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Millennium – Walkabout (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.

Walkabout continues to demonstrate the flexibility of Millennium‘s format.

Millennium is often unfairly dismissed as a “serial-killer-of-the-week” show, an impression undoubtedly created by the stretch of early- to mid-season episodes that adopted an almost procedural formula in their exploration of evil. However, after Sacrament, the show takes a break from those narratives to do something a little more experimental and nuanced. Covenant had seen Frank investigating a murder that had already been solved. Here, Frank finds himself struggling to piece together a fractured memory of his own recent experiences.

A bleedin' disaster!

A bleedin’ disaster!

Walkabout is the third of four scripts from writer Chip Johannessen in the first season of Millennium. Each is a rather strange entity; doing something strange or unconventional for the show, helping to define the boundaries for this young television series. Walkabout is perhaps most interesting for the way that it engages with an aspect of Millennium that has been bubbling away in the background since The Pilot. Although Walkabout never explores the nature or purpose of Frank’s visions, the episode is built around the visions as a concept rather than simply a tool.

Walkabout is an unsettling and effective mood piece that grows more conventional as it progresses. While the final act is a little clunky, Walkabout is a fascinating piece of television and a demonstration of how Millennium has found its own voice.

"Let me outta here!"

“Let me outta here!”

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The X-Files – Beyond the Sea (Review)

Ah, Beyond the Sea. My favourite episode of the first season. Maybe my favourite episode of the first two seasons, although I’ll confess that my opinion is prone to change. I’m in good company. Darin Morgan points to it as his favourite episode. Chris Carter has (again and again) singled it out as the best episode of the show’s first season – a piece of television that works “on every level.”

It’s easy to point out all the exceptional stuff in Beyond the Sea. Gillian Anderson is phenomenal, as we’ve come to suspect from spending half a season with her. David Duchovny is quite happily relegated to a supporting role, willing to allow his co-star room to breathe. Brad Dourif is sensational. Glenn Morgan and James Wong’s script is phenomenal. David Nutter’s direction is absolutely top-notch.

However, what always struck me about Beyond the Sea was just how incredibly confident and casual it was. It was bold and clever and provocative, but it was also tight and controlled. It’s brilliant, but it never feels like this isn’t a level of craft the show can’t consistently hit.

We are the dead...

We are the dead…

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The “Meta” Mystery Approach…

I’ve always been fascinated by mysteries in fiction. That said, I will concede I’ve never really been particularly good at picking up on the hints within the work itself designed to point towards a particular perpetrator. I haven’t necessarily got the skills to pick up on what tiny little detail mentioned in dialogue or the tiniest little action that supports a particular conclusion – it’s just not how my mind works. Instead, perhaps as a direct result of watching far too many movies, I find it more relevent to look at factors outside the fictional world where the mystery is set in order to reach a conclusion – I’m more likely to identify the culprit by reference to the film itself than the clues on hand.

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The Leading Man Swap-Out…

I live in the same house as my gran (I reckon I’m young enough that it’s still cute rather than creepy), and last week a new boxset of her pet obsession – CSI – arrived in the door. Since she’s in bed shortly after I get home from work, the two of us have been watching episodes of the ninth season of the seminal forensic “drama” (it’s more science-fiction or fantasy, but let’s not quibble). It’s the season that sees former hot young actor of the eighties, William Peterson, replaced by former hot young actor of the nineties, Laurence Fishburne. I’ll admit I haven’t yet watched every episode, but it’s surprising how much I’m not missing the lead who coaxed the show through nearly a decade of airtime. Has CSI seemingly acheived the impossible? Has it successfully swapped out an established leading man?

A Fish(burne) out of water?

A Fish(burne) out of water?

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Crime and Pun-ishment: The Art of the CSI One-Liner

I caught an episode of CSI: Miami last night and I am ashamed to admit that I had forgotten the cheesy power of Horatio Caine and the Sunglasses of Justice. I suspect that, isolated from each other, neither would be of note but, combined, they are unstoppable. Sure, some may question the ability of lead actor David Caruso, but I think it is a breathtaking performance. If he is a wooden performer, he is fashioned from rich mahogany. If he is two-dimensional, he is a Looney Tune of two-dimensionality. If he is a bad actor, he is the Marlon Brando of bad actors. And, in fairness, are you watching for anything other than the one-liners?

Raising Caine...

Raising Caine...

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Yes We Cannes!

So, Cannes is well and truly underway. And without (for the most part) the bitchiness or grumbling that usually accompanies it. What? Journalists might actually enjoy a film festival? Pish-posh. Still, despite the huge backlash against Lars Von Trier, the festival is going down a treat. When a Disney film can open Cannes to universal acclaim (no easy feat), you know something’s off. With the general lack of pithiness that defines Cannes journalism, I don’t know what to make of coverage of Inglourious Basterds. The reviews are mixed at best. I miss the Tarantino who won the Palme d’Or for Pulp Fiction. What happened?

Quentin Tarantino, master of the pop culture cocktail

Quentin Tarantino, master of the pop culture cocktail

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Home Entertainment

I just finished the third season of The Wire on DVD. I am impressed. I never caught the show the first time around, so – as with many of today’s fine televisual treats – it seems to be one best sampled on DVD, at your own pace. It’s a fantastic saga that really capitalises on the previous two seasons (which, while very good fell just short of greatness). I may not be entirely convinced that it is, loike, the best TV show in the world… ever, but I can see why George Hook likes the show.

As I was watching the development of themes and character and mood in the twelve-hour set, I began to think about how far television has come within its own context in the past few years. I remember the days when it was the height of praise to describe a show as being like ‘a new movie every week’. The X-Files, Law & Order, Miami Vice and Star Trek: The Next Generation seemed to epitomise the early wave of this view point, as the networks seemed desperate to sell the illusion that viewers shouldn’t go out to the cinema – the can find entertainment of a similar scale on the box.

Not only can they look moody, the cast of The Wire can also act pretty damn awesome as well...

Not only can they look moody, the cast of The Wire can also act pretty damn awesome as well...

Of course, this wasn’t quite the case. No matter the loft heights that the narratives may reach (and the best television can be as compelling as the best movie or novel or play), the shows were always confined by the ceiling of their budget. So Crockett could crash a speedboat and watch it explode, but he couldn’t blow up a building, or Mulder could see an alien spaceship, but only from the distance as a sequence of blurry lights. You can really only fool the audience so often – eventually they’ll realise the champagne you’re serving is simply apple juice mixed with white lemonade. And treating television as literally a ‘home box office’ also confined the plot: each story had to be self-contained, or you couldn’t mess with the status quo too much, nor develop the characters too far beyond their original positions. It goes without saying that – unless you’re planning a franchise – movie makers rarely have to put the pieces back where they found them. Sure, shows might make a token effort – The X-Files mythology comes to mind – but it would plod rather than glide, if it moved at all.

Television isn’t filmmaking. That should go without saying. As such, it came as a bit of a surprise that it wasn’t really until the last fifteen or so years that writers and producers really embraced the idea. Movies have bigger budgets, but smaller canvas. Your plot pretty much has to fit within two hours (or four if you’re really powerful and can overpower the editor). A television show runs on average about one hundred and fifty episodes. It spans several years in the lives of a bunch of characters. Sometimes events don’t simply occur in handy forty-minute blocks.

As ever, science fiction lead the way, really – but didn’t get the credit. Babylon 5 embraced a complex narrative arc-structure that made the show nigh-impossible to casually follow. Many science fiction nuts would accuse one of the Star Trek spinoffs (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) of stealing the gimick with a densely layoured (yet still relatively accessible) two-and-a-half-year war storyline balancing a huge number of individual characters whose lives changed from week-to-week. Then again, it’s quite likely that not many people know either of these shows. The more geek-aware would note season-long arcs (again carefull constructed so as to not alienate casual followers) on Joss Whedon’s shows Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel.

The approach really made its jump to the mainstream with The West Wing. I love the show, but will readily admit that most of the time the plots made little-or-no-sense in-and-of-themselves, but rather played into larger arcs both in terms of narrative and character. Big events were seldom concluded within the same hour that they commenced (the shooting, the impeachment hearings, the re-election campaign, the middle east initiative, the primaries and the general election, for example). The show went down as the prestigious pretentious drama it was intended to be, but it began to signal that maybe a change was coming.

This was taken on Jack's day off...

This was taken on Jack's day off...

About the same time, Home Box Office began producing its own run of series. Oz, though I love it, was a glorified night time soap opera and a respectable first attempt. The Sopranos is generally acknowledged as their masterpiece, though those seeking to be a little contrarian will champion The Wire as the best HBO series. Either way, both unfolded almost as gigantic miniseries, needing to be viewed as a whole to be appreciated in their full beauty. Sure, most episodes of The Sopranos unfold around an issue of the week in Tony’s life, but these generally play as a solo movement in a larger concerto. I know nothing about music, so I don’t know if I messed up that metaphor.

At the same time, regular television shows such as Lost proved that modern audiences could follow an interweaving, no-answers-up-front style of storytelling, with a carefully-constructed six year arc. Well, either that or they’re making it up as they go along, depending on who you ask. Love it or loathe it, it represents a huge step forward in modern storytelling – contestably one story in 150 smaller chapters. A more obvious example is 24, where literally every hour on screen is an hour in Jack Bauer’s really bad day. The advent of the DVD market at around this time undoubtable helped these shows reach people who want a big story, but are afraid of missing an episode on the television.

I love that television seems to have found a unique way of telling a story. That’s how media evolves. Film took a while to find its feet (initially stalling in boring uninspired adaptations of stage plays), emulating an earlier media form much as television aspired to. Sure, you’ll still find a movie-of-the-week style show or two (Law & Order and the CSI franchise spring to mind), but even those shows seemingly following an episodic story format will infulge the odd long game (the CSI franchise like serial killers, unsurprisingly; Life on Mars saw Sam try to get home while solving the crime o’ the week; House is as much about the protagonists many, many, many on-going issues as it is the patient of the week).

I love movies. I also love television. Variety is the spice of life.

I’m ordering the fourth season of The Wire now…