Friday, February 27, 2015

Farewell, Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy is dead at the age of 83.

I have been a Star Trek fan since about the age of 10, when my occasionally viewing of TNG led me to discover the original Star Trek series and the films. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Kirk. I'm pretty sure I've spoken somewhere in this space about how so much of his attitude was incorporated into my still developing philosophy, the least of which not being "I don't believe in a no-win scenario."

But make no mistake, there's a lot of Spock in me too. When it becomes necessary for me to consciously detach my emotions from a decision and look at it from cold hard logic, I know I'm am summoning that inner Vulcan, much as I have for many years. And yet, I find that Spock aspect to be remarkably little comfort as I pen this tribute.

We don't have many living icons, and after yesterday, there's one fewer in the world. Star Trek is on the verge of celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Nimoy is the only cast member who was there from the very start, all the way to the failed pilot that starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. Over the three seasons of the original series, Nimoy made several contributions to his character, including the Vulcan salute and the Vulcan neck pinch. When you've read as many Trek memoirs and behind the scenes books as I have, you emerge with a strong picture of which actors were deeply invested in the integrity of their character, which ones were concerned with screentime, and which ones were there just for a paycheck. Nimoy consistently was driven by the integrity of the story and of his character.

Though - like many actors in his position - it seems there was a time when he wanted to leave Spock in the past, but the time of the films he'd come to embrace Trek fandom and I've never heard any story of him being less than gracious to the fans. After that, he never seemed to take for granted the opportunities that Star Trek had brought him. He was also a philanthropist, and among the efforts he donated to were the restoration of Los Angeles's Griffith Observatory. There's even a lecture hall and theatre named in his honor there.

When invited to return to later incarnations of the series, his concern was less the size of the part and more the value of the character to the story. I'm grateful he lived long enough to participate in the J.J. Abrams reboot, which saw Spock's actions prove essential to creating the "new" timeline the films follow.

I'd always hoped that he and William Shatner would share the screen one last time as Kirk and Spock. There were rumors that the new Trek film could produce such a scene, bringing them face to face with their successors in the role.

The reparte between Shatner and Nimoy is always a highlight of any behind-the-scenes look at Star Trek, and earlier today, as I looked for something to brighten my spirits, I lamented I did not have either of the Shatner-penned memoirs Star Trek Memories or Get a Life! on hand. Both feature numerous accounts of Bill pranking Leonard, like the class clown tweaking the stern headmaster. Fortunately, in looking on YouTube, I found a delightful retelling of the incident, from an old convention appearance.

There's some wonderful footage on the bluray for the 2009 J.J. Abrams-directed STAR TREK film, which featured Nimoy returning to the role for the first time since 1991. In it, the often-stoic Nimoy becomes moved when he speaks of how Abrams and his collaborators approached him, hoping to lure him back to play Spock one more time. He had assumed Star Trek had long left him behind and this appeal - one that made Spock essential to the story - touched him greatly.

Later, we see Nimoy on set, filming a scene meant to take place in an assembly hall at Starfleet Academy. The hundred or so costumed extras in the seats relax between set-ups, likely already becoming bored after hours on set watching Kirk be awarded command of the Enterprise. And then J.J. Abrams, standing in the mezzanine above, gets on the "god-mic" and announces "Leonard Nimoy, the original Mr. Spock, is here." The extras rise like attendees at the opening of a rock concert and applaud long and loud as Mr. Nimoy flashes the Vulcan hand symbol and gives an inappropriate-for-a-Vulcan beaming grin.

It already was emotional seeing a man in his twilight years being shown respect from those who grew up watching him. After today, it will be especially sad to watch that footage. But also happy, for we can see tangible proof that he knew how beloved he was. He was appreciated while we still had him, and that should make us happy.

We should learn from Spock's logical mind, but also aspire to be like Leonard Nimoy: gracious in our success, paying forward our good fortunes, and cherishing our short time on this planet to make an impact as far as our reach extends. He lived a good life, and he knew it was a good life. Even as we grieve, we should celebrate that.

It is, as Spock would say, only logical. As Dr. McCoy once said, "He's not really dead as long as we remember him."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Marvel's Agent Carter outdoes AGENTS OF SHIELD at almost every turn

ABC has been experimenting with ways to keep the time slots of some of its biggest shows "warm" while those shows take necessary breaks during the season. This season it commissioned short runs of two series that briefly replaced returning shows. Once Upon a Time was briefly replaced by the musical fantasy show Galavant, and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a ridiculously, unnecessarily long title I will not be typing in full again) found its Tuesday berth occupied by Agent Carter for seven weeks.

I'll cut to the chase. If ABC wants to serve up 22 eps of Agent Carter next season and order only 8 episodes of SHIELD to act as a temporary relief pitcher, I'd have zero complaints with that. Seriously ABC, can we keep her? From where I sit, Agent Carter is the superior Marvel spinoff by far. With only five episodes having aired so far, the series has found its voice with incredible ease. There's barely been any shakedown period for the show and the writing staff (led by creators Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, and showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas) seems to have understood the kind of show they wanted to make from Day One.

Strangely, despite the fact it's set nearly over 60 years from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (save for its "parent," Captain America: The First Avenger), it feels much more like a part of that universe than SHIELD does. Part of this might be that Captain America did just that good a job of world-building. The 40s-era setting also makes the show visually distinctive on network TV. You won't find another series set in this era, and the production design and costuming teams deserve huge kudos for their part in making the show look gorgeous. There's a color and style that really makes the images pop, and helps match Captain America's aesthetic to boot.

(And let's also throw some love to the VFX team. The show's VFX Supervisor Sheena Duggal said last week on Twitter that, "We have over 1000 VFX across 8 EP's. That's crazy for network TVs limited budget." That it looks so good is a testament to their professionalism.)

SHIELD doesn't have that sort of visual continuity with the films. Nothing we've seen on the series really feels like an outgrowth of the SHIELD environs glimpsed in The Avengers, for one. Thus, we've gone from the really intricately-designed Helicarrier of the films to the cramped and relatively unadorned jet that our heroes use. Even when the show has utilized guest stars from the other movies, those characters have felt out of place, and it's difficult to associate them with their feature counterparts.

And then there's Agent Carter's best asset - Haley Atwell as the eponymous character. Peggy Carter doesn't take any shit, particularly since she was so vital to the war effort only to find herself treated as a mere secretary around her government office post-war. I think in a lesser actresses hands, Peggy's clashes against her sexist co-workers could come across as petulant. There's a fair amount of charm there, but even more significant is the confidence behind every action and statement.

A good example is a recent episode when she pushes to be sent on a mission to Russia. Her boss isn't keen on the idea, claiming the heat he'll get if "a woman" is killed is not something he wants to deal with. (There's also more than a subtle implication that he doesn't consider this spy craft to be "woman's work" at all, despite the fact Peggy is the one who earned this lead by cracking a Russian code where their male code-breakers have failed.) So Peggy trumps him, asking if his concerns would be allayed if the Howling Commandos were recruited to join them on the mission. He agrees, clearly not believing there's a snowball's chance in hell that the Commandos would do so. Peggy might as well be asking for McArthur himself to be part of this campaign. Peggy steps out of the room while the two male agents discuss business and re-enters not three minutes later saying she's already made the call and the Howling Commandos are in.

Bad. Ass. Honestly, that's almost a Tony Stark move there.

Notably, when Peggy is reunited with the Howling Commandos (whom she fought alongside during the war) they give her partner, Agent Thompson, some grief about not putting as much trust and respect in Peggy as these war buddies clearly do. It's a recurring theme in Agent Carter that Peggy is ridiculously undervalued despite being the most capable person in her office. There are usually several instances a show where we're reminded of the sexism of the time. I won't say it's not laid on a little thick at times. The show's treatment of this isn't subtle, but perhaps it's not inappropriate to the time. I've chosen to rationalize it as Carter's insistence on kicking in those doors has had the reaction of the men doubling down to compensate for her strength.

Since Peggy is seemingly so talented at every thing the show has thrown at her, there's obviously the risk that she could become a "Mary Sue." It's a fate that befell SHIELD's Skye last season, and one they only recently seem to have figured out how to dial back. The reason why Peggy's savant skills in everything from code-breaking to fighting in a skirt don't become ridiculous is that no matter what she does, no one EVER seems to give her credit for it. Even when her co-workers are aware of her feats, it doesn't earn her any respect or have them falling at her feet. It's a neat trick that keeps her as an underdog, despite being the best agent on her team by far.

If there's a weakness from this, it's that the net effect is that Peggy's co-workers still aren't terribly developed as characters. Gradually they're gaining distinction from each other, but week-to-week I sometimes have trouble even remembering their names. At the moment, they're mostly defined by their work relationships with Peggy, but since this is not an ensemble, it's not a fatal error. It's also an issue that's likely to be mitigated as her relationships with each of the men gains some depth. We're clearly on a path where she's going to win the respect of a few of these guys in different degrees, and that'll allow the writers to transform the knee-jerk sexism into something more.

This season has also benefited from having a very focused story through just eight episodes. It's a lot easier to tell one story in that time, using Carter as the main protagonist. If this arc was stretched out across 22 episodes, it would probably be more necessary to develop the supporting characters more. It takes a lot to fill up 22 hours of TV. SHIELD spent much of last season delaying progress in a number of its arcs, perhaps most frustratingly demonstrated when it came to addressing how Agent Coulson (killed in The Avengers) was alive and well there.

I felt the show made a misstep in dangling that mystery in front of the audience, but not giving Coulson or any of the characters much awareness of the mystery for nearly 10 episodes. Every few episodes we'd get a reminder that something wasn't right with Coulson, but no forward momentum. There was nothing driving that plot to a resolution for a while. Accurately or not, it felt like the writers were kicking that reveal down the road until after they could come up with an answer.

SHIELD's also stuck in a weird place where it appears the movies won't acknowledge Coulson's resurrection for fear of confusing the film-only audience. Thus, the writers are stuck adjusting to any large-universe changes from the films, but have to craft excuses that will keep the film characters from learning of Coulson's continued existence. That disconnect only furthers the estrangement between SHIELD and the movies. I like Clark Gregg as an actor, but I kind of wish SHIELD was built around a more dynamic character, and one who didn't bring so much awkward baggage with him. Coulson might have fared better as a supporting "Chief O'Brien" type character rather than the anchor of the ensemble.

In the match-up between Carter and Coulson, there's really no contest as to who's the most compelling lead. Agent Carter makes the very smart decision to give Peggy a private life, a "secret identity" if you will. The occasional scenes at the boarding house she shares with several other women adds some necessary tension. Not only are these people who don't know Peggy's more qualified than most male spies, but these are people who don't know she works for the government at all. Just as Alias was more interesting when there were people who didn't know Sydney was a spy, forcing her to maintain a double life, Agent Carter wrings a lot of life and humor out of Peggy's current residence. A series of mission after mission can run the risk of getting old fast, and it's nice that this aspect lets the writers do some world-building. I wish SHIELD offered similar opportunities for Coulson to let his own hair down.

I hesitate even offering this much criticism of SHIELD because I've never seen a fan base so defensive about criticism of their show. I've literally had people use the defense "It gets really good after 17 episodes!" While it's true that the show reached a turning point when it dealt with fallout from The Winter Soldier, it never reached the heights of Agent Carter. I stuck with it through the first season to give it a chance, and honestly, the only thing that lured me back for season two was the presence of Reed Diamond as the main antagonist. I'll concede the show's gotten better since its launch, but I think this is where I get off the ride.

One area where Agent Carter isn't coming out ahead of SHIELD is in the ratings. Carter has a season average of 1.59 in the coveted 18-49 ratings demographic, while SHIELD has a 1.7.  As I understand it, renewal isn't a certainty for Agent Carter, so if this sounds at all like the kind of show you'd like, I beg you to support it. There are only three episodes left, counting tonight's.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Five early '90s movies that would make great TV shows

This was a depressing TV development season for new ideas. Over 30 scripts that were bought were based on movies, all part of the latest trend of hedging bets by banking on a familiar title to grab the attention of an audience. If you're interested in a complete accounting of all of these projects that were purchased last fall, check out this Slashfilm ranking of the 31 properties that were being rebooted in one form or another:

A number of these just sound dubious on their face. The fact that the 1990 film Problem Child apparently has more value 25 years after its debut than a fresh idea would is just a kick in the balls to creative television. Look, I SAW Problem Child in theatres - TWICE. I was also ten, and let me tell you, you age out of that humor fast. (This is backed up by the grosses for the sequel, which only made half as much just a year later.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer will always be the rebuttal to a concern that a weak film can't make a good TV show... but is anyone really dying to see the further adventures of Junior?

Even in 1991, would this have been a good idea for a series? Hell, Uncle Buck (another property ordered to pilot) wasn't even a good idea for a series IN 1990!

I don't think all of these ideas are terrible (The Truman Show could be pretty interesting, and as a fan of Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce, I'm pulling for their Big limited series.) Still, looking at that slate, my heart goes out to the original ideas that were passed over in favor of Bachelor Party. It's really weird when a network is trying to adapt a show based on a film old enough to be in the desired ratings demographic.

Lest you think I'm picking on the film's age, after giving the matter some thought, I came up with five early nineties movies that might actually make for good TV series. So if you're looking to get a jump on the next development season, start tracking down who controls the rights to these:

Dave (1993) - A normal guy becomes the President. Yeah, you could go the single camera route with this, sort of a The West Wing meets Scrubs, but the real money probably comes from doing this as a three-camera sitcom. Cast it with Matthew Perry, Tim Meadows or Bill Hader. (My first pick would have been Stephen Colbert, but he's not going to be available.)

The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) - The only thing with more comic potential than sending a normal guy into the White House is sending a con-man there. I've always thought this Eddie Murphy movie was under-rated and had a lot of great bits buried in an admittedly-predictable plot and character arc. I don't think Congress has ever had a lower approval rating than in recent years, so why not embrace that with a sitcom that hangs a lantern on all the scum nursing at the government teat? So who can replace Eddie? I keep coming back to Neil Patrick Harris, who can play sleazy with just the right amount of class you'd want from a con-man. Or to go in a totally different direction - J. B. Smoove.

Sister Act (1992) - There's a ready-made story engine here - a lounge singer hides in witness protection as a nun, doing good deeds while trying to stay under the radar. It's case-of-the-week storytelling with a backgrounded mytharc. You could go the sitcom route with this, but maybe the more interesting way is to make it a Ryan Murphy-esque dramady. You can't do Sister Act without the singing nuns (which is one reason why Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit is a terrible film), and with them interpreting classic hits anew each week, you've got a ready-made iTunes cross-promotion. All of this adds up to it being a good fit for Fox. My picks for Sister Mary Clarence? You need someone who can sing, so if you're drafting from GLEE: Naya Rivera. I also really like the idea of Jane Krakowski, but I feel like there's a really good option I'm not thinking of.

Guarding Tess (1994) - A Secret Service agent has to guard a widowed First Lady who's beloved by the country but a total pain in the ass. It's another one that could completely adapt to the three-camera format. It's fairly easy to confine most of the action to the First Lady's estate, and when you're making a film where the lead was played by Nicholas Cage, using a format that encourages "bigger" acting isn't bad. I'm seeing Carrie Fisher as the First Lady, with Jason Segel as the beleaguered Secret Service Agent.

King Ralph (1991) - A boorish American turns out to be the last heir to the British Royal family. Culture-clash makes for a great engine for comedy. I say get John Goodman to reprise his role, perhaps with Ioan Gruffudd as the British Prime Minister who regularly butts heads with him. not for network TV, but would fit great on Amazon.