Sunday, November 19, 2017

Two Years Later: Why Arkham Knight Remains The Best Of Rocksteady's Arkham Games

Rocksteady Studios' Arkham series of Batman games, which launched in 2009 with the justly lauded Arkham Asylum, illustrates just how much goodwill a videogame can generate by simply getting a few big things very right.

The games' Predator encounters, in which Batman has to stealthily take out a room full of heavily armed enemies by using the room's features and his own array of gadgets, are consistently tense and challenging, and they give the player tremendous freedom in solving the problem at hand.

The Freeflow combat system created for the Arkham series is one of the finest core gameplay mechanics debuted in the last decade or so - it's simple and intuitive, simultaneously balletic and kinetic, allowing the player to effortlessly guide Batman through a crowd of goons while rewarding reflexes and anticipation. Combat in the Arkham series has impact - blows feel real, they have weight, and the system provides the right feedback to the player at the right time.

But more than anything else, the Arkham series nails the feel of the experience, of actually being Batman. The Arkham games put players in the cowl of the iconic character by allowing them to truly inhabit Batman's strength and athleticism in all parts of the game, including those without any enemies.

The series got these big things right, and in doing so it was able to move past the games' relatively uninspired stories, blunt, on-the-nose dialogue and a basic structure in which everything else was essentially thin connective tissue between the next Predator encounter or combat section.

I have, over the last couple weeks, been replaying Arkham Knight, the final game in the series. And the experience has only strengthened what I came to believe after finishing the game the first time: Arkham Knight is the best game in the Arkham series because it is, in a handful of very important ways, a striking, genuinely beautiful experience, one that, like the series as a whole, succeeds by hitting a few perfect notes.

Movin' On Up

Consider the following Indisputable Ranking of the games in the Arkham series:

1. Arkham Knight
2. Arkham Asylum
3. Arkham Origins
4. Arkham City

Set aside Origins, the competent but unnecessary prequel put together by an outside studio - there's basically nothing it does that other games didn't do first, which makes it somewhat irrelevant to the conversation, even if it's a basically enjoyable gameplay experience.

There are plenty of folks who would disagree with that ranking, callously disregarding the fact that it is, in fact, indisputable. Perhaps the biggest disagreement I have with the public view of these games comes with Arkham City, the second game in the series.

I put Knight on top - and City on the bottom - for a number of reasons, and I'll get into most of those below. But the biggest thing putting Arkham Knight over the top in this competition is also the simplest: movement.

Character movement is, of course, the most basic element of gameplay, and it's almost always the first thing a player learns - "Press the left thumbstick to move Batman forward." But when your game is set in a massive, wide open sandbox, the ability to efficiently move the player character from Point A to Point B is not just central to the experience, it's crucial to the success of the game. When you have to traverse a lot of territory, difficult, tedious movement can wreck an otherwise solid game.

And that's one of many areas where Arkham City falls short. City moved Arkham Asylum's gameplay into a wide open sandbox setting, but it did not adequately adjust Batman's movement capabilities to the new, much larger environment. 

Put more simply, getting around Arkham City was a pain in the ass. It was a tedious experience, especially early in the game before the player had unlocked the grapnel boost, which enabled easier movement across rooftops. Getting across the game's map took too long, and it certainly wasn't "fun." It took the experience of playing as Batman and turned it into a commuting simulator.

Arkham Knight avoids those pitfalls - first, by bringing the much-maligned Batmobile into the equation, enabling rapid traversal of the environment, but even more importantly, by equipping the player with the grapnel boost from the get-go.

The grapnel boost (which can be upgraded throughout the game to allow for greater speed and length of travel) does more than let the player propel himself from ledges and roofs through the Gotham night - it allows the player to more fully tap into the experience of being Batman. The iconic image of Batman is not of the character beating up a generic mook or even fighting the Joker - it's of Batman illuminated against a full moon, cape fully extended, descending from some striking bit of Gotham City architecture.

Arkham Knight understands that to fully inhabit Batman, the player needs firm control over his movement, as well as an ability to gracefully glide across the night sky. As such, the simple act of movement in Arkham Knight is a genuine pleasure. When the player propels himself from a roof and glides through the rain, he's not just traversing the map to reach an objective - the sense of control and athleticism in that simple act is crucial to the experience of playing the game.

An Art Deco Joy

Of course, there's another reason that moving through the Gotham City of Arkham Knight is such a pleasure: put simply, the city is gorgeous

It's tempting to contrast the Gotham of Knight with the walled off prison town of City and say that Knight's Gotham feels more like an actual city. And it's true that the environment of Arkham City doesn't feel like a real place: it's a same-y, unattractive mess of boring, blocky buildings, lengthy, tedious interiors and a dull gray color palette. There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about the city of City.

But there's nothing particularly "real" about Arkham Knight's Gotham City. It doesn't feel like a real, lived-in city. Gotham, in this game, is a city where every building is either a soaring Art Deco skyscraper or a Gothic cathedral. The entire city is designed to provide Batman convenient ledges to grapple off of or to silently brood on. 

Very practical architecture


But realism is overrated, especially in a videogame based on a comic book property. Arkham Knight's Gotham City is something better than realistic: it's awesome. It's a creation that is glorious and grandiose, monumental and magnificent.This game's Gotham City is, in fact, one of the most beautiful environments in the history of the medium, a rare case of aesthetics meshing perfectly with the tone of the story and the very core of the character.

Every city should have massive statues liberally sprinkled throughout
Arkham Asylum is a very different experience than the three games that followed it. Asylum is a deliberately claustrophobic experience, one that values atmosphere more than aesthetics or movement. Batman spends more time in Asylum crawling through vents or striding through hallways than gliding across striking vistas. 

It's not an inherently inferior experience, but it is decidedly less spectacular. And that's the best description of Arkham Knight's environment and, in fact, its entire "vibe:" spectacular.

I'll rent an apartment in that building

"This Is How The Batman Died."

Arkham Knight has the best story in the run of the series, but if we're being honest, that's not really saying much. These haven't been games defined by their nuanced and complicated narratives - Arkham Asylum ended with Batman beating up a TITAN-infused gigantic Joker, after all.

Arkham Knight tells a solid enough story about the end of Batman, and manages to keep it relatively tight and focused. Arkham City spread itself too thin and tried to accommodate all the members of Batman's rogue gallery, and in doing so it short-changed most of them. Arkham Knight, by contrast, lets peripheral villains like Two-Face and Penguin stay in their side quests, keeping the main story focused on Scarecrow and the new, titular villain. 

Still, there's plenty to criticize here. The Arkham Knight's secret identity really isn't much of a secret - most players guessed it pretty quickly. And the game tries hilariously hard to milk genuine emotion out of Poison Ivy, one of Batman's weaker villains. There's an undeniable charm to watching massive plants spring out of the ground and destroy tanks, but if your narrative is leaning hard on Poison Ivy, you've probably mis-calculated. And the decision to turn Catwoman into a damsel in distress was not well thought out, regardless of the fact that the character herself calls it out within the game. 

But what Arkham Knight's story gets right is tone. The plot points don't all add up, and there are definitely ridiculous points within the narrative. But the game's story embraces the necessity of "ending" an iconic character with true panache. Every element of Arkham Knight's story is infused with the importance of the moment - it feels big in a way that Arkham City's narrative does not.

In the end, that's what makes Arkham Knight such a compelling experience. It's certainly not a perfect game, and I'd probably grant it falls short of greatness.The Batmobile is not the miserably boring addition that many critics say it is, but the game definitely leans too heavily on it, reducing many sidequests to lengthy tank chases through the streets of Gotham. And the game's side quests are too reliant on the now-ubiquitous open world game collection missions.

But Arkham Knight finds the right tone from its opening moments and stays consistent with it throughout. It's an unapologetically big game in its narrative and its environment. It's a genuine epic in a series that called for an epic conclusion. Arkham Knight is, like most of the best Batman stories, almost Wagnerian in the grandiosity of the sentiments expressed and the striking iconography of the visuals. 

And the game maintains this tone in all of its most striking elements: movement, aesthetics and narrative. For this consistency, and for all of its successes, Arkham Knight is both an outstanding experience and in sore need of a re-evaluation from the gaming community that greeted it with significant skepticism upon its release. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Gotham Embraced Ridiculousness and Found Its Best Self

It's difficult to identify Gotham's worst moment - there's a lot of competition for that particular honor. But it might well have been the show's third episode, "The Balloonman," in which James Gordon and Harvey Bullock quite earnestly hunt a masked vigilante who is murdering corrupt individuals by tying them to weather balloons.

There are fewer options when trying to determine the show's best moment. I'm partial to the close of "Unleashed," which comes near the end of the show's second season, in which Penguin and his underling Butch use a rocket launcher to blow up the seemingly invulnerable Theo Galavan, brainwashed into believing he's the avenging paladin Azrael. After the deed is done, Penguin waddles away, while Butch waves a jaunty goodbye and wishes Gordon, Alfred and Bruce Wayne a good night.

The Why of "Better"

It's not always easy identifying or articulating how or why a show has improved. Sometimes there's a new actor or a new showrunner or an exciting new storyline, more money for production design or special effects. But there's often some ephemeral, hard-to-pinpoint thing that wasn't there when the show began.

ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is a good example of the second dynamic. That the show is much better now than it was for most of its first season is essentially indisputable. Identifying the "why" is more difficult - you have to dig deep (the show has refined its core relationships, the actors are more comfortable in their roles, the writers have largely abandoned standalone episodes in favor of serialized storylines), and even then there's an element of post facto reasoning to the exercise.

Gotham is a somewhat similar example. The show, as it has since its pilot episode, blows through plot at a reckless pace, and its stories, at their best, do not stand up to careful scrutiny - and are utterly preposterous at their worst. It's still too reliant on generating audience goodwill by showing us people who are related (or even just similar) to iconic Batman characters. And it still has just two settings for its female characters - boring love interest and violent psychopath.

And yet, Gotham IS better than it was. It is, in fact, one of television's more consistently entertaining shows, even if we're compelled to admit it's nowhere near one of the medium's best, and that it even falls short of "good" status.

But for all its flaws, Gotham is genuinely fun. And it got there by abandoning all pretensions of genuine quality.

Finding the Right Tone


Gotham's first season was defined, as every professional critic observed, by its jarring tonal inconsistencies. These didn't just show up from episode to episode - individual scenes would be riven by these tonal shifts. Every actor seemed to be performing in a completely different show - Jada Pinkett Smith was channeling Eartha Kitt from the campy 60's Batman series, Donal Logue was playing the Jerry Orbach character in a bloody Law and Order reboot and Cory Michael Smith (playing Edward Nygma) was trapped in a cutesy romantic comedy. And poor Ben McKenzie was apparently working under the impression that he was in a prestige drama about a good man's fall and redemption, a delusion which would have been hilarious if it wasn't so sad.

 The issue was not so much that all of these performances were bad - Pinkett Smith was consistently entertaining, and I always got a kick out of the Nygma-Kristen Kringle dynamic (many, many others did not, it should be noted). The problem was that none of them meshed: a scene with Gordon, Bullock and Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney would involve Logue wisecracking, Pinkett Smith purring her lines and McKenzie growling and glowering with all of the intensity he could muster. It was a mess.

The show's improvement over the last few years has been tied, above all else, into its ability to settle on the right tone and the right approach to its subject matter. That tone has, from day one, been exemplified by Robin Lord Taylor, the show's breakout performer.

Taylor's Penguin has always been Gotham's best character and most entertaining element. Taylor's performance has never been subtle, but he's always found a way to emotionally convey the character's alienation and ambition without ever losing his sense of fun. Penguin has always been the one character on the show who seems like a comic book character in the best sense - real without being realistic, heightened to the point of exaggeration while still commanding the audience's attention and respect.

Gotham has, in fits and starts, evolved to match Taylor's tone. That evolution is demonstrated by the difference between the two moments I highlighted at the start of this post.

"Balloonman" was the show's attempt to play a ridiculous and cringe-worthy premise with complete seriousness - you can't have two hard-boiled police detectives investigating murder-by-weather-balloon without the whole thing falling apart within the cold open. Gotham asked us to regard the entire scenario as something genuinely threatening (and even instructive for the young Bruce Wayne), and while one can squint really, really hard and imagine a brilliant writer-director combo making that work, Gotham didn't so much fall short as it stepped in a pothole and broke its ankle in front of the entire school within the first 10 seconds of the Homecoming Parade.

"Unleashed," which aired about a year and a half after "Balloonman," understood, by contrast, the ridiculousness of what was on screen and gloried in it. The scene in which Penguin and Butch blow up Galavan/Azrael is largely played for laughs - the episode doesn't expect us to see it as Galavan's tragic end or as a character-building moment for the future Batman. It's funny, and everyone involved plays their roles appropriately.

A Balancing Act


But the key to Gotham's improvement has been its ability to stay on the drama side of the drama/comedy line, if barely. The "Unleashed" scene plays Galavan's death for laughs, but while Taylor is clearly enjoying himself, he still inhabits Penguin's indignation and fearsomeness. That's always been Taylor's gift - his scenes are frequently funny, he is frequently funny, but Penguin remains a genuinely terrifying figure.

There's no doubt that Gotham is campier than it was in its first season, but it has managed to avoid falling completely into caricature. The show's new tone is a kind of dark camp - heightened, ridiculous, but with a Gothic aesthetic and a gleeful embrace of gore aided by some genuinely impressive visual effects.

 Gotham's second season, which marked the beginning of its ascendance, was sub-titled "Rise of the Villains," and its increased focus on the show's bad guys represented a change that was significant as it was welcome. The first season devoted plenty of time to the underworld machinations of Penguin, Fish Mooney and Carmine Falcone (a usually good John Doman, who always seemed out of place on this show), but the second season took all of that scheming, threw in the twisted Galavan siblings, mixed in a centuries-long conspiracy and evil goings on at Arkham Asylum and produced something much more interesting and entertaining.

That dynamic has continued through season three and first two episodes of season four. Gotham's villains - whether you're talking about Penguin, Nygma, Victor Zsasz, Tabitha Galavan (who survived her less fortunate brother) or Barbara Kean (Eric Richards, invigorated after being freed from the need to play Gordon's boring love interest in the first season) - provide a consistent spark of charisma and entertainment.

The "stakes" here are comically low, considering both that Gotham is a prequel and that death has long since lost its meaning on this show (Barbara was killed in the season three finale, but is almost certain to return at some point this year). But the actors playing these villains do so with malevolent glee, and the show embraces the villains' storylines with an enthusiasm it simply can't muster for Gordon, Bullock and Bruce Wayne.

Take, for example, Gotham's ballsy decision to kill off Kristen Kringle (Nygma's love interest) in the second season, then bring the actress back a season later to play a completely unrelated character who happens to look exactly like Kringle and happens to fall in love with Nygma herself. There's no conspiracy there - "Isabella" isn't a distant relation of Kristen Kringle, coming to Gotham City to wreak bloody vengeance on Nygma. She's just a random woman with the exact same face as Ed's dead girlfriend.

And then the show kills her a few episodes later just to drive a wedge between Nygma and Penguin.

There's something breathtaking about that, right? It's so impressively and unnecessarily stupid that it works, somehow.  It's a writing staff committing wholeheartedly to an ill-advised idea, then abruptly pulling the plug because they grew bored with it.  You want to hate it, but you have to admire the chutzpah.

The Aesthetics of Ascendance

All of these improvements in acting and storytelling have been accentuated by the show's distinct aesthetic sensibility. Put simply, Gotham is one of the most gorgeous shows on television, possessing a visual style that syncs perfectly with the show's newer, more successful tone.

Gotham's visual style is a mish-mash of different aesthetics, but it combines them in a way that works far better than it should. The buildings and interiors are all designed in a grandiose Art Deco style - check out this image of Theo Galavan's penthouse from the show's second season (image courtesy of the Gotham wiki):



I would absolutely live here
















Street-level scenes, meanwhile, are all grit and grime and urban decay, and the show has never met a grate it didn't think would look better with steam pouring out of it. 

And all of the clothing styles seem like they're frozen in the years between the 30's and 50's, which can create some truly striking visuals, like this shot of Nygma in his 50's-style G-man suit:




Those cheekbones!
















Everything about the show's visual palette is heightened and exaggerated - everything is sharp angles and bright colors set against dimness and darkness. None of it is unbelievably over the top, really, but it's all unique to the show, and it helps create the impression of a universe that is similar to ours, but noticeably off.

It's apparent, as we enter Gotham's fourth season, that Gotham is never going to be a great show. The show's plotting remains too enamored of its own twistiness, allegiances change with eye-rolling suddenness, scenes featuring our "heroes" are mostly boring and any real emotional depth (such as the surprising heart and sentiment that defined the Penguin-Riddler relationship early in season three) is quickly subsumed by the show's need for blood and betrayal. 

Still, in our Golden Age of Television, when there's a glut of high-quality prestige shows, there remains a space for Gotham's entertaining, unapologetic ridiculousness. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Yes, Game of Thrones is a great TV show - still

Game of Thrones aired its super-size season finale Sunday. I liked it - zombie ice dragon! Other people were less enthusiastic, which is fine - my pop culture opinions have not yet acquired the force of law. 

In and of itself, that's not really notable. I haven't been a journalist for about a thousand years, but I don't think "People Disagree On Merits of Television Episode" is much of a headline. But the reaction to Game of Thrones' finale and its 7th season - as well as the usual end-of-season "state of the show" think pieces - illustrates a really fascinating set of dynamics that define the critical conversation around HBO's smash hit.

It's fair, I think, to say that critics have turned on Game of Thrones. One need not rely on childish fanboy whining about people "hating" the show to make that observation - it's more or less objectively the case that most prominent TV critics are less fond of the show than they used to be.

A pretty representative articulation of that can be found at Vox's listing of the 18 best TV shows airing right now, curated by the great Todd VanDerWerff. Here's part of the Game of Thrones entry:

"Sure, Game of Thrones can be a little same-y and unbearable at times, but goodness, at least it's not you who's getting stabbed in the head. And it's still TV's most opulent drama, produced within an inch of its life and gorgeous to look at. The show might never be the all-time classic TV series it was once poised to become, but it’s still essential, if only to know what everybody else is talking about."


That's about as backhanded as compliments get. "Still essential, if only to know what everybody else is talking about?" But setting that aside, the most revealing - and typical - part of that passage is the implication that Game of Thrones is a show in decline - or, at the very least, a show that has fallen from its previous heights and has become something noticeably less than it once was.

VanDerWerff is hardly unusual in this diagnosis. You can find any number of pieces making that same argument. You can even find Adult Swim bumps to that effect.

There's no critical hive mind, of course, and every Game of Thrones skeptic came to that position at a different point in the show's run. But for most, the cut-off point was somewhere around the season four finale. For some, that point came a season earlier or later.

Regardless, the show's "decline" essentially comes down to a simple turning point: when Game of Thrones gained the resources it needed to really indulge in spectacle and grandeur. 

Or, phrased another way, critics mostly loved Game of Thrones when they could plausibly portray it as anything other than an epic fantasy series. It was a political thriller! It was a workplace drama! It was a road trip movie! It was a mis-matched buddy comedy! 

But, as Matt Zoller Seitz observed in a thoughtful and nuanced piece, Game of Thrones "isn't what it once was." And if it once was possible to downplay the show's epic fantasy elements, that time is past. Game of Thrones is epic fantasy, a fact it now has the money and manpower to show off more or less every week. It's not a coincidence that the critical consensus soured on the show once it fully embraced a soaring, sweeping ethos.

Allow me, then, to submit the following proposition: Game of Thrones remains a great show on track for all-time classic status. The show's current critical reputation has less to do with a significant decline in quality and more to do with a built-in disdain for genre fiction and a strong critical bias for small-scale, grounded, relatable drama.

It's not wrong to say that Game of Thrones has changed over the years. It is a bigger show now, more inclined to shoot for the Big Moment and the extraordinary setpiece. It's a show defined by spectacle and grandeur in a way that it never was before. 

And there's no denying that in the process of becoming spectacular, the show has lost some of its subtlety and nuance. There's less room for the smaller, character-driven moments that defined much of the show's earlier days. Quiet, candle-lit conversations between two characters have been replaced by dragon attacks on loot trains and zombie dragons spewing blue fire to bring down The Wall. 

It's possible to take this observation too far. Game of Thrones is still eminently capable of creating those intimate, small-scale, character-driven moments. The Sansa-Arya feud from this past season is an excellent example - the relationship between the two sisters is a fascinating examination of the way trauma sticks to even the best-intentioned of individuals, of how it can poison and subvert our closest relationships and most promising futures. The reunion of these two women was a triumphant moment, but it did not wipe away all they had experienced.

Instead, their pasts colored their views of each other and made them vulnerable to Littlefinger's machinations and manipulations. After all, Sansa had spent the most recent years of her life either living in a den of homicidal lions in King's Landing or married to a monstrous Ramsey Bolton. Arya had spent hers moving through a series of horrifying situations and environments in which any slip-up could have proven lethal. Neither Stark sister was in a position to trust, and into that environment Littlefinger slipped quite easily, taking advantage of Sansa through the classic abuser's trick of isolating her from friends and family and building a world in which she could rely only on him.

And for all that, the resolution - the discovery and unmasking of Littlefinger's plot, and the death of this long-running character - was both satisfying and earned. It was ironic and yet fitting that Littlefinger - the ultimate schemer, the man so profoundly in love with his own cleverness - would doom himself by giving the woman he loved the tools she needed to see through his scheming.

Still, storylines like these are more the exception than the rule in the Game of Thrones of 2017, and the opposite was true in the show's critical salad days. But here's the thing: the idea that subtlety is superior to spectacle, that small is better than large, that Big Moments are easy and the best drama occurs during quiet moments, is just an artistic value system. A perfectly legitimate one, to be sure, but also one that possesses no special claim to objective truth.

Game of Thrones is different than it used to be, but it is not worse. The show possesses an unparalleled ability to induce awe and wonder in its audience. The spectacle that critics invariably preface with the deprecatory adjective "empty" is, in fact, an extraordinary accomplishment, as worthy of critical appreciation as any quiet moment of depression from an intricately drawn anti-hero. At a time when our standards for Games of Thrones' big, effects-driven battle scenes should be un-meetable, the show continues to exceed all expectations for these moments.

Consider, for instance, the fall of The Wall in Sunday's season finale. As a plot point, this wasn't the least bit surprising - we all knew it was coming, going back to the end of season six. But though the moment was more than a year in the making, it surpassed expectations because no one saw a zombie ice dragon coming.

There's nothing subtle about a zombie ice dragon, of course, and there's nothing about it that's going to appeal to observers who consider quiet character work the foundation of great drama. But it's one of the clearest examples yet of a show that's more capable of accomplishing the extraordinary than anything else on television.

Whether in the wight-driven massacre of "Hardhome" or the record-breaking pyrotechnics of "The Spoils of War," Game of Thrones has showcased a once-in-a-lifetime mastery of spectacle and of the emotions its audience experiences while witnessing it. That ability to entrance viewers with moments they cannot find anywhere else on television is not a minor attribute to be acknowledged and quickly dismissed in a parenthetical nested inside a harsh critique - it is a staggering force and a dynamic worthy of genuine respect.

It is also why Game of Thrones remains a great TV show. And why it will be remembered as one of the greatest series in the history of the medium.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

ZZ Ward returns with a strong sophomore effort in The Storm (Review)

Artist: ZZ Ward
Album: The Storm
Grade: B+

The Storm, ZZ Ward's second full-length album, cements Ward's status as one of modern pop's best musicians. But as it confirms that position, it raises another question: is Ward capable of - or even interested in - being anything more?

If pop music is defined by the tension between accessibility and authenticity, then Ward - along with Elle King, whose 2015 hit "Ex's & Oh's" is one of the best pop songs in recent memory - has shown a unique ability to reconcile those qualities. She is an absurdly talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a gift for crafting catchy songs that feel as though they're the product of a singular talent and not a pop song production line.

If nothing else, The Storm works as a perfectly solid demonstration of that particular gift. Album highlight "Cannonball" is the best example, a brilliant, bluesy track that serves as a showcase for Ward's musical versatility (you don't see a ton of skilled harmonica players in modern pop music) and is well-accented by Fantastic Negrito's soulful guest vocals. It's a toe-tapper, a song that mainlines straight to the listener's brain and burrows deep while reveling in Ward's unique talent.

Really, though, the entire album proves the point. There's not a bad song on the album, and from beginning to end The Storm is stuffed with quality. Each track is quality, well-crafted blues rock. They're disciplined, intricately engineered songs without an ounce of fat or an extraneous note - the 11 tracks barely exceed a combined total of 35 minutes, and if the definition of a good work of art is one that leaves the audience wanting more, The Storm certainly qualifies.

Ward has never been a particularly subtle lyricist - her favorite tactic is to wrap her arms tight around a central metaphor and squeeze every ounce of life out of it over the course of a single track. But even going back to "Put The Gun Down," her rollicking, 2012 introduction to the modern pop scene, Ward has shown an admirable willingness to write songs in which she's something less than a noble figure. "Cannonball" and "Bag of Bones" both evocatively paint a picture of weakness and desperation, while "If U Stayed," with its chorus of "And when you're holding on to your very first child/I hope you think of me and everything we had/And everything we couldn't be," conveys those ignoble feelings we experience in the aftermath of a breakup and in the face of our desire to be above such bitterness.

So why, then, does The Storm fall just short of genuine greatness? Why is there the gnawing sense that something is missing?

It's tempting to say that The Storm represents a step back from Til The Casket Drops, Ward's debut album, and, indeed, there's nothing here with the propulsive energy of "Put the Gun Down" or the smoldering intensity of "Blue Eyes Blind" (Ward's best song). And Ward's voice is less of a potent weapon here than on her first album, where she showcased a remarkable ability to range up and down the full length of the vocal register at will.

But though Til The Casket Drops was a genuinely brilliant album, that criticism is not quite on the mark. The issue is not that The Storm is worse than Ward's first album - it's that it feels like nothing more than a continuation of it.

Everything you can say about The Storm can be cross-applied more or less directly to Til The Casket Drops. Ward's style and approach haven't evolved much at all in the five years or so since her first album.

And, to be sure, there wasn't much need for evolution, or even room for maturation. Til The Casket Drops was already an impressively mature album, especially for a debut offering. If there was a flaw with that first album, it was in the lack of flaws - a slight failure of ambition that was noticeable, though eminently forgivable considering the talent on display.

Five years later, that lack of ambition is still forgivable, but it has only grown more glaring with time. There are no fascinating failures here, no epic, cringe-worthy nine-minute tracks on some issue that's close to Ward's heart, no songs that show a still-young musician perhaps a bit too eager to push the limits of her magnificent talent.

I wrote earlier that there's not a bad song on The Storm, and that's true. It's also true that she's yet to release a bad song at all. That is, in one sense, an extraordinary achievement, the reflection of a talented musician with a clear sense of who she is and an iron grip on her style. In another sense - one that's less important, but still real - that's a reflection of an artist who is, perhaps, slightly too comfortable with that style and unwilling to re-draw her boundaries. The basketball player who shoots 100 percent is impossibly, impressively efficient, but he or she is also taking only the easiest of uncontested shots.

There is a sense with The Storm - as, again, there was with Til The Casket Drops - of Ward checking off boxes in order to hit all the expected marks. Here's the stripped-down track that shows off the musician's authenticity ("Bag of Bones"). Here's the soulful, true blues track ("Cannonball"). Here's the tragic ballad ("If U Stayed"). Here's the spunky girl power anthem ("She Ain't Me"). To say that Ward is just checking boxes or hitting marks isn't to say she doesn't check those boxes or hit those marks with great skill - she clearly does.

But every track Ward releases seems precision engineered to achieve a specific goal or convey a specific image. And that is, in some sense, profoundly unnecessary - Ward's talent is obvious, and would shine through in any context.

One of the most insidious mistakes a reviewer can commit is to ignore the work in front of them and instead criticize an artist for failing to make the album/movie/novel/show the reviewer wanted. So it's not fair to say that Ward needs to do anything more than what she's doing or to demand an artistic evolution that's not really necessary.

But there are no surprises on The Storm. Every song demand's the listener's respect, but none demands their attention. There's nothing wrong with the road ZZ Ward is on, but it is well worn, and there's room for the occasional scenic detour.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Mist and The Limits of Psychological Horror

Spike's adaptation of The Mist is bad for many reasons, not the least of which is that the show has very few good actors. Or characters. Or plot points.

It's...not a good show.

But if we're looking for reasons why The Mist has failed so spectacularly, it's worth considering a decision creator and showrunner Christian Torpe and his writers made, a decision that - at least in theory - might have worked to the show's advantage. That decision has, instead, resulted in even more unconvincing and unpleasant moments that fall far closer to "silly" than they do to "horrifying."

It's easy to forget that Stephen King's original story is just that - a story. It's not one of King's back-breaking brick novels. It's about 135 pages and first appeared in a collection of King's short stories. There's not really a ton of incident or narrative momentum in The Mist. The story basically goes like this:


  • Guy and his son go to the store
  • Thick mist rolls in
  • Mist contains horrifying Lovecraftian monsters
  • People barricade themselves in the store
  • People occasionally die in horrific ways
  • Lady in store becomes a religious fanatic, goes crazy
  • Guy and his son break out of store, leave town
Really, that's about it. The Mist is a fine story, but not a lot really happens, all things considered. So if you're going to adapt it into a TV show, even just for the now-standard summer cable run of 10 episodes, you have some work to do in expanding the story to fill your runtime.

Torpe and company settled on a number of ways to do that, almost all of them cringe-worthy - the less said about Adrian, Alex and the pre-mist rape sub-plot, the better. One of the choices that has fared particularly badly is the show's laughable attempts at personalized psychological horror. Essentially, the mist of The Mist is a kind of personalized hell for anyone caught in it. 

Writers love this sort of thing, of course. "Psychological horror" is the respectable sort of horror, the sort that wins you applause from skeptical critics. After all, it doesn't rely on such cheap tactics as scary monsters or sickening gore - it delves into the psyche of characters, and in the age of Prestige Drama, we love nothing more than deep, probing character work.

Here's the thing: while much of King's horror work is psychological, The Mist is decidedly not. There's nothing personalized about the horrors that lurk in the mist. They're terrifying creatures from another dimension, massive clusters of tentacles and claws and fangs, warped pterodactyl-esque flying beasts, huge spiders that cocoon their human victims in nests of webbing, giant crab creatures that bisect people with a snip of a claw.

None of these creatures are subtle, and none of them are artisanally crafted for the unique contours of the victim's sub-conscious. They're just fucking scary, and they work on that level. They're huge, they're deadly, they're like nothing we've ever seen on Earth. That makes them effective.

Spike's adaptation went a different way. There are some monsters out in the mist, of course, though they tend to be very small scale - deadly insects, mostly. But in the show, the mist works in a different way - by playing on its victims' fears and memories. The mist presents its victims with visions that haunt and taunt, visions that drive victims insane with self-loathing.

In theory, at least. Our protagonists mostly just seem briefly annoyed by their visions before running away. 

Look, could this work? In theory? Sure. Better actors could sell the horror more convincingly. Better characters - with more fully developed interior lives and personal histories - would make these visions more compelling. And better writers could sketch out more dramatic and horrifying scenarios.

But that's kind of a cop-out - good writers, good actors and good characters can make more or less anything work. It's no great defense of the adaptation's decisions to say that they could, conceivably, have worked better in a world where everyone involved with the production was more competent.

One imagines that some part of the decision-making process here was driven by financial considerations. The Mist is a hilariously cheap-looking show, outside of one or two striking visuals in each episode and some occasionally effective gore effects, and it's obvious Torpe and his writers aren't working with much of a budget. Casting an actor for a one-off appearance as a mist vision is surely cheaper than creating a convincing Lovecraftian hell beast, whether you're using CGI or practical effects.

Still, I would submit that the fatal flaw here is the belief that personalized psychological horror is inherently superior to - and more dramatic than - the kind of creature-based horror of King's original story. 

Yes, the "psychological" horror of Spike's adaptation reads like an old person's stereotype of a Millennial's view of horror: "Sure, that 20-foot-tall homicidal spider is scary, but it doesn't really speak to me, you know?" And yes, the show's attempts at personalized terror have been limp and laughable - Kevin sees an image of himself...but a darker, more violent version of himself! Mia sees her dead mom! Alex is spared by a (legitimately spooky!) shadow monster because the thing a teenager fears most is rejection!

But the failing here goes beyond The Mist's unique shortcomings in writing. There's a place for bespoke horror that speaks to the unique psychology of specific characters. But there's also a place for the more universal horrors laid out in King's original story, for the kind of terrifying creatures and demons that - when done well - elevate us out of our individual fears and remind us of something more elemental in our natures. 

In other words, we're all scared of 20-foot-tall homicidal spiders that threaten to spin us in a nest of webbing so they can return later and consume us at their leisure. They don't remind us of the trauma we suffered on the playground in third grade, but they're still scary.

Much of the praise for psychological horror is rooted in a kind of disdain for genre fiction. Implicit in it is the idea that traditional horror - with its monsters and madmen and demons from hell - exists on an inferior plane, somewhere far below respectable literature that understands true drama is the clinking of silverware on plates in a tense family dinner. Bringing that keen understanding of a character's inner life to horror makes it far more like "literature," and is thus inherently superior.

And look, there's nothing wrong with psychological horror, or with horror that plumbs the depths of a character's psyche. King himself has tilled that soil quite well for decades. 

But King has always possessed a keen understanding of the right balance between the personal and the universal. One of the most terrifying scenes King ever wrote was the moment in The Shining where Jack Torrance, having finally succumbed to the evil of the Overlook Hotel, beats his own face in with a roque mallet while his son watches, the illusion of Jack's humanity finally gone forever. 

Yes, it's terrifying because it's personal - a son watching the shell of his dad perform such an extreme act of self-brutalization. But it's terrifying to the reader because it's also universal, because the visual of this...creature walking around afterward with a caved in non-face is sickening and horrifying. The scene doesn't rely entirely on psychology - it proudly and unapologetically calls upon forces that the critic might consider "lesser."

That balance between specific and general, personal and universal, is one of the central tensions of all storytelling, of course. That Spike's adaptation of The Mist fails to achieve this balance is no surprise - it fails at pretty much everything it tries to accomplish. But there is a lesson in that failure, one writers and critics alike might do well to heed - horror doesn't have to be psychological to be effective. There is no reason vivid, well-drawn characters can't exist in a story where the horror is grander than their own traumas. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

How Your Mother Got Her Band (Review)

Series: How I Met Your Mother
Episode Title: "Bass Player Wanted"
Episode Grade: B+

It's easy when talking about How I Met Your Mother to focus on love and romance. The show has long had a strong, confident voice on those topics, and those are obviously the show's driving themes.

But How I Met Your Mother is also, to a very real extent, about friendship. The platonic relationships between these five people have carried the show when its broader romance arc lurched and started started straining under the weight of eight seasons. Put simply, it's been fun to watch these guys hang out, and that was always enough to see the show throw the darkness.

"Bass Player Wanted" is essentially a celebration of these friendships, a chance for How I Met Your Mother to toast its characters and their relationships with each other. So, yeah, it's a little easy and self-congratulatory at points, but the show has earned that at this point in its life.

Plus, we get a nifty little storyline for The Mother!

"Bass Player" revolves around the antics of guest star Andrew Rannells, who I've never heard of before in my life but who apparently does quite a lot of voice work for cartoons. Rannells plays Darren, who The Mother labels a "fire-starter" for his ability to ingratiate himself with a couple friends, find out their deepest secrets, then immediately spill them and ruin the friendships. He's also the lead singer of The Mother's band, which comes up later.

We know all of this because The Mother, in one of those bullshit plot devices we're willing to forgive a beloved show in its ninth and final season, drives by Marshall trying to walk the five miles to the Farhampton Inn and picks him up.

The early scenes where Darren manages to utterly charm Robin and Lilly and then Ted and Barney are charming for the contemptuous ease of his approach; Robin is immediately won over when Darren recognizes how "hilarious and adorable" she and Lily are. Barney and Ted, meanwhile, lose their objectivity when Darren breaks out a story about losing his mother in a hunting trip that was inspired by Bambi (he later tells the bartender that his mother was eaten by a barracuda, which The Mother angrily points out is just from Finding Nemo).

There's an element of the 80's sitcom to the resulting conflicts: the friends all have their little spats over relatively minor issues (Robin sort of sides with Marshall in the whole "Judge vs. Italy" debate, but mainly because she's afraid of losing her best friend, while Barney is outraged to learn that Ted is moving to Chicago and hasn't told anyone besides Lily), there's a commercial break, a couple friends make big gestures and all is forgiven and everything is fine.

But again, this is the kind of thing you can get away with when you have nine seasons of character equity build up. We understand the depth of the connection these friends have with each other, and at this late point in the show's run we're willing to accept a certain amount of short-hand from characters we've grown to know so well.

And besides, the big gestures are pretty cute and character appropriate. Robin holds the arms of Lily's "Marsh-pillow" so Lily can beat it up, and Ted steals an extraordinarily expensive bottle of scotch for Barney, who notes approvingly that it could have gotten Ted thrown in jail (Barney thinks going to jail for your best friend is "living the dream").

And hey, The Mother! Cristin Milioti has integrated into the show really well, and "Bass Player Wanted" actually gives her a little plot of her own. It doesn't really add up to much; she used to be the lead singer of her band "Super Freakonomics" (she started it with a bunch of her business school friends), only to be gradually pushed out by Darren. She's trying to work up the courage to confront him, but simply can't.

This is all pretty feather-light stuff, though it gets a reasonably funny conclusion when Darren accidentally breaks the $600 bottle of scotch Ted stole for Barney (the third such bottle to get broken over the weekend) and gets punched out as a result. But Milioti does a really good, really funny job of selling the character's righteous, utterly impotent rage, and, not to overshare, I can certainly appreciate a character struggling with confrontation.

As I've written before, I'm acutely vulnerable to the "awwww...." moments, and How I Met Your Mother has always specialized in them. But it has worked for them over nine years of excellent character work and solid writing that establishes the gang as a group of people worth watching and rooting for. I'm OK with a little bit of reflection in this final season.

Notes:

  • I am a little worried about Ted's eventual breakdown, which we've been lead to think occurs as a result of a final, failed attempt to win Robin back. Ted and Barney share a nice moment where Barney recognizes that Ted has trouble hanging around Robin and doesn't say anything, and this season has done such a nice job exploring the bond between Robin and Barney. It would be a shame to lose some of that for the sake of cheap drama.
  • Marshall realizes he's hallucinating on the walk to the inn because he saw Bigfoot smoking by the side of the road, and everyone realizes Bigfoot quit smoking years ago.
  • The Mother is wearing driving gloves, which is a wonderful little callback to the first episode of the season.
  • Barney just wants Marshall to be a judge so he can get all of his public urination citations dismissed. Robin seems really, really proud of all those citations.
  • Milioti does a nice job selling a bit where she pretends to be a psychic who knows all of Marshall's history before revealing that she met Lily on the train.
  • Barney doesn't think Chicago is a real place. It's just a style of pizza. "You can't live in a pizza, Ted!"

Sunday, December 15, 2013

And My Partner, Silly Funshow (Review)

Series: Psych
Episode Title: "Psych: The Musical"
Episode Grade: A-

A show has to reach a certain point and achieve a certain position in order to justify a musical episode. It takes a secure position and a heaping helping of confidence to successfully sell your network on such a risky and potentially silly experiment. That or a complete lack of ideas.

Fortunately, it's the former with Psych.

There's something rather extraordinary about the fact that Psych has been on the air for seven years and has reached a point where it can pull off a musical episode. This is a series that, at its most self-important and self-serious, is about as substantial as a bowl of sugary cereal. It's a silly, frankly stupid affair that mines a formula established in its earliest episode and relies on a lead performance that is always just this side of insufferable.

It's also one of the most consistently entertaining shows on television, and it has more than earned the indulgence of a musical episode.

And here's the best part: the musical episode is really good. It's a little bloated, to be sure; Psych rarely has enough material to really justify its one-hour runtime, and two hours is a bit much for a show with so little ambition. The case of the week (kind of a misnomer, as the show hasn't aired an episode since May) is one of the more compelling investigations I can remember, but it's wrapped up in a fairly standard and boring fashion, as the culprits turn out to be a couple dudes we barely spoke to earlier in the episode.

But damn, this was fun. Everyone involved with the production clearly had a blast, and it's also obvious that the show's writers are passionate fans of musicals. The songs are clever, catchy, well-crafted numbers, and, perhaps most impressively, the episode is confident enough to let large stretches of time pass without a forced musical number.

Psych episodes derive a lot of their quality from the strength of their guest stars, and tonight's as a good one in Rent's Anthony Rapp, bringing a little bit of professionalism to the show as "Z," a playwright locked up in a mental institution after he apparently set a fire in his old playhouse upon learning that his beloved Jack the Ripper play would die an early death.

When Z, seven years after his imprisonment, escapes from his institution and the director of a new, purportedly unique Ripper musical ends up dead, the Santa Barbara police department swings into action, aided by our old friends Shawn and Gus.

As I said earlier, this is actually pretty enjoyable stuff. The investigation itself is basically a jumbo-sized version of the usual procedural work we see on Psych; there are a lot of red herrings, Shawn and Lassiter (an always-delightful Timothy Omundson) disagree on most things, Shawn fingers a suspect who ends up dying in the middle of the investigation, etc.

Still, this is a big, sprawling affair, and I found myself enjoying all the little twists more than I usually do. A lot of this can be chalked up to Ally Sheedy, making her fourth (and, sadly, final) appearance as "Yang," the serial killer from an earlier story arc. Sheedy has always brought a really impressive, deranged charisma to her role, and it was clever plotting to tie her into the big event.

Yang even gets a death that is, of all things, heroic and more than a little heartbreaking. There's a surprisingly touching little musical number with Jimmi Simpson's Mary Lightly, who shows up to welcome Yang into the afterlife. She's probably going to Hell, but Mary will ask around, see if he can get Heaven to lighten up and let her in. He's not optimistic.

It would be silly and pointless to run through all the developments in the case, most of which, again, hit the expected Psych beats. Z, it turns out, didn't actually kill anyone, which Shawn figures out relatively early and thus must be true and only proven at the very end of the episode. The producer and director of the original show had accidentally killed the critic who was going to ruin their Ripper musical, then framed Z and, seven years later, found his original, awesome script for the play and revived it under a new title.

The resolution is a little unsatisfying, simply because one of the killers (the producer) is dead, and the other (the director) got about a minute and a half of screentime. The motives ascribed to them make sense, and I certainly buy the overall story, but it would have been nice to see just a little more of these guys; I don't even remember the characters' names, and I'm drawing a blank in trying to remember anything about the producer. It's not like this episode lacked time.

Still, this is nit-picking. "Psych: The Musical" is a big, fury ball of joy, much like the series as a whole. There's precious little to complain about, and so much to enjoy.

Notes

  • I'm not sure if any of the cast had their voices dubbed over with professional singers (Jenna Fisher's voice was replaced during the musical numbers in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), but assuming those were the natural voices, that was an impressive display of talent. I particularly enjoyed Maggie Lawson's voice.
  • I want to single out Dule Hill for some special praise in this section. He's been wonderful during his entire run on Psych, and I say that as someone who really didn't care for his performance on The West Wing. Here, he shows off his exceptional dancing skills (according to IMDB he got his start as a tap-dancer on Broadway) and generally lights up the screen.
  • "I see a light." "Do you see fire and brimstone?"
  • The Skype product placement tonight was a little blatant.
  • "Z crushed you? With a piano? Like in the Roadrunner?"
  • "He was the Phantom." "Billy Zane!" "The other Phantom." "There is no other Phantom."
  • "It's set in London in 1888." "So what are you saying? Black people hadn't been invented yet?"
  • "Just jam in as many syllables as you can before the break/It's literally impossible to make a mistake."