Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gotham Review: Season 1, Episode 4, "Arkham"

I started watching this show mostly out of curiosity - I had no real expectations, except that I liked Ben McKenzie from The O.C., a show that I never expected would be something that I'd like. It's been rocky so far, and shows are rarely as good as they'll ever get at the beginning, but this episode sticks out to me as better than previous episodes and more of what the series should be going forward.

In my recent review of Once Upon a Time, I mentioned a frustration with that series's purely serialized storytelling. It may change later, but so far, Gotham is exactly the opposite of that and a perfect example (in concept if not execution) of how to handle A/B storytelling. The larger story for the season has been obvious since the pilot: following the death of the Waynes, rival mob bosses are fighting for position in the power vacuum that resulted from their deaths. Someone in the mob was actually responsible for their murder and for framing someone else to take the fall. The mystery of who killed the Waynes and the fallout from their death possibly leading to a mob war are both important storylines for the season as a whole, but the episodes have treated that as a story to march forward slowly.

The difference here is that there is a main storyline, a single case, that starts off the episode and is solved by the end. This is the A story, allowing people to watch the episode, even without much other context, and get a complete story that should make the episode more satisfying. That's how each episode of this goes, except for the pilot, which spent most of its running time setting up the B story, but dealing with the aftermath of the Wayne murder was the A story in that episode. I just want to reiterate, neither is necessarily better than the other, they're just different approaches.

Now that's all out of the way, I should talk about the episode itself. As often happens with A/B storytelling, the story that takes up the largest part of the episode is not what breeds the most discussion. That said, I liked this case more than the Balloonman from the previous week, though that one had its own insane, campy charm. The killer wasn't quite as weirdly interesting as that, but he served as a great catalyst for the rest of the episode. What he did have was a great sense of brutality - this show hasn't been afraid to go to dark places, but that was mostly left to what was implied (the second episode had very heavily implied pedophilia and cannibalism, just to start). In this episode, they have Gladwell (I don't think we ever get his real name, so let's go with that) stuff a man in a steel barrel, pour gasoline on him, and burn him alive. We don't see it up close or graphically, but they milk every bit of tension they can get out of it. It's also brutal at the end - after setting up the threat that he's going after the mayor, he makes the threat but is stopped by about a dozen body shots from Gordon and Bullock. This scene mostly caught me off guard because, while I expected them to shoot him, I didn't expect them to shoot him that much.

Of course, what everyone is really interested in all happened around this. For this episode, which was titled "Arkham", the area around the Arkham Asylum, which had been closed for the last decade or so, was kind of the focus of the episode. What it did right was that it didn't so much matter what happened there, so much as how it affected everyone around it. The mob families were fighting over who got what out of the area, it had been a project of the Waynes before they were killed, and anyone who's even superficially familiar with Batman knows that it's a very important part of the city. On the side of the Waynes, I think that this is the best way to go with young Bruce Wayne, since it doesn't seem like he's going anywhere anytime soon. Batman has always been about helping the city (out of a psychotic need for vengeance, but credit where it's due), and this is a more sensible way for him to do that, especially for the time being.

On the other side of setting up future characters, they really need to figure out what they're doing with Ed Nygma, the future Riddler. He has been mostly just annoying, partially due to the weird way that he talks, which I feel like they were going for something else with.

Okay, I've danced around it enough - let's talk about Oswald, our future Penguin. Most of the other recaps that I've seen of this show have turned into fangirling over him (yes, I use that word correctly, and no, here is not the place to explore the implications of it), and it's not hard to see why. This guy is something else, as is the actor, Robin Lord Taylor. He doesn't really feel like the Penguin quite yet, but he's working his way up from no one to future crime boss, so he's evolving in the right direction.

The very beginning, between Penguin and Gordon, was just a great way to start the episode. I more expected the first scene to set up the case of the week and this to come later, but I think it ended up being a good idea for them to wrap up that cliffhanger from the last episode. It also was a much stronger start to the episode. The scene in the apartment had a hidden tension, while the scene in the alley gave that tension the opportunity to explode. Jim's voice got a little too raspy and similar to Bale's Batman, but I'll forgive it that - when used right, it's a good way to intimidate someone.

I have to give great compliments to the casting for this show. The main thing everyone is talking about is how great Robin Lord Taylor is, a lot give great credit to Donal Logue, but in general, I honestly can't find anyone who seems miscast in a role. I find this especially important for the more supporting characters, such as Falcone, Moroni, and the Mayor (whose name I've never actually noticed). From just their looks, you can tell who they are supposed to be, saving the show from having to stop and explain who they are - the mob bosses look like mob bosses, the mayor looks like Richard Nixon, so half the storytelling is done the moment they walk on screen.

This episode is also trying to be a major story point between Jim and Barbara (maybe I'll eventually get used to her being his girlfriend, not his daughter, but that's quite a shift), which I'm not sure if it works. I know a lot of people didn't like it, but while it felt like it didn't get the impact they were going for in the moment, it fits together better in retrospect than I expected. Jim is mad about Barbara lying about her relationship with Montoya, and not at all because Barbara had a relationship with a woman - it's because she never told him about it, when it could have a direct impact on his life. He refuses to tell her who Oswald Cobblepot is, and this bothered me when I was watching the episode - shouldn't he just tell her the position he was in, then be honest about how he handled it? Then I realized it: she has an even stronger moral code than he does. Jim is the shining example of morality in the Gotham police department, but he has been willing to at least pretend to play the game where some people are involved. In episode 2, when he told Barbara about the investigation into the missing children and it being hidden from the public, she called in an anonymous tip. He's afraid she'll do that again, which could lead me down a rabbit hole of ethical dilemmas, but she's already proven that she's not necessarily trustworthy when it comes to playing the game in Gotham. Because of all that, while I was not as drawn in by it in the moment as I wanted to be, it's started to grow on me a little more.

Looking ahead:

I saw a lot of people talking about Fish Mooney in this episode with confusion. Part of this is definitely the fact that she is an original characters, and therefore we have no idea where she's going to be going in the future. But the more important part for this episode is about the girls that she was auditioning to be her "weapon", which was not explained explicitly. I don't know what they're doing either, but it seems like all the pieces are there: Mooney is looking for a girl to turn into a femme fatale, or something similar. We saw in the first episode that she has thugs and enforcers, but almost everyone else trying to work against her is male and presumably straight, so how is having someone who can seduce anyone not an extremely valuable asset? This doesn't account for the singing, but that doesn't preclude this theory, either. I could be entirely wrong, what with Mooney being a complete mystery to the viewers, which only makes this more interesting to speculate about.

Barbara leaving Jim at the end of the episode is unlikely to stick, which is probably part of why it didn't work on people very well. The thing that worries me about this is probably something that is a result of a little too much speculation on my part, but it's a concern nonetheless. Since Bruce becoming Batman is well off into the future, there's no way that she's going to be Batgirl, but she's also been another character that seems to me to fit a little better: Oracle. Short version: Joker shot her through the spine, was left paralyzed, made up for it with her incredible intelligence and ability to process and manipulate information. Even though it was the tiniest hint, her calling the tip line in episode 2 seemed to be a nod in that direction. Joker isn't part of this universe yet, but with all of the mob involvement and Jim being the one cop who is not playing the game, it's just a matter of time until one of them sends Jim a message through her, right? The preview for the next episode also hinted at things getting bad and starting to spiral out of control, I just hope that they don't go for this too early. Make it towards the end of the season, after they've had time together to really make an impact on us, and especially to make us really care about her before she's paralyzed. I admit that this is all speculation, but it seems like the most likely place for them to go with her story, and I'd much rather they take their time and do it well than jump right into it.
Until next time...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Once Upon a Time Review: Season 4, Episode 3: Rocky Road

Footnotes regarding my knowledge of the show and the format of this review.

Season 4, Episode 3: Rocky Road

The first thing I want to get off my chest is that they've finally done some real work towards not making a lot of the show look bad. The special effects have been bad since the first season, and I expected that to be a first season problem, not something that lasted for three seasons. They're finally building sets for the flashbacks and have figured out how to make the CGI actually feel right. The one exception to that in this episode was when Elsa was fighting Hans and his brothers. For some reason, the ice she was firing towards them just looked terrible - I don't know why, as I'm not skilled enough with special effects terminology or understanding, but it took me out of things a bit.

I haven't yet read any other reviews or recaps of this episode or the season so far, but I get the feeling that there are going to be a number of people who don't like the focus on Elsa, especially given the fact that quite a backlash against Frozen has developed recently. I'm sure there are people who want the focus to be back on the characters who have been here in the show since the beginning, but there's a slight problem with that: most of them are kind of boring at this point. Snow White is really forgettable right now (I like pretending that the baby is actually Ginnifer Goodwin's son, which I doubt but makes a weird amount of sense, and is the only thing that makes that even somewhat interesting), Prince Charming doesn't have anything to do except try to be a father to Emma (I cannot get used to the fact that she is the same age as her parents - in any other TV series, they'd be a couple), and Emma is getting full of herself in a really annoying way, but is kind of funny because she keeps calling herself a savior/chosen one, but that was all wrapped up at the end of the first season when she broke the curse.

Then we have Gold (because I hate typing out Rumpelstiltskin all the time) and Regina, who have been here since the beginning and actually have some interesting storylines. I think that they currently work well next to a main story rather than being the center of the story at the moment, but they'll be more central stories in some episodes soon enough. I won't say too much about them right now, other than liking the fact that they're making redemption really difficult and interesting, even when the story is a little ridiculous (Regina's is ridiculous in concept, but going well in execution). Also, there's Henry, who is in there less and less, but I'll just say this at the moment: he's the rare character made better by being made a whiny teenager.

I mentioned that I was trying to jump in after only somewhat following the previous few seasons. I guess I was a little on the optimistic side when I was thinking they would use this as an opportunity for that, but it makes the most sense for tying the promotion in to a movie that made a billion dollars, which is way more than watched the show also. It's not terrible about it, but I've asked questions a little more often than I would have liked.

The storytelling style for the show in general doesn't really help with that problem. Maybe it's something personal, but I'm missing the idea of A/B storytelling in this series. Instead of there being a distinct story each episode that stands on its own, in addition to advancing the overall story either in the background or as a part of the main story, the episodes tend to be a series of incrementally moving forward a half dozen stories in little pieces, then they just end. Yes, there is a structure to the way that each episode progresses and how they end, it just leads to each episode feeling anticlimactic because the story is just left hanging. Maybe I end up being wrong, since this show will have more people watching it later on being able to skip the week between episodes, but it makes watching it week to week a little disappointing sometimes. This is far from the only show guilty of this, but this show basically flaunts its structure.

From the time I saw the end of Season 3 (which I saw on YouTube the next day rather than actually watching the episode), I was both excited and apprehensive about them adding in the Frozen characters. While I'm much less apprehensive now, it's been replaced by a weirdness that I have trouble shaking. For now, I'm just going to focus on talking about Elsa, since Anna wasn't in this episode and the other characters aren't that prominent so far (though I think the Snow Queen killed Hans, which surprised me, that they'd do it so quickly, but good riddance).

Of the issues I've had with Elsa, none of them are Georgina Haig. Even without accounting for ability to sing, trying to get someone to jump in and play that character was always going to be an uphill battle (if you took singing into account, I'd call it damn near impossible), but she was obviously not just willing, but able to take the character and not just try to be exactly the same as she was in the movie. Reinvention has been what this show has made its main hook, and while I still think it's a little too soon to go for reinvention, she has done a great job with it so far.

I was starting to really like the interactions between Elsa and the Snow Queen taking place in the past. They were taking this in a different direction than I expected - I didn't expect them to even know of each other in the past, but the fact that they're also friends is not at all what I expected. Then they fell into something that has made me want to put my head through a wall this entire series: everyone is related. The Snow Queen is Elsa's aunt - of course she is. Everyone is related to everyone else in some way, which feels like it's way too much. They also implied that Emma might be related to The Snow Queen (maybe, but I won't put it past them), which just links everyone else yet again. It's a pet peeve of mine, and honestly, I find it lazy. It doesn't need to be there. Frozen was all about family, and I think it's one of the reasons why it really worked well (not the only, but very important), but adding more family here feels like just trying to do what worked, but again.

Unfortunately, they seem to be taking that as their mantra for how to write these episodes. At the rate they're going, within another 3 episodes they will have referenced every single plot point from the movie. This episode mostly consisted of everyone thinking that Elsa must stopped because she's an evil witch. Now, let's hold on a moment and realize how many evil witches there are around here, including one who's been here from the beginning (but reforming), and it seems like they're just repeating for the sake of doing something like what was in the movie, because then people will like it. They can't avoid everything that was in there, especially since you're using a lot of the same characters, but they also need to do something new with the same characters. Then again, at the rate they're going, they'll have to come up with something new pretty soon, since they'll run out of plot from the movie.

On a side note, if they want to reference absolutely everything, can they get Alan Tudyk to show up and be the Duke of Weselton? Completely unnecessary, but I'd love it (yes, personal bias, but I'd love to see it, and I'm sure other people would, too).

Since this didn't come up on its own before this, I need to bring up what was my favorite moment in the episode, and what I'm sure is many people's. Hook and Elsa are off in the woods, looking for the Snow Queen, and Hook pulls out a cell phone, trying to contact Emma. Elsa asks what it is, and Hook doesn't know, but knows well enough to know that it never works. It's not quite as funny out of context, mostly because the show was in a much more serious moment when that happened, and that was about the last thing I expected to come up in conversation. I'm a sucker for a good fish out of water joke, but only if done well.

Looking ahead:

I have forgotten everything that was in the preview for the next episode except for the fact that we're going to have Anna meeting Rumpelstiltskin because that is all that matters. We need more of him, especially that version of him, so the more we see of him, the better. I ws disappointed that it didn't happen in this episode, but we can't have everything.

Also, since we're going to be with Elsa for a while, I need to mention that the dress bugs me a bit. Not that I don't like it, but it's been established that it was created by her magic. So, is it something else she can create with magic? Is she like Bayonetta or Mystique, and she doesn't need clothes because they're just a part of her and can be created or changed at will? If so, she could use something a lot more practical in a lot of situations. I know it's iconic for her, but she doesn't need to wear it constantly - Belle's yellow dress is iconic, and she basically never wears it. I just want to see this explored a little more, as there is a lot you can do with that implied ability.

Until next time...

1 I've watched the show here and there through the first three seasons - nothing consistent, but I have a general grasp of everything that's going on with all the characters - what I haven't seen, I've been filled in on by someone who watched it much more attentively than I had. I jumped in this season because I thought that they'd treat adding the Frozen characters as a jumping on point for new viewers.

2 I won't do scene by scene recaps. I don't enjoy it, and you're better off actually watching the episode. I'll touch on the important events, so this will jog your memory of the episode. The important part? I want to look at how the episode worked as a whole, how the individual storylines and aspects work, and my opinions in general on the episode. These are all opinions, very subjective, and all I can do is promise to be honest about what I think, not to provide objective truths. (There are no objective truths in entertainment, so don't even try.) Also, apologies for the roughness of the format - this is something new that I need to play around with a bit to really figure out.