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New Escapist Column! On “The Rings of Power” and Post-Golden Age Television…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of The Rings of Power this weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at what is effectively the biggest television show in the world, and what it says about the current state of television.

For the past twenty years, American television has gone through an era described as “the Golden Age”, one rooted in moral ambiguity and uncertainty in shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Shield. These were morally complex stories about difficult protagonists that invited the audience into murky liminal spaces. As such, it is interesting that The Rings of Power exists in marked contrast to that paradigm. Instead, it offers a very clear-cut black-and-white worldview.

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

New Escapist Column! On the Tragedy of Nacho Varga and What It Says About “Better Call Saul”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the sixth and final season of Better Call Saul in full swing, it seemed like an opportunity to take a look at one of the show’s more under-appreciated central figures.

Nacho Varga was introduced in the first season as a potential foil for Jimmy McGill, intended to serve as the antagonist of the show’s premiere year. However, when the writers stumbled upon the idea of Jimmy’s brother Chuck as the main character’s nemesis, Nacho was left somewhat listless. However, much like the character of Kim Wexler, this initial lack of a clear arc allowed the production team to figure out a compelling approach to Nacho, who has become one of the most tragic figures in the entire show, and a character whose attempts to assert agency tie into the show’s core themes as a prequel to Breaking Bad.

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

New Escapist Video! On the Visual Storytelling of “Better Call Saul”…

We’re thrilled to be launching a fortnightly video companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch every second Monday, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel. And the video will be completely separate from the written content. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film content – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

With the broadcast of the new season of Better Call Saul, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the show’s visual storytelling – the way in which it uses images to communicate plot, character and theme.

New Escapist Column! On “Better Call Saul” as Fitting Eulogy to the Television Antihero…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Better Call Saul wrapped up its fifth season this week, and so it was worth taking a look at the Breaking Bad prequel.

To a certain extent, Better Call Saul seems like a show out of step with the times. It is set in the early days of the twenty-first century. It has never become the ratings or awards juggernaut that Breaking Bad became. It has a strong critical following, but never truly broke out into the wider culture in the way that Breaking Bad did. None of this is a judgment on the show itself. After all, Better Call Saul premiered at a time that television was already pushing away from those antihero dramas.

However, that status as show that exists at the tail end of a broader cultural trend allows Better Call Saul a greater degree of creative freedom. It offers a reflective meditation on the kind of antiheroes that populated so much of the so-called “Golden Age of Television.” These masculine archetypes are easy to galmourise, even when shows are unambiguous about their flaws. The beauty of Better Call Saul lies in creating an antihero who is harder to fetishise. Saul is not Walter White or Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen. He is a lot more tragic, a lot more pathetic.

This is the beauty of Better Call Saul, the angle that allows the show to feel like a true coda to the kind of stories that dominated prestige television for well over a decade. You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

 

New Escapist Column! “Deadwood: The Movie”, “El Camino” and Closure In The New Age of Television…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday. This one looks at the recent releases of Deadwood: The Movie and El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie as an illustration of how much the television landscape has changed in recent years.

These belated capstones to beloved series – Deadwood and Breaking Bad – are interesting because they afford the creative talent the opportunity to wrap up their story free from the production constraints of television, the urgent desperate churn of the conveyor belt that demands workable solutions in insanely short periods of time. These epilogues arrive years after the fact, and are the product of careful consideration and reflection. They allow their creators to tie a little bow around their work. After all, sometimes it is nice to have distance.

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

The X-Files – John Doe (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

A man without a past on a show without a future.

John Doe opens with John Doggett on the floor of a dusty warehouse, an addict stealing his shoes. Doggett chases the thief out of the warehouse, stunned to realise that he is actually in Mexico. His pursuit of the addict culminates in his arrest by local law enforcement, a couple of cops demanding to see his identification papers. Doggett pats himself down looking for something, but the horror of his situation seems to dawn on him. Asked for his name, all Doggett can offer is an awkward “I don’t know.” His past has been stolen from him.

"Woah, boy. Computer-generated film grain. I'm either in Mexico or a CSI flashback."

“Woah, boy. Computer-generated film grain. I’m either in Mexico or a CSI flashback.”

Four days after the initial broadcast of John Doe, it was announced that there would be no tenth season of The X-Files. Fox and Chris Carter were retiring the show after a phenomenal nine-season run. Of course, production had wrapped on John Doe long before the decision had been made; the crew were working on Scary Monsters when news filtered down about the looming end of the show. However, there was something quite appropriate about the timing of all this. John Doggett lost his past in the same week that The X-Files lost its future.

There is almost a weird poetry in that.

Breaking Decent.

Breaking Decent.

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The X-Files – Je Souhaite (Review)

This September, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

The late seventh season has something of a twilight quality to it.

Even the show’s production staff are unsure whether the show will be coming back for an eighth season, so every episode takes on a special significance. Could this episode be “the last time that…”? Is Brand X the last time that the show does a traditional monster of the week? Is Hollywood A.D. the last time that David Duchovny writes and/or directs? Is Fight Club the last time that Chris Carter writes a non-mythology episode? Is Je Souhaite the last time that Mulder and Scully just investigate a weird standalone case together? There is a weight to it all.

"I'll drink to that."

“I’ll drink to that.”

Of course, the show would come back for an eighth season. There would be lots of traditional monster of the week stories after Brand X. David Duchovny would enjoy another story and directorial credit after Hollywood A.D. Chris Carter would get to write non-mythology episodes after Fight Club, and even get to direct a much more successful whimsical adventure. Mulder and Scully would get to hang out together in the late eighth season and even at the very end of the ninth. In a very real way, this is not the end.

However, in an equally real way, this is the end. It has become hyperbole to suggest that something “… will never be the same again.” Even The X-Files has reinvented itself at least twice by this point, at the start of the third and sixth seasons. However, it is also perfectly reasonable to argue that The X-Files actually will never be the same again. The show changes on a very fundamental level after this point, with Je Souhaite serving as the very last glimpse of the show as it was. In many ways, this is the end of the road.

"So... meet up in about fifteen years?"

“So… meet up in about fifteen years?”

Gilligan would get to write and direct another episode of The X-Files before the show finally came to an end. In fact, there are a few thematic similarities between Je Souhaite and Sunshine Days, with both stories serving as affectionate and romantic finalés to Vince Gilligan’s version of The X-Files. There are still two full seasons ahead. Indeed, it is interesting to wonder what it would be like had Je Souhaite come earlier in the season, or even during the sixth season; it would be a light and fun episode, but would have the same heft and weight?

However, there is something different about Je Souhaite. In hindsight, it feels like a snapshot of an extended (seven-year-long) moment coming to end; it is a picture in an photo album that captures Mulder and Scully right on the edge of a transition. It is innocuous, yet profound. It is a picture of college friends sharing a drink at the end of the last term, unaware (or silently aware) of how things will change in the coming months. It is a picture of friends just hanging out before one gets married or has children.

"I am outta here!"

“I am outta here!”

Of course, Mulder and Scully see each other after this point; there is the second half of season eight and the revival hanging in the future. (To say nothing of The X-Files: I Want to Believe or the comics.) College buddies still hang out. People with families maintain friendships. Still, those dynamics change. They are never quite the same. Not better, not worse. Just different. As weird as it is to describe an episode where Mulder encounters a genie as “the point before things got weird”, that’s exactly what Je Souhaite feels like.

What is most striking about Je Souhaite is how much the episode accepts that reality. It is not morose or melancholy; it is practically celebratory. Instead of eulogising the good times, it decides to have a good time. There is something very sweet about that.

"I'm still here for two seasons..."

“I’m still here for two seasons…”

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The X-Files – Monday (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

It always ends the same way. As is appropriate for a story about a time loop, Monday begins with an ending. The teaser catches the last few minutes of one of the episode’s repeating time loops. It is a striking image. Everybody dies – including Mulder and Scully. How could the episode possibly continue past that point? It is simple. Time resets. The universe snaps back into shape around Mulder and Scully, much like it did at the climax of Dreamland II. Everybody gets another chance to set things right. The show bounces back to its status quo, as it did with One Son.

Time for a do-over. Revise it until it’s right.

A ticking clock...

A ticking clock…

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The X-Files – Drive (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

In many ways, Drive feels like an episode that tackles the move to California head-on.

After all, the plot of Drive essentially finds Mulder trapped in a car heading westwards through Nevada and into California. The episode even lingers on a “welcome to California” sign, tacitly acknowledging the massive change that had taken place behind the scenes between the fifth and sixth seasons of The X-Files. It is a very clever way of addressing a major change to the production of the show, one that is candid and open about the fact that things are inherently different now.

"Running out of west..."

“Running out of west…”

More than that, Drive figures out how to build an episode of The X-Files around the change in production location. The sixth season often finds the production team struggling to find the right tone and mood to match the new location; after all, the show cannot simply pretend that it is still filming in Vancouver. California is sunnier, hotter and drier than Vancouver ever was – the sixth season of The X-Files spends a little time trying to adapt to those new filming conditions.

This challenge is arguably most obvious in the string of (literally and metaphorically) lighter episodes in the first stretch of the season. The sixth season is quite controversial among fans of the show because there is a period of time where it seems like The X-Files might transform itself into a quirky romantic sit-com. Episodes like Triangle, Dreamland I, Dreamland II, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas and The Rain King would be the lighter episodes of any previous season; they seem to pile in on top of one another at the start of the sixth season.

Feels like going home...

Feels like going home…

In contrast, Drive is very much a quintessential episode of The X-Files. It is a classic episode of the show. It is scary, it is tense, it is meticulously constructed. There is humour to be found, but the stakes feel real and personal. Writer Vince Gilligan very shrewdly plays into the constraints of the new Los Angeles production realities. A lot of Drive takes place during the day on long desert roads. It takes advantage of California’s impressive interstate system, with twenty-five highways covering almost two-and-half thousand miles.

However, Drive is more than simply a demonstration that The X-Files can still work in its new home. Drive is a superb piece of television in its own right. It is highly regarded as one of the finest episodes of The X-Files from the second half of the run. It is notable for a wonderful premise, a great script, and a mesmerising guest performance from Bryan Cranston. Drive would be the first collaboration between writer Vince Gilligan and actor Bryan Cranston, but not the last.

Drive of your life...

Drive of your life…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Vanishing Point (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Vanishing Point continues the “remix” formula that we’ve come to expect from the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise. In particular, Vanishing Point is a rather heady Star Trek: The Next Generation cocktail. It has shades of Remember Me, Realm of Fear, The Next Phase and even The Inner Light – with a healthy dose of Brannon Braga’s questions about the nature of reality. All of these elements blend together to form Vanishing Point, an episode that feels overly familiar and rote despite an intriguing set-up.

It is a shame that it doesn’t work better. Vanishing Point brings us back to the idea that Archer and his crew are pioneers in space exploration. The teaser reminds us that the crew of the Enterprise still don’t take the transporter for granted – that it is still something of a mystery to them, despite the audience’s familiarity with the device. Vanishing Point feels like the first time that Enterprise has emphasised this sense of novelty and inexperience since the first season.

Reflections...

Reflections…

However, the episode feels like something of a disappointment. The entire story turns out to be a gimmick and a twist. There is nothing wrong with this sort of storytelling. After all, the franchise has played these sorts of games before. Indeed, some of Braga’s best scripts – Frame of Mind and Projections come to mind – touch on similar ideas with similar twists. The problem with Vanishing Point is that these twists seem a bit too loose or too disconnected to properly resonate.

Vanishing Point feels like the rough sketch of a good episode doodled quickly on the back of a napkin, a collection of connective clauses all designed to keep the story ticking for forty-five minutes before ending on a fairly stock twist. There is a great deal of potential here, but Vanishing Point never quite delivers on it.

Trip Tucker: Space Tourist...

Trip Tucker: Space Tourist…

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