Monday, November 16, 2015

Into the bad(writer)lands

Yes, I am going to write about Into the Badlands. Yes, that is a picture of Darryl from The Walking Dead leading off the post because the intent, despite the title, isn't to talk about how bad the writing was on Into the Badlands because it wasn't, overall. I actually found the show to be pretty interesting, if a little shallow but it was a first episode so, whatevs.

No, the moment that really stuck out to me through two hours of TV was one that many people probably coasted past because they either a) didn't know, b) didn't care, or c) thought that what was being portrayed was accurate. That moment was the one where Darryl's new friends, Dwight and Sherry, use insulin to "save" the third new friend, Tina, who's apparently in some form of distress (obviously, a diabetic.)

Now. I've been a diabetic for 40 of my 45 years, so this stuff is as natural as breathing to me. I never begrudge anyone their lack of knowledge of the condition (Tangent: People refer to it as a disease. There is no disease. There's no bacteria or viral agent involved. There may have been when it first emerged, but that's only a theory. It's a condition like having any other body part that doesn't work properly; in my case, the pancreas. /tangent) I've had emergency room residents not know how to respond to various situations (e.g. attempting to treat me for drastically high blood sugar when mine tested within normal limits not 10 seconds earlier) so, despite the prevalence of both type 1 (my type; permanent) and type 2 (can be at least partially alleviated) diabetes in the body public and the social consciousness in recent years, there's still a fair amount of confusion out there about what the condition entails and how to treat its rougher moments.

That being said, there's zero excuse for writing it into your screenplay and not performing the most basic research so that you not only portray the condition accurately for the sake of your story, but also don't mislead your audience into making a potentially fatal mistake if they encounter someone having a problem in the real world.

Left to right: Darryl, Tina, Sherry, Dwight
Darryl escapes from his new "friends" and swipes their infantry duffel bag (which they've stuffed a cocked and loaded crossbow into; Raise your hand everyone who thinks that's a smart idea?) A few minutes later he discovers that the other item in the bag is a small cooler, clearly labeled "Insulin" (this is akin to labeling your bag full of shells "Ammo" so you don't forget; again, WTF?) Darryl, being the morally consistent type in this our semi-civilization, returns with the cooler to the trio so that he doesn't deprive whichever of them needs the drug that's keeping them alive (whether that's a favor or a curse in this our semi-civilization, I'll leave to the viewer to decide.) Now, despite Tina seemingly functioning normally to this point, a few minutes later she's impaired and clearly suffering the effects of hypoglycemia (aka low blood sugar.) "Hypo" means low, as in the body has a calorie deficit and the person afflicted will have muscle spasms, lose motor control, and possibly lose consciousness as the body desperately searches for energy. You know what causes hypoglycemia in diabetics? Insulin. You know what the worst possible response to hypoglycemia is? Injecting someone with insulin. And, yet, that's exactly what Sherry does in order to "save" Tina at a crisis point in the script. What Sherry did there is effectively poison her friend, since Tina's state of semi-consciousness would typically continue to a complete loss of consciousness, seizures and, if it persists long enough, death.

If Tina was suffering from advanced hyperglycemia (aka high blood sugar), she would have been showing effects from it long before the point where she stumbles and collapses and, if she was in the state where she's unable to function, one small injection of insulin isn't really going to help her, since she's probably well on the way to the shutdown of several bodily systems (kidneys, heart, etc.) and the resulting coma and eventual death that follow (also known as the way all diabetics used to die before the synthesis of insulin in the early 20th century.) That injection certainly isn't going to snap her out of her problematic state, so it's pretty safe to assume that writer Heather Bellson figured she'd just take that moment that diabetics have in public sometimes (hypoglycemia) and decided that they must be taking this drug in order to keep those from happening; a misinterpretation that could have been cleared up with five minutes of reading between two pages of Wikipedia. This is writer/producer/director fail.

I mention this not just because it's colossally stupid, but it's also potentially dangerous. Just spinning a struck-by-lightning scenario here: What if the next time someone's suffering from hypoglycemia and unable to respond and someone decides that the solution is to jab them with an insulin syringe, just like they've seen on TV? And I ask this not to do a Helen Lovejoy, but because I've been in the situation where I've been fading out and people have asked me: "Do you need insulin?" Thankfully, I've been aware enough to refuse, but Bellson, director Jeff January, and the producers have just reinforced that idea to the largest single audience in America.

This is the expression of confused dismay that I was wearing.
But the reason I think it's mostly writer fail is not just because of that ridiculous error that, again, could have been resolved with very basic research. It's also the loaded crossbow in the bag thing, where anything (say, a cooler?) could have knocked against the trigger and shot someone in the ass or worse (Sure, Sherry may be a little dim, but if they've survived this long, some sense must be evident.) And the clearly marked cooler, as if the people carrying it need to be reminded of what they're carrying (this is to say nothing of the fact that, in the Georgia heat for an extended period of time, the cooler would have done exactly zero for a drug that needs to remain at room temperature or below to remain effective; they might as well have been shooting her up with water, at that point.) Furthermore, who in the world lets anyone get as close as Tina did to a corpse, almost knowing that they're going to be active? Seriously, in TWD America, who does that anymore?

But the crossbow had to be loaded to get the last-minute shot off to save Darryl and the cooler had to be labeled so that Darryl could immediately make his moral decision and go back for the trio. And Tina, apparently, had to die to lend pseudo-weight to the episode and ensure that Sherry and Dwight could rob Darryl again and escape, since they couldn't cram three people on his bike. It's just a series of writer shortcuts that, yes, sometimes are left to fortuitous circumstance (i.e. that's why people are heroes, because they're able to do heroic stuff that wouldn't otherwise happen (aka fiction)) but in other cases are just papering over a story that really doesn't work. This episode was one of those. It was only reinforced when we shifted to the other storyline and found Abraham muttering ridiculous lines like: "A man can tell." when Sasha confronted him with the fact that she may not want to get horizontal with him. My girlfriend snorted in disdain at that line for the same reason I did: we know that Abraham has a high opinion of himself and his own capabilities, but that line means we've crossed the point from confident to idiot and an otherwise fairly moving sequence of him coming to grips with his own anger and frustration at his impotence in the world at large is diminished.

This whole episode was doubly frustrating because Darryl remains one of the more interesting and complex characters in the show and yet here he's reduced to placeholder for a contrived crisis so that the show could introduce another set of "bad guys" that may or may not be worse than the Wolves. In short, this is how trying to cram too much into one episode can often lead you down a path that doesn't make sense for either characters, story entire (Seriously, who lets someone get that close to a corpse? Who?), audience, or basic science.

And now a few words from our other show...

Hm... I liked it, for the most part? I thought they did a decent job of introducing setting and characters while still avoiding exposition dumps. They kept a certain level of mysticism which is important for a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff where people speak of far-off lands that may or may not exist. I always found that to be essential when running games of Gamma World, for example (nerd moment.) I did appreciate the fact that they avoided a lot of the usual "badass" symbology (for example, Baron Quinn's house symbol is an armadillo, rather than something ferocious, like a dragon) since different symbols grow into contexts that may not always be apparent, which means there's some depth and thought given to the story and just how long this state of affairs may have been extant. I thought the sword work was good and exciting, although if they're deriving most of it from Japanese origins, as seems to be the case, there's still way too much edge on edge contact (do that with two katanas and you'll end up with your blades stuck together.)

On the technical aspects, I thought the dialogue was a little pedestrian. Why use: "You're every bit as good as they say you are."? We already know that about Sunny. We've seen it. That's a superfluous line and doesn't do anything to enmesh the Widow in the story. If, instead, she'd said: "Good to see that all the rumors were true.", the audience would still know what she was talking about and it would be apparent that she lives in that world, instead of just reading scripts in it. I thought some of the set pieces were a little too kitschy. That final fight in the town felt a little improbable because here was the Widow, apparent enemy of Quinn, rolling right into town with several of her Clippers and sitting there watching the fight without any apprehension whatsoever, even as her car gets pierced multiple times. Perhaps there's more to that because of what she mentioned about Sunny not being able to touch her because she's a baron, but it still felt like a scene that was supported on more artifice than it should have been.

Speaking of which, Martin Csokas, as Quinn is kind of a weird mesh of two recent Hollywood figures that ran plantations. He looks like Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave, but he acts more like Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Calvin J. Candie in Djanjo Unchained. It left me wondering if they'd consciously aimed for that kind of derivation when considering what a post-apoc poppy plantation owner with what is, in essence, both a slave workforce and a slave army, might look and act like and how the audience might be able to identify with him. OTOH, Daniel Wu was kind of wooden. This is his first major venture into American film or TV and it's not like there's a ton of difference in how the industries operate or how audiences react between China and the US, but acting styles are different. I know much more about Japanese cinema and I could see how Wu's reactions (or lack thereof) might play better in a culture that's generally more reserved than the American one. It may just have been the contrast between Wu's seeming diffidence and everyone else emoting pretty regularly. Regardless, I'll certainly watch next week and see where they take it.

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