, a black man, has become the de facto leader of their group. In Dawn of the Dead, the conflict is between the group of survivors who have taken over the shopping mall and made it their own safe haven and a biker gang that wants in. More recent zombie movies often intensify this conflict: Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later features a group of soldiers who are arguably more frightening than the zombies, as they rescue the main characters only so that they can rape the females in the group, one of whom is only a child. As film scholar Stephen Harper puts it, these films "incessantly pose the question - who is the enemy?"

There are strong parallels to be found here with the White Walkers. During the final episode of the season, Lord Commander Mormont scolds Jon Snow for wanting to leave the Night's Watch and help his brother in his war against King Joffrey, telling him that the fight for survival happening at the Wall is much more important than the fighting over the Iron Throne. The power struggles of Westeros are hurting the Watch's attempts to protect the kingdom, as the focus on political infighting has prevented those in power to see the true importance of the Wall. This parallels the way in which the fight between the mall survivors and the biker gang in Dawn ultimately leads to the deaths of most of the characters - while Game of Thrones viewers don't yet know the outcome of the fight with the White Walkers, it can be assumed that attention from the kingdoms' rulers could only help the effort.

While zombies are always a threat, they are also often representative of any oppressed minority in society. The violence against the zombies becomes a metaphor for power relations, as the deaths of the zombies in Night are presented using imagery that is strikingly similar to footage of both the war in Vietnam and the lynching of black Americans. Very similar imagistic parallels are drawn in Game of Thrones. In order to destroy the Walker that threatens Mormont, Jon Snow sets the creature on fire, an image that echoes Daenerys' execution of the witch who killed her child and Tywin Lannister's orders to have Ser Gregor Clegane "burn the riverlands." Harper argues that these parallels prevent the audience from ever feeling fully comfortable with the death of the zombies, and the same could be argued for the White Walkers.

There is an interesting dichotomy at work here. As I mentioned earlier, zombies are one of the few villains left who are seen as purely malevolent and inhuman. Scott Niall, in his book Monsters and the monstrous; metaphors of enduring evil says the same thing, arguing that the defining characteristic of a zombie is the absence of "its essential self - its human soul." Harper, however, points out that Fran, when looking at the zombies trying to get in to the mall in Dawn, says aloud, "They're us." How, then, can we reconcile the inhumanity - the soullessness - of these creatures with their role as metaphors for downtrodden groups?

Harper claims that the parallels between zombie and human serve to humanize the zombies. However, I would argue that, at least in the context of Game of Thrones, these parallels serve the opposite purpose: they zombify the humans. Is the soulless, ruthless way in which the White Walkers kill really that different from Joffrey's execution of Ned? If anything, the Walkers are less malevolent than Joffrey, because they do not take pleasure in their kills the way he does. They are indifferent to the deaths they cause, just as they are indifferent to the politics of Westeros and the name of the man who sits on the Iron Throne.

This cold indifference is the key point that, for me, defines the role of the White Walkers on the show. Unlike in Romero's films, the Walkers do not represent a downtrodden minority, or a societal fear such as consumerism or communism. The Walkers represent something much more elemental: they are nature, at her coldest and most uncaring. They are the blizzard and the snows, they are the long nights, they are the winter that is inexorably coming. They are the ice in A Song of Ice and Fire.

If I had to guess how George R.R. Martin's saga ultimately ends - and I am doing this based entirely on the TV show - I would predict that the final showdown will be a literal translation of the title of the series. The ice - the White Walkers - will face off against the fire. Ultimately, only Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons will be able to protect Westeros. The White Walkers have not been seen in thousands of years, and they are threatening to return now that there is no longer a Targaryan on the Iron Throne. For all the realism of Westeros, I can't help think that the final outcome will hinge on something much more mythic, and the mythic is where the zombies come in.

Works Cited

Harper, Stephen. "Night of the Living Dead: Reappraising an Undead Classic." Bright Lights Film Journal 50 (2005). n. pag. Web. November 2005.

Harper, Stephen. "Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture: 1.2 (2002). n. pag. Web. Fall 2002.

Niall, Scott. Monsters and the monstrous; myths and metaphors of enduring evil. Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 2007. Print.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Review: "True Blood" Season 4

A very shirtless Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) in "You Smell Like Dinner," the second episode of True Blood's fourth season. Photo courtesy of

I've been entirely too spoiled by The Vampire Diaries' breakneck pacing, consistent characters and snappy writing to think of True Blood as anything but an inferior knockoff (despite the fact that the HBO series premiered before TVD). I'm still watching the fourth season, largely because it is summer and there is nothing else on, but I'm treating it as a soapy, sexy diversion rather than an actual TV show with believable characters, coherent storylines, or dramatic stakes. This is not only making it much easier to watch - it also keeps me from spiraling into depression when I remember that, a mere three weeks ago, this time slot was occupied by the far superior Game of Thrones.

Since I no longer have any emotional investment in any of the characters, I will evaluate the storylines based on their potential for interesting character development (not much) and hot guys getting naked (lots and lots). As such, the opening scene of the season premiere - in which Sookie made it to Fairyland, only to discover that it was actually an illusion that covered up a nasty, goblin-ridden desert in which you could be trapped by eating glowing fruit - did almost nothing for me. It's been quite a while since I cared even a little bit about Sookie's problems, and this bizarre moment did not make me care about them more. Even the death of her grandfather, Earl Stackhouse, from light fruit-related causes was underwhelming, largely because it is now a given that, if Sookie cares about someone, a shitstorm of trouble is about to come their way. The extremely obvious Persephone overtones that went with the scene did not make it any better.

One storyline, however, that does have potential is Bill's ascension to the title of Vampire King of Louisiana. I've never hated Bill as much as some people do, but I did find his constant moping over Sookie, not to mention his complete lack of understanding of just why she might not trust him, extremely irritating. However, based on the first two episodes King Bill is a vast improvement; not only does he have a much better house, he's powerful, sleeping with various hot ladies, and can order Eric around. I'm hoping that he has actually moved on from Sookie, and that we're not going to find out that he's really just hiding from his love for her or some other buzzkill like that.

Now that Bill has seemingly moved on, Sookie is finally free to get together with Eric. Now, I knew that Eric's (SPOILER ALERT) memory loss was coming, but I'm still not happy about it. I liked the idea of Sookie playing games with Eric, who now owns her house and wants to own her as well. I love Eric just the way he is, in all his deadly, sarcastic glory; I don't need another, lamer version of Eric, no matter how much time he might spend with his shirt off. I want Sookie to learn to love the real Eric, flaws and all, and while Pam and Bill dealing with this new turn of events might be fun for an episode or two, I have no doubt that the writers will drag it out until no one can stand it any longer.

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt remember that my absolute least favorite element of the show is the continued victimization of Tara. Those people might think that I would be pleased about Tara's transformation into a badass cage fighter in a (seemingly) healthy relationship with lovely girl named Naomi. I'm glad to see that Tara is, at least for a couple episodes, free of the constant terrible experiences that plagued her life in Bon Temps (although that will probably last for all of ten seconds), but I'm a bit uneasy about her newfound lesbian relationship. This show has a tendency to divide its women into damsels-in-distress, who are generally straight, and tough women who can take care of themselves, who are generally lesbians and often vampires. Tara's turn to lesbianism reinforces the show's underlying truth, that women who are attracted to men are also dependent on men. Tara could easily have been in a healthy relationship with a man, but on this show healthy relationships between a man and a woman are an impossibility.

There are lots of other plots going on, and based on previous evidence none of them will come together in a coherent fashion. That means that, as much as I want to care about Lafayette joining a coven, Jason being turned into a werepanther, and Jessica and Hoyt's marital problems, but I know that none of these subplots will have any bearing on the season's main arc, so I don't. (And as far as Sam's relationship with Navajo shapeshifter/skinwalker Luna, I don't even want to care about that.) I'm really just in this for the naked Eric and the possibilities that arise with Bill as King of Louisiana; anything else along the way is just a bump in the road.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Best TV Pilots

Now that the summer TV doldrums are upon us and there is almost nothing to watch (with the exception of Torchwood: Miracle Day, which premieres this weekend, and True Blood, which I only watch because there is nothing else on), I've started looking forward to fall pilot season. There are many shows that I'm excited about, and I'm hoping that their pilots live up to my expectations. Of course, a good pilot doesn't necessarily lead to a great show; shoe of my favorite shows, like Community and The Vampire Diaries had less than impressive pilot episodes that they managed to improve upon, while some shows with great pilots didn't manage to live up to their potential. The following pilot episodes, however, are outstanding examples of a very tricky art form, whether or not the series that followed were ultimately successful.

Photo courtesy of
Arrested Development

The pilot of Arrested Development is no more exceptional than any other episode of the show. Like the finale, it is simply a perfect encapsulation of the Bluth family, their problems and the rapid-fire humor that makes the show so eminently re-watchable. From George-Michael kissing Maebe to Tobias deciding to be an actor to GOB attempted to hide his father in a magic trick (or "illusion"), the pilot episode introduced each character and their many, many issues with pointed comedy and a few moments of genuine emotion. But mostly comedy.

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Twin Peaks

There are a lot of things I don't like about David Lynch. His Eraserhead is the only movie I have ever walked out of, and I don't like the purposeful confusion that permeates so many of his projects. However, if there is one thing the man can do, it is create a mood. The feature-length pilot for Twin Peaks is an eerie, ominous piece of filmmaking that creates a sense of dread even before the body of homecoming queen Laura Palmer is found, wrapped in plastic on the beach. Lynch is a master at showing the darkness that permeates even the most seemingly innocent locales, and his Twin Peaks is no different. The show may have run off the rails shortly thereafter (backwards-talking midgets! demonic possession!), but for the duration of the two-hour pilot the mood is one of unsettling, quiet dread that gets under your skin and won't let go.

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Glee is another show that began to decline in quality very early, and fell more precipitously than Twin Peaks ever did. For those of us who are still watching, it is becoming increasingly hard to remember how clever, heartfelt, and just plain fun the pilot episode was. The first hour of Glee had likeable characters who actually behaved consistently - probably because it was just one episode, but still - fun musical numbers that were marginally related to the plot, and just enough cutting humor to balance the show's tendency towards treacle. It was an almost perfect episode of television, capped off by a joyful rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'" that had fans humming along all summer.

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I, along with many other people, have my problems with the way that Lost ended, but I don't think anyone could quibble with the way it started. The big-budget, effects-laden pilot episode was thrilling, compelling, and confusing, qualities it shared with all the best episodes of the series. The introduction of mysteries like the Monster combined with shocking moments (like a person getting sucked into a still-spinning plane engine) to create an unforgettable hour of television. The pilot also marked the last time in the entire series when Jack Shepherd was actually likeable, rather than just annoyingly angsty. Now, if only J.J. Abrams hadn't had his original plan quashed by the network, and had killed off Jack at the end of the pilot.

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 The Walking Dead

After drinking in the Lost pilot, I was convinced that I would never again see a pilot that was as viscerally arresting, or one that could possbly hook me as quickly. Then I saw the two-hour premier of The Walking Dead. I watched the episode on a 13-inch laptop screen in my room with all the lights on and my boyfriend sitting next to me, and I almost cried from fear. The pilot played less like an episode of a show than like a full-length zombie movie - which, at two hours, is what it was - and I would definitely rank it very high on my list of all-time best zombie films. The pilot combined absolute terror with an elegaic quality in a way that managed to mourn the near-extinction of humanity while still keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat. The first season of the show may not have lived up to the potential in the pilot, but that doesn't change the fact that the pilot was gory, disgusting, frightening and heartbreaking all at the same time. It doesn't get any better than that.