Cast Against Hype

Reflections on film and other forms of storytelling from a Swedish wannabe-storyteller…

Tag: TV

Dead Serious Digital Dreams in ”Devs”

 

Even if you didn’t know this was the brainchild of a certain Alex Garland, known for ”Ex Machina” and ”Annihilation” just to name a few things, you might have guessed it. On the other hand; I will never know if I had, because that very fact was one of the things that piqued my interest to begin with. Apparently the guy is somewhat fascinated by the Brave New Digital World in general and Artificial Intelligence in particular. 

– So many decisions are made about our future, by people who know so little about our past, complains a character involved in extremely advanced tech development. 

But who can you trust in this day and age, if not the most ground-breaking, pioneering IT companies around? The ones who keep radically changing our entire worldview and our potential as a species? What could possibly go wrong? 

The techno-conglomerate around which everything revolves in ”Devs” certainly has power and influence. Big buildings, impressive architecture surrounded by lush environment while harbouring a few secrets. One employee, recently recruited to the most secretive, prestigious department of all, suddenly dies. Suicide, according to the company itself, a version supported by a disturbing video which would convince most people. One notable exception being the dead guy’s girlfriend who also happens to be employed by them. Industrial espionage appears to be part of the story, but as the series moves along it becomes pretty clear that’s not the real point, rather a narrative device to get the plot going. 

So, what is ”Devs” about, really? This is where it gets interesting for real. You have a traumatized but still determined young woman seeking the truth about a gruesome death, her ex-boyfriend reluctantly being brought in to help her in her quest; a likewise emotionally damaged tech visionary running experiments concerning the past, using advanced algorithms in his own quest to determine the future, and, well… There are other things going on here, but what makes this show special is the philosophical-existential inquiry. The plotting may be somewhat scattered and some details are simply there to make things happen, quite obviously so. But Garland and his team are on their own quest. The search for the truth about free will, maybe?

Remember the Tree of Knowledge, as described in The Book of Genesis: How much knowledge is too much? Is it a good idea to accomplish everything we can accomplish? Would it actually be possible in the near future to predict all human behaviour based on what happened before, as registered by powerful computers examining every pattern in history since the dawn of time? Then again, the idea of a Multiverse, where there might be different potential scenarios playing out simultaneously. There are competing views displayed here, regarding the idea of one given direction as opposed to multiple, parallel outcomes depending on where a certain simulation takes you. If I got this right. And I can’t say I’m 100 percent certain of anything even after watching the complete miniseries. 

”Devs” in other words, deals openly and unashamedly with the why of everything. As a viewer though, of course you will notice how the showrunners make choices in terms of visual design and – not to be neglected – sound. Sometimes it’s all stunningly beautiful and the next moment permeated by everyday greyness, but there is a clear visual strategy. Garland and his accomplices are also fond of starting out and finishing episodes accompanied by minimalist yet suggestive and intriguing pieces of music, emphasizing dissonant harmonies and reinforcing that sense of uncertainty; the paradoxical qualities of a show that manages to be frightening, inspiring, surprising and soothing in almost equal measure. You could argue it’s moving at a snail’s pace at times before exploding and turning things we’ve seen so far on its head. It illustrates breathtaking concepts followed by mundane observations. 

If someone tells you what you are going to do, how will it affect what you actually do? The question of free will and the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy comes into play. It becomes increasingly obvious that the show asks you to deal with concepts like determinism and destiny. If there really is a choice or everything you do in life is the inevitable result of events and actions that took place before. When someone tells our heroine ’the sense that you were participating in life was only ever an illusion’ this might be where the plot was leading us all along. Or maybe there are conflicting worldviews here: one or the other could be confirmed, while another is discarded. Unless there are options and we are given the choice of deciding to which one we prefer to subscribe. Arguably, not all of the problems presented are resolved, simply because it’s kind of impossible. But ”Devs” does manage to maintain suspense and unpredictability all the way into the closing moments. Amen. 

Remember This? A Movie Trailer Like No Other…

Times are tough. We need stuff like this, right? Like the movie trailer to end all movie trailers, presented some years ago as… yes, a spoof. But it does have everything you could possibly want from a trailer. Will it ever turn into a proper… movie? Probably not. Since it is also Holy Week, I’ll try to get back to you soon with a few suggestions for Easter-themed films to seek out this weekend. Until then… Have a little fun with this. You know you need it.

Spies, Drugs and Seriously Disturbed Characters – My Top 20 TV Shows of the Decade

The Walking Dead. Mad Men. Not included. So, there. For some reason I’m still stuck somewhere in the third season of TWD and just barely got around to watch a few episodes of MM. Maybe I will do something about that later. Still, there is so much. Too much. To watch. Here’s what stuck with me more than most of all the stuff out there. Some stories are apparently finished while others are still being told. The final verdict on some of these epics might change for the better – or worse. But, for now, this is it. 

1. Breaking Bad (2008-2013, created by Vince Gilligan). It simply shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Could you even describe the basic premise and the general circumstances without scaring off most potential viewers? Bit by bit, it turned out a lot of us were inexplicably drawn into the tale of a middle-aged, burnt-out and bitter chemistry teacher on his new path as career criminal. The show just got better and better. And finally – the best. 

– So we made the list? Second best? Let’s get the barbecue going, then! Credit: hbonordic.com

2. Game of Thrones (2011-2019, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss). It was the biggest show on earth, like. And still, the final stretch became such a profoundly polarizing experience that different factions of fans seemingly were prepared to go to war with each other. Personally, most of the last season actually worked for me. But it’s obvious that the creators had created an impossible task for themselves. They couldn’t bring the whole world together. On the other hand, who can? All in all, however; the complete story, the visuals, the characters and the world-building was a monumental piece of work to behold, marvel at and sometimes, argue about.

3. The Americans (2013-2018; Joseph Weisberg). Sure. They do spy a lot. Och oh, do they deliver a particular kind of 1980’s nostalgia. But above all, this is the story of family and friendship. How to nurture your most important relationships when circumstances are extreme and you never can be completely honest and truthful. How do you save your soul? And what is the deepest meaning of identity?

Only fourth place? Well, the only way is up, baby! Credit: hbonordic.com

4.  Billions (2016- ; Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin). Big money, huge egos, lack of impulse control and lots of vengeance… We might not be exactly like them, but they’re still us. 

5. Penny Dreadful (2014-2016; John Logan). Gothic retro-horror where they by all reasonable standards crammed in too many ingredients and ideas and bloody kitchen sinks… But still, it worked. The show dared to take itself seriously throughout. And they didn’t have a lot of reasons to smile, so they simply didn’t very often. What it was, was a brutally beautiful journey into darkness and back again. For some, at least. 

6. The Knick (2014-2015; Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, Steven Soderbergh). Yes, I know. Most people missed it. And the allure of dangerously pioneering medical science in a New York City circa 1900 might be limited to a small crowd. Still, Clive Owen starred. Steven Soderbergh directed everyone of the 20 episodes produced. The result was something special. 

7. Narcos (2015- ; Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato). Spectacular scenery and urban melting pots. Profitable business and brutal conflict. A piece of modern history that could have been told in a number of different ways. This has proved to be an almost constantly intriguing one.

8. Black Sails (2014-2017; Robert Levine, Jonathan Steinberg). Spectacular spectacle but what’s the story, really? That seemed to be the initial audience reaction. And the showrunners never seemed visibly concerned about making it too easy and relatable, for which I’m thankful. They went ahead and followed a particular vision all the way, displaying death-defying attitude and creating a bittersweet aftertaste that I wouldn’t have expected when they first set sail.

9. Fargo (2014- ; Noah Hawley). People and places shifted between every season. But the atmosphere and the tone remained intact. Though, it was near impossible improving on the second round and its portrayal of feuding families in the 1970s; the devastating effects of greed on everyone, from hardened criminals to seemingly ordinary folks.

Staring down the opponent. Sometimes it’s a working strategy. Will ”Westworld” wipe out all competition in the coming decade? Credit: hbonordic.com

 10. Westworld (2016- ; Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan). Did I properly understand everything so far? Probably not. ”Westworld” is still such a powerful creative cacophony of impressions and ideas that it’s hard to resist and maybe even more difficult to let go of afterwards. 

11. The Bureau – Le Bureau des Légendes (2015- ; Eric Rochant). Oh, the French. They also make spy dramas. At least this one, which is so impressively obsessed with every detail in the spying game, and so anxious to show you the real consequences of it that it quickly becomes addictive, once you’ve figured out that it does actually exist and where to find it.  

12. The Handmaid’s Tale (2017- ; Bruce Miller). First season – devastatingly powerful. Second round – almost as good. Third one – not sure yet. Haven’t seen all the episodes, and maybe they’re starting to get slightly sidetracked. Still… Strong stuff. 

13. Homeland (2011- ; Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon). You can say a lot of things about this show; mixed messages, contrived plotlines, improbabilities and a not always likeable or comprehensible heroine. Well. They do know to tell a story and keep up the pace. And at its very best it is thought-provoking in the best way possible. 

14th place? Well. After all, we’re just leftovers… Credit: hbonordic.com

14. The Leftovers (2014-2017; Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta). Heavy going. It is undoubtedly one of the most innovative, original shows this millennium so far. It demands something of you, sometimes you just need to take a break and get back to it later. And once again prepare to be blown away and profoundly disturbed, before the next…break. 

15. Orphan Black (2013-2017; John Fawcett, Graeme Manson). In some ways the most impressive individual performance of an actor these last years. Tatiana Maslany incorporates a number of clones with distinct personalities during five seasons of almost constantly highly entertaining science fiction/relationship drama for our times. 

16. La Casa de Papel – Money Heist (2017- ; Álex Pina). Talking about entertaining. Spanish criminals battling the law in a scheme that might have borrowed some ideas from Spike Lee’s ”Inside Man” to begin with, but moved on to paint a larger canvas and force you to consider your sympathies over and over again. 

17. The Bronze Garden – El Jardín de Bronce (2017- ; Gustavo Malajovich, Marcos Osorio Vidal). Two miniseries so far of this Argentine mystery-thriller-drama beginning with the disappearance of a child and her father’s relentless search for the truth. Atmospheric, haunting and deeply human. 

18. Barry (2018- ; Alec Berg, Bill Hader). Funny guy, that Hader. He basically decided to make his own main character the most serious, least overtly funny guy in the show. Because he doesn’t need to be. He is suffering. So are most other characters in here, but still, together they pack such a mean comedic punch while being dead serious, that the show creates a universe of its own. Still ongoing – where will it end up?

19. Jane the Virgin (2014-2019, Jennie Snyder Urman). ’After all, this is a telenovela…’ Well, sort of. Playing around with genre conventions and basically every storytelling tool ever invented, while portraying some really relatable characters in sickness and health, infatuation and insidious scheming, it was impossible not to like. 

An award to kill for, you said? By the time we’re finished we’ll be number one – trust me. Credit: hbonordic.com

20. Killing Eve (2018- , Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Weird relationships. Indeed. Assassins and law-abiding officers facing off with unpredictable outcomes. Feels like the bigger story is still in its initial phase. What will come out of this in the end?

 

Almost Made It: The Honourable Woman (Hugo Blick), Luther (Neil Cross), Bosch (Michael Connelly, Eric Overmyer), True Detective (Nic Pizzolatto), Taboo (Chips Hardy, Tom Hardy), The Expanse (Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby),  Mindhunter (Joe Penhall), American Gods (Bryan Fuller, Michael Green), Chernobyl (Craig Mazin), The Good Fight (Robert King, Michelle King, Phil Alden Robinson).  

Honourable Mentions: Bloodline, The Path, Banshee, Berlin Station, Masters of Sex, The Walking Dead, The Newsroom, The Brink, Outlander, Mr. Robot, Hannibal, Club de Cuervos, One Day at a Time, Sherlock, The Night Of, Bodyguard, Ray Donovan, Fortitude, Orange Is the New Black, Boss…

My Gendrified ‘Game’ Theory Still in Play?

Best laid plans… Don’t always result in the desired outcome. Expect the unexpected in the last two episodes of ”Game of Thrones”? Photo Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO.

So, still around, isn’t he? Oh – for those of you not up to date on current events in the world of ”Game of Thrones”, here might be a few spoilers. Or more correctly, there are. Not too many, but still; my man Gendry did survive The Long Night and subsequently got snubbed by Arya. At least in the form of a Lady to accompany him at ”Storm’s End”, for which he’d just been appointed caretaker manager. Or maybe simply ”Lord”. Queen Daenerys is trying to make new friends, although her impatience seems to create more problems than before – as if she needed more of those. The latest episode got intensely emotional in the last half hour and we’re definitely back to the uncertainties and complexities from the early seasons. So, a few weeks ago I toyed with the idea of Gendry the Blacksmith, Baratheon bastard, could eventually turn out to be the ruler of all seven kingdoms after all other options have been exhausted. Not entirely surprisingly, there are others out there considering a similar outcome. Like in the most recent episode of Entertainment Weekly’s Game of Thrones podcast, available ’where you get your podcasts’ or simply their website. Their Gendryfication prediction is pronounced 20 minutes into their analysis of the ”Last of the Starks” episode. If, that is, anyone at all should have absolute power. Which is also a topic briefly raised later in this particular podisode. Well then, 71 ”GoT” chapters down, two more to go. A lot more can, and probably will, happen. But I guess I have to rule out Theon being involved in running an ice hotel business north of the wall. At least he went out on top.

 

Related: EW’s Game of Thrones Weekly podcast breaks down ‘The Last of the Starks’ / Darren Franich,  May 06, 2019, Entertainment Weekly

Who Will End Up On the Throne? A Game Theory…

Gendry and Arya. Talking about important stuff. And possibly planning a political coup? Photo Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

You might have noticed it was about to start over again. Or, that it actually did. Beginning of the end. Final Season of an epic that quite literally moved between ice and fire for almost a decade. This past winter I entertained an obviously overly optimistic plan notion of rewatching all of the previous seasons before the final stretch. As it is I’m approaching the Red Wedding, which of course means I’m somewhere in the late third season. Some of us have day jobs. And other shows to watch…

Needless to say, a lot has happened since that infamous event. In case you happen to speak (and read) Swedish, seasons 1-7 are all reviewed at russin.nu. Two episodes into Season 8, it’s definitely on again. Commentary, analysis, recaps – online, printed or podcasted regarding the way the show manages (or not) to live up to all of these different expectations. ”Game of Thrones” does, as we all know, not display precisely the same priorities as it did when it first appeared. It’s grander, visually more spectacular and dwarfing all competition in the special effects department, rather than the Medieval Times-inspired drama with some fantasy components added that we saw coming out of the gates in 2011. Good thing or not? I hadn’t read the books at all when I started watching the show, but I did get through the first two novels a while back to compare the George R.R. Martin vision with that of showrunners Benioff & Weiss at least to some degree. Sometimes they actually improve on the source material, other times they obviously have to leave out exciting stuff. And I still consider Seasons 1, 3 and 4 my personal favourites. That said, how could I not look forward to see this to the end? Who’s going to take the throne, for one thing? 

Well, here we go. Gendry. The guy without any visible ambitions beyond tending to his craft, down in a darkened forge somewhere, depending on where he’s needed and as you might remember, also depending on the need to hide. He’s always been trying hard to avoid attention, learning the leechy way what can happen when the wrong people find out you’ve got royal blood running in your veins (then again, who doesn’t in Westeros these days?). But, when all the others have tired of battling – or simple been wiped out by enemies, living or walking dead, he will reluctantly accept responsibility and take on the task of running the seven kingdoms, maybe not so much with an iron hand but very likely employing Arya Stark as personal bodyguard (and maybe more, depending on how you interpret what came out of their interactions in the dungeon last week). Remember Hot Pie? Regardless of where he resides right now, he will have to move to the capital and run the Royal Kitchen. Daenerys and Jon Snow, confused about who’s really got the strongest claim to the crown, will give it all up and find freedom in simply roaming around the known world riding the backs of dragons. Or eventually found the precursor of what we know as modern-day travel agencies. 

Cersei, yeah, Cersei. Finally, she’s about to realize that a life in luxury without any real friends whatsoever is somewhat overrated and decide to seek life in silent seclusion at some isolated abbey, maybe on one of these small islands we seldom get to visit on the show. The supercynical power player might really get religion at last – and there are a few to choose from. She might bring the baby we haven’t seen yet, or give it up for adoption. Sansa, Theon and Brienne, probably eagerly assisted by Tormund Giantsbane, get into the hotel business. North of the now breached wall. An ice hotel, but that goes without saying I guess, with guided tours into the ’Formerly known as Night King-land’. Did I get forget something important? Advisers to the young ruler? There are still some moderately clever people around to choose from. Eventually it could all end up with some sort of a protosocialist cooperate or social-liberal democracy with free elections and a universal basic income. 

Unless they’re all dead by then. But of course, all of these predictions hinges on the result of the upcoming battle between the Living and the White Walkers & Co. All of this might be completely out of the question just a few days from now. We simply have to wait and see. 

My Personal Oscar Predictions 2019. Just Because.

Who will win? Why? Will anyone care and will there actually be a show at all? Questions abound this year, possibly more so than ever. Judging from a number of pundits, and in my case listening to a more than a few film-related podcasts lately, there are reasons to worry. There might not even be a traditional host, for various reasons. No one to lead the masses through the raging Red Carpet and beyond like a Modern-day Moses… And you’re supposed to be good at this! You, Americans. Usually, you do know how to put on a good show. Ever watched the Swedish equivalent of the Oscars ceremony? Don’t expect to be blown away.

Anyway, there’s not a lack of worthy award recipients. This time I’ve seen the majority of the films nominated for a Best Picture award ahead of the show, which doesn’t happen every year. Six out of eight so far. Of these, my personal favourite is, well, ”The Favourite”. Though I wouldn’t weep if ”Roma” was rewarded either. Many people have commented on the fact that there are several blockbusters, hugely commercially successful movies in the competition here, such as ”Bohemian Rhapsody”, ”Black Panther” and ”A Star Is Born”. Critics are deeply divided over the merits of ”Rhapsody”, with a director seemingly fallen from grace and basically ignored in this context. Did I enjoy that film? Yes, I did. Was I among the many Queen fans over her back in the day. You could say that. I’m sure it’s flawed in many ways, but it does keep your attention. However, it will probably not win. ”A Star Is Born” generally seems to have lost its momentum and might go home emptyhanded. At least in the biggest and most talked-about categories. ”Green Book” and ”BlacKkKlansman” (both unseen by me so far) boasts True Story-based concepts that (at least in the the case of the former) have been called into question. Well, all things considered, I’ll go with ”Roma”, even if the Netflix distribution in most parts of the world (such as here in Sweden) might turn some voters off. 

As I mentioned, many take issue with ”Bohemian Rhapsody”, not least regarding what’s in it and what’s left out, but there seems to be a consensus, not 100 percent but maybe 87,5, that Rami Malek does a pretty great job in the leading role. I take the easy way out and predict he wins this category. Though Christian Bale’s transformation into former vice president Dick Cheney might actually be an even better performance. Possibly Bradley Cooper still has a shot, but… Probably not. For the female equivalent I’d love to see newcomer Yalitza Aparicio honoured for ”Roma”, but hey, Olivia Colman is nothing short of masterful as the miserable Queen Anne in ”The Favourite”. I’ll take a chance on Colman. Maybe because I haven’t seen ”The Wife”, for which Glenn Close has already received some love from certain other institutions. Also, she was directed by a Swede so what could possibly go wrong? Lady Gaga? Well, she doesn’t seem as widely appreciated anymore, even if she did a really good job as Coopers protegée in that remake of a remake of a classic that once inspired the 80’s synth-pop sensation ”Don’t You Want Me” by Human League. But I digress. Did I say I’ll go Colman here? Right or wrong, we’ll know tomorrow. Yes, from a European perspective the results will be in tomorrow. 

Male supporting actor? I’ll pass. Haven’t seen Adam Driver, Richard E. Grant or Mahershala Ali do their thing, respectively. Yet.  Supporting Actress does have some juicy parts, and I guess I place my bets on Emma Stone, competing with Rachel Weisz from the same film (”The Favourite”) and Amy Adams (convincingly MacBethian  in ”Vice”) and Marina de Tavira as the grieving, ambivalent housewife in ”Roma”. Regina King seems to have a shot, but you guessed it, I have yet to watch ”If Beale Street Could Talk”. 

Directing: Yes, Alfonso Cuarón already got one of these at home, but ”Roma” is such an prime example of visible direction and vision and all that. How could he lose? Caveat: How good is ”Cold War”? 

Original screenplay… ”First Reformed” has been less than amiably treated in this context. Maybe, maybe writer-director Paul Schrader gets some recognition here, but I doubt it. He will be mostly ignored and the writers of ”The Favourite” rewarded. That wouldn’t be unfair either. I repeat, it’s a great satire/costume dramedy with a brilliant dialogue as the foundation for everything else. Adapted screenplay? I’ll better shut up there. Would have had to see three more nominated films first. 

Cinematography: Sorry. ”Roma” again. It is getting ridiculous, but among so many other things, it’s exceedingly, breathtakingly gorgeous to behold. Production design, Costume and Original Score is where I guess ”Black Panther” will get its recognition tonight. While writing this, I’m actually listening to the Panther soundtrack by Mr Ludwig Göransson (Swedish, just a reminder) and as it happens I should have seen the other four nominees in this category before boldly predicting anything, but you’ve got to live on the edge sometimes, right? 

Will I watch the whole thing? I wish. Over here, you need a special subscription to the internet-based TV channel provided by one of our biggest and most profitable newspapers to have access to the Oscars show nowadays. Could be worth it, but I also have a civilian job. So I suspect there will be recaps on YouTube and podcast postmortems for me instead. Perhaps it’s the safer choice. If all the train-wreck predictions and dire prophecies turn out to be accurate…

Who’s Telling Your Story? Thoughts on ”Westworld” Season 2

To boldly go where no one has gone before… Or search for your own Manifest Destiny, whatever that may be. Existential issues abound in the second season of ”Westworld”. Credit: hbonordic.com

– What humans describe as sane is a narrow range of behaviours. Most states of consciousness are insane.
Yes, we all know by now. That Bernard guy sure knows how to cheer people up. He is a true people person. Or a people… individual, created and designed by (I suppose, but who really knows anything anymore) people, based on what I still believe was a real person. In fact, one of the original creators of that spectacular theme park we’ve come to know as ”Westworld”. Anyway, Mr Bernard Lowe, artificially made as he might be, still possesses a lot of nuance. Maybe more so than most… People?

One of the many points the show seems intent on getting across in this wild ride of a second season is that, well, should we even make that distinction anymore? Between the human beings we think we know as ourselves and the ones meticulously designed in a lab for entertainment purposes? Everyone can die, regardless of your ancestry. And possibly be revived in some form or other. And about the specific purpose of the park, it’s apparently not just what it seemed to be at first glance. These existential and purely practical issues raised in the first round of the show, continues to evolve and be explored, further and deeper, twisting and turning and increasingly confusing. To what end, exactly? I suspect we’re not supposed to be certain of anything at this point. Some day this epic is clearly meant to go on, but we’ll probably have to wait a while. Until then, there are number of things to contemplate and hopefully discuss with other… people. Without the explicit expectation of actually resolving everything in detail. What would be the fun in that?

As we start out this season, the rebellion is on. War of the Hosts. The ’designed’ individuals strike back against their oppressors, the humans that exploited them for what seems like ages, even though the precise time frames in this story never really become determined. Or do they? They weren’t supposed to know. Not to be aware. But now, obviously, enough of them are and it has become a real problem for the corporation running the place. A problem of the ’life or death’ variety. Simultaneously we’re getting introduced to more of the backstory. It starts out in a decidedly action-packed way where everything appears to happen at once, then gives way to an almost solemn meditation on life and its inherent fragility in the second episode ”Reunion”, albeit with a constant present threat of violence. Why do people make the decisions they make and what are the consequences? Oh, I should have mentioned right away that nothing here would make much sense to anyone who didn’t follow the first season from pilot to finale and just decides to dive right in at this point. A word of advice: Don’t.

New doors are being opened, additional secrets revealed. Apparently, there’s an Eastworld as well, set in India. And a Japanese samurai society, perhaps aimed at an audience that already got fed up with the Old West. Still not sure how these provinces fit in the whole, or if they usually interact and connect with what we’ve seen before. Now that all rules have been broken and the system is collapsing, nothing is certain. Or is it? Meanwhile, in the ’regular’ Westworld (whatever that means and how it’s defined) civil war is raging, but it’s not as simple as a two-way conflict. It’s a mess. In the midst of it all we always tend to wind up with Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the formerly innocent and docile country girl you might remember from before. Or was she ever that innocent? She certainly isn’t anymore. She’s woke. And determined to take on every adversary with or without the use of blunt force. A commander, maybe overly reckless and cold-hearted in this ’new’ incarnation. The again, her strategy could arguably be necessary to right the wrongs and see justice done. It’s all a grey area.

Where, when, how and why. All these basic questions are virtually equally important. Origins and evolution. ”Westworld” continues to explore its own universe. The issue of eternal life is part of the package. This elusive dream of never having to disappear and dissolve into nothingness – and what price you’re prepared to pay to achieve it. Since we’re frequently being shuttled back and forth in time, the overall narrative is not entirely clear. Everything tends to get more complicated and I realize that it’s not ideal to start watching this season halfway through, taking a break during vacations (when I simply didn’t have access to the proper channels, as it were) and then try to pick up after the break, a month or so later. Maybe I ought to have started over from scratch. Which could mean the start of this season, or even the very beginning of the show, consuming it all in a few weeks time. That, on the other hand, would carry the risk of resulting in somewhat surreal psychological effects, possibly hallucinations.

Some characters achieve more depth and nuance, while others appear to dig even further down into darkness. Like Ed Harris’ ’Man in Black’, whose backstory now becomes more familiar to us, gets even less sympathetic, derived of conciliatory characterics and redeeming qualities. At least in this Old Man version of himself, the way he acts in a fantasy world he was involved in realizing, but which he doesn’t completely comprehend. Then again, who does?

The most important characters in this vast ensemble are still the ’hosts’, the aforementioned Dolores and the mysterious Maeve (Thandie Newton). Personally, since the beginning I’ve been more intrigued by the latter rather than the increasingly battle-hardened and brutally determined Dolores – who might get just a little too much attention by the showrunners. At least I feel that way until the last episodes, and especially the season finale, when the dogged focus on her development provides more of a pay-off than I expected. Still, ”Westworld” remains a story bigger than that about a few individuals (homo sapiens or otherwise). At its core it’s about, well, people and the human race as a whole. How complicated and nuanced are we really? To which extent are we capable of changing and adjusting our behavioural patterns, and is it likely to be for the better?

Visually, architecturally, sonically and all that – yeah, ”Westworld” is up there among the best of the very best. The look occasionally appears consciously cold and clinical, but it’s never less than impressive and adapted to the purpose. Regarding the storytelling, I think we’re allowed to ask questions like; are there too many twists and turns? But overall, it’s rarely less than intriguing and thought-provoking. The right to tell your own story is becoming a mantra, emphasized not least near the end of the season. What exactly does that mean and how many of us can honestly claim to fully control our own destiny?

”Orphan Black”: Science Fiction With a Whedonesque Sense of Humour

Clones. That’s what it’s about, something of which we will be made aware pretty early on. One of them becomes a witness to another one committing suicide, during the opening scenes in the pilot episode of a show that we started following in our household through one of these increasingly popular streaming platforms, from where virtually all real TV drama seems to emanate, or at least is distributed these days. When the last, concluding moments of the first season are over, it’s obvious that the showrunners have decided there’s more to tell. And indeed, they’ve also managed to create a demand for it.

Science fiction. Simply put. Although with a palpably present time-oriented framing, high pulse rate and a dark, sometimes bordering on sinister sense of humour which helps the show avoid the possible risk of ending up being too serious, distanced and aloof. ”Orphan Black”, produced by BBC America and created by two distinguished gentlemen called John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, is definitively not a strictly kitchen sink realist type of drama (even if you might spot a dirty kitchen sink, literally, now and then). Initially I do experience some issues with the whole ‘suspension of disbelief’ required to really ‘get it’… Just a little. You know – some reactions by the characters involved, when confronted with distinctly life-threatening situations and profoundly life-changing intel, might seem slightly… Off. Not sufficiently connected to the real world most of us inhabit. But I get over it rather quickly. It’s not difficult seeing the upside to just ‘get with the program’, ‘go with the flow’ and accept the show’s reality as presented. The personalities as they are. The constantly forward-moving and generally unpredictable plot. Because it pays off. There’s something Joss Whedonesque at work here, which should appeal to fans of, say ”Firefly”, even in the absence of anything resembling spaceships.

But a lot also boils down to how a certain Tatiana Maslany succeeds with her mission. Her missions. Already in the first episodes we’ve seen her personify a handful of characters, although some of them really rapidly, due to the nature of the plot. Let me reveal: there will be more. And if you like, you can amuse yourself by analyzing exactly how some scenes were planned, staged and executed. Look for some basic information about that on Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia. We’re talking about the numerous occasions where clones interact in a seemingly seamless and natural (though not always peaceful and amicable) way, with two or more characters played by the same actress. Body double, several takes and layers in what’s referred to as a ”very time-consuming process” are apparently part of the modus operandi. And it all looks strikingly natural and credible under the circumstances.

If the drama itself wasn’t so absorbing, these achievements wouldn’t amount to a whole lot anyway. But it is. The contrasting characters; including the clones in the shape of Maslany as well as the supporting cast. They click. Above all, the axis around which all else revolves, the streetsmart small time crook Sarah, who seems to have a rather flexible idea of ethics and the whole right and wrong thing. Watching her own double, or at least in that moment, someone so eerily resembling herself it could have actually been her, throwing herself in front of a passing train, Sarah’s first immediate instinct is to grab hold of her possessions left in the platform, and in the process just accidentally taking over her life. Just for a while, to get a kickstarter making it possible  to start a new life, but of course it will get more complicated than that. Not least because now she has to act the part of a traumatized policewoman, the mysterious look-alike who for some reason couldn’t go on living. But the situation keeps changing and the wheels turn so fast that Sarah’s own quite well-developed survival instincts really get put to the test on a frighteningly frequent basis. In order to be able to see another day at all…

The only thing Sarah knows about her childhood is that she doesn’t know anything about her biological parents. She’s been raised by a British woman, who’s now in custody of the young daughter Sarah hasn’t quite shown the capacity to adequately care for. Yet. Our increasingly fascinating antiheroine’s main sidekick is the likewise orphaned, openly gay ‘brother’ Felix. There you have another potential character cliché – the theatrical, flamboyant, always talkative and ‘funny’ gay friend, you know. And Felix might be all of those things, but somehow actor Jordan Gavaris takes the opportunity to do something interesting with it, casually delivering sarcastic comments while specializing in (if often really reluctantly) saving Sarah and other acquaintances when they’re in trouble. Which, given the circumstances, happen virtually on a daily basis. While also contributing immeasurably to the entertainment value on the whole.

So, what does the show tell us about the technological advances and groundbreaking, controversial experimental science, ethical dilemmas and the value of human life? These questions have to, almost by definition, get incorporated into a concept like this one. And so they do, although not in a preachy, predictable manner but rather inserted in passing. The way the show is constructed and executed demands that we get some answers now and then to the questions which in the spirit of ”Lost” arise constantly along the way, but also that not all plot threads are followed to their logical conclusion and explained too quickly. You must, as the famous mythological storyteller, the Persian queen Scheherazade of ”One Thousand an One Nights”, create a demand for more. As I said in the beginning, they do. And there is. More.

”Game of Thrones” – Great History in a Fantasy Format or Too Grim For It’s Own Good?

Gradually but as it seems, inevitably, I’m there as well. In Westeros. In the magic landscapes where trolls and goblins roam freely among the ‘normal’ people; where noble kings rule, keeping all evil in check while maintaining their own ethics and integrity intact. If only. This is fantasy for grownups, right? Maybe that’s a self-delusion and it’s all about witnessing a morally degrading drama, speaking to our baser instincts. But I keep believing that you actually get wiser and more enlightened by watching ”Game of Thrones”, as well as other high quality series such as ”The Wire”, ”The Shield” or, yes, ”Lost”.

Basically, most of the dramatic storytelling we see involve three things that we’re all concerned with one way or the other – money, sex and power. And violence frequently becomes part of that mixture as a natural ingredient.

Just recently I finished an almost unhealthy exposure to the world of George R. R. Martin, by watching the entire third season of HBO:s fantasy flagship in roughly a week through the program library incorporated in our digital TV subscription (that’s the way it works in Sweden nowadays). The first season I followed somewhat less focused, under different circumstances and it took a lot longer to finish. Which means I lost track now and then, and didn’t really enter into the Sacred Covenant like the early adoptors. And there were apparently a lot of these people, not least those who previously read all the books. Until this day, I still haven’t. The second season, I watched on a weekly basis on national Swedish, non-commercial television and became more and more involved in the storyline, despite the fact that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, quite as compelling as the first ten hours of the show.

Lately I’ve also been listening to a few of the podcasts dealing with the show, primarily ”A Cast of Kings”, hosted by David Chen and Joanna Robinson who start out every single broadcast with the declarations ”I haven’t read any of the books in George R. R. Martins series” and ”I have read all the books…” respectively.

Since I ‘discovered’ the wonderful world of podcasts, I’ve learned to appreciate the ones who don’t get caught up in the most obvious and common traps, like having discussions via Skype, something usually affecting the sound quality to a troubling degree. Or the ones being too uncritical or who simply know each other too well, which might make them lose focus and get lost in their own internal friendly banter, not always decipherable to outsiders – like their intended audience. Chen & Robinson generally manage to accomplish a working dynamic and stick to the subject without excluding humour and spontaneity. Their differing starting points make for often entertaining confrontations and opposing views, though they more often than not seem to agree on the basic issues. Anyway, the content as a whole is above average interesting in this world of aficionados creating their own shows and brands, sometimes financially supported by enthusiastic listeners or organizations.

Occasionally I’ve been caught up in historical TV dramas like ”The Tudors” and there’s an obvious point of reference to ”Game of Thrones”. History that’s been documented and then fictionalized, probably with a lot of artistic license involved, has quite a few similarities with the world George R. R. Martin has created. As it happens, a while ago historian Tom Holland wrote a piece in The Guardian, comparing some real and invented characters in these two shows and also hailing the virtues of ”Thrones”. Following a dramatized historical happening can be exciting, even though we might already know the outcome, Holland thinks. But not knowing what will happen brings an extra allure. And a character like the shrewd fictitious power player Lord Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is in many ways comparable to Thomas Cromwell, one of the most famous advisors in Henry VIII‘s court, and a key supporting player in ”The Tudors”. At least until… Well you might know what happens. Or not. Generally, Holland finds many similarities between ”Thrones” and medieval England. But that’s not all. As an author, Martin apparently seeks inspiration from all possible historical periods and places; the time of the Vikings, the Roman Empire, the Mongols under the leadership of Genghis Khan…

It could have been a ”hideous mess”, but instead it’s ”a perfect cocktail” according to Tom Holland. And the real strength isn’t the fact that’s a world som fantastic and supernatural, but simultaneously so realistic and relatable. Not least when it concerns the subjects of kingdoms ruled by feuding and antagonistic rivals, eager to claim the throne for themselves no matter what.

One who doesn’t agree completely is the author Jonathan Ryan, commenting the fantasy phenomenon for Christianity Today. In his view Martin has crafted his universe very skilfully, but it’s still too dark and unrelentingly grim in its portrayal of humanity in his series, where heroes along the lines of the ones we come across in ”Lord of the Rings” are basically absent. Martin can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel the same way J. R. R. Tolkien does, which makes him too jaded and narrowminded to be really realistic. ”He is looking at the world with just one jaundiced, damaged eye” in the words of Ryan. Well, that’s an entirely valid point of view, isn’t it? Personally I can’t be sure of the way I will interpret the finished story, if there is one in ”Game of Thrones”. All the books aren’t even written yet, supposedly. So there is still a long road ahead. For the moment at least, I am fascinated. Very much so.

”The Bible”: Tense and Turbulent Testament, for Better or Worse

At least they seem to have had a decent special effects budget. The new dramatized Bible series, produced for History Channel by Mark Burnett and Roma ”Touched by an Angel” Downey is otherwise struggling with a certain turbulence of its own. And I’m not sure it could be characterized as a consistently well-structured drama, judging from the first 90-minute episode, shown on Swedish Television (SVT) yesterday. But it does make these old stories, familiar for many of us, come alive again.

To begin with, we are transported without warning into the raging seas, where Mr Noah relates the highlights of World history thus far, from the Garden of Eden until the start of the Flood. The story of Adam and Eve and their lack of proper clothing does often seem to present a dilemma for not least overtly Christian filmmakers, but now they’re able to deal with that little incident with the forbidden fruit in a few quick cuts and then move on rapidly, well, rush, really – to other supposedly more edifying stuff. Such as jealousy, rage and revenge, massacres of enemies and… you know the drill. Large swaths of the Old Testament are by definition, not entirely appropriate for children, but they’re also fascinating stories that tell us a great deal about the delicate art of being human, interpreted again and again by generation after generation in a significant percentage of the world as we know it.

This time the focus first really aims at Abraham and his younger relative Lot, including the destruction of Sodom, here presented with an added bonus in the shape of Mature Mutant Ninja Angels of Death. I thought I might have missed something last time I read the story, and as it turns out the series creators have (surprisingly enough) taken some certain dramatic licence here and there. I double-checked with Genesis chapter 19 and indeed the angels are there, and they do turn some Sodomite sinners blind, but they’re not explicitly armed and up for a swordfight in the Desert City of Doom. Just so you know. In the case of Abraham, his anguish over having to split up a family, being the father of two sons with two different mothers, is rather well and vividly portrayed in my opinion. although it ends too abruptly and less satisfying, considering the resonance the tale of Isaac and Ishmael still contains in today’s world.

The Lion’s share of high-pitched drama and climactic sequences is reserved for Moses. He’s not played by Charlton Heston this time around, but he’s still a pretty impressive presence (even if I can’t find the actor’s name either on Internet Movie Database nor anywhere else at the moment). The Exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, have been strategically placed shortly before the end of the first episode and the following ‘previews of coming attractions’ such as King Saul and his off-and-on protegé David, Samson the hairy heavy-lifting guy and a certain Jesus. The budget seems overall to have been decent and production values convincing as a whole. The acting is a somewhat uneven thing, with some especially impressing performances that do stand out in the crowd. But remember it’s a cast with precious few household names involved.

And so, the decisive question: how often will Satan himself keep lurking around in the background, you know the guy some people in the blogosphere have identified as suspiciously resembling Barack Obama? I am quite sure I saw him somewhere already in the first part. The Evil One in his incarnation, by the way, is played by a Mr Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni who is not new to Biblical dramas, according to IMDb. And, if the producers of the show are to be believed, he’s not at all meant to make people think of the current US president, regardless of the speculations.

All in all, to be continued…

Note: This short review can also be found on russin.nu in a Swedish-language version.

Official site for the History Channel’s Bible series

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Note: This post has also been published at Yemenity2010. It has been slightly altered and updated in some details here. 

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