Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Supernatural Rewatch: Season 2

Supernatural was coming into its own at the end of the first season, and its great to see that the creators didn't drop the ball going into the sophomore year. The series starts with a bold move, killing off John Winchester. This event will reverberate through the season, as the boys not only cope with their fathers death, but it also introduces the Winchesters' penchant for bargaining their lives away in order to protect their family.

Even though the search for daddy was officially over, the Yellow Eyed Demon was still around, and his plans for Sam moved to center stage. Picking up the thread introduced in "Nightmare" we discover Sam is one of hundreds of potential leaders for a demon army, destined to fight Highlander style until there is just one left standing. We meet more psychics in "Simon Said" and "Hunted" but the real grist for the story mill comes from Sam's self doubt and Dean's burdens.

Sam's arc plays out well in the end, but along the way I had doubts. He seems too ready to believe he'll turn evil, without much reason for it. There are also a few too many episodes that deal with his conflict in a heavy handed manner ("Heart" being a prime example). Dean's arc feels more natural, perhaps because it doesn't get the spotlight until the end of the season. But when the time comes, I had no trouble believing that he would take the drastic measures he does.

This season also introduces us to characters and plotlines that will carry over at least another season. Bobby (introduced at the end of season 1), Ellen, Jo, Ash and the Roadhouse serve as common touchstones throughout the season, "Crossroads Blues" gives the brothers a quick way to make a deal with the devil, "Nightshifter" puts FBI Agent Victor Henrikson on the boys' tail following the events of "Skin", twisted hunter Gordon Walker is introduced in "Bloodlust", and "Tall Tales" is the first episode to feature the Trickster. This mythology building goes a long way towards fleshing out the Supernatural universe, and from keeping the series from getting bogged down in a single story arc.

With all of these developments there aren't nearly as many true stand alone episodes as last year. Werewolves, hell hounds, rakshahas, demigods, and djinn join the ghosts, demons, vampires and shifters that theaten our heroes this season. While the budget limitations often shine through here (the werewolves basically have a fright wig, claws and fangs), the point is not so much to create awesome monsters but to let them serve as living metaphors for Sam and Dean's turmoil. The werewolf, for instance, is (rather bluntly) used to illustrate Sam's struggle with his own dark half. It doesn't always work, but the decision to keep the focus on the boys remains the right one more often than not.

In an attempt to pick up ratings, Kripke consciously embraced stunt casting, tapping some familiar genre faces in an attempt to lure in fans. Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Chris Gauthier (Eureka, Smallville), and Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica) each had significant roles, but the coup was landing Linda Blair (The Exorcist) in the role of a St. Louis detective. One guest they coudn't land was Summer Glau (Firefly, The Sarah Connor Chronicles), originally envisioned as the zombie in "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things."

For my money the show's biggest "get" was Tick creator Ben Edlund. Edlund had experience with genre television, having written and produced for both Firefly and Angel, but his best gift is his wicked sense of humor. While Supernatural did not lack for scares, it also ramped up the humor. His touch is evident in the three episodes he scripted - "Simon Said," "Nightshifter," and "Hollywood Babylon", but it is likely no coincidence that other episodes seemed to have a sharper wit than in the first season.

The season ends with "All Hell Breaks Loose," a two part episode that brings the Yellow Eyed Demon and psychic children arc to a close, while laying the ground work for season three. If you don't know what happens, there's no sense in spoiling it here. Suffice it to say the wrap up is satisfying, and once again leaves fans on the edge of their lay-z-boys.

Overall this was a very good season that really opened up the series' potential. It managed to both flesh out Sam and Dean as well as the world that they live in. It was also remarkably even in quality - there weren't many jaw dropping shows, nor any that stuck out as being offensively stupid. Picking a top five list and a season stinker proved difficult, but here they are:

Top Five Episodes From Season 2:

2.8 "Crossroad Blues": I love the Robert Johnson legend, so this was right up my alley. Invisible hell hounds could have been eye rolling, but good direction and sound design makes them unforgettable. Dean's battle of wits with the demon is a standout.

"Yeah, MySpace, what the hell is that? Seriously, is that like some sort of porn site?"

2.12 "Nightshifter": Conspiracy theories, shape shifters, and a standoff in a bank come together in a show that shifts from hysterically funny to intense and creepy. Gauthier's Ronald is one of the show's best guest characters, and the final scene, played to Styx's "Renegade", is one of the series' best denouements.

"You working for the Mandroid?"

2.15 "Tall Tales": Enter the Trickster. Supernatural's first straight up comedy is flat out funny. Such a tonal shift could have fell flat, but the execution is superb. I'll never hear "Lady in Red" without thinking of this episode.

"They probed me... again and again and again... (drinks)... and again and again and again.... and one more time."

2.18 "Hollywood Babylon": Another comedy, this time filled with injokes for the fans and loaded with barbs aimed at the entertainment industry.

"Not married to salt, what do you want? still sticking with condiments?"
"Just sounds different, not better. What else would a ghost be scared of?"
"Maybe shotguns."
"That makes even less sense than salt."

2.20 "What Is and What Never Should Be": I'm a sucker for alternate realities, so this already had a leg up, but what stands out is how it shifts our perception of Dean from the cool as a cucumber hunter to a guy who just wants a normal life.

"Son? You been drinking?"
" Everybody keeps asking me that. But no."

Season Stinker:
2.13 "Houses of the Holy": It's not terrible, but it is forgettable and as happened so often this season, a bit too on the nose when dealing with Sam's issues. On the other hand it has Dean and the vibrating bed.

"There's a ton of lore on unicorns too. In fact, I hear that they, they ride on silver moonbeams, and they shoot rainbows out of their ass."


Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Divide

Director: Xavier Gens

Writers: Karl Mueller, Eron Sheean
Genre: Post Apocalyptic Thriller

Recommended to: People who think people suck
Characters: Eva (Laura German): Our lead, Sam’s girlfriend
                          Sam (Ivan Gonzalez): Eva’s boyfriend
                          Mickey (Michael Biehn): Building super
                          Josh (Milo Ventimiglia): Adrien’s brother
                          Adrien (Ashton Holmes): Josh’s brother, Bobby’s friend
                          Bobby (Michael Eklund): Adrien’s friend
                          Devlin (Courtney B. Vance): Just a guy
                          Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette): Wendi’s mother
                          Wendi (Abbey Thickson): Marilyn’s daughter
Synopsis: Tenants take refuge in their building’s bomb shelter during a nuclear strike, only to find themselves trapped together with dwindling resources and no WiFi.

Spoiler Warning!
The Divide’s best sequence revolves around the abduction of Wendi by mysterious people in biohazard suits. We get a small glimpse of the new world order, and taste an enticing mystery. Then the door gets shut, our characters sealed in, and we wait for them to die. This is what makes it hard for me to recommend the film. We’ve seen such “Lifeboat” stories before (including 90% of the zombie movies ever made), but those usually offer some hope of escape, and some measure of camaraderie among the trapped bastards, but I found the Divide relentlessly pessimistic.

The only character I could sympathize with was Devlin, as he was the one trying to pull them together, the one trying to be proactive, but then he’s dispatched early (and you know why that was), and we just watch the characters rot. I couldn’t even root for Eve, the viewer surrogate, as her most appealing trait was that she wasn’t as awful as the others.
Dramatically we should have had a three way power struggle, with Martin holding onto his stash, the Peter Petrelli trio trying to take over, and Devlin trying to pull the others together for safety. Killing off Devlin leaves the others anchorless, and Martin is too reclusive to be a good foil to the three men. And outside Marilyn’s acknowledgement that sex was her best way to survive, I didn’t find the interpersonal politics all that interesting.

It also hurt that we never again went to the outside. A tantalizing mystery is dangled before us early on, and just dropped. Sure, if this was really happening it makes sense that our characters never learn the truth. But as a viewer it was incredibly frustrating.
The Divide is not a bad film by any measure. It is just dark and bleak and uncomfortable, too much so even for me. Of course not everyone will respond to the characters as I did. If you have an interest in survival stories or post-apocalyptic tales, there is enough here to warrant a viewing. The direction and performances are solid, and there are some very tense and disturbing scenes. If the characters happen click with you, you could very well love this film.