Posted in Television

The Problem with Inhumans: Marvel’s Inhumans Pilot Review

This review covers the first two episodes of the new ABC series Marvel’s Inhumans, adapted from the characters created for Marvel comics.

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: I have never read a Marvel comic book. I’ve watched most of the movies and even some episodes of various Marvel television shows, while gleaning all the other information I need to know from many fans online. However, even big Marvel fans know very little about the Inhumans, putting me in the same boat as many other viewers who curiously tuned in to the new series wondering if the show critics had savaged several weeks earlier was in fact better than anyone expected or only worth watching craving something so-bad-it’s-good.

On Friday night I sat down to watch the first two episodes as they premiered back to back and was left with…disappointment.

It’s bad or at least not very good, but, like so many bad shows, it is a minefield of wasted potential.

The show starts out with the most annoying and overused opening sequence nearly every major cable network pilot has these days: a young woman running through a forest. If I had a dollar every time I saw a pilot episode start off with this image or a variation on this scene, I could quit my day job and make a living writing full time.

Who is this woman? I don’t think we ever learn her name and if we did, I don’t recall because the very un-menacing soundtrack and mumbling actors make it impossible to tell what anyone is saying.

All we know is that this woman is being chased by a group of…well, I don’t know what to call them but your standard team of Bad Guys in Black. Why are they chasing her? Apparently she is an Inhuman, someone with special but vague capabilities, which automatically makes her a target in our world, when in reality she’d probably end up being a ruling overlord if she ever had superpowers in a world more similar to our own. A man covered in unconvincing green face-paint and makeup tries to save her, before she is shot down, and he jumps into the nearby sea, somehow not dying the moment he hit the water.

It’s your typical day in Hollywood’s version of Hawaii.

We then cut to an hidden civilization on the moon and enter a nearly bare bedroom where two people are in the middle of sex—television sex that is, which only consists of kissing, some skin, and carefully placed objects (or in this case hair) obscuring any nudity. The man is named Black Bolt (a name which makes no sense in this series) and the woman who’s long, red, and very much alive hair is carefully covering their bodies is Medusa. Is that name coincidental or her parents’ attempt at a joke? These two are actually the King and Queen of Attilan, a poorly rendered and very ugly looking city on the moon.

Their city is made up of unconvincing and uninspired CGI, while their palace consists of so many cement blocks it looks more like a minimalistic prison than a suitable home for the royal family. Even another ABC series, Once Upon a Time, had better CGI than this because at least that show had some impressive designs that were, though clearly fake, still nice to look at, along with gorgeous and campy costumes.

This show is not pleasant to look at.

The first scene was filmed with IMAX cameras (part of an attempt to make fans see the first two episodes on the big screen instead of waiting a few more weeks to see it on television at much lower price). The opening scene at least had some color in it. The rest of the first episode, which is mainly set at Attila’s royal palace, is as far from visually interesting as possible, relying on white and light gray backgrounds and minimally dressed rooms to keep our attention. While this does make Medusa’s hair stick out, it also becomes very obvious that she’s wearing a poorly made wig.

Speaking of the royal couple, the first thing you’ll notice about King Black Bolt is that he never speaks. This is because his superpower is so strong that even a whisper can kill those around him. This means he is reliant on Medusa to speak for him. Their marriage is one made of love, trust, and mutual respect. This happiness won’t last.

Enter Black Bolt’s brother Maximus. Maximus, unlike most of the other people in the royal family, does not have a superpower, rendering him human, and thus an outcast.

One of the first things we learn about this world is that this society hates humans and whenever someone comes of age and does not reveal any super powers, they are sent to the mines to work as slave laborers.

Wait what?!

The only reason Maximus is still around (and alive presumably) is because his father was the king. After their parents’ death, Black Bolt inherited the throne and Maximus inherited…nothing. You know where this is going. Of course Maximus wants to be king, like Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius and Simba’s Uncle Scar before him. Even though Maximus is supposed to be our series’ villain, played by Ramsay Bolton himself, by the end of the first episode I was completely on Maximus’s side. I blame the writing.

This brings us to one of the show’s major problems: I don’t care about these characters—or at least, not the ones I’m supposed to care about. We never see Black Bolt do anything king-like, instead he mainly either sits by himself in his private white room or he relies on his wife to do everything for him. They rule over a world where the special Inhumans are treated…well enough, I guess, while everyone without powers is reduced to slave labor.

Why should we care about a King who lets a large number of his subjects be turned into slaves?

I guess I’m team Maximus (or Marximus, as I call him) all the way. At least he might stop the use of slave labor! At least Maximus pretends to care about the common people, whereas Black Bolt cares about his wife and…that’s about as far as I know.

The show does an astoundingly poor job of setting up this world, its rules, and its characters. Someone never explained to the writer that if you want to have something pay off, you need to set it up, and if you want us to care about the characters then let us get to know them first, not start with them at their lowest point.

Before the first episode has even ended, Maximus has overthrown his brother, cut off his possible ex-girlfriend Medusa’s magic hair, leaving her bald and powerless, and imprisoned the only remaining member of the royal family, a blonde woman named Crystal whose only discernible superpower is that she has an awesome dog. One look on Wikipedia tells me that Crystal can control the elements, something which is barely established in the pilot save for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-catfight between the princess and Maximus’s evil henchwoman (you know she’s evil because she wears dark clothes and because she has the bland hot-girl pout every evil female sidekick has in these superhero shows—think Tabitha from Gotham or any evil female character in any other superhero show). Instead of killing her or doing virtually anything to keep Crystal in check, Maximus decides to talk to her quietly and then threaten to hurt her dog. If he really wanted to scare her he should have just taken away her diary and improbable Walkman/i-pod thing that we saw her listening to earlier. That’ll teach her.

Meanwhile, the rest of the royal family has managed to escape to earth through the use of Crystal’s ever-handy teleporting dog Lockjaw (clearly the only one having any fun in this pilot episode).

With our ‘heroes’ at their lowest point, now scattered across the moon and Hawaii, sad music plays, and we have set up the plot for the rest of the show. Yes, the rest of the show about Inhumans who live on the moon is going to consist of people in silly makeup and costumes wondering around Hawaii before traveling back to their CGI city. This is every other fish-out-of-water story we’ve ever seen on television before with the main difference being we hardly know the culture or world our fish once swam in, making their reaction to our culture all the more uninteresting.

It’s like Thor if every character was deprived of all likeability.

If this same exact show had aired ten or twenty years earlier, we’d probably look back on it as a loveably campy action series, but since we’ve come to expect much more from television and Marvel properties, this is definitely a step back for superhero and comic fans. The costumes look cheap–Medusa’s red wig and hideous purple dress belong in a fantasy series from the 80’s or 90’s—the characters are rather boring, some of the CGI (with the exception of the fully CGI teleporting dog Lockjaw) is laughable, the set designs are boring, the soundtrack is standard and uninspired, while the dialogue is pretty appalling, making even talented B-list television stars sound wooden.

Imagine my lack of surprise when I learned that the first two episodes were written by the same man who wrote and ruined Netflix’s Iron Fist. Oh joy, this was clearly the right choice for Marvel to make.

But despite all of the show’s problems, the first two episodes were surprisingly entertaining, in part due to a few good cast members such as Hell on Wheels star Anson Mount’s wonderfully subdued turn as Black Bolt and Game of Thrones alumni Iwan Rheon as the treacherous but reasonable Maximus. Rheon thankfully gives his character enough humanity that he isn’t reduced to playing another totally evil psycho, like his Game of Thrones and comic book counterparts. Marvel’s Inhumans isn’t quite in so-bad-it’s-good territory, but it does have the hypnotic silliness of a fantasy or sci-fi series from the 80’s or early 90’s.

It’ll be no surprise to anyone to learn that the series had a trouble production and an even more trouble pre-production, going from film to series and then eventually whittled down to just an eight episodes mini-series with the possibility of another season if the show does well. Unless the series vastly improves in the coming weeks, Inhumans will probably remain a brief and ultimately forgettable mini-series.

But if you’re bored on a Friday night, this show is one way to fill time.


Posted in Television

“The Importance of Outlander”

Note: This article was originally published in The Sting back in the fall of 2014. As such, this review only covers the pilot episode.

On August 9th Starz launched its new highly anticipated series, Outlander, a drama based off of the well-loved book series by Dianna Gabaldon, and found incredible success. The pilot could be viewed before its initial airdate and received positive reviews. When the series first premiered live the pilot had 72,000 viewers, and since then has landed over 3.7 million views, according to the TV by the Numbers website. Surprisingly for a show centered on a female character and involving a lot of romance, there was a near equal amount of male viewers as there were female.

Outlander centers on a nurse named Claire Beauchamp Randall (played by Irish model and actress Caitriona Balfe) who has recently reunited with her husband, Frank, after the end of the Second World War. On their honeymoon in Scotland, Claire manages to accidentally travel back in time to the year 1743—a time when Scotland was ravaged by civil war, fighting the English that wish to claim the country. How she appeared there is a mystery, but Claire soon finds out that she is not dreaming, because her life is constantly in danger from both the English and the Scottish soldiers. She crosses paths with an ancestor of her husband, Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies, who also plays Frank, most recognizable from his roles in HBO’s Rome as Brutus and his appearance in the third season of Game of Thrones as Edmure Tully, the groom at the infamous Red Wedding), but finds that this particular Randall, an English Captain, is far from the loving husband she left behind. Claire also meets Jamie, a Scottish warrior (Sam Heughan in a break-out performance) who helps her navigate the foreign, dangerous terrain.

The hit new series has a wonderful score composed by Bear McCreary, a man whose name you may not recognize, who has had untold success composing for many popular shows, such as AMC’s The Walking Dead, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Starz’s series Black Sails, and Da Vinci’s Demons, the latter of which he won an Emmy for.

Due to Outlander’s successful start, the series will have a first season consisting of sixteen episodes, and has already been renewed for a second season. It may be that HBO’s hit Game of Thrones could soon find a worthy competitor in Outlander for TV’s favorite fantasy drama.

Along with strong performances, lovely music, and an entrancing mystery, viewers will be entranced by the lush scenery, filmed on location in Scotland, firmly believing they too have been taken on a trip back in time, only this is a trip they will not wish to leave any time soon.

Posted in Television

“Westworld Pilot Review”

Note: Originally written in the fall of 2016

HBO’s new series raises profound and unsettling questions about humanity.

The pilot episode of HBO’s new series Westworld starts off with the spoken words: “Bring her back online.”

The first image is of a naked woman (Rachel Evan Wood) who sits limply in a chair, hidden by shadows. This is Dolores. She is perfectly still. Frozen. A fly crawls over her blank and glassy eyes.

This is not a human. This is an android.

“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” an omnipresent voice off-screen asks.

We cut to Dolores lying in bed, slowly awakening as she narrates about how she chooses to see the beauty in the world. She follows her usual routine: she gets up, dresses, greets her father, then quickly stops by the nearby town where she runs in to Teddy (James Marsden), her secret lover. They hug, kiss, and ride off in to the sunset until their romantic interlude is disturbed by the sound of a gunshot. When she arrives home, Dolores is horrified to find that her parents have been murdered at the hands of a wanted fugitive. Another shot rings out and this time fugitive falls to the ground, dead. A lone gunman dressed in black approaches Dolores, but he is not her hero. This mysterious man, known as The Man in Black (played by a menacing Ed Harris) slaps Dolores across the face. They’ve met many times before, but she can’t seem to remember him. When Teddy tries to stop the familiar stranger from presumably raping his lover, the young man finds that the gunman is impervious to bullets. The Man in Black chuckles and taunts the two. “I want you to fight,” he says. Teddy tries once again to kill the dangerous man, but can’t. He is not the golden hero riding to the rescue. Instead he is quickly shot and falls to the ground, his last moments spent listening to Dolores’s painful screams.

And then we see Dolores lying in bed once more. Another day is dawning. No, it’s the exact same day as before, playing out in the exact same order beat for beat. You see, Dolores’s world is a simulation and she is merely a tourist attraction.

Westworld is the name of a park where visitors (or “guests” as they are called), can visit and interact with androids posing as characters from the Wild West. Dolores is just another android “host,” catered to the whims of the “guests” who use and often abuse her, especially Ed Harris, another “guest” who takes “the game” (as he calls it) way too seriously.

For many years the simulation has gone off without a hitch. Until now, of course.

Several hundred “hosts” have been re-coded, which causes them to have new, nearly human-like movements. Soon the androids will become more and more lifelike, more than their creators and programmers could ever imagine. You see, there is a bug in their system, represented onscreen by the presence of a literal bug: a fly.

We are introduced to the staff of Westworld. There’s the programmer Bernard Lowe, Theresa Cullen, the operation’s leader that frequently clashes with Lowe, the English writer, Lee Sizemore, and the park’s director, Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins). Ford used to be an artistic genius, but now he has fallen victim to his own creations. His beautiful androids are slowly turning in to a robotic form of Frankenstein’s Monster.

Ford reminds me of Jurassic Park’s John Hammond and that comes as no surprise given the fact that Michael Crichton, who wrote the script and novel Jurassic Park, also directed the film that Westworld is based off of. The original film, also named Westworld was released in 1973 and starred Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger, who is reimagined as Ed Harris’s character in the HBO series.

The pilot episode to HBO’s Westworld perfectly sets up both worlds—the real one and the fake on. Yet the androids seem much more life-like and are certainly more engaging to follow than the programmers and park employees.

The gorgeous cinematography is matched with brutal violence. One scene in particular stands out: there is a gunfight at a saloon with various characters cruelly riddled with bullets as a haunting instrumental version of The Rolling Stone’s “Paint it Black” plays in the background. Actors portraying the androids brilliantly capture the stunted movement and far away look of characters that aren’t quite human, while also making these inhuman characters sympathetic and likeable, despite the fact that they are indeed androids that do not truly feel any emotions. Or do they?

While watching the pilot, I couldn’t help but be reminded of popular first-person shooter games, which have drawn controversy. Westworld replaces video game characters with androids and somehow manages to draw an emotional response from the audience more than any video game ever could. Westworld makes us question what it means to be human, our treatment of others and even every-day objects, and our own ideas of humanity.

The series is off to an excellent start with this pilot and I for one cannot wait to watch the entire season in full. Perhaps this will be a worthy successor to HBO’s mega-hit Game of Thrones, which is slowly entering the homestretch. Westworld is an expertly crafted piece of television that will quickly draw viewers in to an uncomfortable world where fiction and reality start to cross in disturbing ways.

Posted in Television, Uncategorized

American Horror Story Delivers Scares, Shocks, and Talent

Context: This is a review and brief look at the FX original series American Horror Story. At the time this review was written only five seasons had been released, while the series is currently about to wrap its sixth season.

For five years the FX original series American Horror Story, created by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, has gotten under viewer’s skin in a way that few recent horror films have. The series itself is a mixture of scares, snappy dialogue, memorable characters, and even as outlandish as some scenarios are, the show still keeps a lot of its most terrifying moments grounded in reality. The show finds a way to turn our favorite characters’ continuing nightmarish misery into an entertaining, self-aware, and thoughtful piece of entertainment, instead of simple torture porn.

Critics and audiences have responded very favorably to the series over the last five years. I think a large part of this show’s appeal comes from the writing, acting, and the likeability, or “watchability”, of the characters. The characters, though involved in typical horror movie situations, feel more like typical people as opposed to the self-obsessed idiots that usually dominate horror flicks these days. Plus a scene-stealing Jessica Lange doesn’t hurt the series either.

Another part of the show’s appeal is how it smartly references and changes the typical tropes found in horror films, while also connecting these tropes with aspects of life your average viewer would recognize and relate to.

The first season is spent with a troubled family stuck in a haunted house while attempting to fix a broken marriage, dodging ghosts, psychotic former flames, and a nosy neighbor along the way. Smart viewers could easily draw parallels between the increasingly dangerous house and the increasingly bitter family that pulls them further apart from each other. As the ghosts in the house threaten the lives of each of the family members, their own personal metaphorical demons come back to haunt them. For example, the husband was caught having an adulterous affair by his wife a few months after she suffered a miscarriage. While staying in the haunted house he has to own up to his mistakes as his wife finds she has become pregnant, a fact that scares her, but terrifies the audience more since we know something is deeply wrong with the house and it won’t stop until it’s destroyed everyone around it.

The second season, labeled American Horror Story: Asylum, takes place in (you guessed it) an asylum for the mentally insane. This story covers a wide variety of subject matters from mental illness, race, religion, and even alien abductions.

The third season draws parallels between a coven of witches in New Orleans and the South’s history of racial discrimination and violence. A coven of teenage witches is paralleled with a raunchy fraternity, typical high school cliques, and even the KKK (don’t dwell on this metaphor too long, it’ll only confuse you).

Each season is basically a self-contained mini-series with its large number of characters played by a typically reoccurring cast, so the characters in each season aren’t related, but the show cleverly acknowledges each actor’s past roles on the series (for example, one actor’s character is a psychiatrist in one season, but then he plays a dangerous patient in another season with several shots composed to replicate and mirror those from another season.)

The fourth season revolved around a freak show in the fifties with such colorful characters like a bearded lady, a young man with crab-like hands, a three-breasted woman, a pair of conjoined twins, and a killer clown.

The fifth season, American Horror Story: Hotel, took place in (you guessed it) a hotel, loosely based off of the real life Cecil Hotel near Skid Row. The stylish season featured sex addicted and drug addled vampires, ghosts, serial killers, and lots of shots of Lady Gaga pandering to the audience with a deadly stare.

If you can handle the terror, be sure to watch this series on Netflix or other platforms.

The sixth season premiers Wednesday, September 14th on FX.