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New Escapist Column! On “Atlanta” as One of Television’s Great Liminal Spaces…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With Atlanta wrapping up its final season earlier this month, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at one of television’s great liminal spaces.

Creator and lead actor Donald Glover frequently compared the show to Twin Peaks and The Sopranos, two very interesting choices for a show that has the basic structure of a sitcom built around four central characters. However, over the course of its four season, Atlanta became a surrealist study of millennial Black life in the United States, in particular the constant sense of being stuck “between” places without a firm status quo. Atlanta is a show that largely unfolds in shopping centres, nightclubs and hotels, and parties and in altered states. It’s a show that often feels dreamlike, its characters drifting through a chaotic world.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Triple 9

Triple 9 looks great.

Although it set in modern day Atlanta, director John Hillcoat seems to frame Triple 9 as a grim companion piece to The Road. Hillcoat captures the horrors of urban decay, creating a world that seems to teeter on the edge of the abyss. The camera pans through abandoned tenement buildings and lingers on graffiti; bodies are found in shopping trolleys while tinted windows serve to conceal immediate dangers. As filmed by Hillcoat and filtered through the lens of cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, Atlanta seems to be composed of slums and overpasses.

Traffic stop...

Traffic stop…

From the impressive opening heist set piece, Hillcoat saturates the film with red, as if our heroes are only glimpsed through the light of hellfire. That red comes from multiple sources; a red dye pack that explodes at the worst possible moment, the boots worn by one of the characters, the lights from a police car, the fire from a distant (and somewhat anticlimactic) explosion. Triple 9 is oppressive and grim, with Hillcoat threatening to bring the world collapsing down upon his protagonists.

The problem with Triple 9 has nothing to do with Hillcoat’s aesthetic. Instead, the film suffers from a generic and unfocused script populated by characters who lack agency and identity. The main figures in Triple 9 often feel like pieces of paper caught in a breeze, moving in any given direction at the whim of the plot rather than through any essential quality of their own. Things happen not because they are organic (or even inevitable), but because they are convenient. There are points at which it seems like maybe the characters are not in hell; maybe the audience are.

Married to the mob...

Married to the mob…

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Millennium – 5-2-2-6-6-6 (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the scripts that Morgan and Wong wrote for the fourth season of The X-Files with the scripts that they wrote for the first season of Millennium. The duo were writing for both shows at the same time – with episodes frequently airing within a week of each other. Morgan tended to focus more on the four X-Files scripts, while Wong worked primarily on the three Millennium episodes. While the seven scripts are all fascinating in their own way, there is a marked difference in how the duo approach the two shows.

Their four episodes of The X-Files are very bold and experimental – they look and feel utterly unlike anything that the show has done; before or after. These four scripts seem to needle at the show, pushing it further. Home seems designed to see how much unpleasantness the writers can get on to Fox prime time in the nineties. The Field Where I Died is a thoughtful and melancholy romance with no companion in the X-Files canon. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man parodies the show’s central conspiracy. Never Again makes the Mulder/Scully dynamic toxic.

Having a blast...

Having a blast…

That makes a great deal of sense. After all, The X-Files was in its fourth season. It was approaching that impressive “one hundredth episode” landmark, the number of episodes necessary before the show would be secure in syndication. (At least in the television landscape of the nineties.) Although less than half-way through its eventual nine-season run, The X-Files was an old dog by this stage of its life cycle. As such, it made a great deal of sense for Morgan and Wong – two writers who had been there at the beginning – to shake things up.

In contrast, the three scripts that Morgan and Wong wrote for the first season of Millennium are a bit more conservative in scope and tone. They are fascinating pieces of television that help to establish the mood of the show, but they are not as experimental of the work that Morgan and Wong were doing on The X-Files. Again, this makes a great deal of sense. Millennium was still a very young show. It was still defining its own identity, figuring out what it wanted and needed to be. Morgan and Wong’s three scripts are essential in that development.

Taking a page from the Group...

Taking a page from the Group…

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Star Trek – Crucible: McCoy – Provenance of Shadows by David R. George III (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

The classic Star Trek was not really a character-driven show. Of course, everybody recognises Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but the show seldom took the time to really dig into their history or origins. We’d occasionally find out that Kirk had some overlap with the villain of the week. He had served on a starship that had been the victim of a vampire space cloud, or lived on a colony during a brutal massacre. These details added up to something, along with the occasional reference to (and eventual death of) his brother Sam.

Spock got a bit more development, probably due to the fact that he was an alien. After all, developing Spock meant developing an entire exotic alien species, and offered some insight into how Vulcans must live. We’d also get occasional factoids or tidbits (Vulcans can mind meld, they have inner eyes, they had a schism millennia ago) that help to give a concrete picture of the where the character came from and where he might like to go.

McCoy, on the other hand, was a bit of a blank slate. Everybody knows McCoy. He’s the irritable surgeon on the ship, prone to insulting Spock and complaining about the fact that he’s flying through space in a ship filled with mechanical doo-hickeys. However, we never really get a sense of McCoy’s past. We never learn much about his family on-screen, except when the writers wanted a bit of dramatic fodder in the penultimate movie featuring the original cast, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. But we don’t talk about that.

So David R. George III’s Crucible: McCoy – Provenance of Shadows is an interesting book. Not only because it is a book completely devoted to the least-developed of the iconic leading trio, but also because this relatively under-developed character also gets one of the longest Star Trek tie-in books ever written. And without too much focus on his past.


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