television reviews

I Myself Can Not: Buffet Froid

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(in which Jason and Kate attempt to hold a weekly discussion about NBC’s Hannibal in spite of Jason’s insistence on leaving home for weeks at a time)

JASON: Let’s take a moment to celebrate the fact that, after leaving us all in the lurch for several weeks, NBC renewed Hannibal for a second season.

Hooray!

Now, let’s get back to “Buffet Froid,” an episode I found to be mostly effective but slightly troubling.

First, what I liked: almost everything. The opening sequence where Beth LeBeau is stalked and eventually killed by Georgia Madchen was creepy in a traditional horror-movie way that the show usually doesn’t get into, but man, did it work. That first scene proved that if Hannibal wanted to be a more traditional, killer-of-the-week, Criminal Minds-esque procedural, it would be the most stylish one out there.

Fortunately for us, that’s not what the show is. Can you imagine any other serial-killer-hunting show that would go so far out of its way to undermine the main character? Will’s blackouts are getting to a dangerous point now, where he’s almost convinced that he’s going to murder someone while he’s under. But this episode found a new way to demonstrate how unreliable Will is: the clock. When Hannibal asks Will to draw that clock, we see it the way Will does, as a normal (if hastily drawn) clock. But when Hannibal gets a hold of it, he sees it as it actually is, a messy scribble that displays a lack of spatial awareness. The blackouts tell us that Will doesn’t see everything, but that little scene with the clock tells us that even if Will sees something, it might not be true.

Then again, maybe the scene with the clock was only there to set up Will’s newly-discovered illness, which I’m uneasy about. It’s nice that the writers have an explanation for Will’s craziness besides “he saw some messed-up stuff and now he’s messed-up, too,” but it feels like kind of a cheat, too. One of the most obvious themes in the show–and the justification for all of the over-the-top violence–was the weight of Will’s ability, and the fact that it brings him dangerously close to the people he’s trying to catch. But now what I thought were the effects of that weight are just the symptoms of an inflamed brain.

Still, I respect the decision to bring a little more realism into the show, and it actually works nicely with my still-developing theory about the show’s major theme: the separateness of the mind and body. Short version: the way Hannibal barrages the viewer with images of the human body as an object are meant to amplify and connect to the central horror of the show, which is that one of the main characters eats people. On the furthest edge of this theory is the idea that the show is taking us through the proces that Hannibal himself went through, bringing us intellectually, if not emotionally (or so I hope!) to the conclusion that the human body is nothing more than meat.

In this episode, Doctors Lecter and Sutcliffe emphasize a distinction between the “brain” and the “mind,” and while we discover that Will’s problem is actually in his brain, Will himself still thinks the issue is psychological. I may be reaching here, but I think this actually furthers the separation between Will’s body and his mind, because his mind believes something is wrong with itself, with the real issue is his body.

Take it away, Kate! Please, before I disappear completely into my own navel-gazing. Oh, and if you’re taking requests: what do Dr. Lecter’s actions in this episode tell us about his relationship with Will? Does it reveal his true feelings, or has nothing really changed?

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KATE: I’m on the fence about Hannibal’s plot line this week. Actually, I’m all over the place about it. In terms of the show’s development and the character arcs, I thought this was a fabulous episode. Hannibal’s decision to lie to Will, therefore putting his life in danger seemed par for the course. After all, Hannibal’s relationship with Will is essentially about curiosity and psychoanalysis. He may like Will on a personal level, but why would that stop him from using Will as a lab rat? Hardly. He is a literal sociopath. He may be romancing Dr. Bloom over wine and dinner in one episode, but it’s not going to stop him from knocking her unconscious in another. Let’s not forget that Hannibal knows who Buffalo Bill is throughout the entirety ofSilence of the Lambs, but refuses to let Clarice know the identity, simply because he likes watching her grapple with his riddles. He’s kind of a jerk like that. There’s a similar development going on here. While encephalitis is hardly the same thing as being stalked in a basement, it does speak to Hannibal’s motives regarding those he cares for.

Then there’s his decision to kill Dr. Sutcliffe. Did he do it because he found Dr. Sutcliffe morally repugnant? The man did agree to keep a serious medical diagnosis from his patient just because Hannibal told him to. Did he do it to protect Georgia or draw her out of hiding? Probably not. Did he do it to keep Will’s condition to himself? I’m most inclined to go with theory. Hannibal needed a neurologist to confirm Will’s condition and found himself backed into a corner. He either has to kill Dr. Sutcliffe or be stuck with him in some sort of secret pact for the rest of time. To me, this only underscores Hannibal’s connection to Abigail Hobbes. He’s in a similar scenario where she is concerned, but goes out of his way to keep her safe. He helps her to conceal all of the skeletons in her closet, but no one can really understand why.

All of this is essentially to admit that I can’t say why Hannibal does what he does. Much like the serial killer showdown from a few episodes ago, it doesn’t have to make sense as long as it showcases Hannibal in a weird rubber suit.

Also, can we talk about how Hannibal can sniff illness? Or that he was a playboy in medical school? Why isn’t that show on TV?

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JASON: Be patient, Kate. If this show stays on the air for a few more seasons, I bet we’ll end up with a Spartacus-style prequel season, which will hopefully focus on Hannibal as a med-school playboy and ignore the part where he lives with his Japanese aunt while hunting his sister’s killers… although the latter sounds more like a tv show that might actually get made. Oh, I’m sad, now.

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I Myself Can Not: “Trou Normand”

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(in which Jason and Kate review NBC’s Hannibal and try to go more than a paragraph without mentioning Tumblr)

JASON: Whether it’s because of my writing style or because I publish these reviews on a website with my name in it, you’ve probably realized by now that I’m not an actual critic. I like to think that I know a little bit more about film and television than the average viewer, but no one has ever paid me to talk about them, so officially, I’m just an interested amateur. So, when I watch a show, I don’t always do so as a professional, meaning that I don’t engage with the program on a very high level. All this is to say that “Trou Normand” is the first episode of Hannibal that I’ve watched with my “critic hat” on at all times.

Or maybe I just feel that way because the thematic stuff was right up in your face this week. One thing I like about this show’s killer-of-the-week format is that the killer is never the point. Sometimes, Will just figures out who the killer is and they track him down without any trouble–in one episode, the guy just hanged himself. Last week was an exception: Tobias was clearly the focus of the plot, and Will and Hannibal’s developing relationship just hung off of it. In an episode like “Trou Normand,” the serial-killer plot is pure thematic fodder, a smaller story about a father that echoes the larger story of Will and Hannibal’s relationship to Abigail.

Like I said, the parallels aren’t that subtle, but no one calls them out, either. Hannibal explicitly tells Will that they are now Abigail’s surrogate fathers, but he doesn’t say, “I mean, we can at least be better fathers than that guy who killed his son, am I right? Eh? I eat people.” Or whatever he would say. I can’t do it, but you know.

Okay, I’ll just say it: the deft use of parallel plot points, along with the long-form storytelling and attention to character detail, makes Hannibal the Mad Men of serial-killer shows.

What say you to that, Kate? WHAT SAY YOU?

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KATE: Whoa, whoa, whoa…okay, sure. That parallel kind of works and I can’t explicitly argue against it; however, I don’t know if it matches up. For one thing, we’ve only seen one season of HannibalMad Men has been consistently subtle and engaging for six seasons. Hannibal has only made it through half of one. Any number of television shows can manage to pull off a great first season before muddling off into Crazy Town (Lost, Nip/Tuck) while any number of others have subpar first seasons before becoming something great (Parks and Recreation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Not that I doubt Hannibal. If it manages to be renewed (looking at you, NBC) I think it has a great run ahead of itself, as long as it doesn’t stray into Hannibal Rising territory.

Speaking of Hannibal Rising, let’s talk Mischa and Abigail. Mischa, as I’ve mentioned in earlier reviews, is the younger sister of Hannibal, introduced in Hannibal Rising. Her demise (on the part of flesh eating Nazis) is also the apparent source of Hannibal’s cannibalism, although in this more modern interpretation, that’s up for debate. I have to wonder when or if the show will attempt to explain his cannibalism. They can only do better than the source material, but they would need to come up with something better than a chewed up version of Godwin’s Law. As flawless as Mads Mikkelson looks, I can’t in good faith believe he’s secretly 70 years old. So why do I bring it up in the first place? Well, there’s a ton of parallels between Mischa and Abigail.

Mischa is Hannibal’s younger sister. After the death of their parents, Hannibal feels an understanding amount of responsibility for her well being. This is ultimately undone when she is eaten in front of his eyes and he is forced to watch, unable to help her. So, he becomes the Hannibal of Red Dragon fame. Hannibal, in the television show, has an odd fascination with Abigail. He helps her to dispose of a body, he agrees to keep her role in the Shrike case a secret and decides to enlist Will in all of it. But why? It makes sense for Will to have an odd fascination with Abigail. This is the man who adopts any stray dog he comes across, let alone a vulnerable teenager with a cannibalistic psychopath for a father. He shot her father, ergo he feels a sense of responsibility to her. But Hannibal? What does he see in Abigail that he feels the need to endanger himself so boldly? 

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JASON: Now, the Mischa thing is interesting: the way I understand it, Bryan Fuller and his cronies only have the rights to the characters in Red Dragon... but anyone who’s read Hannibal has got to be thinking about Mischa whenever Abigail shows up. When “Trou Normand” went all greyscale at the end, I honestly thought for a second that we were flashing back to a scene of young Hannibal and his sister, which proves that for all my talk of parallels and motifs, I am actually a moron who doesn’t understand how television works. As long as we’re (tangentially) on the subject of Mad Men: when Peggy left SCDP last season, I spent a full week trying to convince everyone that she was leaving the show for good. Like I said: moron.

If we operate under the assumption that Mischa doesn’t exist in this universe–and we have no reason not to–then Hannibal’s feelings for Abigail are pure mystery, which I think is the intention. My guess? Hannibal is intrigued by her semi-latent murderous impulses, and not just in a clinical way. I have no doubt that most of Dr. Lecter’s actions are fueled by curiosity, completely removed from all human emotions, but when you consider his relationship with Will and Abigail, it looks to me like Hannibal is trying to build a family. He’s doing it in a pretty horrific way, of  course: identifying people with severe mental disorders and manipulating them into trusting him. But given that this version of Lecter was also an orphan, it stands to reason that he might want to form a makeshift family… even if it’s only as an experiment.

There’s a line from episode four that I keep going back to. It comes during a session between Hannibal and Will, in a scene so important it was included in the cut-up “webisodes” version. In it, Hannibal is questioning Will about his parents, and Will says “There’s something so unnatural about family. Like an ill-fitting suit.” I’m starting to think that “family” is a major theme of this season, since it’s so tied-in with Abigail and her struggles. Let’s not forget that Will keeps his own canine surrogate family at his home. What do you think, Kate? Am I grasping at straws, here? It’s hard to make these sort of declarations about theme when you’re barely 2/3rds through the season, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.

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KATE: Wait, you really thought they were going to write Elisabeth Moss off the show? You fool! As the show goes on, I’m becoming more and more convinced that Peggy is the show’s protagonist. She’s certainly more developed and likeable than Don, at any rate. I also should admit here I have the worst kind of fan crush on Peggy Olson, so don’t pay attention to me.

Anyway, back to Hannibal. I don’t think the theme of family is a stretch at all. It’s right up there with the complexity of the human mind and what motivates actions versus merely thinking about them. The idea of family as presented on the show, either as an ill fitting suit or what we make ourselves, is all over this show. After all, Garrett Jacob Hobbes killed young women bearing a resemblance to his daughter so he wouldn’t have to kill her, Hannibal is busily assembling his own idea of family with all the strays he’s picked up and Jack is increasingly haunted by his failure to save his wife or his surrogate daughter. I do think, however, that Hannibal’s apparent fondness for Abigail and Will is equally motivated by curiosity and…well, fondness, in so far as Hannibal can feel it. He’s curious about mankind on the whole but when he meets someone who strikes him as clever or talented, he is right in the middle of it. There’s a reason so many fanfiction writers out there write about Hannibal and Clarice Starling. Actually, I can only assume that they’re out there.  Having never read any of it, save the unfortunately canonical Hannibal, in which Clarice and Hannibal run off to Buenos Aires together, I can only assume there’s far worse. This is the internet we’re talking about, after all. At any rate, Hannibal is extremely rich in symbolism, like we’ve pointed out before. Some of it is bound to be less or more intriguing as the season progresses.

Do we even want to delve into the Dr. Bloom/Will romantic subplot? I found her rejection speech to Will a little strange and lacking motivation. Was he ever trying to just sleep with her? I never got the vibe. It was more of a desperate grasping at straws, part of the general “Will be crazy” character motivation they keep pushing. I’d like to think that their little chat would stop this from continuing as a plot development, but I’d just be lying to myself. Tumblr won’t let anything die, let alone an on screen kiss.

JASON: I just realized that we haven’t mentioned the fact that Lance “Frank Black” Henriksen made a cameo appearance in this episode! I was hoping we’d get a full-on MilleniuM reference and Henriksen would play Will’s mentor who taught him the ways of criminal profiling… but instead he was just the killer of the week. Oh, well.

I Myself Can Not: “Amuse-Bouche”

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(in which Jason and Kate, two old friends with a single shared copy of Hannibal Rising, discuss NBC’s new Hannibal series)

JASON:  “Amuse-Bouche” is a step down from the pilot of Hannibal, which is not all that surprising. Last week’s episode was quiet, unsettling, and more interested in setting the mood than with storytelling. We spent so much time in Will Graham’s head that there wasn’t room for much else. This week, we trade off some of that psychological intensity for the standard tv-show business of setting up plot-lines and introducing characters. Instead of focusing on Will Graham, Hannibal turns its lens on the supporting cast, and while it’s not as effectively creepy as the first hour, I liked what we saw. Laurence Fishburne is still great, as is Mads Mikkelsen… and of course, we met a new series regular this week, one that sent my fan-service alarms a-ringing before she even spoke her first line: Freddie Lounds.

Freddie Lounds. Everything about that makes me happy. In case anyone’s forgotten, Freddy Lounds was the scumbag reporter from Red Dragon who causes trouble for the heroes and then gets dispatched in the most quotable sequence in the book. And in the 2002 film, he was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. What’s not to love? But in Hannibal, Lounds is a scumbag blogger/tabloid journalist who has already caused just as much trouble as her male counterpart. Yeah! She’s a girl! They pulled a Rule 63 on us, Kate! I guess once Jack Crawford showed up much blacker than I remembered, all bets were off, but this is still a welcome surprise. Gender-swapping is one of my favorite cheap ways to twist a character, and the writers are already making good use of it–Lounds plays off preconceived notions of female vulnerability in this episode’s murder scene, and it’s implied that she seduced that one FBI agent, if not countless others.

The fact that this version of Lounds is an internet journalist–truly, they are the wretched of the earth–really drives home that this is a re-imagining, not a prequel. As does the fact that she’s a she and Crawford is played byCowboy Curtis. The ‘Hannibal’ series, because of its nature and how contemporary it is, doesn’t strike me as something that will be radically altered by the introduction of modern technology, though it does add a nice wrinkle to this episode’s climax when the killer reads a blog post and is able to get the jump on our heroes. This also reminds me of Bates Motel, another currently-airing re-imagining of a classic series. Unlike Hannibal, Bates Motel is transplanting a classic horror story from the early 60’s, so the introduction of cell phones and raves feels awkward and distracting. And unlike Bates Motel, Hannibal doesn’t feel completely pointless.

Take it away, Kate! Also: I just realized that not only did I never read Hannibal Rising, I never saw the movie, either. Did you?

KATE: I have read the book but I never got around to seeing the movie. Be thankful I read it for the both of us, Jason. It was so obviously a vanity project, designed to tell the story no one wanted to hear, except Thomas Harris, apparently. Not only was it a prequel, it was also an origin story for Hannibal’s cannibalism, which no one needed or asked for. Part of Hannibal’s innate creepiness is that you don’t know much about him. He’s one of America’s top psychiatrists, so you know that he’s smart and good at what he does. He’s classy and prefers the finer things in life, but he consumes human flesh, which is completely barbaric. Ugh. Furthermore, the explanation for Hannibal’s penchant for human flesh isn’t even that good. He was traumatized by Nazis. Yeah. That’s it. But I’m not here to talk about Hannibal Rising, so let’s leave that in the past (where it belongs) and move on to other, better origin stories.

The recasting of Freddie Lounds as a lady is actually a good choice. Like you said, she’s much more deplorable this way, simply because she uses her femininity to be even sleazier than your average tabloid journalist. She lies to law enforcement, she sleeps with cops to get what she wants and she fakes identities to get information. It did seem odd to me that Hannibal let her leave his office with the recording. Did he really think he could trust her? She’s someone so notorious she’s on the FBI’s radar. (And Hannibal’s, apparently, because he identified her almost immediately.) There has to be a reason she’s so interested in Will Graham, the current toast of Quantico. Eh. It’s obviously for sheer plot development. She has to release the interview so Creepy McPharmacist will find Will, etc, etc…anyway, it was all worth it to hear Mads Mikkelson purr how naughty she’d been. It was beyond creepy…and also threatening. We all know (well, Jason and I do, anyway) how she’s gonna end up.

I haven’t seen Bates Motel, nor do I care to, so I cannot comment on the use of technology. But I have seen weird mushroom corpse gardens, so…Jason, what are your thoughts on that particular storyline? It does seem like they will be having a “killer of the week” thing. Are you hopeful or afraid?

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JASON: If I’m afraid of anything, it’s that mushroom corpse garden. Maybe it’s because body horror is one of my biggest weak points, but that plotline gave me the full-on heebie-jeebies, from the reveal of corpses–the way each hand stuck out at the same angle and the camera just kept pulling back to reveal more–to that one jump scare that was directly lifted from Se7en. Whether it was an homage or a rip-off, it definitely freaked me out: is this how people felt when they saw the ‘Sloth’ scene for the first time?

Seriously, though, the focus this week on a new serial killer worried me a bit. There was bound to be some killer-of-the-week element, since it’s almost impossible to sell a new series if it’s not a procedural, but I’m still holding out hope that we’re not going to follow the same pattern every week. It’s the most boring route this series could go down, although if they keep up the good character work, I’ll be more forgiving. And as I said, this week’s killer was unnerving in a way that I don’t usually find stuff on television unnerving… but that could work against the series, too. The whole “mushroom garden” thing was bizarre and unsettling, but if Hannibal starts pulling out a super-crazy-gimmick-killer every week, the writers might try to top themselves every week and end up shooting past ‘over-the-top’ and straight into the realm of American Horror Story.

But the ‘Hannibal’ series has always hovered between realism and pure fantasy. Buffalo Bill–a killer who keeps his victims trapped in a well in his basement and then skins them to make a suit–feels like the kind of maniac you might hear about on CNN, but just barely. If you tweak just a few elements of the story, it swerves into Gothic-esque, B-movie territory… which is exactly what happened in the sequel, where the antagonist was a super-villain who kept a pen of wild boars and collected tears from the children he molested. I’m hoping that Hannibal the show never gets as outright ugly and gross as Hannibal the novel/movie, but Bryan Fuller wants to bring the fantastical, Gothic elements of the series to the surface, and he’s done a fine job so far. That room full of antlers was way more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than anything from Harris’s books, but it worked, and I’m still loving that bird-stag hallucination. Even when it shows up in this episode as part of an incredibly obvious dream sequence–oh, the Hobbs case is leading Will into the darkness–I’m on-board, because most shows wouldn’t even attempt such a blatant visual metaphor, and even fewer would pull it off as well as Hannibal.

Speaking of Will’s descent into madness, how great were those conversations between him and Dr. Lecter?

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KATE:  Oh, those scenes were wonderful, although I could do without Will’s survivor’s guilt. Similarly, I’m not a fan of him creeping around the hospital after Hobbes’ daughter. It feels like wasted space and story, although she’ll be a plot point in next week’s episode. Anyway, at this point I’ll take any scene that occurs in Hannibal’s office. That set design alone is…man, did you see that couch? The red walls? I love it. The costumes leave a little bit to be desired, though. Does anyone else picture Dr. Lecter not dressing like he’s a 70s game show host? Cause I do.

Next week’s preview seems to suggest that there will be a different killer every week. I guess it’s a natural growing pain of the show. After all, they can’t justify keeping Will around without something to investigate. Like you said, doing with that would mean they’d have to raise the stakes every week or introduce some weird special effects to keep the audience guessing. After two episodes, I’m starting to wish they had followed the path of season one of True Blood, which involved a single unseen killer terrorizing the town until the final reveal in the season finale. Frankly, it’s just hard for me to believe there are so many twisted, unique serial killers out there, especially when you consider how frequently they’re occurring. Again, this is a problem with most of the Hannibal books. There has to be something for Will or Clarice or Hannibal to investigate, but the audience won’t want to invest time if it’s a routine murder/suicide. You have to raise the stakes to making a woman suit (strangely, I buy it) to eating a still living brain of your nemesis to Nazis being…well, Nazis. Actually, Hannibal Rising didn’t really raise the stakes at all, which may be why it was so very awful.

Speaking of the mushroom garden, yes, that reaction shot was totally lifted from Se7en. I like to think that The Walking Dead has given network television the ability to pawn more gore on the audience and have it play off as acceptable. This show airs at 10 pm, which is a point in its favor. Hell, that’s half the reason Nip/Tuck got away with so much plastic surgery montages. At any rate, Hannibal continues to be a visually striking show. The shot of the last victim being ungagged will stay with me for awhile. Jason, we’re on the same page about body horror. Forever and always.

Continuum, “End Time”

In this article that went up nearly a year ago, right when Continuum premiered in Canada, Simon Barry is supposed to be selling the show. I mean, in a story like this, we hopefully get some insight into the creative process, but Barry is the creator of the show, it’s about to premiere, and part of his job is to make us want to watch it. I didn’t read this interview until last week, but in six sentences, Barry did the opposite of what he was supposed to do: he made me care less.

We made a conscious decision, early on, that our characters are not in control of what’s happening to them. They’re basically pawns. One of the things that’s different from other time-travel shows is that none of our main characters are controlling the process, or designed the process. These characters are part of somebody else’s plan. So the mystery of whether or not they are changing time will remain open until the end of the show. When we do our last episode, that will be part of the reveal.

So, to recap: Continuum doesn’t know how to do stand-alone episodes, and the series creator just single-handedly sapped all the tension out of the over-arching plot. Is there any reason to watch this show? I guess we can look forward to that “reveal” in the last episode, but I don’t want to wait an unknown number of years and slog through countless half-baked hours of procedural just to find out whether any of this matters.

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Oh no! Kagame carried out his plan to change the past! By… fulfilling it. Wait, what?

Barry’s comments, along with the events of the season finale, reinforce the idea that the plot of Continuum is a Stable Time Loop, a la Twelve Monkeys. “End Time” even throws in a Brad Pitt-esque crazy guy who turns out to be way less significant than he first appears to be. Here’s the thing: Twelve Monkeys is great, and yes, part of that greatness is the circular ending, which reveals that the hero’s efforts were preordained to fail. But—please don’t make me say this, Mr. Barry—Twelve Monkeys is a movie and movies don’t work the same way as television shows. Also, Simon Barry is no Terry Gilliam, but I don’t think anyone, least of all Simon Barry, is going to fight me on that.

“End Time” does its best to impress us, though, throwing out tons of plot points and new mysteries. There’s Jason the technician, who has a lot to say about the event that sent Kiera and the terrorists back in time. There’s the mysterious Mr. Escher, who helps Kiera out of a jam. There’s something about ‘The Privateers’, another group of time-travellers we still haven’t met. All of this stuff sounds interesting, but I’m just not confident that Continuum is smart enough to make it work. Within this episode, the script seems to be confused about Jason—he got sent to an asylum because he said he was from the future, but he clearly was from the future, so why does the show present it as a sad inevitability when his “time machine” is just a collection of crazy-person clichés?

As long as I’m nit-picking: it really doesn’t take much to talk Julien into a suicide mission, does it? I can buy that Julien would be young and angry enough to get confused about what happened at his father’s farm, but the show itself doesn’t seem to realize that the group Julien should be mad at is the government, not “corporations.” Unless I missed something where this version of Toronto has privatized law enforcement, the “they” that Julien is fighting against should be the exact opposite of who Liber8 is opposing.

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This isn’t so much a “nit-pick” as it is a “major inconsistency”.

Continuum could still work if I cared about the characters, and “End Time” reminds us that, yes, there are characters somewhere in there that we could perhaps learn to care about. The members of Liber8 feel more like actual people than they have since Kagame got back. The show even returns to the plot thread of Travis’s contentious relationship with Kagame, and Sonya’s split loyalties between the two. Even the blonde girl gets some characterization, even if she’s just trying to freak out Alec… for no discernible reason. Hey, it’s something.

Kiera, though… the show is in a jam with Kiera, because her greatest goal—to return to her family—means the end of the show if she ever accomplishes it. So we can’t get too invested in her mission because we know it’s never going to happen. Hell, if the show is good enough, then we don’t want it to happen because that means the end. While Kiera has show some personality now and then, it’s not enough to make me want to hang out with her. I hope that season 2 brings her closer to Kellog and Alec—and hey, let’s throw Carlos in there, too—because she’s much more interesting when she’s bouncing off her allies.

And speaking of Season 2, there’s that cliffhanger to address, and I have a confession to make. As the episode wound down and we got right up to the edge of discovering the message Future-Alec sent to Past-Alec, I tensed up. I wanted to know what Future-Alec’s plan was, and I groaned when the episode ended before I could find out. In short: I cared. I still do care! Or at least I’m curious, which says more about how much time I’ve invested in this show than it’s actual quality.

So, ten episodes later, where am I? Curious enough to keep watching,  but not hopeful enough to think it’s going anywhere good. I’ll tune in whenever the second season premieres, and if I have anything to say, I’ll let you know… but don’t count on it.

Other Thoughts:

  • This is the first full season of a show I’ve ever written about episode-to-episode. There were some bumpy parts—like the fact that I got about week off schedule here at the end—but I’d like to think I learned something about how to write about television. If you read any of these reviews… thanks, I guess? Or… sorry?
  • This might be my last chance to say it, so: the gimmick of using the word “time” in the title of every episode is really, really stupid, like Friends-level stupid. It wouldn’t be that bad if the titles made sense, but most of the time, they really don’t. Like this week’s: “End Time.” It’s not the end-times. It’s the end of the season, but that doesn’t count. And the pilot is called “A Stitch in Time” for no discernible reason. Whatever, Continuum. See you this summer, ya jerk.

Continuum, “Family Time”

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This can only end well for everyone involved.

“Family Time” is a well-plotted episode of Continuum that reveals just how sloppily written the show is most of the time. To put it another way, it’s an episode so good that it makes most of this season look terrible in comparison, and it’s not even that good.

The story-structure of Continuum, on a macro level and an episode-by-episode basis, has been shoddy since episode three. The first two episodes (which were originally filmed as a single two-hour pilot) set up the overarching plot in an effective way, but as soon as the show really got down to business and started telling new stories every week, things went south. “Wasting Time,” if you’ll recall, opens with intimations of a murder mystery that turns out to be anything but mysterious, hinges on an unexplained illness that one of the villains contracted off-screen, and ends up in a place that seems totally disconnected from where it began. Aside from the jarring effect of seeing Travis laid up without much reason, the episode flowed well enough that you didn’t notice what was happening, but a simple glance backwards from the end reveals little coherence.

Lack of coherence was also the problem with “The Politics of Time,” or as I prefer to think of it, “The Ninja Episode.” Obviously, I don’t hate ninjas on principle—I’m a red-blooded American man, I can get down with a ninja or two—but the fact that a shadowy martial arts warrior popped up in the climax of an episode about backroom political deals demonstrates how bad the writers are at crafting stand-alone episodes. Early on, these sort of mis-steps are forgivable, easily written off as a show “finding its voice.” Continuum is still relatively young, with only nine episodes, but due to its awkward ten-episode season, those nine episodes are nearly the show’s entire first year. It’s hard to come back from a bad first season. It’s been done before, but not often.

In “Family Time,” the show’s creators utilized some restraint that helped them out immensely: aside from a few cutaway shots, 95% of this episode takes place on the farm where Alec’s family lives. It turns out that Alec’s stepbrother Julien and his anti-corporation friends have a bomb they plan to use to start their revolution. When Kiera and Carlos discover the plan, guns come out on both sides, a few shots are fired, and before you know it, we’re steeped in a classic hostage crisis/face-off-with-the-authorities story.

By building the episode around a Dog Day Afternoon-esque storyline, the writers give themselves a solid structure that they manage not to completely ruin. They can’t craft a murder investigation to save their lives, but they’ve got escalation beats of this kind of story down pat. Alec reveals to Kiera that he keeps a gun in his office and—paging Dr. Checkov—that gun ends up as a major part of the plot. And unlike episodes like “Politics of Time” or “Time’s Up,” where Kiera is one step behind her enemy the whole way through, our hero actually accomplishes her goal in this episode: she stops the bomb from going off. I was let down that we didn’t get another big explosion, but the fact that we got some legitimate dramatic payoff for once more than made up for it.

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The official photo galleries for the past two episode have each included a shot of Kiera lying prone on the ground. This is not good. 

It helps that they feed into this basic story structure several long-developing plotlines, like Kiera’s damaged suit and Julien’s quietly seething rebellion. I know I’m something of a broken record with these continuity issues, but this show is at its best when it moves the overarching plot forward. The premise of this show is interesting, and the writers would do well not to ignore it.

“Family Time” keeps Liber8 in the background, but they do pop up for a couple of scenes. In one, Kagame watches the events on the farm unfold with great interest. We don’t know exactly why he cares so much, only that whatever is happening is fundamental to the creation of Liber8 and to his own personal evolution. This scene is placed right before the climax (where things really hit the fan and Julien’s dad ends up dead), and it adds a layer of suspense that wouldn’t be possible in a show where half the cast isn’t from the future.

What else? Oh, yeah, Kiera and Kellog sleep together. Maybe. I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I had something very stupid spoiled for me during a Google search, and this is what I was talking about. I found out later that the spoiler-ific page I saw was actually a forum post, but that’s beside the point. I don’t feel the same anger and betrayal that this person felt about Kiera and Kellog hooking up; if anything, I’m pleased to find that Kiera and Carlos are going to continue being just friends.

Kellog presents a reasonable argument to Kiera about why they should be together: he’s the only person she can really open up to about what she’s going through, and the odds are that her husband and son don’t exist now anyway. It’s not an outrageous plot point—if it actually happens, and again, I’m not certain that it does—but it does seem a little pointless. I want to say that it’ll probably end up being a major part of Kiera’s series-long arc, but the lumpy, inconsistent first season we’ve gotten so far gives me little faith that the writers have any long-term plans… or, at least, any that I care to stick around and watch.

 

  • This week, I stumbled upon a news story released when Continuum premiered in Canada in May of last year, featuring some choice quotes from creator Simon Barry. Some of them are humorous—he directly addresses the similarities with Alcatraz—and some of them are… disheartening. I’ll talk more about it next time, but for now, you might want to take a look for yourself.
  • Part of the problem is that Continuum is stuck at season length halfway between American television (usually closer to sixteen or twenty episodes, gives a show more time to figure itself out) and British television (one season is usually only six episodes, just long enough to tell one good story and get out).
  • The flashback in this episode makes it seem that Kellog was only guilty of trying to help out his sister and got himself arrested before he could even become a full-fledged member of Liber8. Not only does this swing his alignment way too far in the direction of ‘heroic’, it doesn’t make any sense: if Kellog was arrested at that point, how did he become such close friends with Lucas? How was even considered a ‘terrorist?’ Does anyone on this show’s writing staff know what anyone else is doing?

Continuum, “Playtime”

As this episode began, I decided to take it easy on Continuum. If the show wants to step away from the overarching plot sometimes and serve up a self-contained episode, that’s okay. It may not be the show I wanted, but it can still be an entertaining show. If that’s what the writers want it to be, it’s a waste of time for me to whine whenever an episode doesn’t live up to “A Test of Time”… and it was getting pretty dull writing the same thing every week, anyway.

So I was all set to like this episode, even as it opened with a series of scenes setting up a murder mystery involving two murder-suicides and futuristic mind control. But I got a little anxious when it was revealed that the murderers were both beta testers at a video game company called Tendyne. Whenever a crime procedural sticks its toe into some aspect of “nerd culture,” everyone usually comes away looking desperate and stupid. See: the “First Person Shooter” episode of the X-Files, or CSI’s infamous “Fur and Loathing.”

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Yeah, not a good look. 

Before we go any further: I’m not the kind of person who feels the need to defend “nerd culture”—which shouldn’t even be a thing, but that’s an argument for another time—but I am close enough to that subculture to feel highly embarrassed whenever it gets reduced to a series of buzzwords or blamed for all of society’s ills. “Playtime” is guilty on both counts, but considering how stupid the whole “mind-controlling-video-game” plot-line is, I think everyone involved did the best tehy could.

The buzzwords are especially heinous. Oh, man. Every time we cut back to that plotline, it gets worse. I was happy to see Betty getting some characterization, but that joy was undercut whenever she spouted off about an “FPS with SLG elements” or her friends in “the hacker world.” It’s not that she even says anything inaccurate, it just hurts my ears to hear those terms thrown around. It doesn’t get bad until Betty explains the underground market for an energy drink that gamers are addicted to, and it doesn’t get REALLY BAD until, in one scene, we find out that one of the murderers was a furry and also hear the following exchange:

“It’s like Virtual LARPing!”

“We prefer to call it Cyber-LARPing.”

I want to give the writers the benefit of the doubt. The twinge of horror I felt at that exchange may have less do to with the quality of the writing and more to do with some deep-seated insecurities from my years spent identifying as a “nerd.” Hell, the game they’re talking about could actually be descripted as “cyber-LARPing” if that phrase wasn’t just an absolute cluster of pseudo-relevant slang. But I’m less inclined to go easy on an episode that ends with Kiera being turned into a mindless pawn of the villains because she played a video game… although the image of Alec strapping on a Virtual Boy headset and diving into Tendyne’s “game codes” was funny enough to almost make up for it.

At least Liber8 was actually a presence in this episode. Even though they weren’t behind the original murders, they did strike a deal with the real killer—spoilers, it was the chief programmer of the game, a.k.a. the only guy who could possibly have done it—to help them attack Kiera, which is what I was begging for last week. Having the villains actually BE the villains gave this muddled episode a jolt of life towards the end: when Liber8 finally gets control of Kiera’s mind and sends her on a murder spree, intended to wipe out her partner and herself, the sequence that follows is nicely tense. Sure, it’s lame that the climax of the episode completely removes Kiera’s agency and reduces the main character to a literal pawn, but at least it has your attention.

The writers squander that, too, though. As soon as Kiera shoots the programmer and attacks Carlos, all sorts of questions start flying: how will they stop her? What will happen to Kiera once she’s free? Will she still be able to work with the police department? Will she be wanted for attempted murder? Will Kiera go on the run, ditching Carlos and the rest of the law enforcement cast, a group of characters that rival the Miami Metro on Dexter in terms of irrelevancy?

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Ladies and gentlemen, the savior of humanity.

The answers: easily, nothing, yes, nope, and nooooooo way. Once Kiera has her mind restored, everyone immediately accepts that her will was overridden by an evil programmer, including the chief of police, whose only requirement for his continued cooperation is that Kiera see “a specialist.” Not even a specialist within the department, she can just go for a check-up with any doctor she knows. Since she chooses Alec, I assume that no one’s even going to talk to the doctor afterwards.

If Continuum wants to devote half a season to single-episode cases that are mostly unrelated to the main plot, that’s fine. Everything doesn’t have to be 100% serialized, I can accept that. But the writers need to at least give us cases that follow-through on what they set up, and don’t lean on ridiculous green-screen “Virtual Reality” sequences or ninjas or whatever stupid plot point stinks up the episode next week.

 

  • One promising development this week: Liber8 finds out that Alec is helping Kiera. I did not expect that, and it does not bode well for Alec.
  • I’m sure I’ll talk more about Kellog after the next episode, but for this week I’ll just say that his friendly interaction with Lucas rang false to me. I get that they’re old friends, but isn’t Kellog also a traitor to your cause, Lucas? You know, the one you’ve dedicated your entire life to?
  • Oh, if you don’t know what LARPing is, just watch “The Wild Hunt.” Actually, watch “The Wild Hunt” even if you do know what LARPing is. You’ll thank me later!

Continuum, “The Politics of Time”

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“The Politics of Time” introduces a character portrayed by Tahmoh Penikett, known to many for his role in Battlestar Galactica, but known to me for his roll in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Dollhouse was a show with an interesting science fiction premise that tripped all over itself whenever it stepped away from serialization—sound familiar?

Dollhouse picked up a lot of steam halfway through season one when it dispensed with the boring episodic installments and focused on the overarching story. This sudden upswing in quality confirmed the beliefs of the Whedon-faithful and, perhaps coupled with some residual guilt on behalf of Fox re: Firefly, netted the series a second season.

Funny thing, though: after the miracle-level event of Dollhouse’s renewal, the creators went right back to the dull case-of-the-week style episodes that had nearly sunk the show to begin with. We had caught a glimpse of what the show could be, a surprisingly ambitious exploration of identity with apocalyptic implications, but now we were watching Eliza Dushku match wits with a serial killer in a warehouse. Even after the creators of Dollhouse discovered a winning formula for the show, they couldn’t resist shooting themselves in the foot.

This isn’t quite the same as what’s happening with Continuum: we’re really only halfway through the first season and the show is still going through growing pains, trying to figure out what kind of episode works best. But it’s hard not to see the similarities between Continuum and Dollhouse. Or, should I say… the echoes!

Get it? Because the main character in Dollhouse, her name was… uh… you know what, just forget it.

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I’d like to dedicate that last joke to my girlfriend, who will understand it but still won’t think it’s funny. 

We’ve seen what Continuum looks like when the writers exploit what makes the show unique, and it looks pretty good. They’ve already written one fantastic episode—“A Test Of Time” for those keeping score at home—and it hurts to watch them flail around, trying to cram their unique show into a lame procedural format.

It’s hard to say exactly where this episode went off the rails. I was uneasy from the first scene, which flashes back to a time when Kiera was sexually assaulted by her husband’s friend. Things got shaky when the show put an unusual amount of focus on Carlos, by far the most generic member of the cast. But even with all the uncomfortable revelations, undeveloped themes and dull, self-contained story-lines  it wasn’t until the ninja showed up that “The Politics Of Time” revealed itself to be Continuum’s worst episode so far.

Where to start? This episode is a big old mess, stranding the characters in the middle of a dull murder mystery that feels completely separate from the rest of the series. Alicia Fuentes, a reporter who happens to be Carlos’s childhood friend and occasional booty call, is murdered, and the obvious suspect is Jim Martin, candidate for union president and fellow childhood friend of Carlos. Carlos is too close to the case—he was having sex with the victim hours before she died—but he refuses to reveal his connection to his colleagues, because… actually, it’s not clear why Carlos risks his entire career over this case, but if I had to connect the dots, I’d say he feels a responsibility to solve his friend’s murder. That’s just a guess, though. Maybe he actually forgot that he knew her, it wouldn’t surprise me.

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Carlos is kind of dumb, is what I’m saying here.

Anyway, with all the childhood connections, shady political deals and murdered reporters, this plot-line feels more like a Dennis Lehane novel than an episode of Continuum. There are still plenty of sci-fi touches to remind us that we are, in theory, watching a show about time travel, such as the ongoing pseudo-drama with Alec and Kiera’s suit, and Kiera using her future-tech to solve the crime. The use of the fingerprint scanner was mildly clever, and I found it hilarious that Kiera solved the murder by doing basically the same thing that Bruce Wayne does at the climax of The Dark Knight.

Of course, that little bit of techno-wizardry brings us to the stupidest reveal of the show’s brief history: the murderer… is a ninja! Okay, technically, it’s Jasmine, the spiky-blonde-haired member of Liber8, who has no personality and probably isn’t technically a ninja, but still. Seriously? You can’t throw me into the middle of Mystic River and then tell me that Emily Rossum’s killer was a member of the League of Shadows.

“The Politics of Time” is mostly beyond salvaging even before Talia al Ghul shows up. The return of socially awkward Kiera is always welcome, but it was overshadowed by that bizarre flashback in which Kiera is groped and then, in the worst-written scene the show has ever done, discovers that her husband cheated on her before their wedding. This explains why Kiera seems kind of cold towards her husband in some of the flashbacks, but it was a strange choice by the writers to add this dark bit shading to her marriage, just when her husband was starting to seem likable.

There are two possible reasons why the writers included this flashback: to form a loose parallel (very loose, like sweatpants loose) between Kiera’s past and Jim Martin’s situation with his wife, and to set up a romantic pairing between Kiera and Carlos. I’m not crazy about Kiera and Carlos coming together, but it’s sadly inevitable, isn’t it? They’re a male and female partnership, they’re both attractive, and even if Kiera’s not single, hey, her husband cheated on her, so what’s the big deal, right?

The flashback wasn’t show-ruining bad or anything, but why go through all that trouble just to mess the show’s basic premise? Kiera’s just dying to get back to her family, but it’s starting to seem like she’s better off in the past. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next episode’s flashback reveals that her son is actually a bank robber.

Look, I’ve been wrong before. I thought the fourth episode was one giant waste of time, and while half of that episode was pure filler, the other half was set-up for the fantastic episode that followed. “The Politics Of Time” ends with what I will generously call a “twist” that ties this week’s shenanigans into Liber8’s master plan, and I have to admit, I’m intrigued. Kiera’s adversaries are building up quite a force, and it’s hard to figure how she’s going to best them.

But in order to find out, the two forces have to actually come up against each other, and no matter how well this episode might set up future developments, right now it feels like a time-killer run-around case-of-the-week that involved murder, infidelity and ninjas but was somehow still really uninvolving. Continuum has my faith, but after this episode, I think I’m having a crisis.

  • Seriously, that scene in the bathroom is painfully bad. Who talkes like that? “Well, I had an affair with your husband, I mean it’s n.b.d., whatevs.” 
  • I don’t even remember what Kiera’s suit does. She sure seems to be doing fine without it.
  • Kiera is pretty quick to forget about that piece of the orb that Kellog stole.
  • So: I realized about halfway through the editing process that I’ve been spelling Kiera’s name wrong for at least the last six weeks, which, my bad, but when I Googled ‘Continuum Kierra’ to confirm my error, I was confronted with a MASSIVE SPOILER. Now, considering this show is actually six months old, I ain’t even mad—though really, why would you just put that right in the headline—but the spoiler itself is so stupid that I’m already angry about it. For anyone following along with the SyFy airing schedule, I’ll just say this: it’s so, so much worse than I thought it would be. You’ll see what I mean two episodes from now.