Saturday, February 26, 2011

Everybody's Got a Right To Be Happy

I can understand why some people say they don’t like musicals. Honestly I can. Some of the earliest films I watched were classic musicals--West Side Story, My Fair Lady and Oliver! all spring to mind, plus of course the Disney animated flicks—but even back then, I remember having a bit of ambivalence towards the genre. When they worked, they were amazing, but there were lots of pitfalls into which they could fall for me, too. I never cared for the gee-golly-let’s-put-on-a-show style of musical, with people bursting into joyous song over nothing in particular, and it still makes me cringe when a number begins with a big, overdramatic flourish that brings the action to a halt. (Similar to this, it bothers me when a musical number is cranked up to a massive crescendo at the end, regardless of whether the music can support it or not. Prime offender: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.) The musical is perhaps the purest realization of fantasy in storytelling, far beyond asking us to believe in dragons or talking animals. The world of a musical is enough like ours that we expect it to play by our rules, but of course it requires people to act in a purely unrealistic, expressionistic way, one that relates to an emotional state. If we’re not on the same wavelength as the characters, we’re going to react similarly as we do to commercials in which the actors are professing undying admiration for floor wax, or whatever. We suspect we’re being sold a bill of goods, that we’re dragged along instead of swept up in the current. It’s a tough tightrope to walk.

And yet the end result can be so much more than entertaining fluff or mindless spectacle. Whenever people say they “don’t like musicals”, I can’t quite overcome the suspicion that they simply haven’t seen the right ones. It’s a situation similar to horror movies or comic books, actually. To someone who’s had only a superficial, mainstream exposure to the genre, it’s tempting to dismiss it as being a certain way, when the more intriguing, less heightened works that might appeal more directly to an open-minded audience are often perversely more obscure. Horror movies, at a glance, can seem like brain-dead shriekfests that revel in sleaze and base exploitation. Comics can seem like juvenile, impenetrable hackwork with a restrictive focus on the subgenre of superheroes. And musicals can seem like hollow, campy throwbacks. Yet, when done with wit and a modicum of ambition and imagination, all three of these can be among the smartest, most challenging, most resonant forms of storytelling pop culture has to offer.

Exhibit A in the argument for musicals as an intellectual artform: Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.

I’ve now seen this show twice, and I’m pretty sure it’s up there with my very favourite musicals, precisely because of just how far it deviates from what we normally think of as a standard musical. It’s highly conceptual, plotless, avant-garde even. And yet I find it to be highly accessible, to the point where I’d heartily recommend it to people who think they hate musicals.

The show is done in a revue style, with a couple of linking ideas, most notably that of a shooting gallery on a midway; the show opens with “The Proprietor”, a carnival barker, exhorting the passers-by to try their luck at shooting the President of the United States. And sure enough, the people who take him up on his challenge are all people who attempted, successfully or otherwise, to assassinate various Presidents, all of whom co-exist, for the purposes of the show, in some impossible dreamspace outside of time. For the record, the full list of assassins for most of the show consists of John Wilkes Booth (who shot Lincoln, of course), Charles Guiteau (Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (McKinley), Guiseppe Zangara (FDR, attempted), Samuel Byck (Nixon, attempted), Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (Ford, attempted), Sara Jane Moore (Ford, attempted, again), and John Hinckley (Reagan, attempted). They’re joined by various civilians and a figure called The Balladeer, who, by the end of the show, has transformed into Lee Harvey Oswald. (It’s certainly interesting that you don’t notice, at first, that Oswald isn’t among the group, despite being the most famous.)

What’s cool about this is that, even with no real plot, each character comes pre-packaged with a story arc, one that has an impact whether you know all the historical details or not. Every character gets their scene where they take a shot at the President, except Byck, who tried to hijack an airplane and crash it into the white house; his scenes consist of apparently real tape-recorded monologues that he mailed off to various celebrities, one of whom was Sondheim’s mentor Leonard Bernstein. (I have a suspicion that this is where Sondheim got the inspiration for the show in the first place.) Every character is fleshed out via a scene or two illustrating their various neuroses and obsessions, either one based on real history or one in which they interact with the other assassins. Guiteau has a showstopping number after he’s been caught and is on his way to the gallows; Fromme (a former member of the Manson family) and Hinckley (who, famously, claimed his love for Jody Foster as his motive) share a love song to their respective objects of obsession; Booth is seen trying to make his confession in the barn where he was cornered before being gunned down. Even with all these scattered glimpses, we learn everything we need to know about the characters and the historical context, while still being compelled to hit Wikipedia as soon as we get home to learn more. Simply based on the premise of the show, the omnipresent threat of death, chaos, and insanity hangs over everything, charging every scene with tension and dread, and like a lot of the darker musicals, the seemingly upbeat and sentimental numbers serve as a counterpoint to the rather horrific themes. The show is a triumph of what these guys call “the off-screen movie” (or in this case, the off-stage play).

My favourite number in the show is “The Ballad of Czolgolz” (which is pronounced “SHOW-gosh,” by the way), the crucial number that, I believe, serves as the Act One finale when the show is performed with an intermission (there wasn’t one this time). Czolgosz, a follower of anarchist Emma Goldman who toiled in a horrific bottle-making plant in the pre-Union days, shot McKinley at the World’s Fair in Buffalo after waiting patiently in line to “shake hands with the president”. His was probably the most overtly political assassination attempt (even Booth was acting more out of revenge and wounded pride) and he’s arguably the most sympathetic of the assassins. His killing of McKinley unifies the show in a number of ways—the fact that it took place at a literal fairground brings back the shooting gallery motif, and it’s a perfect metaphor for the promise of America from which Czolgosz feels he’s been exempted. When the balladeer sings “in the USA/you can make your way/to the head of the line” the show’s theme becomes explicit: killing the president is, in its own twisted way, a realization of democracy, egalitarianism, and the American dream.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

TV Thursday: Dollhouse

(Hey, when I called this feature “TV Thursdays”, I never said it would run EVERY Thursday, now did I?)

Is it too soon to start banging the drum for a series that ended last year as one of the greatest genre shows of the decade?

It’s hard not to feel that SF television has fallen somewhat from glorious heights. In my rant last time, I called the last decade of TV probably the best in the history of the medium, in America at least, and while I still feel that to be true, things look substantially shabbier if we turn our eyes specifically to genre TV. Things started strong, but Firefly and Carnivale only produced a relative handful of episodes, and BSG and Lost took a depressing downward turn in quality as they went on. Other than some animated series, most of which were either superhero-based or comedic in nature (like The Venture Brothers and Futurama), SF TV proceeded to take a rapid downhill slide in the last five years. Only Doctor Who really carried the standard, and as I said before, I had some pretty big problems with that show for much of its run.

Let’s not even talk about Heroes.

I’m not sure what’s caused television SF to dry up the way it has. Maybe people feel that the future has already arrived in a supremely disappointing fashion, and no longer feel the promise of tomorrow? That would certainly explain the distinctively dystopian tone adopted by more recent SF series. Firefly had a somewhat grim backstory, BSG was exponentially more apocalyptic, and Dollhouse actually manages to top it in the “humanity is doomed, DOOMED I say” sweepstakes.

You may have looked at that last statement and blinked, if you’ve only watched a little bit of Dollhouse. Certainly, based on the initial handful of episodes—which is what the casual viewer is likely to have seen—that statement probably seems pretty bizarre. Dollhouse, at its inception, seemed like the most superficial, conventional, network TV-ish thing Joss Whedon had ever done to that point. The show revolves around the adventures of Echo (Eliza Dushku), an “active” working for the secret and ominous Dollhouse, operating somewhere beneath LA. This is a privately operated facility that possesses the technology to implant people with new memories and personalities, as required by their clients; essentially, it’s a build-a-person service. The Dollhouse makes a point of performing public services by letting out its actives to do social work, help out at hospitals, and the like, but there’s no getting around the fact that the two most obvious uses for a person who can be programmed to order and then wiped clean of memory afterwards are “love slave” and “assassin”, with various other forms of criminal behaviour filling up the slate. And indeed, these are precisely the kinds of jobs for which various spectacularly wealthy clients tend to engage Echo. But Echo is beginning to show signs of glitching, not just remembering the personalities she’s been implanted with after they’ve supposedly been wiped, but actually incorporating aspects of these personalities into the supposedly blank, unthinking “doll-state” in which she’s held between engagements. She seems to be quite literally developing a mind of her own…which wouldn’t be a problem, except that the last time that happened, to an active named Alpha, the result was a supergenius serial killer who, by the way, is still at large.

Dollhouse had two big issues which are frequently cited, even by the show’s fans, as crippling flaws…but I tend to see them as features, rather than bugs. Admittedly they presented a pretty major challenge to the audience, which seemed to clash with the rather dopey, superficial, Charlie’s Angels tone that the show adopted early in its run, such that the show gave the impression that it really didn’t know what it was doing. With the benefit of hindsight, though, these two supposed “problems” were actually fundamental to the ideas the show was exploring.

One of them was the moral ambiguity of the Dollhouse. If you hadn’t seen the show, reading the above description probably makes you picture a series in which Echo slowly attempted to use the tools at her disposal to fight back against the villainous Dollhouse, possibly with the covert aid of someone outside the organization, or a sympathetic type on the inside. The show does feature both of these in the form of Agent Paul Ballard, played by BSG’s Tahmoh Pennikett, a federal agent who’s been obsessively searching for the Dollhouse with the goal of rescuing Echo in particular, and Boyd Langdon, Echo’s handler, played by the amusingly stone-faced Harry Lennix. But, rather disorientingly, the other Dollhouse operatives are all relatively sympathetic as well, even the seemingly amoral mad-scientist programmer Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) and the steely-eyed manager Adele DeWitt (Olivia Williams), who’s not coincidentally written and performed as a cold-hearted brothel madam but claims repeatedly to see the dolls as innocents under her protection. The initial impression one gets is of a show that was desperately trying to excuse or ignore the fundamental loathsomeness of the characters, who are, after all, high-tech slavers. Actually there are a number of mitigating factors here, though they bafflingly aren’t made clear until a little further down the line. The main one is that the dolls are all, at least in theory, volunteers, though we know from the start that Echo, in her original personality of Caroline, was seemingly pressured or duped into service; it is later revealed that the other main dolls on the show are all suffering from some degree of psychological ailment. Sierra (Dichen Lachman) was supposedly a paranoid schizophrenic, Victor (the astounding Enver Gjokaj) is a solider suffering from severe PSTD, and November (Miracle Laurie) is recovering from the loss of a child. Apparently, serving a five-year term as a doll functions as a highly effective form of therapy; we never get the details, but the basic idea is that taking a vacation from your own brain can have a highly beneficial effect. And once you come out on the other side, you’re paid enough money to set you up for life. The problem is that this is immediately made to ring hollow, not just because of the dubious legality of the operation, but the fact that the abuse of dolls quickly becomes a recurring theme on the show.

And the writers are clearly aware of this. By the end of the first season, it’s made pretty clear that the real theme being explored is the degree to which otherwise well-meaning people will excuse and then even make use of harmful technology and a system that exploits others. Characters who react with revulsion to the idea of the Dollhouse are gradually seduced by it, and time after time, when the pressure is applied, no one seems able to avoid taking advantage of the Dollhouse tech. The show makes the case that the inevitability of technological progress is powered by a fundamental weakness in humanity, the same one that leads us to turn every new invention into a weapon, and that people would rather adapt to horrifying perversions of humanity in the name of progress than give up the benefits that come with it. As Echo says in the final episode: “I don’t think it’s good or bad. It’s just…what’s next.” This is pretty bleak stuff even before the show raises the specter of the complete collapse of human civilization—but more on that in a minute.

The show’s other big area of controversy is the fact that the lead character is, at least at first, a complete and literal nonentity. Or, depending on how you look at it, she’s a different person every week. This admittedly makes it a little difficult to relate to the character, but her core persona isn’t drastically far removed from, say, Data in Star Trek, and the basic idea of a “trapped woman” inherently makes you sympathize with her. I think a much larger issue is the fundamental strain put on the lead actress, someone who has to balance, for all intense and purposes, playing multiple roles that are somehow united by an overarching, collective intelligence. It’s a role that requires a masterful actress. It was a role played by Eliza Dushku.

So…yeah. But the show was actually able to work around Dushku’s limited talents (even putting aside the fact that her acting improved quite a bit as the show continued) in a number of ways. It actually helps that she spends a lot of her screentime as the blank, childlike Echo, a role that’s almost impossible to screw up from an acting perspective. Too, like most of Whedon’s shows, it makes great use of its ensemble, particularly in putting the onus on Ballard to be the pro-active hero for the first season, and then later having the cast form a cohesive team with a clear goal of preventing the apocalypse.

Oh yeah, that. When Dollhouse finished out its first season with crummy ratings, it was naturally assumed they wouldn’t be returning (and indeed, if “Omega”, technically the first season finale, had been the last episode, I doubt I’d be writing about it in such depth right now). However, due to a convoluted issue with the network, the writers owed them another episode for the DVD, and they used this excuse to craft an “epilogue” for the show, “Epitaph One”. In this episode, the action moves to ten years in the future, when the Dollhouse technology has evolved into a horrific weapon that can transform whole populations into 28 Days Later-style mindless killing machines via a remote broadcast—and that’s just the start of the ways in which it’s been abused. A band of scavengers, rummaging through the wreckage of Los Angeles, stumble across the abandoned Dollhouse, and find a message of hope.

“Epitaph One” is kind of fascinating because of its ephemeral nature. Because a lot of people hadn’t seen it, it wasn’t clear—when the show did, in fact, return for a second season—whether it was supposed to be a firmly established point to which the show was heading, or rather a “what-if” worst-case scenario. The second season rather masterfully exploits that uncertainty, hinting at inevitable dark things to come one moment and then introducing ideas that undermine it the next. I’d personally recommend watching “Epitaph One” a little further along in Season Two—after the episode “The Left Hand” would be my personal choice—but you’ll get a different experience out of S2 depending on when you watch it.

One way or another, though, this is a dark, dark show with a bitterly cynical take on both human nature and technological progress. It’s also one of the few SF shows in recent years that’s actually tried to be about ideas. It’s kind of amazing that it lasted as long as it did, but it left behind a surprisingly satisfying, if wildly uneven, serialized story with a beginning, middle, and end. The cult for this show will likely remain tiny compared to those for Whedon’s other work, but I predict it’ll last for a long time. Barring the end of the world.