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

Friday (1/9/15) 1:47am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  <none>
Movies:  The Breakfast Club
TV:  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [2x01-2x04]

The Breakfast Club
This, of course, is the classic John Hughes movie about five very different high-school kids who get stuck in detention for a day.

It's kind of impressive that the film everyone acknowledges as the best teen movie ever made could never get made these days as a teen movie.  There's no gimmick here.  There's nothing glitzy or aspirational.  A couple of the stars were known from Sixteen Candles, but Estevez and Sheedy and Nelson were virtual unknowns.  There's nothing polished -- no impressive action, no sparkling banter.

For the most part, it's just people talking in a room.

And as far as I can tell, it just shouldn't work.  There's no plot here.  There's no hero with an objective, there's no inciting incident, there's no crazy act-three ramp-up to any denouement.  Again, it's just people talking in a room.  The film moves gently, playing off our curiosity about the characters at the start.  It uses the lovely technique of introducing characters as clichéd types and then slowly going beyond those clichés, adding nuances and unexpected depth.  That way, you start out knowing (or rather, thinking you know) who all the characters are, but you aren't stuck with two-dimensional walking clichés.

And it gets a lot of mileage out of Bender's rage against the whole world.  Indeed for the first half hour or so, the movie is very much the Judd Nelson Show, as Hughes milks every ounce of discomfort out of his constant defensive, defiant outbursts.  Bender constantly probes his enemies (his enemies being everybody) for weaknesses, which is convenient both for drama and character-exploration purposes.

And as it gets going, the movie creates a beautiful, natural arc.  Of course they all start banding together against Vernon, one of the most evil (and most credibly evil) adults in any of Hughes's movies.  Of course Bender eventually sacrifices himself to Vernon to save the group.  The movie keeps gently prising out this common ground between the characters, while keeping things, for the most part, unaffected, and vulnerable, and grounded.

So by the time the film reaches its centerpiece -- the long, long conversation about what each student did to get in there -- you're not even conscious of how much ground the movie has covered since the awkward standoffishness of its first minutes.  And of all the baffling things that shouldn't work in this movie, this has to me the most baffling: the big payoff of this movie, the main event, is ten minutes of the kids sitting in a circle on the library floor, talking.  I can't think of another teen movie that does that.

And it works like gangbusters.  The whole "What's going to happen to us on Monday?" conversation, where they assess whether they can stay friends in a high school with such strictly enforced cliques, is the most heartbreaking thing I've seen since Princess Kaguya.  Goddammit, high school was awful, and watching kids honestly commiserate about its awfulness is very affecting.

The movie isn't perfect.  Judd Nelson's acting feels very actor-y sometimes.  The problems can feel a bit pat -- standard, predictable, movie-of-the-week fare.  And honestly, the characters don't vary at all from their clichéd types.  We don't learn that Brian has any un-nerd qualities.  We don't learn that Andrew has any un-jock qualities.  Instead, it's more that all of these characters are in a lot of pain, and it's the same pain for all of them: the adults treat them like crap, misunderstanding them, or ignoring them, or outright abusing them.  And that's fine, but it kind of undercuts the opening and closing voiceover, which tells us that Vernon is awful for only seeing them as types.

But none of that is important, compared to how poignantly it depicts what it's like to be a teenager in that era -- to be that hurt, and that misunderstood, and to be stuck in a position where the adults are all against you and the kids are all against each other.  Against that backdrop, any moment of joy, or any moment of connection, is all the more intense and beautiful.

And it just shouldn't work.  Watching this movie succeed is like watching a brick float.

P.S. At the end of the film, I thought, "I'd love to know what happened to those characters."  I wondered what a TV show following those characters would be like.  Then I remembered that Freaks & Geeks exists, and I felt very happy.  (As it turns out, Hughes had planned to make later movies that checked back on those characters, à la the Before Sunrise trilogy.)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [2x01-2x04]
This is the start of the second season of ABC's action drama which is, as of The Winter Soldier, about a renegade team of disgraced spies trying to take
down a fascist secret organization.

There are certain pleasing artistic practices that you get used to without being consciously aware of it.  iPhone apps don't put a delete button at the bottom of the screen where you'll hit it accidentally.  Pop songs often put verses in a lower vocal register and choruses in a higher one, to make the choruses really ring out.  Paintings often arrange elements in golden-ratio proportions, for a pleasing sense of balance.

And television shows listen to themselves.

If something goes right on a television show, the writers and producers *see* that it's going right when they look at the dailies.  They course-correct to do that more often.  Likewise, if something isn't working, they find a way to avoid that in future episodes.  Sometimes it's little things: characters like Dick Casablancas and Ben Linus and Felicity Smoak showed up as one-off day players, but worked so well they eventually became part of the central cast.  Sometimes it happens on a much larger scale: the much-maligned first season of Parks and Recreation is subtly triumphant, as the show veers away from being a local-government clone of The Office and towards more warm-hearted and idiosyncratic.  Cougar Town takes a perverse glee in permanently walking away from its premise ("Courtney Cox dates younger dudes!") when something more promising comes along.

All of this is to say, watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is really, really unsettling, because I'm watching a show that can't course-correct.  It makes bad decisions, and it doubles down on them.  Amazingly promising things come up, and then vanish without a trace.  And it finally hit me: this is the first show I've seen that is a cog in a much larger corporate franchise.  Think about it: Inhumans is scheduled for 2016; this show is designed to dovetail with that; ergo, this show has its plot pre-determined through 2016.  It can't find its direction organically.  It can't change things up based on the dailies that come back.

It's a show in a straitjacket.

I haven't seen anything like this before.  Even shows that write all their scripts before they shoot a frame of film still course-correct from season to season.  And even a show as measured and deliberate as Breaking Bad had its moments -- when the actor playing Gus Fring had an promising idea about his character's eventual fate, the showrunner was able (and keen) to throw out their previous plans and go with that.

But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just can't do that.  The Winter Soldier gets delayed by five months, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is stuck spinning its wheels for five months, in the same 'case of the week' mode that made Dollhouse so pointless for its first six episodesInhumans pokes up its head, sees its shadow, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can expect two years of bridging.[1]  Disney/Marvel has made plans for this show, and those plans have to be followed.

And apparently those plans hinge significantly on Skye.  Again, I hate to say an ill word about any actor -- acting is so difficult, and your performance is filtered through the work of writers, and directors, and (especially) editors -- but I just don't think Chloe Bennett is good in this.  At one point, they literally give Skye character a wristband with a numerical readout of her pulse.  Let's make this perfectly clear: they added a prop that would show Skye's level of anxiety, onscreen, as a number.  If I found myself in that position, I would be very offended as an actor. ("Um... or I could also express, *visibly*, whether I'm upset or not.  Y'know, via *acting*.")[2]

A show that could listen to itself would have found a way to drop Skye.  A Mutant Enemy show that could listen to herself would have killed her off in a heartbeat -- like they did away with so, so many characters on their other shows with ruthless, GRRM-like efficiency.  Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. soldiers on, keeping her at the center of things, putting the weight of the show on an actor who doesn't seem quite up to carrying it.  It tried making her a hacker, the social conscience of the group, a spurned lover, and now it's going with "another field agent", just looking for something that works, because they can't do the most natural thing: cut their losses and walk away.

They stick with Hydra.  I know that's a weird sentence to say, but bear with me: say that this was a normal show, unconnected to a larger franchise where Hydra is a Very Big Deal.  Say Hydra was just something invented specifically for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..  What would it be, then?  It would be a bland, joyless Evil Organization that seems bent on... I dunno, world domination? I guess? for... reasons?  And it would somehow implant thousands of double agents in S.H.I.E.L.D., and it would somehow avoid *any* detection for decades and decades... basically it's the sort of villain who only succeeds because the screenwriters gave them all the cheat codes.  If that's all that Hydra was... hell, the show might have just said, y'know what?  This is *boring*.  Let's do something that's more fun.  Or let's take this same organization and *make* it more fun.  (See also: Fringe basically jettisoning "The Pattern" after its first season and being much stronger for it.)

But, again, they can't do that.

Meanwhile, promising elements drop in and disappear.  "Shadows" opens with a flashback to Agent Carter.  A more natural series would have listened to itself, said, "Hey, that was neat, let's make those flashbacks a recurring thing."  But instead, there's no follow-up -- because that flashback was designed to lead into a separate spin-off series.  Again, the franchise machinery keeps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from developing naturally.

Also meanwhile, they keep introducing technologies that should be complete game-changers.  If you're in a spy organization, and it's revealed that your enemy can brainwash *anybody*... the lay of the land has changed significantly.  Nothing is ever the same at that point.  Nobody can be trusted.  Ever.  Likewise, if you're in a spy organization, and it's revealed that your enemy can use face- and voice-morphing technology (one which can apparently account for differences in body shape or skin tone), you're in a very similar boat, as any person on your team can be an enemy agent.

It's something on the order of Death Note, where a technology is so powerful, and so alien to our experience, that our instincts just can't grapple with it, and we spend a lot of time painfully learning how to deal with it.  Real science fiction could spin an entire story out of what the world becomes when that particular genie is let out of that particular bottle.[3]  Instead, the show stays on its pre-established tracks, going to its franchise-calculated checkpoints, stifling any urge to explore the massive consequences of these bombs they drop on reality.

Mind you, season two is still better than season one.  Season one got beat to hell by the Winter Soldier delay, spending most of its episodes showing a vastly overpowered government agency pick off random, pointless villains.  Granted, it's kind of adorable that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is trying to go dark -- I think Marvel going dark means "they use slightly-less-bright primary colors, and sometimes use the word *gasp* 'hell'".  If season one was an awkward, confused teenager, season two is that same teenager dying his hair black and telling you how angsty he is.

But it still leads to some good storylines.  Fitz's brain damage is a damn good storyline, full stop.  Kudos to them for not playing the expected card: "the only damage is slight amnesia, so he doesn't remember that Simmons rejected him".  Instead, he's messed up, he has to deal with the one thing he's valued for -- his mind -- falling to pieces, and he has to do it without his best friend.  And fortunately, Iain De Caestecker may well be the best actor on the show, and can deftly handle this turn of events.[4]

And the best part of that storyline is, everyone is nice to Fitz.  They don't go for the easy, cheap conflict: somebody getting up in his face with "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE JOB ANY MORE RAAAR".  Instead, they recognize that just *living* with mental illness is hard -- hard for the person suffering, and hard for the people who care about that person.  Just *dealing* with that is a conflict.  The way that plays out feels warm, and grounded, and genuine.  It's a lovely island of recognizable human behavior in a whirlwind of plot moves and Macguffins and technobabble.

(Meanwhile, Skye just comes off as kind of petulant when the show goes dark.  Ah well.  Can't win 'em all.)

There are other bright spots in this batch of episodes.  Kyle MacLachlan is always welcome on a TV show.[5]  I could watch a show that is just May and Coulson going undercover on various jobs; I could also watch a sitcom about Simmons working at the Hydra lab.  Fitz's confrontation with Ward was as good as Skye's confrontation with Ward was hilariously misguided.[6]  The new characters they've introduced are played by really good actors who can elevate the pedestrian lines they're given.

But by and large, the episodes were just... forgettable.  I'd call them "inhuman", ironically enough, in that there is very little human feeling grounding this show. 

It's mostly about stuff.

In spite of all this, the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still fairly well-liked and well-regarded.  I'm baffled.  Maybe the problem is that I don't care one whit about the Marvel universe.  I keep hearing exciting claims about the show, along the lines of "OMG!  Skye is *actually* <character I've never heard of>, and she is one of the <group I've never heard of>, and her father is <another character I've never heard of> who wants her to find <thing I've never heard of> and use it for <fancy thing I've never heard of>.  Isn't that SO COOL?!"

It's like they won a competition to see who can pack the most "Peter doesn't give a shit" into one sentence.

I think that's it for me for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  It's marginally okay, but in an age where television has so much joy, and truth, and laughter, and pain, "watchable" is a waste of time.

For next week: I'm following up The Breakfast Club with Pretty in Pink (which is so very not-as-good).  I'm watching season one of Cougar Town while exercising.  I'm the mystery classic Gaudy Night as well as a piano book, and Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale.  We've started watching season two of Community (which is amazing) and season one of Black Mirror (the first episode was okay).

[1] An improv term.  "Bridging" is when you already know what happens next in the story, but instead of going there, you take little, predictable baby steps to delay that development.  Improvisors try to avoid bridging.
[2] Kudos to
eilanora (AKA Lindsey) for pointing this out.
[3] Check out Alfred Bester's work, for example.  The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination are both very good examples of this sort of thing.
[4] Can you imagine Chloe Bennett or Brett Dalton handling this storyline?
[5] At all points, I assumed his character was the mayor of Portland doing a bit of work on the side.
[6] Seriously: do not set yourself up with a remake of the most famous confrontation in The Silence of the Lambs unless you want to be judged very, very, very harshly.  Oh, and for a quick study of what Demme did right that this journeyman director did wrong, see this short commentary on the original by Tony Zhou.

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