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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (4/23/12) 12:47am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  The Cabin in the Woods [spoilers]
TV:  Terriers [1x12-1x13], Community [season two], Louie [season one]
Books:  <none>

The Cabin in the Woods [spoilers]
This is the new horror-comedy from Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, AKA "that guy who made Buffy, Firefly, and lots of other stuff".

I'll just get this out of the way first:  yes, I liked it.  No, I didn't love it, or fall in love with it, or feel amazed by it.  But it was clever, and fun, and solidly-constructed.  I'm glad I got the chance to see it before any spoilers found me.

I suppose part of the problem for me is that I don't have a solid background in the horror genre.  On some level, this film is a Community-level genre-reference fest, culminating in a Sigourney Weaver cameo that I, being ignorant, barely recognized as Sigourney Weaver.  And really, a lot of what they're doing is commenting *on* the horror genre -- it's no big leap to say that the "old demons" they're trying to appease are the movie audience, and what does it say about us that we want to see young people punished as gorily as possible?  It might have been written before Dollhouse, but it feels of a piece with that series' discomfort with the exploitation inherent in the entertainment biz.

One way they comment on the genre is by making it so the "observers" have to tweak the personalities of the teens involved, most often by dumbing them down and heightening their libidos.  I get the commentary:  for whatever reason, we like our stock horror characters to be dumber and hornier than real people, and we like them to fit comfortable archetypes, with no odd little idiosyncrasies making us feel like there's more to be known about them.

But while that was an incredibly clever choice, it made me feel a little less for the teens involved, both because they felt less like real people, but also because it robbed the story of a sense of fair play for half the running time.  It's less like watching two forces square off against each other, and more like watching a D&D game with a rather merciless DM.  ("No!  You decide to make the stupid choice!" feels somewhat like "Rocks fall!  Everyone days!  TPK!")  And it meant that the screenplay could cheat all over the place, playing a "the kids do <x> because magical drugs" card whenever it needed to.  And finally, I don't feel like the movie was clear enough about the "real character"/"archetype" transformation -- unless you paid close attention to all the drugging references, it felt a little like inconsistent characterization.

Some of the best horror -- though this is rare -- has smart characters making dumb choices.  You sympathize with these characters, 'cos they're smart; you worry for them, because they're making dumb choices; but you understand exactly why they're coming to the decisions they make.  (It's just that they don't know there's a rabid, soul-eating were-llama in the warehouse.  How could they?  Poor bastards.)

But that's all minor kvetching.  (Oh, one more kvetch:  the cellar scene took me completely out of the movie briefly, so strongly did it remind me of Betrayal at House on the Hill.  Side note:  apparently there's a unicorn tapestry down in there somewhere.)  It's just easier for me to write about minor complaints than about what it does right.  It was a great moment for me, hitting about the halfway point of the film and thinking, "Huh.  They're just booking it through these slasher-movie plot points.  <beat>  Wouldn't it be cool to see them just tear through the entire slasher storyline, and then move on to something else entirely?  <beat>  Ah well.  That'd never happen."

When watching TV or film, few experiences are better than having to eat the words, "Ah well.  That'd never happen."  And I always love watching a story blow past the expected ending, since then you're left wondering, "Well, wait, what happens next?"  But then again, you don't introduce an Elder God buried deep beneath the earth in act one unless you're going to unleash it in act three.

So I had fun.  And the movie's as funny as you'd expect for a Mutant Enemy project, not least because they get so much comic mileage out of "What would a real, intelligent person stuck in a horror movie say?" with Marty.  I had a good time, but I'm sure the more Whedon-obsessed, or the more horror-obsessed, would have a better one.

Terriers [1x12-1x13]
This is the conclusion of the one-and-only season of Terriers, which follows two unlicensed Pis as they stumble across a massive San Diego real-estate conspiracy.  The last two episodes are "Quid Pro Quo" and "Hail Mary".

Gah.  I'm in the unenviable position of writing this weeks after I actually saw the conclusion.  I do remember that it finished strong.  It employed the excellent gambit of resolving the main season arc, and then adding on one last little question before the final cut to black.  In this case, they really did take down the real-estate conspiracy -- in this case, with some nasty blackmail -- and then introduced the last neat little question of whether Britt Pollock goes to jail or not.

And I remember liking that Britt is facing jail time.  It's surprising to me, how much mileage Terriers gets out of just pursuing the natural consequences that other PI shows would ignore.  If Hank gets shot -- even just grazed -- guess what? he's out of commission for a while.  He's looking at physical therapy.  And those consequences -- the sort of thing that other shows would just happily reset-button -- those form the mulch for the next episodes.

So, if Britt tracks down the guy he thinks his fiancée is sleeping with and beats the shit out of him... yeah, that does ruin his relationship, and that does get him arrested.  These things count.

Beyond that, all I can say now is that, on the one hand, I'm glad I didn't watch this when it was on, since the disappointment of the cancellation would have really hurt; on the other, if more of us had watched it when it was on, maybe things would have been different.

And since then, Ted Griffin has done... Tower Heist.  Oh, goddammit all to hell.

Community [season two]
A lot of what I had to say about season one of Community (1, 2, 3) also applies to season two.  It's still a relentlessly clever send-up of sitcoms, it's still packed with jokes, it's still got wonderfully sharp performances.  And at the same time, it's still kind of hollow.  It's funny, but I don't feel invested in the story.

But the surprise for me in season two was that it occasionally pulled out *moments* that caught me up short and made me feel for the characters.  And it didn't really matter which *kind* of episode I was watching.  Hell, the stop-motion animation episode -- certainly the most extreme genre parody they did all season -- had a tender moment when we realize that, for the first time, Abed's mother is spending Christmas with her new family, and not with him.

And honestly, I *love* moments like that in stylized stories.  More specifically, I love it when you're watching a story that feels like it doesn't have real people in it -- it's a genre exercise, or a wacky comedy, or a by-the-numbers actioner -- and it does some little emotional moment that makes a character feel suddenly *real*.  And then you're suddenly snapped backwards through the entire story to that point, re-watching it in your mind, and suddenly seeing everything as stuff that's happened to a human being, not just the workmanlike execution of a script.  So, yes, with "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas", at that moment, I suddenly saw the whole thing as the manifestation of Abed feeling hurt and alone.  I even got sniffly.

(Side note:  "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" also had moments in this category.)

(Additional side note:  this makes me think that I need to try throwing more emotionally-grounded curveballs into zany improv scenes, just to see what happens.)

I often say that it's okay to tell a story that doesn't emotionally grab the audience -- but in that case, you'd better be really damn clever or really damn funny.  So generally, Community lives or dies for me based on its clever/funny level.  In an episode like "Paradigms of Human Memory", Community blasts 100% into "making fun of sitcoms" territory, but it's so funny and so clever that I can't help but love it.  You get the feeling that the episode was just a backlog of every dig the writers had taken at the show over the past year or two.  I am incapable of hating on an episode that makes fun of fan 'shipping videos.  (From Todd VanDerWerff:  "The central point of the episode is to make us laugh as much as humanly possible, and that’s never a bad thing.")

But in its "default gear", the show felt like an efficient little machine that did a pleasant enough job of poking fun at genres and television without ever really mattering much.  I'm glad I watched -- I was amused, and my time wasn't wasted -- but I think I'll wait a while before checking out season three (which is good, since the season isn't done yet).  Plus I kind of don't want to mess with hulu for a while.

Louie [season one]
This is the first season comedian Louie C. K.'s FX comedy which intersperses Louie's stand-up with vignettes from his everyday life, working as a comedian and raising two daughters in New York City.

This show has received a lot of critical acclaim, and you quickly catch on to one of the reasons critics love it:  it's different.  And I'm not just saying that it's different from other shows on television, though it is.  It's different episode to episode.  You don't know where Louie is going, tonally or content-wise, from one week to the next.  Yes, it will show us a sex farce with a chick who's into older guys, and then later show us a harrowing childhood encounter with the Catholic church.

And not only that, but even once it's picked a tone, and once it's shown you what it's about, an episode of Louie will probably be different from what you've been conditioned to expect.  It's like the show just gets bored with the standard outcomes, and wants to show you something new, something that might happen in the real world.  Consider "Bully", for example, which kicks off with Louie, on a date, having to demean himself to bullying high-schooler.

From there, you can imagine some standard ways the story can go.  In a really crappy sitcom, he'd find some manly way to prove himself, and then be assured that no, it's okay, his hot wife loves him the way he is.  In a less crappy sitcom, he might encounter the kid again and get some kind of revenge.  But Louie finds a quirky, discursive direction to go with the story.  He tracks the kid home and talks to his parents.  The awkward conversation turns into the mom shoving him (Louie) out of the house.  That confrontation leads to Louie and the dad, smoking on the house's front porch, musing about the difficulty of raising kids.

You get the feeling that some sort of bully-confrontation like this happened to Louie in real life, and he was left thinking, "I should've followed that kid home, and... and... and then what?"  And then Louie speculated about what would really happen from there, and got to a more interesting story than a normal, incurious sitcom would usually give us.

So good god, TV critics -- people who have probably watched several *hundreds* of hours of TV-doctors who sometimes CAN'T DO THE JOB because DAMMIT THEY JUST CARE TOO MUCH -- must be overjoyed to see something different.

For me, season one was kind of beautiful.  It's a slight show, working on a small canvas, giving us little glimpses of how Louie's mind works.  And it's not flawless -- for instance, Ricky Gervais's schtick as a doctor friend of Louie's felt weary even as it started.  But the show generally does its small job very well, and with lots of moments of surprising honesty.  Yes, that really is what the bully's home life must be like.  Yes, Louie probably would wind up on that front porch, musing about how damn difficult it is to bring up kids.

I remember reading that the show is more impressive in its second season, so I'll be sure to check that out at some point.  And this first season did feel like a very solid platform to work from.  It's like Louis C. K. spent a year building and perfecting this tool for examining different aspects of his world -- now let's see what he uses it for next.

For next time:  I'm re-watching the first couple of seasons of Avatar:  The Last Airbender as a run-up to finally watching the third.  Also, I've finally started listening to A Clash of Kings on audiobook.

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Date:Monday (4/23/12) 4:43am
I totally agree with you on your 'Cabin in the Woods' review. I thought I perhaps wasn't that into it because I don't like horror so much, but now that I think back, it did have some pretty unsatisfying narrative elements.
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