ALPHAS and GRIMM: tweaking tropes

Last night’s episodes of Alphas and Grimm, “Alphaville” and “Bad Moon Rising” respectively, both yielded interesting turns on genre conventions.

In the main, Alphas has been built on the fundamental structure of the X-Men universe, making being an Alpha into a choice between integration/peaceful co-existence with the rest of humanity and waging war. The one notable exception to this narrative was shown in last season’s “Catch and Release”, wherein Rosen decides to give Skylar Adams a pass on both joining the team and being shipped to Binghamton. In “Alphaville”, directed by Nick Copus and written by Michael Chamoy, we are shown a whole community of Alphas who just want to be left alone, and who have no desire to be be part of the conflict between Rosen and Stanton Parish. In fact, Rosen is pretty universally reviled for having outed Alphas to the world, an event that compelled many in the camp to seek shelter in the first place.

In X-Men, there is no prominent third way; the different alliances and political permutations in the overarching narrative have stayed within the bounds of peace vs. war. The closest analog I could think of to the community in “Alphaville” is the Morlocks, but there are important differences between the two groups.

First, the Morlocks came to be because of discrimination, or fears of discrimination, against mutants with visible mutations. While there is the suggestion that Rosen’s broadcast forced at least some to drop off of the grid, we have yet to meet an Alpha who couldn’t pass for ‘neurotypical’, to use a term increasingly in circulation on the series, or who, like Gary and Anna, could pass as having some kind of ‘disability’. Second, the Morlocks, while in hiding, are nonetheless living underground in Manhattan and in close proximity to mainstream society, including the different mutant factions on the surface. The members of Skylar’s community are trying to be as remote as possible from the world at large and while their motivations are not dissimilar from the mutants who make the Morlocks, achieving some kind of socio-political independence and making their own ‘normal’ seem more important than simply staying out of sight.

The main point here would be that very few mutants who did not feel that they had to would join with the Morlocks, while the community in “Alphaville” could be attractive to many different kinds of Alphas. In this particular episode, it rang true to me that Nina and Gary would contemplate dropping out.

Clearly, at the end of “Alphaville” the continued viability of a third way for Alphas is meant to be questioned. I can clearly see where at least some of the members of the community would decide to join Parish’s cause, but it is hard to imagine a character like Claude, at least based on the glimpse we got here, doing anything but continuing to seek some kind of independence. What the episode illustrates well is the difficulty of remaining unaligned when caught between agents in a conflict who tend to see the world in an either-you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us way. Rosen seeking out Skylar in the first place shows that he sees any kind of ‘non-alignment’ as purely temporary or as an indulgence, and not as a realistic choice for an Alpha. Clearly, Stanton Parish sees things the same way. Showing the similarities between those two men is, I think, an important narrative purpose of Skylar’s character and the independent community in “Alphaville”.

While Alphas addressed the dualism derived from X-Men, on Grimm last night, “Bad Moon Rising”, written by Richard Hatem and directed by David Solomon, finally provided some resolution to one of the critical sources of tension in supernatural TV drama: how the protagonist deals with their knowledge of the supernatural in relation to those who are ignorant, especially with family, friends, and colleagues.

Generally, the emphasis is on encouraging ignorance, or enabling denial, but there are always a few characters who have to be brought into the fold: Willow and Xander, later Joyce and Oz, on Buffy, for example, or Kensi (and, in some way, Bo) on Lost Girl, for another. On Grimm, Hank and Juliette are the characters around which this question has been most relevant. Juliette remains difficult and complicated for many reasons, and not just her mystical memory loss, but because she highlights many of the reasons why the protagonists on these shows want to keep all the magic and monsters, and their knowledge of same, hidden. There is always the risk that the people will think you’re crazy, or trying to hide something else with wild stories about demons and witches, or that sharing what you know will make the people you care about vulnerable in ways they wouldn’t be otherwise. Of course, that second point cuts both ways, which is one reason why, I think, Nick tried to being her in at the end of last season.

Thus far the series has been inconsistently written as to what gets treated as a serialized element, and what is played for effect in a single episode. As a result, until last night, I had not given much thought to how Hank had been dealing with what he’s seen since Nick became aware of what he is and what he can do. “Bad Moon Rising” is primarily devoted to Hank’s trauma and feelings of being unmoored and isolated by his anxieties.

Where you have a cast of characters divided between those who know about supernatural creatures and forces and those who don’t, the tension that creates is one that ultimately needs to be released. There are only so many ways to have one character hide these kinds of things from another before the situation starts to seem ridiculous. More to the point, the fun and drama that can come from this tension largely comes from wanting to see when, and not if, the characters out of the know get to be in on the action.

When that moment finally comes, this is what typically happens. After witnessing something that is hard to ignore, the main character, or some other already initiated figure, tells or affirms to the other character that monsters and magic are real. The formerly ignorant character is either so cool that they just readily accept this fact (see Kensi or Oz) or they accept after an initial denial (“Have you tried not being a slayer?”).

In the context of these kinds of shows, these responses work because the world tends to make more, and not less, sense once you know that there are vampires, demons, and whatnot. Again, the drama and humor comes more from the build-up than from the resolution.

The one exception I could of think of to this pattern is Kate Lockley from Angel. In that case, Kate ends up feeling betrayed by the one person who should have been her guide, Angel, and the fact that Angel is also the same kind of creature as the one who tries to kill her casts her revelation about the supernatural in a different light that the other examples, where this is a certain detachment from what the character learns or where the person who guides them to the truth is clearly seen as an ally or protector. For the balance of Angel, up until her final appearance on the series, Kate accepts what she now knows, but would prefer not to know it (later, in the IDW comics, she is a committed monster hunter and fairly well adjusted).

What makes Hank’s learning and acceptance of the supernatural different is his sense of relief. “Bad Moon Rising” shows us a character who is falling apart at the seams and who feels alone. Knowing that he isn’t alone, and that there is a strange, but straightforward, explanation for the images he has in his head is not just “cool” or “ok”, but is actually therapeutic for Hank.

The reason that Hank finds himself in this position is that Nick has spent very little time even thinking about him and what he might have seen. Whether from insensitivity or from inexperience, it seems likely that Nick just assumed that Hank was willing to accept whatever sloppy explanation he came up with for some of their recent cases because who, in their right mind, would believe the truth. As it turns out, Hank hasn’t been in his right mind and the fact that Nick wasn’t ready for this moment is another way in which last night’s Grimm twisted convention.

This turn in the narrative is new, and there is still potential for a lot of tension between Nick and Hank, and we’ll see where the series goes from here, but having both characters in the know opens up all kinds of possibilities. It should be easier to work cases, and as suggested last night, to bring Wessen into the justice system. On the other hand, the stakes are raised in other areas, notably involving Captain Renard, as well as with cases that are less easy to present as normal crimes, and with Nick’s family, especially mom. I’m also looking forward to Hank learning specifically about Monroe. In short, as is often the case, bringing more characters into the loop should be good for Grimm.

THE WALKING DEAD (TV) and my zombie problem

The other night A went off the see TDKR with a friend and his dad. Anne-Marie went off to bed early, but I wasn’t feeling particularly sleepy. So, I decided to stay up and wait for the kid to get back (responsible thing to do in any event, no?). To pass the time, I decided to try a couple of shows that we had been putting off or avoiding, or, really, that Anne-Marie and I could not agree to watch together. One of the episodes I watched was the opener for The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye”.

On one level this is a show I should already be watching, or would be mainlining right now instead of writing this blog post. I have a long history of attraction to stories about the apocalypse/post-apocalypse, and “Days Gone Bye” is a well-crafted introduction to a world in collapse. Writer-director Frank Darabont and Andrew Lincoln effectively show Rick as disoriented, but still capable of recognizing, and accepting, that the world is no longer the place he knows. The episode also uses the characters of Morgan and Duane to show the emotional toll of what’s happening – the scene that cuts between Rick and the bicycle girl and Morgan trying to shoot his wife is authentically affecting. The image of Rick riding into Atlanta on the horse is a great visual, the kind that you would love to see on the big screen.

That I am not already watching this series and anticipating the coming season is down to one reason: zombies.

When I was six, and my sister four, our dad took us to a double feature of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) at The Guild Theater in Portland, which, at the time, was a revival house. His defense, now and then, was that he thought Living Dead was a different movie, Invaders from Mars (1953), or something like it.

I have no reason to doubt his explanation, which accounts for why we went to the theater in the first place, but not so much why we stayed. As I recall, Bodysnatchers was second on the bill, but that’s pretty weak reasoning in this case.

The trauma mostly worked itself out that night, and has now become a good family story, the subject of jokes and sardonic wit. I have no memory of ever having zombies invade my dreams. When I get startled and anxious about weird noises in the middle of the night or walking alone in strange places, zombies don’t even register in my fears. Nor am I an especially fearful person, and I have a high degree of tolerance for other kinds of monsters, demons, devils, and aliens. As a kid I watched plenty of classic horror and monster movies (c. 1950s-1960s) even after the Living Dead mistake. Later I began watching TV like The X-Files, Buffy and Angel, all of which feature episodes with zombies or zombie-like creatures (“Habeas Corpses” is one of my favorite Angel episodes). Similarly, Hellboy and B.P.R.D. are among my favorite comics. These experiences led me to opportunistically sample zombie films like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, even a scene or two of Night of the Living Dead on one occasion.

What I’ve learned as an adult is that zombies are fine when they are part of a larger storyworld, and are not the only monsters or antagonists. As a genre, though, I am mostly bored and grossed out by zombies. So, one episode of Buffy fine, one aspect of the narrative to Game of Thrones, also fine, but episode after episode, or hour after hour, of nothing but zombies is a line I am not convinced I can cross or stomach.

Some of this feeling no doubt relates to my childhood experience at The Guild and years of avoiding zombies, but there is also the fact that zombies are kind of intrinsically lacking in intelligence and that makes them boring to me. To the extent that they are embodiments of fears about loss of one’s humanity or will, they do not particularly work for me (the Reavers from Firefly and the victims of Rossum’s mind-wiping in Dollhouse have come the closest to zombie-ish ideas that are intellectually engaging in some way). The worst parts of “Days Gone Bye” for me were easily the ones directly involving walkers, particularly the repeated shots of bullets to brains, which left me numb and queasy.

One indication of how little I am engaged by the genre is the horse. I knew that the horse was going to get eaten the second that Rick decided to ride her or him to Atlanta. I imagine that most people who have watched the premiere also knew that. I also imagine that, for zombie fans, the moment when the horse gets consumed by a pack of walkers is satisfying in terms of the narrative. Not so much for me; just more grossness and, in this case, cruelty.

What I’m wondering is what, if anything, am I missing about zombies in general and The Walking Dead in particular. For reasons that should be clear, I have not been reading The Walking Dead, although I did download the first issue while watching “Days Gone Bye”. So, I don’t have much of an idea of what the trajectory of the series looks like (or if it is being mirrored in the television show).

One reason why I like Falling Skies is the way that series is focused on the human characters and on exploring different responses to the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. Even in the second season, where the aliens are becoming more prominent, the key questions still revolve around what’s left of humanity, what it means to be human, what the “right” choices are in trying to survive. If the zombies recede into the background on The Walking Dead, and the series focuses more on the remaining human survivors, that might change my disposition about continuing to watch, or how many episodes I think are worth watching before deciding what to do about continuing.

I want to like this show, but I’m not sure I want to like so much that I can overlook hordes of zombies, at least that is my impression after streaming the premiere on Netflix.

DVD Review for SALT (2010)

Yesterday, my review of the Theatrical Edition DVD for Angelina Jolie’s spy-thriller, Salt, posted at PopMatters:

Evelyn Salt is the kind of character normally reserved for male actors and, in fact, was originally ‘Edwin Salt’, with Tom Cruise initially envisioned in the role. One of the few distinguishing characteristics of the movie is how little the role appears to have changed in the transposition from male to female. There are only one or two moments where it is difficult to imagine the action unfolding any differently with a man in the lead as opposed to a woman.

Read the full review

October “Worlds in Panels”: STRANGE TALES

My “Worlds in Panels” for October is up at PopMatters, and I look at Marvel’s Strange Tales anthology and the pleasures of genre & genre subversion:

The contributions to Strange Tales derive much of their meaning from the orthodox Marvel universe, and work primarily as diversions, or provocations, from that mainstream. Even an entry like the short two-page Fantastic Four story by Jeffrey Brown, “Fantastic Fool’s Day”, builds from one of the foundational pieces of that franchise, the idea of the superhero team as family. This series is delightful in no small measure because the stories are transient, they are moments to pause and think about the familiar in an unfamiliar way before going back to the regular titles and standard versions of characters.

Read the full column.